Marvel's culmination of their decade-long cinematic experiment stays afloat by sheer virtue of goodwill and charisma, and provides more than enough surprises to keep the bloated narrative from falling apart.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spent the last decade building up a sprawling, interconnected world of comic book superheroes, an incredible experiment that has paid off to the tune of billions of dollars for Marvel and its parent company, Disney. For something this big, however, there has to be an endgame: by this point in the mythos, there are more than two dozen superheroes across their respective franchises that audiences are expected to keep track of. (This doesn’t even factor in all the TV shows and other in-universe content.)
With Avengers: Infinity War, producer Kevin Feige and directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the last two Cap films) start to wrap up the elaborate chess game they’ve set up over ten years and nearly a dozen movies. It’s an ambitious feat that could fall apart at the slightest imbalance; that the film holds together as well as it does, and provides some truly fan-destroying shocks along the way, is nothing short of miraculous.
Picking up immediately after the events of Thor Ragnarok, Infinity War finally sees the long-teased Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) enter the galactic stage. He’s a big, purple menace with an aim to destroy half the universe, which he hopes to accomplish by gathering the six Infinity Stones (five of which we’ve seen in previous Marvel films) and fitting them into his shiny golden gauntlet. Once he has all of them, all he has to do is snap his fingers, and half of everything can vanish from existence.
The only ones who have a chance of stopping him, of course, are the Avengers and their respective superfriends. On Earth, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) battle beasties on New York and in space; elsewhere, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and friends – including the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who’s practically made of one of the Stones – attempt to keep that Stone safe with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in the isolationist nation of Wakanda. Also, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) runs across the Guardians of the Galaxy somewhere across the universe, and contribute in their own way to the race for the Stones.
While Marvel movies have always had an air of continuity about them, Infinity War is an event film – the cinematic equivalent of a TV show’s season finale. Between the decade of groundwork they’ve set up and the sheer overstuffed nature of the cast, Infinity War requires the most homework ahead of time to keep up with. There’s no reintroduction to our players; either you’ve seen them at work in other films, or you’ll be completely lost. It’s here that the Russo brothers get down to business and refuse to spoonfeed the viewer, since – unless you’ve ben living under a rock the last ten years – you have a rough idea of what’s been going on in the MCU. And if you don’t, well, now’s a terrible time to get interested in Infinity War.
That being said, most characters get at least a small moment in the sun, unless they’ve been thanklessly relegated to minor supporting status. After all, this is the cast of at least seven different movie franchises struggling for screentime; it makes sense that some will get short shrift. Especially egregious is Team Cap – we don’t get much time to absorb his new status as not-Captain America, and his eventual reunion with deprogrammed bestie Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is as rushed as most of the film’s other subplots. However, we do get some fun, unexpected dynamics – Tony Stark and Steven Strange have a snappy rapport precisely because they’re so similar, and Thor pals around with the Guardians of the Galaxy like he’s always been with them.
But the real surprise, the real curveball this film hinged on, was Thanos – the wrinkly purple dude Marvel audiences have been prodded with since the end of the first Avengers film. With as much prelude as he’s had leading up to his arrival, it would have been extremely easy for him to come across as underdeveloped, or overly arch. Thankfully, Brolin puts in a surprisingly layered mocap-and-vocal performance, imbuing the Mad Titan with an emotional journey of his own that brings his motivations into sharper relief.
There’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing, and his wearied fanaticism is a genuine relief to see as he sets about massacring as many as he can to achieve his holy goal. He’s not just some purple baddie who’s good at punching Avengers: he’s a tragic figure, a zealot who sees the decimation of the universe as a necessary cleansing for its survival. Brolin’s vocal performance has an air of sadness and inevitability to it, and Infinity War shines when it’s most focused on his resolute madness.
It’s really tough to say more about the actual events of Infinity War without ruining the experience – however, there’s something to be said for the lengths to which this film goes to give an air of finality and consequence to the Marvel Universe. If and when characters die, it feels permanent, their journeys either coming to fruition or cut tragically short. There will most certainly be fans rioting in the streets by the time the credits roll; there’s a funereal, elegiac mood that lies beneath all the quips and wisecracks we can expect from heroes like Iron Man and Star-Lord.
In fact, that’s what Infinity War feels like – a goodbye to this particular phase of the MCU, a nod of acknowledgement to the accomplishments this franchise has made, and a desire to clean house and move forward from this titanic event. It’s honestly difficult to see how Ant-Man and the Wasp will follow this, and we’ll be waiting till 2019 to witness the other half of the Infinity War story. Not all of it holds together, and it does feel more like an extension of plot points than it does an emotionally propulsive motion picture in its own right. However, as a payoff to all those other movies you’ve seen and enjoyed, it’s an enjoyable balancing act that will shake the franchise’s status quo forever.
Avengers: Infinity War assembles in theaters April 27th.