Marvel is referring to Avengers: Infinity War as the “biggest crossover event” in movie history and while that statement has led to all sorts of fantastic memes in the months leading up to release, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t true. For those not keeping track, Infinity War is the ninteeenth installment in a franchise that has been going strong for a full decade, featuring a cast that counts dozens of Hollywood A-listers on its roster. Everything in this film, from the production to the story itself, is massive in scale and scope, to the point where it’s hard not to wonder if it’s all too much. Because while both The Avengers and Age of Ultron (and Captain America: Civil War, which was basically an Avengers movie in all but name) have proven that Marvel is capable of delivering on the big team-up epic front, Infinity War is on another level entirely and could very easily have crumpled under the weight of its own lofty ambitions in less capable hands. Fortunately, while Avengers: Infinity War does hit a few snags along the way, it’s ultimately an immensely satisfying conclusion (of sorts) to ten years of universe building that also lays the groundwork for the inevitable next ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though it doesn’t go so far as to include an opening text crawl, Infinity War takes a cue from Star Wars by kicking off in media res — with a space battle no less — as the film picks up just moments after the events of Thor: Ragnarok with the mad titan Thanos assaulting the ship carrying Thor, Loki, Hulk, and the rest of Asgard’s survivors. Skipping any sort of preamble and jumping right into the action ends up being a wise decision on the part of writers/directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the same pair who wrote and directed the two previous Captain America films. The Russos seem to recognize that fans have been patiently waiting years to see Thanos unleashed ever since the Marvel big bad was first teased in the post credits scene of the original Avengers and don’t make fans wait to see what he’s capable of. That’s as much as I’m going to say about the plot, as discussing anything more would be giving too much to way, but needless to say it doesn’t take long for every hero in the galaxy to become aware of Thanos’ plans to acquire all six Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the universe.
Speaking of Thanos, it’s not unreasonable to say that Infinity War is his movie. It’s been somewhat difficult to get a read on how well the imposing purple villain would work in an extended on-screen role, as he’s only made brief appearances in the MCU up to this point; not to mention that his visual design has been a source of ridicule ever since the film’s first trailer was released (a fact that Marvel is seemingly aware of, given the number of times other characters crack jokes about his appearance). Admittedly, Thanos does look a bit silly and out of place at times but overall, Josh Brolin comes close to running away with the whole thing. Thanos is the kind of antagonist the MCU has struggled to produce from the beginning: a formidable, nigh-unstoppable physical threat whose motivations are made clear to the audience and presented in such a way that they almost become sympathetic. Through flashbacks and conversations with certain characters, we learn why Thanos is fixated on genocidal acts and that he’s fully convinced his actions are righteous in nature. With the exception of a few other Marvel movies (Black Panther being the most recent example), I don’t think there’s another antagonist who’s been fleshed out as much as Thanos is in Infinity War. Hopefully this is a trend we’ll continue to see as we move into Marvel’s Phase Four films.
One criticism that has plagued the MCU from the beginning is that each individual film presents false stakes, as it never truly feels like any major character — or heck, even most of the minor ones — is ever truly in danger. While Infinity Warfare doesn’t retroactively fix this issue, there is a pervasive undertone of unease from start to finish, as the film makes it clear quite early on that no one is safe. This is easily the darkest MCU film to date, though the grimness is kept in check by ever-present witty banter and comedic moments, as particularly harrowing scenes are followed by something a bit more lighthearted and brighter, so as to not overload viewers with downbeat sequences. In other words, this is still a Marvel movie through-and-through, but one that recognizes that you can’t just insert a ton of pop culture references into the script and call it a day (though don’t worry – there are still plenty of those patented Marvel quips).
The main draw for many with Avengers: Infinity War is going to be the film’s epic battle sequences, but one of the real joys is witnessing how the Russos manage to balance all the moving parts and bring the disparate elements of the MCU together for the first time. To keep things from getting truly out of hand, the characters are divided into several groups over the course of the film. Yet again, it’s difficult to get into specifics without delving into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that it’s a lot of fun to see certain characters interact for the first time. In particular, the trio of Thor, Rocket, and Teenage Groot play so well off one another that they deserve their own spinoff, while seeing Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert Downey Jr. trade snarky insults is something we’ve had to wait far, far too long to see.
It’s probably clear by this point that Avengers: Infinity War is an incredibly busy movie and one that more than justifies its nearly three-hour runtime. Overall, it all holds together remarkably well, especially considering how many different plots are being juggled at any one time, but something was always going to give in a film of this magnitude. Specifically, there’s no way Infinity War could have given equal attention to 76(!) different characters and a fair number suffer because of it, with some pretty big names reduced to minor roles or even being absent altogether. This also creates a bit of a pacing problem, as some fairly significant developments are just swept aside in favor of moving onto the next thing. There’s little time to invest in any one set of characters or relationships because Thanos is on a tight schedule and those Infinity Stones aren’t going to collect themselves!
“We’re at the endgame now,” declares Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange late in Infinity War’s third act and it’s not hard to read this as a statement on where the film itself sits in this particular juncture of Marvel’s shared universe experiment. Though it remains unclear where things are headed post-Infinity War — or rather, next year’s untitled direct sequel Avengers 4 — the Russo brothers have very much structured their film as a reshuffling of the deck. There is a sense of finality to Infinity War that is refreshing to see in a franchise known for not having what one would call definitive endings, but it’s hard not to worry that some of the film’s most shocking moments will be retconned in future installments. That being said, while Avengers: Infinity War is too grandiose and ambitious to match Thor: Ragnarok’s status as Marvel’s best comedy or Black Panther’s polemic stand against centuries of black oppression, it ultimately succeeds as a model of how to distill a decade’s worth of franchise building into a film that is overflowing with payoffs to that setup work. At the end of the day, I’d label that a success.