Realistically, Avengers: Infinity War had a truly impossible task. Multiple times over. The MCU is this gangly, unwieldy, never-before-explored behemoth. What is it? It’s not exactly TV – it’s individual components still need to function fully on their own. It’s not exactly a movie either, though, because if you have some 30 odd characters and don’t rely on some shorthand you’re going to end up with a movie that’s longer than 3 hours. Maybe it’s closest to a book series, but even that’s not quite right because a book series is typically a strict progression instead of a weird web of both progression and cross over. Furthermore, the movies vary tonally (if not visually) far more than individual episodes of TV or books in a series might. They’re also presented with bigger characters. A TV episode can choose to focus on just one or two characters for an episode or even an arc – this is a story that pertains specifically to them, so it’s okay to do that. An Avengers movie can’t do that because each character is a star of an individual series, and as the roster grows it becomes difficult to utilize everyone, and give everyone a story befitting them. Some characters will be underutilized, just by the sheer number of them, and that is bound to disappoint some people. The movie is going to be overstuffed no matter how successful a writer or director handles it – the team up is both the appeal, and the greatest challenge, and this is the biggest one yet.
If that all sounds like an excuse for the movie I’m about to review, like qualifiers, they’re not: those were my thoughts before going to see Infinity War. I was also hopeful: in Age of Ultron the many demands tore the movie apart as Whedon tried to give every single character an arc. The Russo Brothers proved more adroit in Captain America: Civil War. Cap, Iron Man, and Black Panther got arcs. Other characters, like Vision, Scarlet Witch, or Black Widow have smaller but still complete stories that played out well in the background. Still other characters had minor moments that played a part in the movie while paying off on storylines that had been previously established: Hawkeye encouraging Scarlet Witch to get back in the action serves as both a denouement of their relationship in Ultron and as a catalyst in the confines of Civil War. It still gave him something to do, but didn’t serve as a big enough story to eat away at the limited run time and the more important characters. Basically the Russo Brothers had finally created something that felt like both an episode and a movie.
It may seem weird to discuss the MCU so much before actually diving into Avengers: Infinity War. Sam and I often complain these movies are compared exclusively to each other (i.e. “it was pretty good for a Marvel movie”) but in truth twenty years from now no one will be watching Infinity War in a vacuum. It’s not designed to be a stand alone movie and shouldn’t be treated as one. When someone watches these movies they’ll be watching them as a unit, checking out the MCU – they may pick and choose a little, but no one is gonna say “oh, you should really watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and that’s it”. They’ll say “you should watch the MCU, here are some of my favorite picks”.
Enough foot dragging. Infinity War picks up mere minutes after the end of Thor: Ragnarok and weirdly (and sort of awesomely in my opinion) undercuts the bonhomie ending of that film. Thanos arrives, wrecks havoc, and steals the Space Stone from Loki. If you somehow don’t know at this point, the Infinity Stones are Thanos’ whole shtick. There are six of them, and he wants them all. Having already collected the Power Stone from Xandar, he’s got four left. The Time Stone is with Dr. Strange. The Mind Stone is in Vision’s forehead. The Reality Stone is with The Collector in Knowhere. The Soul Stone is MIA. The set up is pretty obvious. Thanos and his henchmen are gonna track down the stones, and Earth’s (and space’s) mightiest heroes have to stop him.
Marvel movies are never going to sweep us off our feet artistically, so their true measure is: are they fun, are they exciting, and do they work. Thankfully, a ton works in this movie. The Russo Brothers again prioritize the characters who make sense. I have long championed Black Panther’s bizarrely large part in Civil War, because it’s a great story that works for the movie. The fact he hadn’t had his own movie yet is inconsequential. Obviously big names and money weigh into this decision, and if Guardians of the Galaxy had flopped they wouldn’t be big in this movie, but focusing heavily on them makes sense given Gamora, Drax, and Nebula’s backstories. The others who eat up a lot of the screen time are pretty justified too: Thor is motivated by the events at the open of the movie, Vision and Dr. Strange have a stone each, and Tony Stark is the de facto protagonist of the MCU. Bringing some characters to the forefront is simply necessary with this many players – if characters like Black Widow, Black Panther, and Cap are a little underrepresented, it’s because they don’t have any personal stakes in the story.
How the characters mesh together matters too – since Whedon’s first outing the movies have lived or died by their quips and banter, and there are some hilarious sequences. Again the Guardians, who are practiced at trading barbs, prove a great source of comedy. Teaming them up with newly funny and cosmic trotting Thor leads to a series of genuinely funny scenes, as does grouping the big headed Iron Man, Strange, and Star-lord. The film also wisely continues to cash in on the Iron Man and Spider-Man mentor/mentee relationship, as well as numerous other relationships established throughout Phase Three.
But Spider-Man also shows where the film’s seams are. He’s fun in the film, but the movie almost exclusively relies on his and Iron Man’s prior relationship because there’s no time for anything new for him – not even something as small as Hawkeye’s payoff in Civil War. Even with smart choices the movie is simply over-stuffed. Thor’s first meeting with the Guardians is fun and dynamic because it’s given time to breath, for rivalries and jokes to develop. When the movie slows down (just a little – it’s still a wildly efficient and quick scene) it succeeds. When it rushes through moments they glance off the viewer without leaving a mark. Two reunions that should be emotional and have been quite a few movies in the making are handled in a single line. Black Widow and Bruce Banner get to sheepishly say “hey” to each other. Cap and Bucky should be an emotional capstone: Cap has been waiting for three movies to be reunited with the true totally non-brainwashed Bucky Barnes, but they hug and then… on to the next thing. There’s simply too much space to cover.
The fight sequences (of which there are a lot) operate in a similar way. The first fight of the film pits Spidey, Iron Man, Strange, and Wong against two prominent Thanos henchpeople. It’s a truly exhilarating fight, in no small part because we’re seeing this combination in action together for the first time, but also because it has clear stakes and objectives for each character. Yet the ending sequence is again a slog of CGI monsters versus every hero you’ve ever met. The more identical villains you face, and the more heroes you throw in, the fewer personal stakes and objectives exist. It’s subtraction by addition, something Marvel movies have never been able to overcome.
Unless this is the first you’ve heard of Infinity War you’ve probably already heard that it’s ending is audacious, so I won’t go into that here (we’ll be doing a Round Up later this week so I can talk more specifically about specific scenes and the ending – there is a lot more both specific good and bad things I didn’t go into here). In truth, the ending is difficult to totally assess – this is, even more so than the movies that precede it, only a part of a larger whole. So I’ll say what I always say: this was another Marvel movie. And I’ll say what I always say after that too. If I’m measuring the movie by the metric I set up: excitement, fun, and if it works, I would call it a success. A messy success, as all Marvel movies must be, but a success all the same.
Avengers: Infinity War gets 7.5 killing your loved one out of 10 star powered forges.
- I didn’t get a chance to discuss Thanos, but mostly because there’s not a whole lot to discuss. Apparently he had the most screen time, which I was pretty excited about, but you don’t learn an awful lot about him, truth told, other than what his goal is, why it’s his goal, and how he’s going to achieve it. I understand the movies aren’t ever going to have a ton of nuance, but they’ve had some before and they probably had the time here, since they had already turned a lot of it over to him.
- Like with The Last Jedi I’m relatively uncertain where this is going, which is pretty exciting. I have to give them props for that.