(SPOILER ALERT: Obviously plot details are going to be discussed in this review and if you don’t want any of them revealed to you, then stop reading and just go watch the movie. I’m not going to give away any major plot developments in this review and I will save that for a different post, but if you want to go in blind then by all means come back here after you’ve seen it)
Two concurrent thoughts occurred to me as I walked out of the latest Avengers movie. The first was that uber-producer Kevin Feige had once again shook up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a seismic way as the movie ends with one of the most shocking and audaciously bold cliffhangers since The Empire Strikes Back. My second thought was “I sure am glad I studied up for this movie”.
Avengers: Infinity War marks a culmination of Marvel Studio’s grand experiment that began almost exactly a decade ago when Tony Stark first donned his Iron Man suit. In the intervening years the seemingly never-ending Marvel movies have traversed every possible realm from heady Norse mythology to race relations, from the vast expanse of the universe to the microscopic and everything in between. But in Infinity War Marvel attempts something altogether new: the first true event crossover comic movie. The event crossover comic book is a well-worn tradition in the comic book industry in which a significant part of the comic universe comes together to face some powerful force that they obviously cannot fight on their own (while helpfully drumming up comic sales). Infinity War is entirely successful in replicating the feel of the best of those event comics, for better or worse.
Infinity War literally has two-dozen main characters or so inhabiting this movie as well as a cavalcade of supporting players from all the various Marvel sub-franchises, and apart from the movie’s “Big Bad” Thanos (played superbly by Josh Brolin) almost all of our other heroes rely on our prior knowledge of who they are, what their powers are, and what their basic personality is like in order to make much sense of the movie. This movie is surprisingly very much Thanos’ movie as the villain who has been lurking in the background since his first appearance in The Avengers (2012) finally gets the gumption to collect the Infinity Stones (remember those?) himself. Thankfully we finally also get a decent explanation as to why these Stones are important as collecting all six of these will grant Thanos the power to wipe half the universe from existence with a mere snap of his figure. The goal of the Avengers is thus simple: protect the stones they have and stop Thanos from getting the rest.
Unfortunately those who have been following the MCU up to this point also know that Earth’s mightiest heroes are at a particularly fractious point in their history as their conflict with one another in Captain America: Civil War has driven half the team underground (led by the shield-less Steve Rogers) while the rest have more or less disbanded. When Thanos’ forces come to collect the two stones in the Avenger’s possession (Dr. Strange’s Time stone and Vision’s Mind stone) the once unified team is further fractured as they split in two to protect their comrades and keep the stones out of Thanos’ hand. One team, led by Iron Man and joined by the Guardians of the Galaxy (who collectively nearly steal this movie), head out to space to assist Dr. Strange while Steve Rogers leads another team to protect Vision in Wakanda. Thanks to the singleminded quest of Thanos Infinity War does not run into the same problems that the previous Age of Ultron did with bloat, but there is still a lot going on.
As you may have surmised from my plot description above, there is a vast amount of prior knowledge that the movie assumes the viewer will know. Side characters from multiple franchises in the MCU simply appear without any explanation of who they are and how they are attached to the larger story and we the viewer are expected to keep up. This movie has been billed as a culmination of the first ten years of the MCU and it definitely follows through on that promise as it constantly weaves and threads a decade’s worth of continuity into its runtime. Halfway through the movie there is a plot development that requires some basic knowledge of what has happened through two different MCU movies in different sub-franchises (including post-credits sequences!) in order to grasp its full significance. Throughout the entire 149 minute runtime I found myself frequently wondering how often I might have to pause the movie in order to explain a plot-point or a character to my wife, who has seen all the movies but is nowhere near as obsessive as I am with keeping up with the minute details of this universe. The truth is that I would probably have to pause this movie a lot. I can’t even imagine how lost a newbie to the franchise would be diving into Infinity War.
Beyond the probable frustration of the newbie watching this movie, the movie suffers in that it is well and truly a crossover-event comic book come to life that focuses most of its energy on the central conflict while leaving little room for more intimate beats between the characters. In the comic books, this problem is usually mitigated by tie-in comics that focus specifically on individual superheroes or a smaller group of them and fill out the comic book event because it allows the story to breathe. Without the comic book tie-in, the event often just becomes an emotionless series of big plot events. This is exactly what happens in Infinity War, where very strangely we don’t get to delve much into the psyche and thoughts of the central players of the MCU like Steve Rogers, Iron Man, or Thor while they are merely agents of action in this movie, leaving the movie feeling strangely emotionless.
The only person who gets something resembling character development is Thanos. The best villains are those that somehow delude themselves into thinking they are the hero and Thanos is another great complicated villain to join those ranks. His desire to eliminate half of all life from the universe is motivated not so much by megalomania but out of a deep concern for the sustainability of the universe. This makes him no less a genocidal maniac, but his reasoning gives him a chilling focus and resolve. This is a welcome departure from the one-note childish brute he is often portrayed in the comics and his scenes are some of the strongest in the movie (not least because these are often the ones that dialogue and not CGI-laden spectacle take precedent).
Of course if you are a comic book fan like myself who has meticulously studied up on the subject, this movie is still a geeky delight. There is sheer joy in seeing the two dozen or so heroes team up in different and new ways. The humour, which is still present even amongst the mostly dour subject matter, is typically hilarious and works because the characters in the MCU have already been so well-developed up to this point. The strength of the MCU has always been in their perfect casting and in their biggest outing yet it is evident that their casting efforts have paid off because though most of the characters have little more than a few lines and action scenes to play with, the actors fill these roles so completely that they are able to have instant impact whenever they appear. And the action scenes, while often the least interesting part of these superhero movies, are at least entertaining enough to not be a tiresome CGI-slog as in movies past. The learning curve for this movie is extremely high but those who stay on top of their MCU history are going to be rewarded. Whether a movie should require that much continuity knowledge to be enjoyed fully is another question entirely.
The ending of the movie is shocking and exhilarating, and it is safe to say will leave almost everyone wanting to see what’s next whether from breathless wonder or morbid curiosity. While casual viewers are doubtless going to leave with more questions than answers and your favourite MCU character is not going to get the screen-time you want them to, fans of comic books and the MCU will probably be thrilled by this culmination of the MCU’s first decade.
Rating for Casual Viewers: ★★★
Rating for MCU fans: ★★★★
(Note: I had a hard time rating this movie because I can’t shake the feeling that people who aren’t as caught up with the MCU are going to feel lost by all the continuity. But I, the comic-book nerd, personally had a blast. Hence the two ratings above)
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Josh Brolin, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie