Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Dir. Joe & Anthony Russo; Just about everyone on the Marvel payroll.
[3 out of 4 stars]
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began with Iron Man (2008). It was a risky move by a company that had spent most of the prior decades selling off movie rights to characters in order to stay afloat. It was a comeback story, one strengthened by the casting of Robert Downey Jr., a man who was in need of a comeback himself. In the end, the film was a massive hit and set into motion Marvel’s vision for a massive, interconnected universe of movies. Now, ten years and eighteen movies later, we have arrived at the beginning of the end for this initial chapter in the MCU. Ever since the post-credits scene of The Avengers (2012) revealed Thanos as the ‘big bad’ to which the movies were building, the question has been what would happen when he fully arrived on the screen. After appearances in a second post-credits appearance at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and a few scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) later, we arrive at Avengers: Infinity War (2018). This is what each movie in the entire MCU has been leading to, and the directing team of brothers Joe and Anthony Russo take the challenge head on.
Avengers: Infinity War begins in the aftermath of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his followers have overtaken Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the surviving Asgardians, laying waste to them and their ship. Here, we are given the first glimpse of Thanos’ true power, as he tosses the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) around like a play thing. After a pair of courageous sacrifices, Thanos acquires the second of the six infinity stones that he is after, and we are launched into the movie proper. What follows are so many interlaced story-lines that it would be impossible to lay them out in any summarized fashion, but they all revolve around the same focal point: Thanos has the infinity gauntlet, a piece of equipment that will allow him to harness the power of the six infinity stones, which are scattered throughout the universe. If in the possession of all six, the stones and the gauntlet would give him the power to control every aspect of the universe, a power he would put to use with one goal: wipe out half of all life to achieve a “balance” in the cosmos. In response, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and assorted heroes must fan out across the universe to try and stop him. As a result of this dispersal, there are at least four distinct story-lines unfolding at any given point in the movie. Whether they be Iron Man/Tony Stark, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) trapped on a spaceship heading for Titan, Thor meeting up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, or Thanos in pursuit of a stone, there is never simply one story arc occurring. These narratives are all unified by Thanos but operate in different capacities of either supporting or opposing his quest.
I knew going in that there would be much going on at once, having paid careful attention to the movies leading up to this, and maybe that helped my experience of watching it because there were few moments where the movie seem to pull at the seams. One instance where this does occur is a result of a tone shift between story-lines. We heard a comical quip from Tony in a low stakes moment on Earth, and then cut to a distraught Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in the cosmos. Each storyline on its own felt entirely coherent to me, but overlaying so much at once made it impossible to always stay emotionally consistent. This strain was most apparent in the second act before all the heroes came together for the final battle. The second act was enough to create some emotive dissonance, but it was not so overwhelming to take me out of the experience. Furthermore, some critics have maintained that there was too much going on to keep the story straight, a feeling many link to less familiarity with the comic background. However, my experience was that the Russo’s stitched their world together quite well as a result of tactfully juxtaposed battles and a well-designed cascade of stories, such as intercutting the climactic final battle in Wakanda with Thor’s desperate attempt to forge a weapon strong enough to slay Thanos. Avengers: Infinity War has more going on than any other MCU entry before, and this for me is part of its charm. In the same way that The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) featured multiple arcs leading to a final confrontation, this movie juggles an ensemble cast and web-like storytelling. If you are not familiar with the past films, you will be lost, but this movie is not for someone who lacks that background. First and foremost, Marvel is making a movie for its fans, so while it is bloated and strained at times, I rarely found this detracting from the overall experience. With so many characters to serve this fault could not have been fully avoided, and so I give the Russo’s an enormous amount of credit.
Making the Russo’s jobs all the easier is a cast fully committed to the scope of the story. We have seen many of these characters evolve over a multitude of movies. For example, Tony has grown from a self-centered casanova into a paternal leader, and Thor has gone from a lovable meathead to a remarkably complex character dealing with grief. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a particularly poignant example of this evolution, delving into Cap’s (Chris Evans) evolving struggle with the surveillance state of the country. These character-driven stories, and the MCU at large that has preceded Avengers: Infinity War, mean a remarkable amount of leg work has been done in developing these characters, much like the way a television show uses stand-alone episodes to build towards a season finale (for more on this, read my earlier article).
Yet, for me, the most compelling performances came from characters with less backstory built into the MCU. Foremost was Saldana, a performance inextricably tied to Brolin’s as her demonic adopted father Thanos. Having appeared in only two MCU films prior to this one, Saldana has nevertheless been a standout of the Guardians of the Galaxy cast, crafting a woman who has been shattered by the abuse her adopted father rained down on her as a child. . It is also through Thanos’ relationship with his daughter that much of his complexity is contextualized. As a madman who wants to kill half of all life in the universe, there is evil enough to spare, but Brolin’s scenes with Saldana bear a charge of perverted paternalism that is more chilling than any universal domination plan. He killed half of the population of Gamora’s planet but truly believes he did the planet, and her, a favor. Their scenes carry a Learian heft which is the MCU at its best. In one flashback, we see Thanos descending on Gamora’s homeland when she was a child. As his soldiers force the city’s population into two groups, he leads the young Gamora away from the crowd. He presents her with a knife and gives her a little speech about balance moments after ordering the murder of half the assembled prisoners. He blocked her from the genocide, but what we see is a little girl on his knee while bodies fall behind them. This is a madman who displays rare moments of paternal mercy, such trying to shield a little girl from trauma, while still having most of her compatriots slaughtered.
Furthermore, the duo of Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) became the emotional core of the movie for me. In the midst of a relationship that had only been hinted at in prior movies, theirs is the story of a romance besieged by the apocalyptic circumstances around them. At moments, they are challenged to choose between what would be best for the one they love and what is best for the world. Vision holds one of the six infinity stones in his head, for it is the object that gives his android body the ability for higher function. When he hears of Thanos’ quest, he makes Wanda swear she will destroy the stone if Thanos comes, a task that falls on her because she is the only one with powers strong enough to destroy a stone. As Thanos gets closer and closer to Earth, it seems more and more inevitable that Wanda will have to kill her beloved.
As a result of relationships like Wanda and Vision and Thanos and Gamora sitting at the core of the movie, the tone of this film is markedly darker than anything Marvel has produced before. The stakes seem real. Although some of the many deaths in this movie will no doubt be reversed come the next Avengers in May 2019, there are a few that seem definitively final. We know many performers are contracted for sequels and later appearances, but I counted at least three deaths that have no contractual obligation to be reversed. We have lost characters in the MCU before, but none as central as those that meet their end in Avengers: Infinity War, which is both heartbreaking as a fan and inarguably compelling as a possibility that Marvel is pushing towards a reinvention. Death may not be final, but there is no shying away from it here.
Avengers: Infinity War delivers on the epic tone that has characterized its marketing and build up. Super fans of the comics and casual viewers of the movies alike have spent years wondering how this film would play out, and it did not disappoint. It is not a perfect movie, but as one half of the capstone for an era of Marvel filmmaking (the sequel follows next May), it is deeply satisfying and more emotionally compelling than any of the entries in the MCU that have come before.