Making good on Nick Fury’s promise from 10 years ago in a manner that was nigh-unimaginable at the time, Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t just assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, it brings together the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther… and Thanos, who now must be ranked among the best villains of the MCU alongside Loki and Killmonger. That it does this while also being fun, thrilling, and emotional is perhaps something that not even Fury himself could have hoped for.
Over the course of its nearly three-hour running time, Infinity War largely makes good on the promises Marvel has implicitly made to its audience since before we even knew there would be an Infinity War. The integral aspects of the characters we’ve been following for a decade are clearly drawn here, from Tony Stark to Steve Rogers to Thor and beyond. That each of these heroes’ defining characteristics remain fully developed in an epic story that takes place across multiple planets and with an ensemble that numbers in the dozens is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Infinity War. No one is relegated to stock player, no matter how small their role. Yes, War Machine fans, there’s even something here for you.
Continuity of character abounds, and mostly effectively. Thor is a chief example, as his fear and grief in the wake of Thor: Ragnarok is convincingly conveyed (to Rocket Raccoon, no less!). Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark continues to struggle with balancing a more normal life spent with Pepper Potts with being a superhero. And Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is Captain America no more, yet still strives to do the right thing at all times. Funny how Tony and Steve can be so alike and yet so often at odds with one another.
Though that said, many of the familiar pairings of this universe (to comics fans, at least) just don’t happen here. For every effective Peter Parker/Tony Stark scene, there’s a “wait, these two characters didn’t even meet up this time” moment of realization.
Infinity War also delivers by refusing to pull its punches. It wastes no time establishing real stakes – though there’s always an unavoidable question of permanence in Marvel movies – with Thanos delivering a gut punch right out of the gate that won’t soon be forgotten. No one is safe in this film.
As promised, Avengers: Infinity War is very much a Thanos movie. The big purple CGI villain (played by Josh Brolin in a mo-cap performance) commands perhaps the strongest arc of the film. If we can’t empathize with his reasoning for wanting to wipe out half of the universe’s inhabitants – the highest stakes ever for the Avengers, which are effectively established throughout the movie – we can at least understand his perspective and believe his pain when he must make true sacrifices to achieve his ultimate goal.
Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillan’s Nebula play a larger part in this film than one might’ve expected. That the origin story of Gamora, and Thanos to a certain degree, have such a prominent role in a movie called “Avengers” is a refreshing surprise, and getting a glimpse at what Gamora endured as a child is a fairly remarkable moment as we witness the insidious power of Thanos at his twisted worst. In this, a tale of awful abuse emerges.
Then again, much of Infinity War dwells in the murky area between what it has promised, and what it wants to surprise us with. Yes, many of our expectations are satisfied, but at the same time there are curveballs thrown that will keep viewers guessing. The film is all the stronger for it, as it consistently subverts the expectations it sets up for the audience.
Also kind of amazing is how seamlessly the various pieces of the MCU fit together, whether it’s the spacefaring Guardians meeting the Avengers, Iron Man squabbling with Doctor Strange – truly a contest of egos there – or Bruce Banner incredulously catching up on everything he’s missed on Earth while he was off being Space Gladiator Hulk for the past few years.
The collaborative creative spirit that drives the MCU is often felt at these junctures, such as when the Guardians are first introduced to the musical strains of “The Rubberband Man” by The Spinners. The pop song sets the stage for Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and the gang so effectively that one can’t help but wonder how much Guardians director James Gunn might’ve chimed in on certain scenes. (That said, the score is mostly Alan Silvestri compositions, but key character themes – like Captain America’s – are the most memorable musical moments, kicking in at crucial scenes.)
Inevitably, though, Infinity War does suffer at times from a certain bloat. There’s no getting around the abundance of characters and subplots that are feeding into Thanos’ bigger story. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, for example, spends too much time off on a quest with Rocket and Groot (now teenaged and as annoying to the grown-ups as any teenager) – albeit one that culminates in an emotionally cathartic burst that’s literally accompanied by the Thunder God’s lighting. At two hours and 40 minutes, this is a long movie, and the balancing act of directing the Russo brothers are trying to pull off strains at times.
While Infinity War brings together all these characters, it also is audacious enough to introduce new faces, though most prove to be missteps due to a lack of time to develop them into anything worthwhile. The Children of Thanos – his four henchman, also known as the Black Order in the comics – are essentially CGI boogeymen who are effective foes for the fight scenes, but there’s little else there to give them gravitas as villains. Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, on the other hand, is memorable in his still-secret role.
There’s so much going on in this movie, and perhaps some viewers will walk away from the film frustrated by the cliffhanger. But Infinity War is more The Empire Strikes Back than The Matrix Reloaded in that regard, culminating in a beautifully brilliant, if traumatic, manner. The entire MCU saga could end here and it would be a satisfying, if not necessarily happy, finale. But the film also sets up next year’s Avengers 4 (which was once known as “Infinity War: Part 2”) in such a way that will have audiences pondering the events of Infinity War until then.