Infinity War is a film that should have cups of water waiting for you by the exit. Throw in some orange slices too. Marvel’s superhero marathon is the die-hard fan’s wet dream – a mammoth show-stopper featuring the MCU’s all-stars in a crossover for the ages. But a marathon is still a marathon. Infinity War isn’t the best Marvel movie, but it’s certainly the MOST Marvel movie where characters crowd the frame to the point that the frame can hardly contain them. It makes previous crossovers look tame, and there is no going back. This is what these films have been nudging toward, a fusion into the very medium that inspired them.
Infinity War is a film utterly realized as a comic book. (Some might see that as going backwards, others will see it as transcendence.) Not just the story and characters, but the limitless potential that allows for dozens of heroes to be featured in one comic panel followed by the next. It’s what Marvel has been selling for the past 10 years. This is a universe where characters can waltz in and bow out at any moment. Marvel Studios put in the work, and by the time we revisit Wakanda mere months after Black Panther and we’re still somehow giddy at the prospect, they’ve effectively achieved tenure.
When Gamora forces Quill to make a promise by invoking the memory of his mother, we know the weight of that request, which speaks to our investment. It pays off tremendously. That they can throw guys like Dr. Strange and Tony Stark (characters with matching goatees, ego, and intellect), Thor and Star-Lord (a veritable battle of two Chris’) and still savor these mashups is as reassuring as it is damn entertaining. These interactions should be overkill. Instead, they are spectacle all on their own.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely weave character threads that enable for quick narrative handoffs: Stark leaves Earth with just the one suit, a callback to his limited wits and resources in Iron Man; Strange must learn to compartmentalize his self-importance to work as a team; Scarlet Witch and Vision – once outcasts – find themselves at the center of the conflict; Steve Rogers’ own selfless heroism is put under the microscope; and in Thor and Star-Lord’s battle of excess manliness, we’re tragically reminded that they’re both orphans. There’s plenty to read between the lines in Infinity War. You just have to know where to look.
A movie of this scale means some characters will get sidelined. Black Widow, Falcon, War Machine, Bucky, Shuri, M’Baku, Nebula, and Groot merely exist in the periphery, but it’s a tradeoff necessary for those tied directly to this saga to provide context. Steve and Tony – who were once the center of the Avengers films – are supporting characters. Instead, Thor takes point, and characters like Gamora and Wanda get to carry the film’s emotional weight. (Zoe Saldana, in particular, gives the best performance of the cast.) Devotees will find substance to chew on because of the time they put in, a decade-long commitment that results in a richer viewing experience, which is exactly the point.
Our fluency in Marvel is what enables us to buy the Infinity Stones as a dramatic conflict. What began as objects/excuses that enabled for cross-pollination across the MCU has been fully realized as a world-ending stratagem. (Time was key in that regard.) We can groan at the oft-used world-ending scenario, but where films like Justice League and X-Men: Apocalypse have abused the setup, Infinity War succeeds in establishing Thanos as a credible, never-before-seen threat despite how readily familiar he seems. We’ve seen aliens make landfall and villains speechifying their intent, but the Russo Brothers find clever ways to frame the conflict and make it feel monumental. When Maw’s ship arrives in New York, we experience it from the ground through Stark and Strange’s moment-to-moment immediacy. It feels HUGE even though we’ve seen the spectacle time and time again. The Russos’ documentary-style camerawork is used sparingly and felt enormously because of their strategic use.
If giant, end-all villains are an excuse for superhero team-ups, then Infinity War is doubly impressive for presenting a threat so dire that it requires the number of players involved. Thanos has been the guy on the bench throughout his 6-year tease. Now that he’s in the game, he completely and utterly destroys. (I’ve never seen a villain hurl a moon at someone before.) Infinity War is his movie, his saga. Josh Brolin’s stoic expressionism, his strained, weary voice lends to Thanos’ Old Testament-style stature. He may be a genocidal maniac, but he’s not a particularly boastful one, rather he’s unusually, compellingly pensive, and beyond that, a soul in torment.
Thanos’ relationship with Gamora is key in extracting his Malthusian beliefs. (Albeit with an air of Machiavellianism.) He’s an abusive father, but a father nonetheless. It’s beautifully twisted and aids in grounding a larger-than-life character because we see that his goal comes at a personal cost. (Whereas most villains are free from consequence.) He’s willing to sacrifice Gamora if it means acquiring the Soul Stone, but he still needs a moment to consider the reality. Infinity War goes to great lengths to remind us that evil has both a face and a soul.
We’ve walked into the Marvel films with a safety in knowing that the good guys win, especially the Avengers films. Because it’s a mighty union of heroes, their success is all but ensured. Infinity War is the first to upset that convention. We part with 2 characters early on while The Hulk – whose spectacle had always been a sure thing – is dispatched of in seconds. This is also the first Marvel movie where heroes consider inaction. Peter Parker says he should’ve stayed on the bus; Scarlet Witch tells Vision that joining the fight might not be the best idea. There’s trepidation, pause, anxiety, things we’ve never seen befall these characters. Thanos is so daunting a foe that the best the Avengers can do is play a game of inter-galactic keep away.
The film increasingly becomes a race for and against time. “We just wanted time,” Wanda says of her and Vision’s escapade. When Thanos arrives on Earth with all but one infinity stone in his possession, Vision says, “We are out of time.” If this was ever about winning, Thanos is positioned as the one who can’t lose. (It’s the stones they attempt to destroy, not him.) Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, then, are hilariously outmatched, hopeless to stand a chance. Their only option is to hold out as long as humanly possible.
“The hardest choices require the strongest wills.” Thanos is the sole factor determining the fate of the universe, but where he’s willing to decimate half of all beings in a snap, the Avengers face an even greater task balancing one life against the lives of trillions (the Trolley problem multiplied to a staggering degree): Gamora asks Quill to kill her to ensure Thanos never finds the Soul Stone, Dr. Strange says he’ll choose the Time Stone over Stark and Spider-Man in a heartbeat, Vision pleads Wanda to destroy him, wherein at the last possible second Wanda is forced to balance that equation. What, then, truly requires the stronger will?
Every hero hesitates for far too long and it costs them dearly, resulting in a first ever loss for the Avengers and what is by far Marvel’s bleakest ending. (The more you see it as a cliffhanger, the more disappointing it seems.) Bleak is not normally a word associated with the MCU. We may know sequels are coming for certain seemingly departed characters, but the visual impact is still felt. The deadly spectacle of it, the haunting silence of characters fading into nothing, leaving the existing heroes to deal with the catastrophic weight of their failure. (That the film leaves us to grasp that reality is bold enough.) It’s the true completion of the Avengers’ own prophecy: “If we can’t protect the Earth you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it.” The heroes lose. Half the universe is gone. They are now the Avengers in the gravest sense of the word.
With such an ending, Marvel’s got us right in the palm of their hands, though, ten years on, I suppose most of us were already here to stay.