The short version of this entry: for anyone who’s sat through all three Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films; the first two Avengers films; both Guardians of the Galaxy flicks; Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk; Spider-Man Homecoming; Ant-Man; Dr. Strange; and the great and powerful Black Panther…as those fans hoped unanimously, Avengers: Infinity War is the ultimate, fitting culmination of all that. It ties lots of threads together, features unexpected team-ups, makes time for heroes punching heroes in the grand tradition of Marvel misunderstandings, hits hard with heavy emotional moments, allows a few quiet spaces to breathe in between the chaos, and has a few moments rigged to invite audience cheers and gasps, sometimes mere seconds apart.
However, it is not the season finale. It’s episode 19 of a 22-episode season eleven years in the making, with three more episodes to go: this summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, which takes place beforehand; the technical prequel Captain Marvel; and the true season finale, Avengers: Secret Subtitle. Anyone trying to approach Infinity War as a standalone work, clinging to the notion that any and every film should be a self-sufficient viewing experience in itself, will walk away disappointed. Infinity War has other objectives in mind. Comics fans are used to major crossover events and know how the game works, but some film critics are bristling at this new idea that threatens to make movies more like comics in the long term, and not necessarily like good comics.
Okay, that opening was supposed to be shorter. Even shorter version, then: upon a single viewing in IMAX, where the volume-17 sound system purged all intellectual notions out of my body, Avengers: Infinity War was extremely cool, somewhat depressing, and, as I suspected going into it, thoroughly futile on at least one ostensibly dramatic level.
That’s still too long. One more try: if you love Marvel movies to pieces, Avengers: Infinity War is more of that but quadrupled.
Caution ahead: spoilers are probably ahead if you’re the kind of deductive reader who can put two and two together too quickly. My movie entries are normally written as if I’m talking to a general audience who hasn’t seen the film, but we’re now on the nineteenth film, the biggest one yet (literally for me, since I saw none of the others in IMAX) and I don’t know if I’m about to make this entry quite so reader-friendly. I’m not indulging in stroke-for-stroke golf commentary, but a few aspects of my reactions — including my least favorite thing about it — can’t be covered coyly without rendering them into so much useless ambiguity. If you need to brake and reverse now, I’ll understand.
Short version for the unfamiliar: A bunch of comic-book superheroes team up to try and stop an extra-tall, thick-skinned intergalactic bad guy from completing his magical MacGuffin collection. That’s also the plot of Justice League, but with a bit more depth here. Rest assured Infinity War has other gears and cogs spinning and whirring and producing pleasing and tasty byproducts on the assembly line during its breakneck-paced two hours and forty minutes.
Striking fear into the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Josh Brolin as Thanos, a powerful conqueror whose pet political issue is overpopulation, and whose master plan is to alleviate this societal concern by gathering the six magical mystical Infinity Stones from their various locations throughout the MCU, mounting them on a cool glove he had custom-made, and literally wishing exactly half the universe dead. In his mind, the survivors will appreciate having more resources all to themselves once they’re done grieving their traumatic losses and wishing him dead. Understandably, Our Heroes have a problem with his political platform. So it’s time to fight and fight and fight!
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: This section of every movie entry is where I have fun pointing out how many actors I recognize, or who ought to be recognized. That would be tedious beyond belief for a movie that stars Nearly Everyone Ever. By my count, at least 35 different actors of varying contribution level reprise characters, voices, or bodies from previous works. It’d be far, far easier to cover who isn’t in the film.
In fact, let’s start there. The following prominent MCU characters are nowhere to be found in Infinity War: Hawkeye; Valkyrie; Lupita Nyong’o, Action Spy; the complete cast of Ant-Man; Happy Hogan; Aunt May; Betty Ross; all of Thor’s human friends; Guardians sidekick Sean Gunn (though he’s still on hand as Rocket Raccoon’s mo-cap representative); and most of the villains from previous films. Maybe they can all join up with the heroes’ side in next year’s season finale.
New faces in the mix include the Black Order, Thanos’ previously unseen sidekicks to whom he delegates some of his MacGuffin-hunting and fight scenes. None of them is afforded a basic introduction with their names fully recited on screen because the movie would rather devote the time to its A-listers. In my mind their names are the Preacher, Dark Hulk, Dark Elf But Not from Thor: The Dark World, and The Female. Actors buried under thick Black Order makeup include Michael James Shaw (Papa Midnite from TV’s Constantine), Carrie Coon from FX’s Fargo, and mo-cap specialist Terry Notary from the Planet of the Apes series (who also doubles as Teen Groot).
Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage is a space weapons manufacturer of most unusual size, but not the size you’d expect. Ross Marquand (Aaron from The Walking Dead) emerges from the shadows in a genuinely shocking super-secret role. And Stan “The Man” Lee, still of sound mind and body in the moment, is a school bus driver.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Thanos’ driving hypothesis is the universe would be a nicer place if there were fewer people in it. His inefficient Plan A is to fly from planet to planet and commit partial genocide, like Galactus cutting calories. Realizing this would take far too long in a universe the size of Marvel’s, his Plan B is the Infinity Gem collection, which upon assembly will grant him near-omnipotence (not 100%, if his final line is to be believed) that in turn will let him literally grant his own wish to murder trillions for the sake of the surviving trillions. It’s an immeasurably monstrous deed for a thoroughly questionable purpose, one that begs the question of whether he truly evaluated the pros and cons of other potential solutions to overpopulation and scarcity of resources, but he’s obsessed with seeing it through. Thanos is like an immodest, self-aggrandized Black Plague on two legs.
While Thanos thinks such wide-scale sacrifice is his to enact by right, in a few scenes Our Heroes face his choice in microcosm: can they choose to kill if it seems like the best solution? Is that a fair question to ask when they’re backed into a corner? One wonders in this version of Marvel if any of them might echo TV’s Barry Allen from The Flash: “There’s always another way.”
Naturally the moral quandary is moot when we’re talking about killing evil aliens. Those guys suck, so they get to die in droves, especially in the climactic Lord of the Rings battle in scenic Wakanda where all the heroes with military backgrounds can really cut loose. But other scenes offer harder dilemmas. The choices made aren’t always predictable.
Also, there are several cool fight scenes, some involving actual teamwork and maybe an occasional martial art here and there.
Nitpicking? The old fogey in me insists on waxing irritable about the good ol’ days of storytelling — whether in movies, TV, comics, books, or what have you — when responsible, talented writers approached every entertainment unit with the axiom in mind that every entertainment unit is someone’s first. In an era when not everything was available to access at all times, often the only way to permit new readers inside your long-running fictional world was through cordial exposition that caught them up on everything they needed to know in order to enjoy a done-in-one experience each time, whether it was Part One, Part Three of Six, or the thrilling conclusion. If what we experienced was great, then we might seek out the chapters that came before and after.
Before DVD boxed sets, trade paperbacks, streaming services, and VHS rental, we had no other choices and we got used to it. I saw Return of the Jedi years before I saw episodes 5 or 6; it was consequently the first time I wanted to see a film twice in theaters. I saw Jaws 2 and Jaws 3 (in 3-D!) before doubling back two decades later for Spielberg’s original. I saw Back to the Future 3 before 2, Mad Max: Fury Road before any of the rest, the third Friday the 13th before the second, and to this day I’ve never seen Rocky II, which was recapped well enough at the beginning of III. That was movie-going in the early days of Generation X.
(Sometimes I still do that today, partly as a throwback to the old days and partly Because I Can. The only episode of Breaking Bad I’ve ever seen is the series finale, mostly out of curiosity and partly to see the priceless expressions on people’s faces.)
Infinity War is a product of new times. You can grok each hero’s general power set on display, but this isn’t where you to get to know their names, backstory, supporting cast, previous adventures, or basic motivations. If you didn’t watch the previous 18 films upon their respective releases, you can order them all from Amazon, borrow copies from friends, stream a handful on Netflix (only three as of tonight), wait for the frequent basic-cable reruns, or take the cheapest route and read their Wikipedia recaps, the 21st-century equivalent of cheating with Cliffs Notes. Infinity War assumes viewers have done their homework before coming in, no matter which source they use. If the only Marvel film you’ve seen so far is Black Panther, or the one with Sherlock, or one of the Iron Man films but you can’t remember which one because it’s been a while, you’re gonna be lost.
Today’s consumers embrace the idea of longform serialized narratives in their TV and comics, but over time that soap-opera approach becomes a form of gatekeeping to anyone on the outside looking in. Many modern writers treat recaps and exposition like handicaps. Great writers from previous generations made them work and were all too happy to welcome one and all to the party.
Now that Marvel has validated that same style for movies, the old fogey in me thinks that’s kind of a shame. I mean, I’ve seen all 18, so I’m good. Today I had to caution one coworker, who’s seen a handful of Marvel movies, and who thought about taking her grandson to see it, that he’s probably going to have to explain most of it to her if she didn’t at least see Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Captain America: Civil War, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. At the bare minimum. And those are just the ones leading directly to Infinity War. She was less than tickled to hear that.
I, on the other hand, am on the “in” side of that velvet rope, so, y’know. Lucky me.
It’s also lucky for me that I read the source material, the original Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, when it was first published 27 years ago. Knowing that the 2014 decision to split Avengers 3 into two films meant a cliffhanger ending was all but guaranteed, I managed to guess exactly which moment would be the cliffhanger — and, by extension, to guess why fans at Thursday night and Friday showings were reportedly leaving their screenings in collective, gloomy silence. I knew what was coming and was generally prepared for it. Knowing the original story, and knowing as a 38-year comics reader that superhero deaths are usually impermanent and often meaningless, when the time came I didn’t feel the need to buy a black armband or call a crisis hotline.
That ostensibly shocking cliffhanger ending didn’t stress me out at all. That, too, shall pass. I’m curious to see what comes next, and which actors are happy to keep coming back for more movies, but I’m not distraught or biting my nails over it. Because I know better. Lucky me.
So what’s to like? I expected to be among the minority grumbling about Infinity War for its very nature as a company-wide crossover. I’ve written before about how much I’ve come to loathe comic-book crossovers, some of which I rehashed in my writeup of Ready Player One. In most cases, such crossovers are a marketing edict proclaimed from on high for the sake of sales boosts that normally come at the expense of every participating series that has to derail its ongoing concerns and plot threads for the sake of the masters’ bidding to go grubbing for those bigger bucks.
Infinity War is a different kind of crossover. Infinity War isn’t the dream child of some studio exec who looked at Marvel’s box office returns and forced them to add a super-hero dog pile to the schedule. The tracks leading to this gargantuan event have been laid in the background very nearly from Year One with an eye on the long, loooong game. It’s not an incidental cash grab; it’s the entire focal point of many of the past 18 movies, the hub at the center of all those spokes, specifically built as the grand showcase for the real Big Bad of the MCU. This long-shot plan gambled on a lot of risks paying off. If too many Marvel films had flopped, if they hadn’t learned important lessons after a few stumbles, if any of the more prominent actors had walked away, if directors Joe and Anthony Russo had chickened out and stuck to sitcoms, if any other films besides Inhumans had been shut down, if the special effects had looked like old Doctor Who reruns, if the general public had been overcome with superhero burnout, or if any high-ranking studio exec had looked at their ambitious scheme of delayed gratification and said “NOPE”…the road to Thanos would’ve taken on a vastly different shape, probably not for the better.
In other words, this major Marvel crossover belongs right where it’s at, and fits snugly between the other pieces of the puzzle. (I nearly wrote “fits like a glove”. Couldn’t do it.) With those previous 18 films cataloged in my head, with my full knowledge of the cast of three dozen returning characters, and with my body immersed in the overwhelming IMAX surroundings so that the more analytical portions of my brain were drowned out for a while, Infinity War was a mightily enthralling machine. Dutiful viewers receive payoffs from lots of previous subplots and all that “a war is coming” foreshadowing. Everyone who’s important enough to have lines is gifted at least one defining moment — more than one moment for the really fortunate ones. I don’t care for all-CG battles between disposable henchmen, but the smaller fight scenes have that Russo Brothers verve that enlivened the second and third Cap films, that razzle-dazzle of the old Marvel tradition, especially a critical showdown on Titan, moon of Saturn, between Our Villain and a clutch of mismatched yet (mostly) clever heroes.
Among the all-stars on parade, Robert Downey, Jr., naturally leads the MVPs. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man continues to hit all the right emotional notes of a plucky teen in waaaaay over his head but proving himself resourceful anyway. Chris Hemsworth remains funny and commanding, building on the immense improvements of Thor: Ragnarok, and unexpectedly shares one of the film’s more touching scenes with, of all people, Rocket Raccoon. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord wants to stick to his wisecracks, but struggles to grow up as events grow out of control. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen make a strong case for a Vision and Scarlet Witch spin-off film. And Danai Gurira’s Okoye remains my favorite resident of Wakanda among plenty of fierce competition. I could go on, but it’s a testament to a plethora of powerful performances — and to Alan Silvestri’s traditional, string-pulling emotional score — that the technically hollow ending still has the power to devastate audiences.
And there’s more. So much more. More more more more more. At the deep, dark center of it all is Josh Brolin’s performance as the tyrant Thanos. We fans got impatient with his fleeting cameos in previous films, but this time it’s all about him. Thanos is the hero here in his mind — his twisted immorality and the philosophical debate it may inspire, his callous disregard for the inherent value of sentient life, his galaxy-class vanity, and — if you pay attention and stop admiring the intricacies of his super-sized CG avatar — his tiny, tiny heart that he keeps hidden from all but one. For all our complaining about bland or thin villains in past Marvel chapters, those complaints stop immediately at the feet of Thanos. We’ll be talking about him for years to come. And so will he, I’m sure.
After all, while ordinary humans are out there gnashing their teeth and rending their garments over what they perceive as a catastrophic cliffhanger, as far as he’s concerned, Avengers: Infinity War was a satisfying movie experience with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thanos hears your complaints. Thanos doesn’t care.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Avengers: Infinity War end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert, stronger this time, in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…meanwhile back in America, Nick Fury and Maria Hill, former Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the long-missing, much-missed Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders) are driving downtown and using a Super iPad to keep abreast of the odd energy signatures emanating from the epic battle in Wakanda when drivers start disappearing from vehicles around them, including at least one crashing helicopter. Moments later Fury and Hill likewise phase away, but not before Fury can send a distress signal on an odd handheld gizmo, then utter seven out of twelve letters in the final profanity of his life.
The tiny screen flashes “SENDING…” for several long seconds before it’s replaced with a new image: the costume symbol for Marvel’s Captain Marvel! Her prequel/origin, part 21 of this 22-movie season, will be coming to theaters March 6, 2019! Only in the ever-lovin’ Marvel Cinematic Universe!