It’s tough to write about Avengers: Infinity War, which marks an unprecedented moment in cinematic history: the culmination of a decade’s worth of world-building, character development, pop culture dominance, and fan involvement, in which seventeen films converge into one major motion picture event. It’s the kind of event made whole by the collection of personal experiences that each fan in the theater hall brings to it on opening night, the kind of feeling that warrants the film multiple viewings just to feel the chills of sharing thundering applauses, huge gasps, and monumental emotions. This is the reason we love pop culture: it brings us together as moviegoers, giving even the most casual of fans an entertaining, engaging, and emotional journey to share with a crowd full of people who are all genuinely excited for every ensuing scene.
It’s also tough to write about Infinity War because the film is geniusly engineered to be overflowing with spoilers, to the point at which the narrative is more spoiler than story. Essentially, in a franchise defined by being risky and groundbreaking in its approach to serialization, Infinity War was going to introduce another unprecedented event into the MCU’s timeline: the movie was going to place the Avengers on the edge of oblivion, leaving us to wonder who was going to die, and what would be left of the team in their departed caped colleagues’ absence. Perhaps this is why almost all of Infinity War hinges around the theme of “sacrifice”. It’s no surprise that some familiar faces do bite the dust. As the body count rises to jarring effect, a few of these morbid twists arrive from unexpected directions that show the mark of expert storytellers working with a vast canvas of possibilities. Consequently, Marvel has developed an unprecedented degree of confidence about its ability to hold audiences’ attention. Much of the early hype around Infinity War focused on who would live and who would die in this epic struggle. And boy, is it epic.
At two hours and forty minutes, Infinity War moves briskly, but is confident enough to luxuriate in the pleasures of getting all these heroes together in one room to exchange witty banter. They can do that because they’ve earned the audience’s attention and their love. Every introduction, every joke, every heartfelt soliloquy matters, because the audience has been on this unprecedented journey every step of the way. When things get truly grim, it hurts that much more. We’ve watched these heroes bleed for the sake of saving numerous innocent lives before, but many times their losses were mostly in service of character development and never actually threatened to wipe these titans from their universe. In this moment, the endgame of this superhero spectacle is made abundantly clear: we’re watching our greatest icons wrestle with the notion of true mortality for the first time, realizing they won’t be around forever to protect us from the universe’s greatest evils. In a franchise known for always playing it safe, this film is a truly dangerous and affecting feat, that simultaneously personifies the breadth of the comic book experience and flips it over on its head.
Infinity War is a triumph, but that should be said of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe—the magic of Marvel is in making each of these films feel like a homecoming, a high school reunion, and a family holiday gathering all at once. Though they are ultimately shiny products, they exude an authentic joy that is infectious and intoxicating. Infinity War is like the no-holds-barred season finale of a prestige TV series played out on a giant screen with a seemingly unlimited budget. All the main characters have evolved significantly—Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is flirting with the notion of finally settling down, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has embraced his personal moral compass in the face of institutional corruption, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a man without a purpose now that his home is gone. Everything has built up to this, and exposition is at a minimum.
What makes Infinity War the ultimate comic book movie experience is that it truly captures the many features that comic book writers and artists can achieve which aren’t so easy to do with big budget movies and big-name actors, first of which is the ability to continue the stories of the many, many characters of the MCU. Thankfully, there’s no need for any heavy lifting of character development since most of these characters have had their arcs develop over the course of several films. Audiences have connected with most of these characters, adapted to each of their styles, and grown to care for them. So, when a major player doesn’t have much screen time, we’re still invested in their trials and tribulations for those moments when he or she is on the screen. The unforgettable performances by the massive cast of superheroes have thus far allowed us to believe, to invest, and to follow them to this monumental event. And to that end, we come to understand that Infinity War is no longer about these multiple profound heroes, but rather about the one profound thing that will happen to all of them.
That one thing comes in the form of Thanos (Josh Brolin), a villain who’s been continually teased to us since the post-credits scene of The Avengers (2012). It’s a testament to Marvel and the Russos’ daring that Thanos is actually one of the less surprising things about Infinity War. For the past six years, we’ve been told that he’s on a collision course with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, setting us up for the chaos that ensues in this long-heralded culmination. The film ultimately poises Thanos as its main character, giving him the most screentime and—by far—the most developed character arc. Avengers: Infinity War is about someone who is happy to burn the universe to ashes in order to find a little peace and quiet; the core of the movie is the surprisingly layered journey of a corrupt despot with an end-goal that most of us can relate to.
Marvel has never been particularly interested in its villains before; most of them have been the garden-variety mustache twirlers with generic destroy-the-world plans. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther (2016) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the Thor films have been noticeable deviations from this trope, but Thanos is even different from those characters thanks to a surprisingly affecting motion-capture performance from Josh Brolin. Brolin gives the monstrous entity an air of eerie melancholy; he’s not a chuckling lunatic so much as an intellectually corrupt tyrant. Superheroes have always epitomized the anxieties of their age, with its uncertainty over who has the upper hand, and Infinity War is the apotheosis of this trend. Along with regality, formidability, and dread, Brolin brings a sizable amount of pathos to the character, cementing him as the hero of his own story through a mixture of thespian craft and technological wizardry. The polished visual achievement of his motion capture echoes the sophistication of his dark goals, particularly in scenes in which the space surrounding him emanates a reddish hue—as if he’s carrying the Gates of Hell on his back.
As a virtuoso juggling act, Infinity War has no real parallel in popular culture; as a movie, it’s an impressive montage of greatest hits until the gut punch of a finale. Because there are multiple storylines going on at one time—comprised of different fun pairings of heroes—it jumps from storyline to storyline at a viscerally kinetic pace. The film careens through an astonishing number of locations, from New York City to Wakanda to Scotland to the distant cosmic marketplace known as Knowhere. The scale is almost as menacing as Thanos himself, but the Russos manage to streamline the plot by ensuring that individual scenes have their own internal arcs. Characters constantly ram into each other, firing lasers and guns and webbing and stone; sometimes, they philosophize about their stakes, share affectionate banter, or argue about plans. The movie often resembles a big screen variation on the binge-viewing experience, as it leap-frogs from one new set piece to the next. Sometimes, there’s a fear that this constant jumping around the universe might end up feeling like the movie is spinning plates, but the pre-established connections we have with these characters and the screenplay’s extraordinary understanding of pace offer an experience that is easy to appreciate when considering the fantastic work that went into orchestrating these massive spectacles.
The resulting effort channels the best attributes of Marvel’s movies. It’s a fascinating hodgepodge of circumstances designed to move the story forward with dramatic results while resolving it at the same time. Avengers: Infinity War is jumbled but never messy, speeding forward in fits and starts but plenty of calculation. In our cluttered information age, when online fan theories threaten to ruin every plot twist, Infinity War shows a marked determination to speed ahead of audience expectations; it’s so fast-paced that no single viewer could possibly anticipate the next move, even when sequences feel familiar.
When a movie like Infinity War comes out, some cannot relish its rather wonderful pleasures, thanks to all the extratextual knowledge they’ve been cursed with. That’s a crying shame, as Infinity War may legitimately be a masterwork delivered by the MCU: a deeply-felt treatise on the cost of protecting many worlds, with a truly complex emotional core that will unfortunately be completely lost on some viewers due to their need to log on and figure out “what happens next,” as opposed to considering the weight of what they just witnessed.
Kevin Feige, the Russo brothers, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, through Avengers: Infinity War and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have set down the foundation for a generation-defining cinematic event, filled with the trademark Marvel action, humor, and production value. Yet on top of the entertaining, fun-for-the-whole-family spectacle that Infinity War is, it’s nice to know that the box office behemoth also has something on its mind. Our place in the universe is minuscule, but in recognizing that much, these movies also suggest that we have the power to step up and become superheroes in our own right—taking care of one another and addressing the real problems we face with on a daily basis. One small act can cause a butterfly effect that can make a positive change towards a more hopeful tomorrow.