“Avengers: Infinity War” (2018): The Thanos Imperative (Review)
At some point all of this is going to stop working.
Plenty of movies have a hard enough time getting one character right, let alone a family of them. The shifting landscape of cinema hasn’t slowed down since The Avengers proved its sprawling universe at the box office, and Marvel has only continued leading since, from underrated yet still less than effective sequels like Avengers: Age of Ultron to breakup operas like Civil War to textured, jocular space adventures like Guardians of the Galaxy. Issues of color grading, cheapened effects, symphonic scores, and overbearing metatext notwithstanding, it seems as though there’s very little that the Marvel “formula” can’t produce, especially when strong storytellers can effectively apply it.
The full strength of that storytelling, unfortunately, is not on display with Avengers: Infinity War. The movie on the whole is fine, and even great in a lot of select moments, but it’s kept from absolute transcendence largely by the sheer weight of its scope and franchise expectations.
But don’t interpret that as some kind of crippling kneecap on the movie because it isn’t. What it means in this case is that the heroes simply aren’t given enough room to bounce off one another and develop by and through each other the way they would if the movie had a bit more focus to it.
In The Avengers, every character had a uniquely personal moment with Loki that helped shape their collective journeys towards teamwork. They also learned from one another, compared real heroic perspectives, and clashed from the core of their beings, not just superficially. Then about half of them did it again in Captain America: Civil War. There’s simply no time for most of that in Infinity War. If you’re hoping to see another pivotal character turn for Iron Man or the completion of nearly everyone’s character arc that definitively marks the end or turning point of a “Marvel phase,” that’s just not what this movie is after.
The result is a film that, as you’ve probably heard elsewhere by now, can’t help but feel more like a scattershot “Part I” of itself. It gets away with this because it’s still fun, the action is as sprawling as Marvel has ever been, and the actors are all coming at one another with their strongest sleeved personalities. The glue that holds it together is Thanos, whose characterization and acting turn by Josh Brolin is one of Marvel’s all-time best. This is his movie, and I submit that the way it would’ve been better is if this was even more-so the case. So if you’ve been feeling the superhero fatigue or worry more about keeping track of everyone everywhere, I can’t promise that the film will do much for you unless Thanos is specifically what you’ve been waiting for. Me – this is my cup of tea, and has been for years, so of course I’m going to rate it positively.
And that’s where the spoiler-free review ends. Spoilers from here on out…
Holy wow, what a ball breaker of a finale that turned out to be, right?! Let’s talk about this ending, because it raises some interesting questions that will shape the continued cinematic universe, even though this film itself doesn’t prepare any answers.
The “issue” with it, so to speak, isn’t just that no one really believes that T’challa, Peter Quill, and Spider-Man are really dead instead of trapped either on Vormir (the Soul Stone planet) or inside the Soul Stone itself along with everyone else. It’s that it might be difficult to selectively resurrect (or rescue) them specifically while leaving everyone else. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has ironically found itself in the DC Comics predicament where its ever-sprawling and increasingly lore-cryptic continuity (with consistent box office returns but not-so-consistent absolute cultural enthusiasm) forces it to either drastically reshape its universe to simplify things, or casually pass enough time so it can act like none of it actually happened.
Credit where due to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely, and the Russo Brothers for having the gumption to go there. This is the logical conclusion of the shared universe model, and Thanos turned out to be the perfect vessel to get us there. We’ve never had a villain star the film in this universe, let alone act with the deliberate imperative to undo it. That had previously been the task of lesser villains like Surtur in Thor: Ragnarok or feature villains doing it in smaller ways like Zemo in Civil War and even Killmonger in Black Panther. So it’s kind of amazing to see Brolin’s big purple colossus not only jump in and out of space dimensions and wade through squads of people Marvel has spent a decade making heroes of, simply because they’re in his way, but do so with an almost Biblical conviction. How else are we supposed to interpret the sacrifice of Gamora?
To be sure, all this doesn’t fix every issue. Infinity War, much like Ragnarok is still too allergic to gravitas for its own good. The cinematography doesn’t quite do justice to the size of the action set pieces. And it’s not hard to notice that each group of characters isn’t interacting with the others, which jumbles the stakes a bit. Stark, Quill, Strange, Spider-Man, Drax, and Mantis on Titan have exactly nothing to do with what the others are doing on Wakanda. Nor does it make sense for Thor, Rocket, and Groot to just decide that they’re needed on Earth more than back with the Guardians. And with a budget of nearly half a billion, what justification can the movie possibly have to keep the Hulk from coming back?
These are more or less the only questions we have left to ask of a franchise that has managed to get this big while retaining the ambition to even bigger by flipping its own table. Infinity War is less a fully functional film than it is a lights-out festival. Complaining about that is probably fair, but better suited to a lesser film.