- Chief Film Critic
It’s all been building to this. Except for when everything was building to The Avengers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been building to this moment, more or less, over the last decade’s worth of movies, eighteen so far. Avengers: Infinity War is supposed to represent the beginning of the end for what is known as Phase Three of the MCU. With a planned (and already filmed) sequel due to arrive next summer that concludes the story, Infinity War leaves Earth’s mightiest heroes hanging on a perilous note with the stakes pushed higher than perhaps any movie has ever pushed the stakes before.
The MCU storyline has built up primarily through Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), with secondary, slightly less-popular superheroes being added to the mix over the decade to deepen the roster; optimistically to build to this moment of bringing everyone together, but also corporate planning in case an actor wanted out. Marvel has managed to thread the needle with keeping all of these actors on board and happy and being able to supplement them with characters like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and the Guardians of the Galaxy rather than supplant them has made all the difference.
Thanos (Josh Brolin), has been the big bad that has been looming over everything ever since the post-credits of 2012’s The Avengers. He comes to the forefront here, finally assuming a primary role in the story and bringing the fight to the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the whole universe. His objective is to gain possession of the Infinity Stones (Soul, Time, Space, Mind, Reality, and Power) to have the power to eliminate half of all the life in the universe, the ultimate thinning of the herd.
Everything directors Joe and Anthony Russo have said in the lead-up to the release about this film really belonging to Thanos is true. It’s such a fascinating switch that so much of this film is practically with Thanos as the protagonist or at least the central figure of it all. He is one of the more unique villains I’ve seen in a superhero film. He isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, a fiendish villain, a berserk monster run amok, or some insane mastermind. He genuinely believes that he is the good guy who is making the hardest choice possible and that eliminating half of all living things to bring balance to the universe is his cross to bear. I’ve had a difficult time trying to figure out a comparable villain to Thanos in other movies. The closest I’ve come is that there is a little of Robert Mitchum’s Rev. Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter, a character who hated and killed women but did it because he believed God hated women and that he was doing God’s work.
Another film franchise that this brought to mind for me was The Two Towers and The Return of the King from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mainly because of the sheer number of characters and how they are splintered off and the movie has to jump around to check in on them. Another way it reminds me of the Lord of the Rings is that Infinity War is like one long combination of The Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Siege of Gondor from those two films. And the scale and execution of the action is impressive. It’s not that there is a lack of storyline, but this is an action movie through and through, with my favorite moment being a confrontation between Iron Man, Strange, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and half of the Guardians against Thanos. The film does an admirable juggling act with all of these characters. None of them really get lost in the shuffle, though Thor, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) feature most prominently, along with Thanos.
It would be very easy for this film to collapse under its own sheer weight and that doesn’t happen. The film goes for a truly bold and ambitious ending that is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions for audiences. Without going into detail who dies or their level of importance to the overall MCU, I will say that there are deaths scattered throughout this film. It’s the MCU’s attempt to have an Empire Strikes Back ending. When the screen went to black a woman in the audience yelled out, “Are you kidding me!?!?!?!” and I let out a cackle of delight at the reactions and also the boldness of their storytelling.
As bold and ambitious as leaving our heroes where the film leaves them may seem, I ultimately have to question it. In one sense, the stakes have never been higher, but in another sense the stakes may have never mattered less. There are two truths about comic books: anyone can come back from being dead and practically anything can be undone. And when you have objects like the Infinity Stones in play that can turn back time (as seen in Doctor Strange) and manipulate reality and matter, pretty much anything is possible. The downside of anything being possible is the question of whether anything then matters. Because there is a sequel next summer, it’s an open-ended question for now how significant anything that happens in Infinity War truly is or if it will be undercut in the future, not just by next summer’s sequel, but also by Marvel’s corporate machine to keep putting out movies. I highly doubt the original recipe Avengers are going to be mothballed after next year just because Downey has “aged out” or Evans and Hemsworth might be ready to move on. Marvel surely has a plan beyond Phase Three, and that shouldn’t be ignored when evaluating where Infinity War fits into the endgame of this story as well as in the grand scheme of things.
Solid action, consistent laughs, and universally huge stakes make this an epic movie and an epic achievement for Marvel. It’s not the best MCU movie ever made, but it’s the best pure action movie that the MCU has provided. It provides plenty of action thrills of its own and hints at a potentially even bigger conclusion to the story next year. I left the movie theater with the sense that Marvel may have painted itself into a corner, but I’m also interested to see how they maneuver out of it. We’ll find out in 2019.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars