Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
The Russos Make the Impossible Possible
The home stretch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase Three is finally here, and the Russo brothers deliver an epic, brutal, and oftentimes scattered showdown with the Mad Titan Thanos. Buckling, even if never caving, under the weight of the preceding 18(!) films, Avengers: Infinity War can't quite live up to the high-water mark year the MCU has had, but it damn well tries and it's a minor miracle that the film works as well as it does. Mild spoilers ahead...
Avengers: Infinity War is a complicated beast and a monstrous filmmaking task - the culmination of a decade's worth of films and the daringly successful concept of a shared movie universe that started with 2008's Iron Man. Anthony and Joe Russo, along with their long-time Marvel writing partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, must be some of the world's biggest masochists. Having already helmed two of the best entries in the MCU (in my opinion), Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, the pressure is on for a third film that lives up to their stellar track record. In addition, Infinity War is a completely different animal altogether: a sprawling epic that looks to tie together 18 films spanning over a roster of fifty-plus characters (well over a hundred if you want to count all the supporting players) that carries the burden of sky-high audience expectations. To demonstrate the magnitude of this undertaking, 2012’s The Avengers only had to accommodate a dozen or so heroes with a relatively short history of only five films, and it already showed some symptoms of wobbly pacing and focus. Throw in the banner year Marvel has had with the critical and financial successes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and the cultural milestone of Black Panther, it’s an understatement to say that all eyes are on the Russos and the unenviably huge shoes they have to fill with Infinity War.
So, does Avengers: Infinity War deliver? The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” but with some asterisks attached. If you're looking for coherence, laser-focused storytelling, or even a compelling standalone film, you will likely be disappointed. The Russo brothers have crafted the ultimate superhero crossover, and while the prior 18 franchise films have at least made an effort to function by themselves so that they can be enjoyed independently, Infinity War makes no such concessions. There's barely time for exposition or even an emotional throughline with so many supergroups colliding together - instead, the film employs a workmanlike efficiency in guaranteeing that every major character gets a moment or two to shine, a strategy that is more effective than you would think. And along with a healthy sampling of humor and quips, this rotating spotlight carries the film nicely in lieu of a traditional story structure. The plot itself is straightforward (although casual fans and those who haven't watched all the films and their now-ubiquitous post-credits scenes may be a little lost): Thanos, the big bad lurking in the background of many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, finally comes to the forefront to exact his endgame: to collect the Infinity Stones that power his empty Gauntlet. Artifacts of great power, the Infinity Stones have been the central focus of many of the films as end-of-movie Macguffins, with each stone governing a different aspect of the universe. The Space, Time, Mind, Power, and Reality Stones have all made appearances already, with the mysterious Soul Stone yet to be revealed. Although styled like a purple CGI meathead, Josh Brolin's Thanos makes for a strangely sympathetic and compelling archvillain as a pragmatic despot looking to balance the universe's scales by collecting all six Infinity Stones and murdering half of all sentient life. It is then up to the titular Avengers (who have since gone their seperate ways since the schism of Civil War) and the various other franchise flagbearers to band together and stop him. Marvel films have always had issues with their villains, but Thanos ranks as one of the best, even if his plans are a little grandiose and impersonal. Fearsome and imposing but not without nuance (the Mad Titan gets arguably the most screentime and a surprisingly moving story arc), Thanos raises the stakes and sets the tone within the first minutes of the film by dishing out a spate of shocking deaths, and that edge-of-your-seat suspense of who will live or die carries through the entire 149-minute runtime (more on these deaths later).
Infinity War is a superhero film uniquely positioned to reward its biggest fans with some of the most exhilirating setpieces in recent action cinema history. A barrage on the senses, the movie is a comic book lover’s dream come true - giant foldout splash pages come to life, one after another. Judged on its own merits, Infinity War has less character development than a third grader’s creative writing assignment, but for those of us who have been closely following the stories of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the rest of the MCU roster, we’re happy to be able to jump right into a movie that is essentially a gallery of action spectacle. Say what you want about the corporate machine that spits these movies out, but Disney and Marvel's consistency is nothing short of awe-inspiring - a library of 18 universe-building blockbusters that range from solid to excellent (although Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron come close to "bad movie" territory). A more than admirable batting average, it is also the sowing of ten years worth of seeds just for this moment - building franchises and characters that audiences will care about so that when the big crossover event finally happens, we're ready to dive in with backstories already filled in. It's the ultimate long game, and it's also part of the reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe works so well, and the DC film universe and other imitators...don’t.
"A barrage on the senses, the movie is a comic book lover’s dream come true - giant foldout splash pages come to life, one after another."
The primary joy of Infinity War is watching all of your favorite Marvel superheroes meet on screen for the first time and take part in these gigantic setpieces together. It's a simple pleasure, but just seeing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) trade banter with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), or Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meet cute with the Guardians of the Galaxy brought a smile to my face, and the film is chock full of these moments that comic book fans have been dreaming of all their lives. And when it comes to action, the Russo brothers' keen eye for dynamic and inventive choreography that elevated the two Captain America sequels is back on display, but on a much grander scale. Going into the film, I was a little worried that the Russo brothers' proficiency at handling their remarkable street-level fight scenes in The Winter Soldier and Civil War wouldn't carry over to the bigger and more cosmically-tilted Infinity War, but it turns out their more intimate style is exactly what a movie like this needs. One of my biggest peeves when it comes to superheroes on the screen is the tendency for them to devolve into giant CGI bores in the third act that usually end with massive things falling out of the sky or faceless mook armies smashing into each other. Don’t get me wrong, Infinity War has plenty of both, but the Russos’ clever and more grounded direction breathes new life into scenes that would usually have my eyes glazing over. Employing a steady camera and some excellent use of closeups, the Russos along with cinematographer Trent Opaloch (District 9, Captain America: Civil War) give fight scenes clarity and an intimate brutality. Even when it comes to the obligatory CGI armies clashing, Infinity War fares better than its contemporaries, interspersing the necessary wide angles of these large-scale battles with dynamic shots that sell the ferocity of Thanos' goons.
Avengers: Infinity War, however, can't quite live up to the quality of the past year's Marvel films. The one-two-three punch of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther is a lot to aspire to, and this crossover misses the great character work and the quieter moments that made those three films tick. Thus is the nature of such a behemoth film, in which a lot of the emotional moments fall a little flat. Surprisingly, the most poignant storyline belongs to Thanos and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a complicated father-daughter relationship that is the closest the film comes to an emotional throughline. It's a shame that their story couldn't be fleshed out further, but with over fifty characters in the film to check in on, it's a luxury that Infinity War just simply can't afford. This issue carries over to many of the other characters as well: Captain America (Chris Evans), who is arguably the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, probably has fewer than ten lines of dialogue total, and although much of the action is in Wakanda, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) gets relegated to what amounts as a glorified cameo. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are tasked with the other emotional beat of the film, as their budding romance is threatened by the fact that one of the Infinity Stones is lodged in Vision's forehead, but there's far too much else going on for their limited screentime to truly resonate. The biggest issue with Infinity War, however, is that even with such large stakes, it can't seem to escape the shadow of the corporate machine. Yes, this is finally the Marvel film where fan-favorite characters die, but I can't help but notice that the deaths are still rather toothless, afraid of sending their greatest hit heroes out to pasture (although I may be eating my own words come 2019, when we will most likely see who perishes for good). Part of the issue is that many of the characters also have sequels booked for next year that ruin the suspense of whether they will stay dead or not, but the biggest problem remains that the other deaths that were meant to "shock" and "surprise" were neither of those things - killing off hit characters that have exhausted their story arcs will surprise exactly no-one, and killing off ancillary characters comes across as Marvel pulling its punches.
For better or worse, Avengers: Infinity War is relentless. An overly-stuffed thrill ride that has no business working as well as it does, Marvel Studios has pulled off a minor miracle with a little help from rock solid films that came before. While there are plenty of small issues haunting Infinity War, nothing can compare to the joy of watching all your favorite Marvel heroes come together on the big screen, tackling a threat that has been teased since 2012. With their confident and grounded direction, the Russo brothers have probably accomplished what no other director could and tamed a messy and unfocused beast of a film and turned it into what it should be: fun.