A film ten years in the making whose only obstacle is its own success.
For a decade, Marvel has not only found its footing as a film studio and succeeded in legitimizing superhero cinema for the mainstream, but they’ve also revolutionized filmic storytelling. Each of the three Avengers films are less standalone movies and more the final season of a long-running television show, and as such, each has been afforded the luxury of long-form narrative previously monopolized by television.
It’s terribly apropos that Avengers: Infinity War centers on a galactic madman compiling stones. This is, of course, the running subplot that has underscored everything we’ve seen in the MCU since 2008, but it’s also representative of Marvel’s painstaking mission to piece together a legacy. In many ways, Thanos is a giant purple analog for producer Kevin Fiege.
But enough about what it represents. Odin knows there has been plenty of ceremony to stand on as we’ve inched closer to the apex of the MCU, so does Infinity War reward viewers for a decade of patient patronage? Absolutely. Hyperbole may be the currency of this industry, but this may be the most spectacular movie since Star Wars. It’s not just that the screen is brimming with escapist fantasy, it’s not merely the dazzling effects and battle sequences, but like Star Wars, this is the epitome of the idea that crowd-pleasing genre beats and heartfelt, character-driven story are not mutually exclusive.
That’s not to say that Infinity War is as great a movie as Star Wars; the latter managing to accomplish its legendary status with a shoestring budget and without the aid of one quarter of the Screen Actors Guild. However, the similarity in scale of what Infinity War brings to the screen, the immersive intergalactic conflict it depicts, and the significance of the film as an event that will raise the bar for future comic-book blockbusters cannot be ignored.
It seems almost impossible that over twenty-five superheroes reside in a 149-minute movie. If split evenly, that would amount to less than six minutes of screen time per hero. Even if we assume the next chapter will boast an equivalent runtime, that’s less than twelve minutes each. Obviously, identical distribution is not a reasonable policy here, but it does highlight the daunting tasked posed to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. In clumsier hands, the entire endeavor of Infinity War would resemble a crowded souvenir photo — a gimmick falling well short of a legitimate narrative. Markus and McFeely manage to distill the contents of ten years’ worth of mythology and weaponize it against a threat that, in confrontation, celebrates the strength of all the marquee players.
Thanos has taken some sharp criticism during his tenure as largely-lethargic puppet master; seeming to lazily stir up others’ conflict from his cushy seat behind the curtain. While it is true that his merry band of marauders are given the bulk of the logistical evil-doing, the function is not so that Thanos can continue occupying the universe’s most ample Barcalounger, but to provide avenues for multiple action set pieces with various heroic sub-squads. It offers course after course of delectable character beats that remind us why we’ve loved these protagonists film after film.
Indeed, if Marvel has been consistently criticized for anything, it’s that their villains are one-dimensional and cookie-cutter. However, Markus and McFeely add flesh to the computer-generated titan. In a word, Thanos has pathos. He’s not just another megalomaniacal moustache-twirler bent on destruction and third-act convenience.
Thanos is essentially Jor-El; heretical comic book universe crossover notwithstanding. He is a man who struggled to save a planet facing extinction whose methods were rejected by his own people. Infinity War delivers a Thanos who feels loss, who is burdened, and, like any other villain who is the hero of his own story, Thanos is convinced he is just in his cause even if it costs him everything.
Fans will find plenty of scenes of indulgent elation including the return of Steve Rogers (replete with lumberjack beard) which offers a surprisingly moving moment. Also alive and well here is the studio-signature humor, which has always seemed to keep grounded even the most fantastical of story devices. Still, none of that detracts from Infinity War’s greatest achievement. When first introduced in the mid-credit stinger of The Avengers, audiences were reminded of Thanos’ fascination with death. In the comics, the mad titan went so far as to literally court Death herself, prompting the final line of dialogue in the first team-up movie. Yet overall the Marvel cinematic universe has seemed extremely mortality-averse when it comes to its stable of heroes, which is baffling considering how often superheroes meet their ends on the page. A side character or newcomer would drop here and there—Quicksilver slaughtered faster than you could say, well Quicksilver—but like Thanos, death always seemed to loom in the periphery. Finally, in Infinity War, the stakes are high and no one is safe. Of course, certain plot-mechanics have well-sewn the possibility of resurrection, but that doesn’t make the demises any less painful. Suddenly in addition to spectacle and fan-service, tension makes an appearance.
Infinity War is not a flawless film — there’s a section in the middle involving the forging of Thor’s new weapon that could have done with a few swipes of an editor’s sword — but overall it’s the beginning of an airtight close to Phase 3 and a landmark piece of spectacle.