Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of ten years and twenty movies. It is the product of several years of planning, three brain children (four if you count a pair of brothers), and massive amounts of hype. In fact, as this arc has been built up since 2012, and has grown to a point where there are over fifty major characters, you could say it’s the most ambitious film in all of cinematic history. Now that it’s the final product is finished and finally in front of us, there’s only one question left: does it live up to the hype? The answer, I’m afraid, is complicated.
Having witnessed the failure of several pawns over the past several years, the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally decides it is time to complete his master plan: to collect all six Infinity Stones, gems forged in the creation of the universe that control the Great Mysteries, like time, space, and reality. If he can capture all six, he will have the power to complete his quest with the snap of his fingers: to wipe out half the universe in order to restore the “balance of things.” With the Avengers broken up, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) out of commission, and their forces spread across the universe, new alliances need to be forged, including Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel), strategies must be employed, and lives will be lost in the quest to save the universe from the terrible tragedy to come.
Look, let’s be honest here: in order to actually pull this film off, everything needed to be bigger beyond the realm of possibility. It needed to have massive amounts of characters, each played by actors who desire equal screentime. It needed to have stakes large enough to require each of these heroes (after all, if they can all handle at least twenty challenges individually, and eight of them can handle massive challenges, what’s a big enough challenge that would require fifty superheroes?). And it needed to pay off arcs established across six years of cinema. This is a massive production with massive risks built in, and I’m not sure it quite pulls it off. I’m not quite sure I can put my Infinity Gauntlet-ed finger on what exactly the film’s biggest flaw is – perhaps the size and scope of the entire production is just too great, giving the film a “too big to fail” vibe that it just can’t shake. Perhaps it’s Anthony and Joe Russo, who are fine directors who are talented at mimicking style and staging certain action sequences, but have never managed to capture tone or actual pathos (or perhaps the project is too big for them). Or perhaps the actual storytelling, both in the film and in the production, never manages to bring all the pieces together into one coherent whole. For a film with several jokes and quips throughout, the massively depressing prologue stands out like a sore thumb. The characters continue to make bad decisions and demonstrate poor leadership, including allowing the team to remain split during their respective battles despite opportunities to unify on a joined front. The CGI work is consistently shoddy and terrible, leaving Thanos’ design underwhelming and the other setpieces demonstrably fake. And by the time we meet Thanos, he is already too powerful to stop – it’s enough to make the film less enjoyable for the average viewer, even if they are aware that this film is technically one of two halves. However, perhaps worst of all, the film uses the bulk of its run for exposition. Infinity War is the product of ten years of planning, with each decision supposedly carefully decided and planned since Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) first donned the Iron Man armor in 2008. There are clues and ideas that could have been introduced across the series’ run, and arguably should have, allowing the team to jump straight into things the way they did in the original 2012 Avengers, or to engage in a straight battle royale, like Mad Max: Fury Road. However, instead of careful planning and true joy, much of this film has to be dedicated to rehashing ideas and filling in plot holes. This not only means there is a lack of conflict, but also that the film can never establish momentum until the final thirty minutes. It’s just a shame, because the “event” nature of these films should exist well beyond the realm of “Isn’t it cool that these people are teaming up?” and yet it never feels like it surpasses that “wow” factor.
And yet, in spite of any missteps or feelings of underwhelmed dispassion we may feel about the film overall, it cannot be forgotten that a film of this size and scope not only exists, but turns out even this well. There are several moments where this film triumphs, and it’s enough to fill you with the sense of awe we first felt when this series began in the late aughts. In an ingenious decision, the Russo Brothers introduce each character/franchise with the stylistic tone of their individual movies. When we meet Doctor Strange, there is a mystical presence and the camera inverts over New York City; when we meet the Guardians of the Galaxy, the filmmaking becomes flippant and a classic rock song comes on as they fly through space; and perhaps greatest of all, when we travel to Wakanda to visit Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his kingdom, the iconic score comes on as we see the Afro-futurist iconography that is already in the pop culture lexicon. In fact, the minute we enter Wakanda for the first time, we are golden; the film rarely missteps from there. Furthermore, outside of a few bad lines (there’s another incredibly dumb/inconsistent Spider-Man age joke), the dialogue in this film really works – it’s funny, fresh, and enjoyable, exactly what we want from a dumb piece of entertainment. And perhaps most important of all, Thanos is an actually decent villain. Sure, he’s not Killmonger (although he’s closer in nature than he is to, say, Jeff Bridges in the first movie), but he’s not just another Ronan the Accuser or Dark Elf Whatshisface either. Thanos has actual motivations for why he wants to wipe out half the universe, and quite frankly, they kind of make sense. Actually, have we considered if Thanos was actually the bad guy here? I’m not entirely sure. Still, despite a bad design, he actually poses a significant threat to the team and the universe, and the fact that there’s some thought behind his motivations is all the better. All of this builds up to a final battle in Wakanda that takes up the final thirty minutes of the film, and this is where the film both soars and shows its flaws. The flaw here is that it reminds us that the rest of the film isn’t like this; the success is that the final battle is everything we want this film to be. Everything about it works across the board, from the fact that they have actual battle formations (be still my logical beating heart) to the fact that it is filmed like an actual war movie – in terms of size and scope, it could feasibly serve as a kindred soul to Braveheart and The Longest Day, from ground troops charging into battle to massive enemy tanks to teams of fighter “pilots” launching attacks from above. Oh, and Carrie Coon has a battle with Scarlett Johansson and Danai Gurira; enough said. Watching this final fight come together demonstrates the culmination of the film as a whole, as well as twenty films worth of build-up, and it allows us to revel in the joy we wanted to find in this film from the beginning. It’s the promise of ten years of promises, and the fact it exists at this caliber is, in itself, a tiny miracle.
Look, there are a lot of actors in this film, and no one really does a bad job in the entire cast, so I’m going to skip over the people who simply do their jobs admirably and instead focus solely on the performances that work the best. Obviously, Josh Brolin is the film’s biggest draw, and he portrays the villainous Thanos with a proper amount of flair, even if he is hidden most of the time behind shoddy CGI. Meanwhile, the best performance perhaps comes from Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who is stepping up as a team leader and is no longer relegated to the background in the fighting. He is now one of the series’ biggest draws, as he can bring pathos and humor at the drop of a hat (see: the scene in which he has a machismo face-off with an excellent Pratt). Also standing out is Benedict Cumberbatch, who is wonderful from the get-go, and really plays up the fact that his character is, in many ways, a knock-off of Tony Stark, as he and Downey, Jr. are pure magic whenever they match wits. The film does an excellent job in making me hope for a Scarlet Witch/Vision romantic comedy, which I accredit to the performances of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. Meanwhile, while there are no gratuitous (read: necessary) muscle shots this time around, Chris Evans is still an absolute joy as Captain America. Amongst the cameos, Samuel L. Jackson shows up briefly to deliver one of the film’s best lines, and the villainous henchmen contain two stand-outs in Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Carrie Coon. However, if there is one thing that this film confirms, it is Wakanda Forever. The best, most iconic performances come from Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, and Letitia Wright, all from the Black Panther universe, and all proving that they are not only talented actors and iconic characters, but that film has entered the public canon in an irreversible way.
Avengers: Infinity War is what it is. It’s a messy, bloated, one-of-a-kind piece of pop culture. It both fails to take any risks and yet is one of the biggest risks in cinematic history simply by existing. It’s a film that struggles to prove its own existence for much of its runtime, and yet manages to floor us with its conclusion. Quite frankly, there isn’t another film like it, and I’m not entirely sure there ever will be again. I wish I could say I loved this film; I really do. However, just because I was disappointed in the overall product doesn’t make this film an outright failure. This movie is an event, worthy of its success and still broken in its flaws, and the fact that it wears these issues proudly, while frustrating, is a conclusion worthy of praise, even if the next film will come along and make this entire film obsolete.