Reel Critic: “Avengers: Infinity War”




The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began with “Iron Man” (2008). It was a risky move by a company that had spent most of the prior decades selling off movie rights to characters in order to stay afloat. It was a comeback story, one strengthened by the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as the eponymous hero, a man in need of a comeback himself. In the end, the film was a massive hit and set into motion Marvel’s vision for a massive interconnected universe of movies. Now, ten years and eighteen movies later, we have arrived at the beginning of the end for this initial chapter in the MCU. Ever since the post-credits scene of “The Avengers” (2012) revealed Thanos as the ‘big bad’ which the movies were building to, the question has been what would happen when he fully arrived on the screen. A second post-credits appearance at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) and a few scenes in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) later, we arrive at “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo and the culmination of the promise to bring the comic arc of the same name to life. It is what each movie in the entire MCU has been leading to.

“Avengers: Infinity War” begins in the aftermath of “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his followers have overtaken Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the surviving Asgardians, laying waste to them and their ship. Here, we see the first glimpse of Thanos’ true power, as he tosses the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) around like a play thing. After a pair of courageous sacrifices, Thanos acquires the second of the six infinity stones that he is after, and we launch into the movie proper. So many interlaced storylines follow that it would be impossible to lay them out in any summarized fashion, but they all revolve around the same focal point: Thanos has the infinity gauntlet, a piece of equipment that will allow him to harness the power of the six infinity stones, which are scattered throughout the universe. If in the possession of all six, the stones and the gauntlet would give him the power to control every aspect of the universe, a power he would put to use with one goal: wipe out half of all life to achieve a “balance” in the cosmos. As a result, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and assorted heroes must fan out across the universe to try and stop him.

At any given point in the movie there are at least four distinct storylines unfolding. Whether they be Iron Man/Tony Stark, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) trapped on a spaceship heading for Titan, Thor meeting up with the Guardians of the Galaxy or Thanos in pursuit of a stone, there is never simply one story arc occuring. These narratives are all unified by Thanos but operate in different capacities of either supporting or opposing his quest. I knew going in that there would be much going on at once and maybe that helped my experience of watching it, but there were few moments where the movie seem to pull at the seams. For instance, the many narrative arcs became hard to follow when there was a tone shift between storylines, such as a comical quip from Tony cutting to a distraught Gamora (Zoe Saldana), but those were minimal. Some critics have maintained that there was too much going on to keep the story straight, but my experience was that the Russos stitched their world together quite well as a result of tactfully juxtaposed battles and a well-designed cascade of stories.

Making their jobs all the easier is a cast fully committed to the scope of the story. We have seen many of these characters evolve over a multitude of movies. For example, Tony has grown from a self-centered casanova into a paternal leader and Thor has gone from a lovable meathead to a remarkably complex character dealing with the grief of losing a homeworld and most of his family. The character-driven stories that preceded “Avengers: Infinity War” mean a remarkable amount of leg work has been done in developing these characters, much like the way a television show uses stand-alone episodes to build towards a season finale. Yet, for me, the most compelling performances came from characters with less backstory built into the MCU. At the head of this was Saldana, a performance inextricably tied to Brolin’s turn as her demonic adopted father Thanos. Having appeared in only two MCU films prior to this one, Saldana has nevertheless been a standout of the Guardians of the Galaxy cast, portraying a woman who has been shattered by the abuse her adopted father rained down on her as a child and pitting her and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) against one another. It is also through this relationship that much of Thanos’ complexity is contextualized. As a madman who wants to kill half of all life in the universe, there is evil enough to spare, but Brolin’s scenes with Saldana bear a charge of perverted paternalism that is more chilling than any universal domination plan. He killed half of the population of Gamora’s planet but truly believes he did the planet and her a favor. Their scenes carry a Learian heft which is the MCU at its best.

Furthermore, the duo of Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) became the emotional core of the movie for me. In the midst of a relationship that had only been hinted at in prior movies, theirs is the story of a romance besieged by the apocalyptic circumstances around them. At moments, they are challenged to choose between what would be best for the one they love and what is best for the world. It is the epitome of sacrifice, which becomes the de facto thematic unifier of the movie. In this story populated by nearly thirty heroes, there is not a single one spared from making an impossible choice at some point in the runtime. As a result, the tone of this movie is markedly darker than anything Marvel has put out before. The stakes seem real and though some of the many deaths in this movie will no doubt be reversed come the next Avengers in May 2019, there are a few that seem definitively final. We have lost characters in the MCU before, but none as central as those that meet their end in “Avengers: Infinity War,” which is both heartbreaking as fan and inarguably compelling as a possibility that Marvel is pushing towards a reinvention.

“Avengers: Infinity War” delivers on the epic tone that has characterized its marketing and buildup. Super-fans of the comics and casual viewers of the movies alike have spent years wondering how this film would play out and, at least speaking for this viewer, it did not disappoint. It is not a perfect movie, but as one half of the capstone for an era of Marvel filmmaking it is deeply satisfying and more emotionally compelling than any of the entries in the MCU that have come before. Only time will tell if the risk that Marvel chose to take here will pan out into a greater shift in the way that they make movies, but it is promising to think that even ten years and billions of dollars in the company is not ready to rest on its fandom’s laurels just yet.