Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of a sprawling narrative unlike any other in film history, pushing the limits of scale and scope in an already jam-packed universe. With that kind of weight on its shoulders you’d expect the film to buckle under the pressure, a sentiment that rears its head in public discourse whenever another installment eventually rolls around. While there probably will be one that finally breaks the camel’s back, Infinity War certainly isn’t it.
It’s a great movie, and in many ways it is subversive—although the discussion of its subversiveness needs its own spoiler tag. While I have my misgivings with the bloated scale and how certain characters aren’t portrayed quite as effectively as they should have been, those gripes are overshadowed by the execution of the story and where it leaves the audience by the end. The gravity of the ending alone makes it unique in the Marvel canon for reasons other than its size and scale.
It’s great how the movie builds on the goodwill from the fans and trusts them to remember the basics of where the individual franchises left off so that they can jump right to the point. With most of the set-up out of the way, the directors can just sit back and let the interplay serve the narrative, unhindered by the chore of having to make time for backstories.
That said, this is a difficult movie to review without spoiling anything, but I will be as vague as possible until the next section. Suffice it to say, the production is stellar, making full use of the widescreen experience provided by IMAX cameras. In fact, this is the first movie ever to be shot entirely in that format, so unlike The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t keep switching aspect ratios without rhyme or reason. It’s not just a gimmick either as it gives the whole movie a sense of scale and grandeur in every single shot. True to the Infinity Gauntlet storyline, every fight scene feels like a massive George Perez splash page, which made me more giddy than I thought it would.
It’s also great to hear Alan Silvestri back, with the classic Avengers theme and his style of recurring motifs. He juggles the various sections of the story and their respective tones with ease. He even manages to work in some African rhythms and melodies in the Black Panther scenes. Despite certain patches of sound work that land on the unsubtle side, he knows when to lay off and let the scene speak for itself by every so often using ominous silences when necessary. And one of the reasons the entire ending works as well as it does is David Farmer’s beautiful, subtle sound design.
The editing can get jarring, but that’s an expected problem for a film with as broad an array of characters and settings as this one. There’s simply no roadmap for a story of this scale, so certain elements have to be given a bit of leeway. At no point is it hard to follow, which feels like a miracle considering what a car crash an ensemble piece like this can easily turn into. They solve a large chunk of the expected whiplash by dividing up our various characters into teams with distinct missions and interwoven arcs.
The story balances comedy and drama about as well as Black Panther did. There’s bleakness on display, but it never gets burdensome and never feels as if its being brushed aside too easily. Occasionally, Marvel movies handle their emotional content with too much of a wink and nudge approach. This time they let us wallow in the consequences.
—–SPOILER SECTION STARTS HERE—–
It’s a testament to Marvel’s dominance that the superhero team-up has become industry standard and that their cinematic universe is now the bane of both DC and Universal’s executives. However, in the six years since the original Avengers, the team-up format and the superhero genre have lost good chunks of their respective novelty. So how is a studio to pull off the biggest team-up movie ever without it seeming stale and derivative or inadvertently arguing against its own bloated premise?
The main attraction of the Avengers films has always been seeing the different characters’ personalities thrown into relief when brought together in the face of galactic threats. Tony’s ego will clash with Captain America’s altruism, whose sense of self-control will be at odds with Hulk’s lack thereof, and so on. The action beats themselves are almost inconsequential in comparison to how those beats compliment everyone’s personalities when the chips are down.
Marvel gets both the dialogue and action scenes to resonate because every bit of it is informed by character choice and worldview, including the little gags and pratfalls. Spider-Man is a nerdy kid, so he uses classic film (The Empire Strikes Back, Alien) as reference for his own fighting style. Doctor Strange feels an overwhelming sense of duty but is also a calm tactician who has come to understand the value of sacrifice and strategic forfeit, so he’s willing to toss his allies under the bus for the greater good. Star-Lord can be childish and emotionally unstable, which makes him unpredictable for better or for worse. So the heroes are assembled, but that alone won’t keep a movie like this from falling apart. When you have as chaotic a story as this one could potentially be, a good structure helps, and Thanos provides it in spades.
If you are rather shocked by how many people seem to sympathise with Thanos and his genocidal efforts to balance the universe, the explanation lies within the plot construction. There’s a little bit of deception Marvel is using through their use of the three-act structure and the typical Marvel formula. The movie frames every beat around Thanos’ arc, playing up a variant of the standard MCU hero’s journey beats. This mode of framing positions Thanos as the protagonist, who overcomes obstacles, makes the big sacrifices, and finds inner peace at the end. The filmmakers even tinker with his comic book origin, making him more of a Malthusian extremist than a death-worshipping nihilist. By making this new Thanos and his self-righteous goals the story’s backbone, the movie asks us to consider age-old questions about the needs of the many and those of the few, and about means justifying ends. It’s as perfect a description as this holier-than-thou villain as it is of the typical superhero.
However, the film makes absolutely clear that there’s nothing celebratory about Thanos’ ultimate victory. Think back to the ending of 2012’s The Avengers: a montage of everyone’s whereabouts after having saved New York from an alien invasion, with the blaring triumphant horns of that Alan Silvestri score underlining the sense of (perhaps bittersweet) victory and promising more to come.
Now think back to Infinity War, and that cold, bleak silence as our heroes are erased from the world, turning to dust and ashes before our eyes.
That’s another reason this movie is so hard to review: What Marvel does with the next chapter could very well retroactively alter everyone’s feelings about this one. Regardless of whether certain characters return, it’s still a bold move to make.
Marvel’s recent films have been building into an arc asking us whether our heroes are actually good for the world. Ultron’s entire motivation was that the Avengers stood in the way of society’s natural development. Vision proclaims in Civil War that the world has gotten more dangerous since the first heroes appeared, and that their very existence incites a kind of arms race. Thor initiates the destruction of Asgard as a manifest atonement for his father’s sins. Fallibility and fault are increasingly a part of the Marvel metanarrative now, as the critiques of film reviewers find their way (often subtly) into the films themselves. Though Thanos’ victory is the most severe apparent defeat suffered by Marvel’s heroes to date, there have always been inklings that our heroes may not be making the world better.
It almost feels like the Russo Brothers are giving fans and critics the answer to the grim question of what it would mean if our heroes were to disappear. This gives them a chance to explore what it is superheroes actually mean to the world by showing a society without them in the next movie. Will the narrative reward our growing cynicism or our childlike optimism? That is what will make or break the Infinity War saga as a whole (and maybe the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as whole, if we’re allowed to be grandiose).