The Mob’s Reel: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Is an Audacious Accomplishment
Avengers: Infinity War is a hard movie to write about. It’s the 19th film of a long-running franchise, pooling together disparate characters and tones from all corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began ten years ago with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. It assumes that you have already have a fair bit of knowledge about the movies preceding it, making it far from newbie-friendly — and this review is going to assume the same goddamn thing because it would take eons to walk newcomers through every nook and cranny of all these movies. In any case, being a standalone adventure isn’t the film’s goal; it’s the culmination of everything that’s come before, which is a hell of a tall order.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Infinity War features the Avengers, the Guardians, and several other Marvel superheroes trying desperately to prevent the formidable Thanos (Josh Brolin) from collecting all six Infinity Stones, cosmic relics that would allow the villain to wield unimaginable power over the entire universe.
The Russo brothers did great work with their two previous Marvel efforts, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, but there was still a chance that the sheer scope of this story would have been too unwieldy even for them. Luckily, the Russos have such a keen understanding of all these characters’ motivations and perspectives that it all comes together fluidly, and the film is nimbly structured to avoid most of the bloat that could have easily weighed it down.
Many of the characters end up divided into fun combinations; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) form quite the tag-team during the Wakanda-set climax, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gels quite nicely with the Guardians. Seeing arrogant geniuses Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) trade barbs is also a lot of fun, particularly with a wide-eyed Spider-Man (Tom Holland) caught in the middle. There’s plenty of humor despite the stakes, but it’s always character-specific and never takes away from just how dire things have become. If anything, the lighter moments remind us of when these heroes were at their most colorful, when things didn’t seem so insurmountable; it stings to see them brought so low as everything they’ve fought to protect starts to crumble.
Most of our heroes have undergone significant changes since they were first introduced, with Tony Stark’s journey having been one of the most fascinating and multilayered arcs of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the events of the first Avengers film, a trauma-stricken Tony became obsessed with trying to prevent whatever might threaten the world next, making some terrible mistakes along the way. In Infinity War, the catastrophe he’s feared so heavily for years is finally coming to pass, and the emotional payoff of the guilt-ridden character’s ten-year arc is handled rather well.
Last year’s Ragnarok stripped Thor of his hammer, his father and his home, with Infinity War continuing to challenge him in devastating ways. I had always liked Thor, but he wasn’t necessarily the MVP of the first two Avengers movies. Here, though, the Russos manage to hold onto the looser, comedic tone the character adopted in Taika Waititi’s excellent Ragnarok while imbuing him with a great deal of pathos. Watching the character try to piece himself back together after suffering some crippling blows is one of the emotional highlights of the film, and he’s also at the center of one of the most rousing set-pieces. In a movie with several crowd-pleasing, show-stopping action sequences, that’s quite a feat.
Back on Earth, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) no longer goes by Captain America. The silver star on his chest has worn off. The blues and reds of his suit have become muted. But Steve Rogers is still the same kid from Brooklyn who’d take a beating if it meant standing up to a bully. Ever since he lost faith in his government and turned in his shield during 2016’s Civil War, Steve and his crew (Falcon, Black Widow, etc.) have been on the run for two years, still fighting the good fight even with limited resources. I’ve always been a fan of morally ambiguous antiheroes, but Evans playing Cap reminds me of how important it is to have a superhero who’s just a decent person at his core, no matter what it costs him personally.
A big chunk of Infinity War is focused on Thanos, who had only been featured sporadically in the MCU until this film. Marvel has been teasing Thanos since The Avengers, so there’s been a lot riding on whether he could ever possibly live up to six years of hype. He could have been just another mustache-twirling, would-be despot who only cared about satiating his ego, but he’s instead armed with a clear, compelling motivation that humanizes him more than people might anticipate. Thanos truly believes that what he’s doing is necessary for the universe to survive in the long run, and Josh Brolin imbues this big, purple alien with a fair amount of nuance. It helps that the performance capture tech is remarkable, with every subtle tic and gesture as lifelike as can be. Thanos’s complex relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), his adopted daughter who broke free from his grasp in the first Guardians to forge her own path, is an emotionally resonant look at the dynamics and lasting effects of abuse, continuing the thematic through-line that director James Gunn began in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel.
There are some wrenching, provocative choices made in Infinity War, and things get pretty grim. It’s hard to know exactly what the long-term effects of some of these decisions will be (after all, we’re dealing with the Infinity Stones and all their time-bending, reality-warping powers), but for now, viewers will have to sit with a bold gut-punch of a movie as they wait for next year’s still-untitled Avengers 4.