Marvel Studios is lying to you, and they have been since you first saw the title of their newest film, Avengers: Infinity War. Anyone seeing that might assume it was a film starring roughly the same combination of superheroes as the last two Avengers films, give or take a few. In reality, the studio should have just called this The Marvel Movie, because its ambitions are to combine as many superheroes as possible (excepting the ones they don’t currently have the rights to). Not since the heyday of ‘70s disaster flicks has a film been so saturated with star power. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Infinity War is weighed down by endless superheroes, most reduced to cameo status; they’ve stuffed this turkey to the point of bursting.
The broad strokes of Infinity War have been known for a surprisingly long time — its villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), has had his hand in the pot at least since the first Avengers. His initial goal was to collect a series of “infinity stones,” little gems that grant their wielder power over the fabric of the universe. Once Thanos has all six stones (which he affixes on his bedazzled gauntlet), he plans to initiate a genocide reaching every corner of the universe.
Infinity War is the rare film that damages the legacies of the works that came before it.
One might think an Avengers movie would belong to Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), but Infinity War is mostly Brolin’s film. Marvel movies spend so much time creating snarky, likeable heroes that they almost invariably run out of steam when it comes to the villains. Brolin’s Thanos is one of only a handful of compelling antagonists the studio has ever created. He’s the beneficiary of a back story that proves surprisingly emotional, one touched by loss and regret. It doesn’t hurt that there’s only one of him to contrast against a bajillion heroes crammed in. The character also benefits from better than usual CGI — despite some surprisingly clunky effects — all the characters with robotic suits suffer from floating head syndrome whenever they take their helmets off — Thanos is surprisingly solid and textured.
Still, a somewhat complicated villain isn’t enough to make it all work. Infinity War is the rare sequel that damages the legacies of the works that came before it. The central conflict between Captain America and Iron Man that animated Captain America: Civil War (2016) is largely glossed over, a casualty of a plot that doesn’t have enough time to devote to them — even at 2 hours and 29 minutes. The previous Avengers films and Civil War portrayed Steve Rogers as the heart and conscience of the superhero group, but he’s given an utterly thankless and minuscule part in Infinity War. Iron Man, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) fare better, but only ever so slightly. Despite a massive battle sequence that takes place in Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the other Black Panther characters are barely there. Not exactly a sign of respect for what is currently the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time.
Infinity War devotes the most screen time to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the various Guardians of the Galaxy, who have collectively come to represent the comedy caucus of the Marvel Universe. Hemsworth isn’t quite as wisecracking as he was under Taika Waititi, but his character has still retained some of the humor of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). However, the bulk of the comic relief is delivered by the duo of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, who get a nice rhythm going, only to have the film yank the carpet from under them by switching to a much dourer mood. The Russo brothers along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely attempt to subtly modulate the tones, but their touch is too harsh. Even Peter Parker’s usual light-hearted banter rings false amidst the destruction wrought by Thanos.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler (as it’s both meaningless and widely-reported) but people die in Infinity War, for different reasons, at different times, and in different ways. This could have been a positive development for Marvel and the Avengers — there are simply too many heroes, and some actors are nearing the end of their contracts, so culling the herd would be a smart move. Yet Infinity War makes the very concept of death even more meaningless than past Marvel films, which is saying something. We know just from the fact that they’re appearing in future movies that at least some of these characters didn’t really die, or at least not forever. If those departed can come back, what would stop Marvel from resurrecting every fallen hero? The studio has tried to make the largest superhero film ever with the greatest stakes imaginable, yet they’ve actually lowered the stakes more than any previous entry. Never again will viewers be justifiably anxious about the fate of their favorite Marvel characters — Infinity War throws that all out the window.
It’s tempting to heap all these complaints on the backs of the Russos and the screenwriters, but that wouldn’t be completely fair. After all, Marvel head Kevin Feige has shepherded this shared universe from the beginning; the directors work for him. There are some moving moments in the film that hearken to the Russos’ work on the Captain America films, still, some of the best Marvel movies, and Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s chemistry has been steadily honed since their first Guardians film, to the point that it’s now a well-oiled machine. There’s also a poignant scene shared between Parker and Tony Stark that almost makes up for their otherwise shallow arcs, while nearly every scene with Thanos hints at how successful Infinity War might have been if some of the extraneous warriors had been culled.
Despite those strong points, Avengers: Infinity War is still a jumbled mess. If the film stumbled, or made a suboptimal amount of cash, Marvel might reevaluate its strategy, but that’s not likely to happen. Infinity War will make a heap of dough, and Marvel will continue to make their films bigger — but not necessarily better.