In May 2008, a small, newly-formed, independent studio laid everything they had on a director whose greatest success was 2003’s Elf and an actor who was considered a washed-up has-been and was looking to make a comeback to tell the story of a B-List superhero from the Marvel Comics roster. That small film, Iron Man, became the seed from which seventeen films sprouted, each introducing new characters while pushing old ones forward through character arcs transcending single films. In their 19th endeavor, the Joe and Anthony Russo-directed Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios demonstrates, not with a bang, but with a whisper, that even with 12% of a plan, they are mighty.
There’s been one constant throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), one looming threat that’s been growing ever closer as our heroes have overcome their individual hurdles – the Mad Titan known as Thanos (Josh Brolin). He provided the power behind Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) attack on New York in The Avengers and he sent Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the orb from Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), which put the events of Guardians of the Galaxy in motion. Dissatisfied with keeping to the shadows, Thanos puts a plan into motion to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, the powerful gems which harness aspects of the universe which Thanos can harness to reshape reality to his liking. It’s power unlike anything Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have ever faced and power they may not be able to defeat.
Couple of things to address before diving into a few particulars: Marvel Studios has a clear and focused understanding of their characters and how they breathe on-screen, the Russo Brothers are insanely gifted at managing more characters than there are cubic feet of visible space, and, by-and-large, Avengers: Infinity War is an audacious cinematic treat that rounds out the quiet tone prevalent through much of the MCU’s Phase 3 stories. It’s easy to forget among the bombast of Captain American: Civil War, Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther that these films are quite introspective, even going so far as to possess a muted ending compared to the rousing adventures of Phase 1 and Phase 2. As the MCU ages, so the films themselves grow, change, and mature. Some audiences may long for the silly, cartoonish rampage of the earlier films, yet it’s hard to deny there’s something truly compelling about a franchise that’s willing to take big risks even as they endeavor upon their 19th film, refusing to grow complacent with the same-old, same-old.
How exactly do they stave off the coziness of complacency? A simple, but straight-forward two-path approach. First, they close storylines that have lingered throughout the MCU in solid, satisfying ways. Infinity War is largely a film about preventing the past from repeating itself – and that’s not a Time Stone joke – and that means shuffling off the chains of the past. The Russos proved deft at balancing multiple character arcs at once in Captain America: Civil War, and they don’t disappoint here either. Even when dealing with the whole of the MCU, no character feels out of place and no character is left unexamined in some way. For every fan of the MCU, there’s a story they’d liked to see finished. Well, the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should make all the fans happy, even while setting up the untitled Avengers 4, closing out the Phase Three arc in 2019.
But what’s the second path to success for Infinity War? That lies with the Mad Titan himself and the performance by Brolin. Though this film features our heroes finally appearing in the same film and their group name gets top billing, Infinity War truly belongs to Thanos. Contrasted against the two great villains – Loki and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) – Brolin’s Thanos outdoes them in charm, menace, and depth in this singular film. Sure, audiences love Loki, but it required several films for him to win us over. Jordan delivered a mesmerizing performance as Killmonger, but for all his moral superiority, his anger overrode his righteousness. In contrast, Thanos is presented as an individual pushed to cleanse the Universe as a means to save it. Brolin wonderfully presents Thanos not as the violence-craving megalomaniac we’ve heard so much about, but an individual driven by pain and grief that provides him the steeled resolve to accomplish terrible deeds. By merely shifting the perspective to focus on Thanos with the action revolving around his decisions, it makes all the heroes reactive and demonstrates what a tactical genius Thanos truly is. So for all the talk that the Russos would not be able to offer audiences a complete Avengers tale AND establish Thanos fully, wow is it absolutely wrong.
Buckle yourselves in, folks. Though Avengers: Infinity War gets a little messy trying to cram in all the characters across multiple set locations across the entire universe at once, Infinity War is still a blast to watch. Even with all the somewhat chaotic jumping back-and-forth, the story maintains a peppy clip for its duration, making even the jumpiest of scene cuts forgivable. And sure, there are times when it’s hard to track the action, but you’ll be so distracted by what you can see, it won’t make a difference. After 18 films the MCU still manages to find ways to reinvent and surprise us. But be warned, prepare yourself for a cinematic ride that shares more tonally with December’s The Last Jedi in the way it breaks conventions than November’s Thor: Ragnarok which just reconfigured them. The stakes are real, they are high, and it’s going to be a long wait for May 2019 when the currently-untitled Avengers 4 hits screens. Thankfully, we have two more films between now and then to try to take our minds off the wait.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.