The first scene of “Avengers: Infinity War” is a gut punch. Picking up just after the events of “Thor: Ragnarok,” the film opens with a frigid bang. It’s message is clear: this isn’t like any other Marvel movie. This is a film without mercy, that won’t hesitate to shake up the foundations of the MCU. In a film franchise that’s used to creating opening scenes that bombard us into monotonous submission with bright colors and explosions, it’s a welcome change of pace. In fact, much of Infinity War is a breath of fresh air from the old Marvel formula. The film has a palpable sense of dread and tension that held my attention much longer than any other superhero entry. Here is a movie that felt like it had actual stakes, where every single scene could mean life or death for these characters.
One of the most striking aspects of this film is the villain, Thanos. The purple, lumbering, gorilla-like megalomaniac has been teased many times in other movies, but I’ve always been a bit nervous about how he would actually be handled. In every scene that he appeared in, he always seemed like your generic bad guy. He’s got that deep voice, that menacing presence, that egomaniacal twinkle in his eye. In a series that’s been plagued by boring villains since day one, Thanos had every expectation of being another generic antagonist in a very long line of forgettable characters.
Thankfully, in “Infinity War,” Thanos becomes one of the most interesting MCU villains to date. For a guy who’s hell bent on genocide, he’s surprisingly sympathetic. When he explains his reasoning, you could kind of (if you squint a bit) see where he’s coming from. But what especially grounds his character is his relationship with many of the heroes. His conflicts with these characters come from a deeply personal place, making some of the actions he takes much more dramatically compelling than, say, some vaguely defined blob wanting to open “The Dark Dimension” or whatever.
In fact, one could make the argument that Thanos is the true protagonist of “Infinity War.” The other heroes of the story certainly can’t make that claim. Literally nobody has any sort of character arc, and the way the film chooses to balance their screen time is questionable at best. I figured this was an inevitability. How exactly would they be able to pull off the ensemble film to beat all ensemble films without cutting a few corners here or there? Still, fans of certain characters are guaranteed to be a little disappointed. Captain America and Black Panther, both characters who featured heavily in the film’s marketing, show up as glorified foot soldiers. Black Widow probably has a handful of lines. And Iron Man, while being a major character, doesn’t really have much to do in retrospect.
The film is also very murky in how it deals with many of the characters’ arcs that were established in previous films. For example, Thor’s major character arc of “Ragnarok” involved him letting go of the fact that he needs his trusty hammer to survive. Iron Man’s arc in “Iron Man 3” involved him learning to give up his toy weapons in favor of pursuing more humanitarian endeavors, but that’s an arc that’s long since been forgotten. Black Widow and Hulk making googly-eyes at each other, which was never developed particularly well, feels especially thin here, as it’s basically addressed with two lines before being immediately dropped. In their desire to keep this stuffed grab bag of a plot moving as efficiently as possible, the Russos have retroactively hurt a lot of the progress these characters have made in their solo movies.
So “Infinity War” has some plot issues, but that’s basically to be expected. The film turned out much better than I originally thought it would, so it still left me pleasantly surprised, but I couldn’t really asked to revisit anytime soon. All that being said, I thought that the ending was handled very well. Without spoiling anything, it’s about as sadistic as a PG-13 family-friendly movie can be. Chances are, there are going to be some very traumatized kids (and adults) in the audience once the movie ends.
But there is a bit of a caveat to this brave storytelling choice. Throughout it all, I had this niggling feeling that a lot of what made “Infinity War” so special will be negatively revised in future films, which really dampened my viewing experience. This is one of the issues with this expanded universe experiment: individual movies lose some of their power because you implicitly understand that they’re just a small piece of a larger puzzle. You’re not really allowed to look at them as their own experiences because you’re always cognizant of all of the sequels planned ahead.
Still, as of now, “Infinity War” stands out as a giant elephant of a movie. It’s undeniably impressive and powerful, but it’s also awkward and lumbering. If anything’s going to be a microcosm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s going to be this movie. It’s crammed with so much stuff that it’s constantly on the verge of exploding. But, at the end of the day, who really cares when that stuff is so good?