What it's about:
A culmination of the past ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos, the Mad Titan, puts the final plans in motion to collect the final four Infinity Stones: six gems of incredible power formed from the Big Bang that, when uses together, allow those who wield them the power to instantly rewrite the Universe however they wish. All that stands between Thanos and his insane wish to rid the universe of half of its living beings are the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy – but do even the Galaxy's Mightiest Mortals have what it takes to stand up to one of the most powerful and driven beings in existence?
What we thought:
Over the course of ten years and eighteen films, Marvel Studios have all but entirely rewritten the rulebook of how to make Hollywood Blockbusters – and filmmaking in general. Only the Star Wars films come remotely close to what Marvel has done in making the cinematic art form home to the kind of sequential, episodic storytelling that is normally the reserve of their (and DC's) comic books. This sort of universe building, which is made up of standalone films and mini-franchises, is something never before seen in cinema and since Marvel Studios hinted at an expanded universe when Samuel L Jackson showed up at the end of Iron Man with a cryptic reference to “the Avengers”, other have tried – and failed – to replicate what Marvel has done here.
The Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination – or is that the beginning of the culmination? - of everything Marvel has done up until now, which makes it something of a unique film to review. You certainly don't need to be told whether to see it or not. If you love the MCU, you're obviously going to want to rush out to see this; if you don't, you obviously will do what you can to avoid it, and if you've never seen a Marvel movie before, you'd been an idiot to start here. Beyond that, more than any other Marvel film, this is not a standalone film by any stretch of the imagination but is rather the climax of some eighteen other films that came before it.
All that's left to do, then, is to offer my own perspective on how well Avengers: Infinity War succeeds at doing what it sets out to accomplish.
To get its weaknesses, or at least my personal reservations, out of the way first: Infinity War sometimes suffers from the lack of intimacy of the standalone films with many of its approximately three-hundred-thousand characters being rather under-served, even in its packed 2.5 hour runtime. This is obviously inevitable with this many characters - characters who are, it must be said, nonetheless always at the forefront even in the film's most elaborate action set pieces - but as someone whose favourite bits in the past two Avengers films were when the characters would just hang out together, I couldn't help but occasionally miss the smaller scope of past Marvel movies.
And make no mistake, the film is truly epic in scope; shifting location constantly, not just between cities but between different planets, different imaginary solar systems even. This too affects the character interactions as the various heroes are often cornered off into different plot strands, literal light years away from one another. What may make for a seriously exciting, genuinely epic cinematic experience does give the film a slightly choppy feel, with even some of its most vital characters vanishing for long stretches of time.
These reservations aside, though, if you're a fan of these films and these characters, prepare yourself for something truly special.
The plot of the film is smartly quite basic; so much so, in fact, that it bares a more than passing resemblance to the plot of Justice League, but if ever there was proof that the devil is in the details, though, this must surely be it. With this many characters and this much going on, it would be easy for the film to tie itself into knots with elaborate plot machinations so the simpler plot allows for both an emphasis on often very creative and visually engaging action set pieces, and, most importantly, on the characters themselves.
This, once again, plays into the peculiarity of the film. This many characters means that the film does have trouble spending enough time on each of them but because previous films have put the hours in establishing who these people are – and, ultimately, it is precisely this emphasis on creating memorable and likeable characters that is the reason why the whole MCU endeavour has worked at all – they manage to make a real impact, no matter how small their part.
Captain America and Black Panther, for example, have been so well defined in their own films that the fact that we only ever really see them in action mode here, with little dialogue and little in the way of explicit characterisation, doesn't change the fact that we know these people and that we care what happens to them. This further cements just how different this is to most conventional films and just how much a person's reaction to Infinity War will be informed by how they felt about previous Marvel movies.
The one exception to this, though, is Thanos himself. We knew next to nothing about him from the previous films so, while the Russo brothers (directors) and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (writers) rely on our previous knowledge of the returning heroes (and occasional villain) to fill in the blanks, they make certain to spend enough time on Thanos that we get a good idea of who he is. Indeed, it's not a stretch at all to say that if the film does have a main character, it is undoubtedly Josh Brolin's Thanos, whose motivations are clear (if completely insane) and who is a compelling, even weirdly sympathetic bad guy who is, nonetheless, very evil and very, very easy to hate. He's also menacing as hell and quite brilliantly played by Josh Brolin who, no kidding, has seldom been better.
It's also far too easy to write off the film as a dumb bit of action-heavy nonsense but what Markus & McFeely and the Russo's have done here is something truly impressive. Not only did they find something meaningful to do for the literal dozens of superheroes they have to play with and ensure that the action is always about character, they also balance the various tones from past films perfectly. The fact that humour has been used so extensively in the past in these films may seem to give these films a uniform tone but putting the Guardians of the Galaxy next to Captain America next to Dr Strange shows that there has always been far more variety to the Marvel formula than people like to admit – and balancing them here really is one hell of a trick.
And, make no mistake, that humour is vital here. If you've complained about past Marvel films having no stakes, prepare to eat your words here. This is a far darker and more intense Marvel movie than most of what we've seen before so the humour plays a particularly crucial job in giving the film some tonal balance – while also ensuring that when the emotional bits hit, they hit hard.
It's hard to believe that they started as directors for quirky TV comedy like Arrested Development and Community because the Russo Brothers have lived up to the hype of the past eighteen Marvel films and have delivered on the MCU's biggest milestone yet with a film that is exciting, funny and poignant; beautifully shot, expertly crafted and with a finger on what always mattered: the characters.
It's like one of those Marvel or DC “event” comics – only much, much better than most of them. And I can't believe I have to wait another year to see how the film's glorious cliffhanger ending plays out...