Avengers: Infinity War is the beginning of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we’ve known it for a decade. It’s the culmination of ten years of storytelling, bringing together heroes from across the universe, uniting Avengers and Guardians and everyone in between. Pound for pound, for sheer spectacle, you’re hard-pressed to find a blockbuster this purely entertaining and packed to the gills with jaw-dropping “that just happened!” moments. Infinity War is calculated for the audience experience, designed to provoke laughs, gasps, and tears, and it succeeds at enthralling you for almost the entire two and a half hour runtime. Marvel has billed this as the “most ambitious crossover event in history”, and it actually FEELS like it. It feels like you are watching something monumental happen on screen. But it also feels like you’re watching the same problems Marvel has always had play out, just on a much grander scale.
Before Black Panther, Duana watched Captain America: Civil War and was annoyed because (she says) it’s all B plots and no character development. Well, if that’s a problem for you in previous Marvel movies, it’s not going to get better in Infinity War, which is REALLY no character development and all B plots. In the moment it doesn’t really matter because the spectacle is so great it’s easy to just go with the flow and enjoy each moment as they come. But for a movie ostensibly about the end of the world, Infinity War is curiously lightweight. It pays lip service to themes that have been better explored in other movies—causality, service vs. self-interest—and there is a feather-light through-line about sacrifice that gives Infinity War some narrative cartilage to support it, but no real muscle (the script is from Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely). The thing about building a movie to work in the moment means it might not work in the long run. For being Marvel’s biggest, most ambitious movie, it probably won’t hold up.
But it’s so fun! It really, really is! Seeing all the heroes meet and deal with each other is GREAT. The Guardians of the Galaxy can’t cope with Thor’s masculine beauty, which is a fantastic bit. Tony Stark and Doctor Strange strongly dislike each other on sight, which is true to their spiky relationship in the comics. (Strange this time out is his truest self—he ISN’T an Avenger and it pays to remember he sees a much bigger picture than anyone else.) There is something for everyone, something guaranteed to make you laugh, and gasp, and the characters, even if only given a few minutes of screen time, shine brightest, especially as the action is a mixed bag at best. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done better in the past with capturing the brutality of superhumans fighting (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and the awesome spectacle of a super-powered melee (Captain America: Civil War). They have some fun with Thor and Doctor Strange, but much of the action is unmemorable—even ugly—going back to the shaky-cam style that dominated earlier superhero movies.
And if you’ve been waiting for meaningful pay-off to long-gestating plot points, particularly stuff left over from Civil War—keep waiting. The most that happens to address emotional through-lines in Infinity War is a series of loaded stares. That contributes to the lightweight feel of the story, since places where characters could engage in relevant emotional labor are instead filled with exposition as we blaze toward the next plot point or action sequence. There simply isn’t time to deal with anything—how could there be, in a movie with actual dozens of characters to service.
But even though there isn’t enough time to really dig into anything, the characters are the heart of Infinity War, and it is genuinely thrilling to watch them come together to face Thanos, who isn’t a sh*tty villain. Josh Brolin doesn’t go for theatrics with Thanos, and instead plays him as a sad, lonely old man whose zealotry drove away his family. His motivation is shaky, but his threat is real. For the first time, it really feels like the Avengers are outmatched, which gives the movie the illusion of stakes.
I say “illusion” because, again, Infinity War is only built to work in the moment. Stuff happens and it’s immediately apparent it won’t be permanent, which plays directly into the “low stakes universe” issue that has plagued Marvel almost from the beginning. Infinity War goes for shock over story (just like Game of Thrones at its worst), and while the shocks are certainly shocking, if the intended result is a movie meant to scar a generation the way The Empire Strikes Back did this, at most, will administer a bruise. If the over-crowded, under-served narratives of earlier Marvel movies bothered you, or if the low stakes of previous films irked you, you’re still going to be bothered and irked. Infinity War succeeds in sweeping you into a grand adventure and reminding you why you love these characters, but it doesn’t solve the narrative problems that haunt Marvel. It’s a GREAT time in the theater, but doesn’t resonate beyond that.