Review: ‘AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’ Is a Culmination, Not a Celebration

Let’s see how much I can write without giving anything away, which is weird considering the sheer much-ness of it.

In time, you will know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail all the same. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.

–Thanos

Infinity War is a lot. Possibly the most that’s ever been asked of an audience of a big studio tentpole. Not merely in length, at a whopping 149 minutes if you stay all the way to the end (which you obviously should). Not merely in intensity, though you’ll be amazed at how the characters continually find new ways to punch each other, an orgy of lasers, webs, lightning, and flying hunks of metal, accompanying character moments that less pay off individual arcs than simply present the ideal versions of the heroes — exactly what you want, probably, in a crossover event of this magnitude.

Not merely in scope, either, despite a cast large enough to field three baseball teams, traveling from one far-flung planet to another before the person next to you can ask the name of the last one. Not since Lord of the Rings have you been expected to keep track of so many names and places and backstories and motivations, but where that all unfolded in a brief three-year moviegoing period, Infinity War is the climax of ten years of slow-rolling worldbuilding from Kevin Feige and Marvel.

It’s not a surprise that Infinity War is messy, and sometimes frustrating. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had an impossible job tying together 18 movies’ worth of superheroes and McGuffin-chasing into a single coherent narrative, while somehow making Thanos more than just an all-powerful raspberry man. It’s also not a surprise that Infinity War is thrilling, and sometimes genuinely shocking. And funny — don’t forget funny. Marvel knows that it’s the banter that has made half of these characters so beloved, and they don’t skimp on that here, finding comedic possibilities in every new combination. Spidey and Strange? Delightful. Thor and Rocket Raccoon? Hysterical. And that’s just what’s been revealed in the trailers.

More Wong, please

Really, Infinity War is the new dictionary definition for “overstuffed,” but what I’m saying is that there was no way around that, so if you’re going to steer into that particular skid, it’s hard to do it better than Anthony & Joe Russo have done it here. The TV-ization of franchise filmmaking is complete, and watching War frequently feels like mainlining an entire season on fast-forward. Heck, add up the amount of hours Marvel delivers to cinemas each year, and that’s nearly as long as this past season of Game of Thrones.

So whether you want to use that analogy or trace its frenetic plotting back to its comic book roots, these films very much are what they are, which are “films” in the only the loosest sense; rather, the next episode, or the next issue. I don’t even mean that as a criticism, but as simple reality. It’s unfair to judge it in a vacuum. Instead, does Infinity War meet expectations, considering the astronomical hype, sprawl, and promise of Real Stakes (i.e. Permanent Death)?

For me, at least, it does. No more, no less. The actual most fascinating thing about Infinity War is how it risks everything, and nothing, on a bleak yet operatic conclusion as emotionally gripping as it is intellectually head-scratching. But that’s all I’ll say about that, I promise.

It’s Thanos’s movie, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Any plot that revolves around your villain trying to acquire a half dozen individual magic gems by any means necessary is going to feel rough around the edges. And while Thanos isn’t as successful as recent baddies Killmonger and Vulture in plausibly justifying his cause (killing half the galaxy’s population so the remaining can have a better life), the film goes out of its way to show that he only looks like he’s made of stone, so points for at least making him interesting. Josh Brolin is quite good, as well as the animation that envelopes him. I bought him as a dangerous physical presence after the opening scene, which picks up where the post-credits stinger of Thor: Ragnarok left off. But it’s his weariness that’s struck me the most. Pyschos are a dime a dozen. Thanos is, in many ways, a tired, grumpy dad who is sure he knows best.

The film’s structure slowly bundles groups of heroes into single threads like Thanos adding gems to his gauntlet. The first hour’s cross-cutting (credited to editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, and probably a platoon of assistants) is almost dizzying: Thor with the Guardians, the New York heroes fighting goons in the street, Vision and Scarlet Witch trying to stay off the grid, with more characters soon jumping into the mix and breaking off into different groups. You have to really care about them to make sense of it. Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you do. When we reach the much-advertised battle in Wakanda, the fractured storytelling has only just begun to coalesce, but never quite the way you might want it to. Still have to save a few meetings and reunions for next year’s finale, I suppose.

Our familiarity with these characters makes for some effective shorthand and amplifies many of the punchlines, but there’s just so damn many it’s hard for any one performer to stand out no matter how equally screen time is shared. Most successful are probably Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and (perhaps surprisingly) Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, considering that it’s her adoptive father who wants to commit genocide. I even enjoyed the new characters, like Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and CARRIE FRIGGIN’ COON as Black Order assassins, and Peter Dinklage as a giant (it makes sense). Crucially, no one really feels shortchanged, either, and the few looming absences simply point to larger roles in next year’s installment.

This is…not quite how it plays out in the actual film
It’s a Herculean juggling of tones and palettes, and it’s to the Russos’ credit that’s what’s been their biggest criticism — anonymous direction for the sake of Marvel’s “house style” — has actually turned into a strength, as each scene is true to the spirit of James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, and the others who have found a way to put their stamp on this universe. That’s not to say that the Russos truly distinguish themselves. These films are so huge they practically require two directors just to get them done, so to make sure their styles don’t conflict, they choose not to have any.

So no shot comes readily to mind that I appreciated for its art, but they get the feelings right, and on a project of this magnitude, when the spectacle can be just as numbing as your chair, that everything is of a piece with everything that came before, that these characters are true to themselves even when making dumb decisions, is itself an achievement.

That was a long sentence. And this review is a lot of rambling, because I don’t want to give away any of Infinity War’s many surprises. So what am I really saying here? That it’s exactly what you’d expect, for good and for ill? That it’s an exhilarating and exhausting piece of entertainment? That it’s a remarkable capstone on ten years of storytelling, a feat of sheer production, but with a future conclusion that may or may not undo key emotional beats? That it’s too easy to watch meta-textually, thinking of certain actors’ contractural obligations? That it was so much, I don’t even know if I want to watch it again anytime soon?

Fittingly, I guess I’m saying all of that at once.


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