Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of ten years and eighteen movies of narrative build-up. The Marvel cinematic universe won’t end with part two of Infinity War, which comes out next year, but this story is what all the previous movies were moving toward: a confrontation between the heroes (the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and so on) and the “mad titan” Thanos.
Something like half of the biggest opening weekends in US movie history are Marvel films. Besides perhaps Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s never been a popular movie with more pressure to satisfy everyone’s expectations. And the expectations of fans, critics, and casual moviegoers are all slightly different. What’s more, there are close to thirty heroes in the movie, who all need humorous things to say and something worthwhile to do. Then there’s the full introduction of one of Marvel’s most iconic villains. Will he be as menacing as his comic-book surrogate? Given all this and more, Infinity War had little chance of being universally satisfactory. But it is a great movie. It does just about everything it does right—and does more than you’d expect from a superhero blockbuster.
First, the villain. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is more than sufficiently menacing. His first lines of the movie end with, “Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say, I am?” He then easily beats the Hulk in a fist-fight. Brolin’s voice acting for the character is penetrating and rangy. As the directors Joe and Anthony Russo emphasized before Infinity War‘s release, the movie is largely experienced through Thanos. We’re exposed to his internal struggles—a psychological treatment usually reserved for heroes. On one side is Thanos’s personal affection for individuals; on the other there’s the genocidal conclusion to his moral calculus.
Thanos’s goal is to use all six infinity stones (stones representing fundamental components of reality—e.g. space, time, power, mind, reality, and soul—each with their own unique powers) to exterminate half of life in the universe. His motivation for doing so doesn’t come from raw malignancy or power-hunger but from malevolent stewardship. His own world was destroyed from overpopulation. There simply wasn’t enough for everyone. Scarcity led to fear, fear to mistrust, mistrust to chaos, chaos to death. “If life is unchecked,” Thanos tells his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), “life will cease to exist…I’m the only one who knows that. At least I’m the only one with the will to act on it.” Like all of literature’s best villains, Thanos suffers not from vice but from an exaggerated sense of virtue. He is a character; not just a negative force.
The Marvel cinematic universe has a reputation for forgettable villains. Many of them have been boring, some even ridiculous. Motivated by madness or greed, they lacked compelling individuality, which reduced the tragic potential of their movies to bathetic absolutes. Recently, however, Marvel’s villains have been much better. More comprehensible—even sympathetic. Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture was forced into a life of crime by a duty to his family and a resentment to the powerful; Captain America: Civil War’s Zemo, lost his father, wife, and son because of the Avengers’ heroic recklessness; and Black Panther’s Killmonger saw the need for both a social revolution and a new ruling empire. Thanos, like these three, is single-minded without being one-dimensional. He is evil; but his evil is the logical conclusion of something understandable—something adjacent to goodness.
Fun movies aren’t often nominated for best-picture awards. But Infinity War should be considered. Its emotional range and scope are wider and deeper than most “serious” nominees. [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Holland’s Spider-Man clawing at Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), pleading “I don’t want to go…please, I don’t want to go,” as he fades away is both heartbreaking and terrifying. While heartbreaking deaths in Hollywood are pretty common, few movies deal with the terror of dying. And when they do, they always overdo—usually with too much theatrical emotion. Holland is all panic. And you feel it. I could hear people crying in the theater, as I could hear people crying when Vision (Paul Bettany) told Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), “You could never hurt me…All I feel is you.”
Sadness isn’t the only emotion Infinity War induces. The movie has a big battle sequence. It’s an Avengers movie after all, and all Avengers movies have a big battle sequence. The Avengers still on earth go to Wakanda—Black Panther’s futuristic African nation—to protect Vision from Thanos’s invading army. Wakanda is protected by a shield, but Thanos’s army has surrounded the city and is slowly breaking through. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) decides to lower the shield in front of the Wakandan army so they at least have a chance of defending themselves. As the Wakandan army rushes forward toward the villain’s forces, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Panther steadily break ahead of everyone else before leaping into battle. It’s a chilling moment of cinematic heroism. Perfectly shot and staged. No look between the two. No lines about leadership or sacrifice. Neither time I saw the movie did anyone react with hoots or hollers. If anything the theater got quieter.
Obviously the cynic will say it’s ridiculous to feel anything so potent from mere entertainment. And the serious critic will say that movies based on real-life heroism deserve that reaction more than movies based on comic books. But art is about invocation. The feeling of loss and hopelessness, of resistance and courage, is palpable in Infinity War. However silly that might seem, it remains true.
More than anything else though, Avengers: Infinity War is funny. True, the comedy can sometimes be intrusive; a few moments of seriousness are diminished by unnecessary wisecracks, and some of the Guardian humor could’ve been cut for time (the film is two hours and forty minutes long). Still, the jokes always land. The relationship development between previously unacquainted heroes is hilarious to watch. The Russo Brothers also know how to use humor as a shield through which to show the vulnerabilities of a hero without having to break them down completely.
The CGI is crisp and precise. The acting is phenomenal (with one or two exceptions). Sarah Finn, the casting director for Marvel Studios, deserves as much credit as the studios president Kevin Fiege for the quality of these movies. Almost every character is perfectly cast. The action is exciting and well-choreographed without being overly stylized.
I agree with most of the complaints about plot contrivances and logical inconsistencies, although none are bad enough to lower the movie’s overall rating. Some have questioned why Thanos, with all six infinity stones, didn’t just create enough abundance and wealth to support everyone in the universe. I think this misses the central tenet of Thanos’s worldview: that salvation requires sacrifice. That no level of abundance is sustainable if we think our resources are infinite. As he tells Dr. Strange, “The hardest choices require the strongest will.” In other words, material needs being met isn’t enough. A moral reckoning with our limitations is required. And Thanos believes his genocidal plan will bring that reckoning.
A lot of people taking the easy route convince themselves they’re the only ones willing to make the hard choices. And a lot of people would sacrifice everything, even what makes us worth saving. The Marvel universe has been increasingly impressive in the moral tensions and contradictions it’s been willing to include in its movies. Avengers: Infinity War is another impressive installment in that regard, and in many others.