The success or failure of Avengers: Infinity War relates directly to one’s relationship to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’re way beyond the casual viewing phase here. The MCU is 19 movies deep; this is the third Avengers film (fourth if you count Civil War), and the next one is already slated for just about one year from now. The Disney/MCU amalgam operates on a scale that is uniquely intricate and broad. It requires detailed knowledge of what came before and a willingness to relinquish what you’ve already known. Infinity War has been sold with a definitive sense of “everything’s been building to this”-ness that makes it both culminating and rejuvenating for the MCU. Which means for Marvel, Infinity War is A Moment. For the rest of us, Infinity War is just another blockbuster.
A big, big, blockbuster.With great size comes increased managerial responsibility. Former Avengers-helmer Joss Whedon claims story-management as one his greatest strengths, and he was well-suited to the challenge of swimming in the multi-franchise, multi-storyline swimming pool. But Infinity War ups the ante significantly in scope and characters from the first two installments. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are essentially wrangling space cats (laser cats?) from across the universe, and the result, to be sure, is chaos.
Still, that chaos has purpose and organization. A sense of finality is provided by the central storyline: Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) wants to collect the infinity stones. This has been building as the uber-arc in the MCU for the past 12 or 13 films, leading to what was expected to be a two-part Avengers series that was then cut to one film (kind of).
In Infinity War, we learn that Thanos wants the infinity stones because he wants to destroy 50% of the universe’s population. This, he claims, will bring balance to universe by decreasing resource consumption. Or something like that. His logic is flawed, to say the least, but if he gets all the infinity stones into his fancy glove, he will have the powers of a god, able to reshape all of existence with the snap of his fingers.
The job of all the heroes, as you can probably guess, is to stop this universe-sized genocide from happening. There’s a few strategies at play: protect the stones, steal the glove, kill Thanos. Pretty much everyone (I noted two exceptions) who has ever fought in a Marvel film appears in Infinity War, but the story sharpens into focus around a handful of characters and relationships. Thanos and his children, Gamorrah and Nebula. Thor and the consequences of the destruction of Asgard. The fate of Tony Stark. Vision and the infinity stone housed in his noggin.
Each of these stories has resonance and gravity, and there are a surprising number of times that I found myself emotionally struck. There’s much that works in Infinity War, to be clear. It’s funny, striking a sense of that Ragnorak-esque humor. It’s sad (yep). And there are some very good performances. Chris Hemsworth, especially, shines, as he continues to find new depths with the God of Thunder. So does Zoe Saldana as Gamorrah, the adopted daughter of Thanos, who digs deep in her disaffection and turmoil.
But inherent in Avengers: Infinity War is a foundational problem. If you size up everything that exists in the MCU and put it into one film, you also upscale the biggest MCU problems.
The sheer volume of Infinity War makes it hard to look away from. It’s not just the number of characters (75+), or the number of storylines, or the runtime that makes Infinity War overstuffed. It’s also the number of action sequences, the omnipresent CGI settings, the hyper-active emotional shifts, the comedy-to-drama-to-comedy tonal changes, the character reunions, the character introductions, the explanatory dialogue, on and on and on. Every Marvel movie is comprised of these elements, but Infinity War suffers from providing everything-all-the-time, leaving audience members little room to breathe, let alone enjoy what’s being experienced.
Other mainstay MCU problems that plague Infinity War are low stakes and emotional fake-outs. Marvel/Disney want us to see Infinity War as containing the highest stakes yet. Chatter about which heroes will die in the film makes that evident. If they’re killing the good guys, then you better believe it all matters. Except that time can be reversed, people can be resurrected, and numerous Marvel High-Stakes conclusions have been revealed to be Just Kidding! moments. The MCU has trained audiences to consider everything as impermanent. And yes, we know that all these actors can’t play these roles forever. But by increasing ALL the stakes for ALL the heroes in ALL the existing franchises, Infinity War lowers the stakes for everyone.
Which is, I admit, a disappointment. I hoped Infinity War would continue the trajectory of Marvel’s recent work. Thor: Ragnorak and Black Panther rank right at the very top of their output, and had me in awe that, after 18 movies, these big dumb superhero movies were actually getting better.
Infinity War, in that regard, is a step backward. Alas. Marvel will have to comfort themselves with the $1 billion Infinity War hauls in anyway.