(NO SPOILERS) 'Avengers: Infinity War' film review: How to pay off a sprawling, massive franchise
A decade of films have laid the groundwork and built up the expectations. The very first Marvel superhero flick promised the Avengers - the very first 'Avengers' film promised Thanos - one of the most power villains in the Marvel Comics series. In the context of almost 20 MCU films that came before it, "Avengers: Infinity War" (opening in theaters April 27) makes good the promised climactic battle. This battle royale lives up to the hype as the definitive turning point in the MCU, even if it doesn't quite work as a standalone film.
In short: Heroes across the Marvel Universe - including the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy - unite to stop the powerful alien despot Thanos (Josh Brolin) from completing his quest to acquire all six Infinity Stones and destroying life in the universe. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and many more star.
Dissecting the totality of "Infinity War" is an overwhelming task. The only sensible place to begin is to figure out exactly who is the focus of the film. Although this is ostensibly an "Avengers" film, make no mistake - this is Thanos' story, with the rest of the well-established MCU protagonists filling out the supporting cast. While Thanos cannot be mistaken for a hero, he sees himself as the righteous hero of his own story - and he's indisputably the nontraditional protagonist of "Infinity War." While the audience must root for the Avengers and Guardians, it is Thanos whose actions dictate the direction and flow of the story. His actions alone propel "Infinity War" forward - his actions have incredibly important consequence upon the amassing of MCU character featured in the film.
To that end, the filmmakers accomplish the unthinkable: they somehow made the genocidal maniac a sympathetic, if terribly misguided, character. Audiences will discuss the many shocking plot points of "Infinity War," but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is Thanos not merely being a one-dimensional monster of utter destruction. He decisively moves with clear purpose - but Thanos takes little joy in his mission - he is a true believer devoted to a disastrous mission. Thanos is the engine of destruction powering "Infinity War" and Brolin's performance makes the monster a complicated and rich character to watch in dread and abject horror.
Making Thanos the protagonist of the film comes at the cost of most of the headlining superheroes. "Infinity War" boasts a sprawling cast featuring dozens upon dozens of characters from most of their preceding MCU films - and just a handful of the established/familiar heroes get anything resembling a character arch. Most beloved MCU heroes are treated as little more than action figures smashing against bad guy action figures - they are included in the film more for the visual fun of watching their character use their specific superpowers than they are actual multi-faceted characters. Hemsworth gets the most material to work with in "Infinity," as he retains the refreshing light-hearted tone established in "Thor: Ragnarok" even as he faces a nigh undefeatable foe and an impossible task. It's definitely one of the only superhero performances of any note - and it's arguably the most compelling.
To the credit of co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Captain America: Civil War"), "Infinity War" is a nearly three-hour long film that briskly moves along and judiciously balances its army of characters. For a film that is essentially a series of battles - broken up by a smattering of exposition - across several locations throughout the galaxy, "Infinity War" easily allows the audiences to keep track of where all its characters are at any point.
"Infinity War" is a crowd-pleasing culmination of the many previous MCU films - but it is merely an OK standalone film that sorta works on its own merit. All films must be judged on their own merits - but "Infinity War" is unlike any film that has come before it. For better or worse, "Infinity" is the intersection of multiple film franchises. A fanboy would call it an unprecedented cinematic comic book event - a more cynical take would see "Infinity Wars" as a corporate-mandated synergistic end game. The question remains: is "Infinity Wars" a film to be critiqued on its own or as the culmination of a much larger MCU?
On the micro level, "Infinity Wars" is a patchwork of bombastic battles featuring a ton of heroes, stitched together with a framework that amounts to a murderous zealot on a treasure hunt. The connective tissue does a serviceable job to creating an overall story connecting all the disparate characters and giving them cause to travel to all corners of the Marvel Universe - but the structure is pretty rudimentary. While Thanos is a protagonist of surprising dimension, his adversaries (the many heroes of the MCU) are limited in focus: they just want to stop Thanos. The film is less than the sum of its parts - enjoyable battles that electrify the big screen, but scenes that tell a pretty simple and uncomplicated story.
On a macro level, "Infinity Wars" lives up to the hype. Taken in the context of the previous MCU films, wherein individual films show just how destructive a single Infinity Stone can become, "Infinity War" lives up to the promise of Thanos' destructive quest and pays off all the McGuffins, post-credits scenes and MCU mythology.
Final verdict: "Infinity War" is the film Marvel fans have waited a decade for - and it lives up to that almost impossible expectation. While the film itself isn't the strongest standalone MCU film, it wasn't designed to be a film experienced in a vacuum - simultaneously its strength and flaw.
"Avengers: Infinity War" opens in theaters nationwide April 27. The film has a running time of 160 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references.