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Avengers: Infinity War

For this movie, I decided to try something new: Before going to see it, I went to the film’s Wikipedia page and read the entire plot synopsis, deliberately spoiling the whole movie for myself before I saw it. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the movie in this review any more than I have to. I know this approach is unorthodox and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

So why did I do this? Mostly, it was a way of killing the hype for myself.

I very firmly believe that hype and publicity cease to matter the second a film is released. From that moment onward, the movie is no longer some nebulous collection of conflicting fan expectations and vague promises from the filmmakers. It’s set in stone, out in the open, and forced to live or die on its own merits.

I’ve heard it said that this isn’t seeing the movie as the filmmakers intended. My correspondents have also told me that watching the film with a more detached perspective, knowing in advance what plot twists and big reveals to expect, is what the second viewing is for. I have no interest in refuting either point, even if I could. Though if a movie is still every bit as enjoyable even with full knowledge of what’s going to happen, I should consider that in itself a sign of the film’s quality. Which brings me back to the point.

While I’m certainly interested in which plot threads get resolved, who gets teamed up with whom, and what cameos/references/Easter eggs are included, I don’t want to let hype and novelty distract from the far more important question: Is Avengers: Infinity War a good movie? I’d say that it is… in the same way that The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a good movie.

Yes, this latest Avengers movie is two and a half hours of superhero cinema spectacle on an impossibly epic scale. The filmmakers promised us a movie that paid off ten years of buildup, fully utilizing every corner of the massive sprawling universe built over so many cinematic franchises, and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve delivered. However, it bears mentioning that — as with Two Towers — this is a movie very specifically designed without a beginning or ending.

Because we have so much to get through, the movie doesn’t waste any time with buildup. We get a recap on what the Infinity Stones are, though it’s nothing we didn’t already know after Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. Also, after six years of buildup and six minutes of screentime, we finally get to know everything about Thanos (Josh Brolin) in great detail. But with everything else, you’re on your own. If you haven’t been watching these past ten years to know who these characters are, how they (don’t) know each other, and how they got to be where they are, you’re SOL.

(PLEASE NOTE: By necessity, this means that I will likely have to spoil other movies in the MCU. While I will do my best to avoid unnecessary spoilers for this one movie, I make no promises for any other film. You’ve been warned.)

(Side note: I’ve frequently heard about huge crossover events in comic books that don’t make a lot of sense on their own unless you’ve also read the multiple tie-ins and miniseries associated with that crossover. This is very much the same deal.)

Perhaps most importantly, this is a movie that doesn’t have an ending. When Avengers: Infinity War was first announced, it was announced as Infinity War, Part I coming out in 2018, with Infinity War, Part II coming out in 2019. The “Part I” was later removed from the title, and the fourth Avengers movie is currently without an official title. The implication was that this story was somehow going to be compressed into the space of a single film, and this turned out to be a filthy stinking lie. It’s not just that the movie ends in a cliffhanger — it’s that the movie ends in a cliffhanger that can’t possibly stick.

(Side note: Another aspect of huge comic book crossovers is that they take place over multiple issues. Which means that as the comics unfold — so to speak — the readers are stuck waiting on a cliffhanger between issues to see what happens next. Again, it’s much the same deal here.)

As you may have guessed (again, no big spoilers here, I promise), this has a lot to do with which characters get killed off. The filmmakers have said early and often that this movie would mark a tremendous change in the MCU and a lot of major characters would finally die. This was a huge deal, considering that the MCU so far has been rather ginger with death. Yes, Agent Coulson and Elektra were both killed and resurrected, but those were the TV shows — after Marvel’s television department got sectioned off from its cinematic department, nobody’s even pretending anymore that the two exist in the same universe. Where the movies are concerned, we’ve never really seen anybody die and come back. (Even T’Challa was only comatose that one time.) But then, we’ve never seen anyone in the MCU with the kind of power Thanos is after.

In comics, omnipotence is a classic means of hitting the reset button without putting in any time or effort. Marvel and DC are both repeatedly guilty of this, but the Infinity Gauntlet storyline is a textbook example. Yes, this movie features mass destruction on an inconceivable scale, and a shit-ton of people get killed. But it’s hard to tell how much of that will stick, how many deaths will be reversed, and what the MCU will look like when all is finally resolved in the next film. Especially when we see characters die in this one whom we know for an absolute incontrovertible fact will be part of future movies.

(Side note: Doctor Strange took pains to point out that using the Time Stone had grave consequences, though it was frustratingly vague about what those consequences actually were. If there was ever a time for clarification, it’s now.)

Moreover, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 introduced whole armies that could be deployed against Thanos, to say nothing of a certain celestial character every bit as synonymous with the Infinity Gauntlet as Thanos himself. I was very disappointed to see that none of that plays any part in this movie. Though we do get a neatly surprising resolution to a plot thread left dangling since all the way back in Phase I. I’d given up hope that we’d ever be seeing the character again, but this particular inclusion was nicely welcome and helped to spice up what would otherwise be a terribly dull bit of exposition.

But let’s get back to the subject of death. All throughout the MCU, there’s been an underlying theme that finally crystallizes in this movie, when Steve “Don’t Call Me Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans, of course) says that the Avengers don’t trade lives. The counter-argument is that Cap himself once tried to sacrifice his own life to save thousands, maybe millions. To say nothing of the time when Thor offered up his own life so that Loki would leave Earth alone. Or when Iron Man took on what was ostensibly a suicide run so he could deliver a nuke to the invading Chitauri forces.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Project Insight, in which HYDRA tried to make the world safer by killing millions of people deemed to be a threat. We’ve also got Ultron, Killmonger, and goddamn Ronan the Accuser out to commit genocide for ostensibly good intentions. Hell, even Tony Stark himself has gone to impossibly misguided lengths (the Iron Legion, the Sokovia Accords, etc.) trying to create a world peaceful enough and well-protected enough that the Avengers wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s easy to say that no innocent life should be taken for the protection of others, but that gets a lot more hazy when it’s quite literally one death against the destruction of the entire universe. Conversely, it’s easy to say that one villain should die so potential innocent deaths can be avoided, but that got tricky enough when HYDRA took it to the extremes of Project Insight. Now, Thanos has taken it even further, reasoning that either half the universe lives or the entire overpopulated universe dies.

All throughout the movie, in various ways and at various times, the concept of sacrifice keeps coming up. Probably the best example concerns Vision and Wanda Maximoff, respectively played once again by Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen. You may recall that the two were on opposing sides of the Civil War, but now they’re playing hooky from their respective teams so they can be romantically involved together. It’s every bit as sudden and left-field as the Banner/Romanoff relationship in Age of Ultron (only barely mentioned here, natch), though at least this relationship has a basis in the source material, so there’s that.

Anyway, Vision gets his powers and his sentience from the Mind Stone, so of course we all know that Thanos is coming for him. However, Vision himself theorizes that because Wanda’s powers were also derived from the Infinity Stones, she could potentially destroy the Mind Stone and make sure Thanos never gets it. (Remember how one Infinity Stone worked against another to close the portal in the climax of the first Avengers? I assume this is the same basic principle.) Though of course this means that Vision himself would have to die for the sake of the universe, and Wanda would have to be the one to kill him. Even if Vision himself is perfectly willing to make the sacrifice, that’s a lot to ask of him and of Wanda. Major kudos to the filmmakers for developing this into such a multi-layered conundrum, and to Bettany and Olsen for making it work so well. That said, the relationship and potential act of sacrifice carry a lot less weight because so much of the romance happened offscreen between movies.

Elsewhere, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) also derives a ton of power from an Infinity Stone, so of course he also gets a hard choice about when or if giving up the Stone would benefit the greater good. He’s also one of the heaviest hitters in the MCU lineup and his possession of an Infinity Stone puts him in direct conflict with Thanos — their fight scenes together are some of the most epically dazzling in the entire movie, which is saying one fuck of a lot. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Benedict Wong, who appears once again to fantastic effect as a character also named Wong.

Still, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are easily the most directly tied to Thanos himself. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is by far the most prominent case in point, as her complicated father/daughter relationship with Thanos provides the most deep and poignant insights into either character. Ditto for Nebula (Karen Gillan), though she and Thanos are far more open about how much they mortally despise each other. Incidentally, Gamora and Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) move forward with their tenuous and ill-advised romance, leading Quill to do some insanely bone-headed things in this movie. No joke, Quill is so incredibly stupid that he pretty much single-handedly dooms the universe for no good reason at all.

Elsewhere, Drax (Dave Bautista) is obsessed with killing Thanos more than ever before, and their fight scenes together go about as well as you’d expect. Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) is still a raging egomaniac with a foul sense of humor and a ginormous chip on his shoulder, while Groot (Vin Diesel) has grown into a teenager so moody and withdrawn that the movie is practically over before he does anything useful. But oh, is it glorious when he finally does. And once again, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is primarily useful for her hit-or-miss attempts at making the Bad Guy go to sleep.

It should come as no surprise that the Guardians of the Galaxy are the film’s main source of comic relief, and I’m sorry to say that they go way overboard. If you ever doubted how much of the Guardians’ success is due to James Gunn, wait until you see these characters flounder for minutes on end, in dire need of Gunn’s irreverent wit and comic timing.

The other big comic relief character is Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who fares much better. His interplay with Stark is still adorable, he’s still the good-hearted kid who wants to prove himself and do the right thing, and he proves himself more than smart and capable enough to stand with the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. And we finally — FINALLY! — get a glimpse of the Spider-Sense, which is a huge plus.

Then we have the Asgardians. You may recall that Thor: Ragnarok ended with Thanos’ spaceship intercepting a vessel with Thor, Loki, Hulk, (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) and all surviving Asgardians on board. Of course you know that Thanos is after the Space Stone that Loki took with him off Asgard, and nobody’s giving it to him without a fight. So I’m sorry, this isn’t a spoiler, this is putting two and two together: The movie opens with the wholesale slaughter of Asgard. I’ll remind you that even common Asgardians are just as strong and invulnerable as Thor himself (but without the lightning powers, obviously), and hundreds of them get killed by Thanos and his forces. The motherfucking Hulk was on that ship, and even he’s not enough to stop Thanos. Not only is this a great motivation for Thor (who, remember, is now the last of his species until someone figures out where the hell Sif went), but it’s one hell of an introduction for Thanos. If ever we needed a reason to be afraid of Thanos after six years of watching him sit on a chair doing nothing, there it is.

That said, it’s worth observing that Thanos has the Power Stone at the beginning of the movie, which naturally means that he destroyed Xandar offscreen at some point. Why the Guardians of the Galaxy never heard about that, your guess is as good as mine. Also, I feel a bit cheated that we never got to see that destruction for ourselves. It would have made a far better end-credits stinger for Age of Ultron than the one we got. Just saying.

Getting back to Thor, I’m glad to say that he earns a massively upgraded weapon on top of the massive power upgrade he already got at the end of Ragnarok. I’m loathe to say much more, but you should definitely look up the weapon’s name at some point — it drops some pretty big implications regarding Thor’s future. Oh, and also: When Thor finally takes part in the action scenes, he’s a legit force of nature. It’s staggering.

As for Hulk, well… we don’t know. For reasons unknown even to Banner, Hulk refuses to materialize when he’s most needed. Yes, he finds a way to get involved in the climax, though alas, he still spends most of that time getting his ass kicked. Even in his Bruce Banner scientist persona, the character is mostly ineffectual. It’s a damn shame.

Incidentally, as long as I’m recapping characters, you may be wondering where Ant-Man and Hawkeye are in all this. Well, if you’ve seen the trailer for Ant-Man and the Wasp — and if you see this movie, you assuredly will — you already know that Scott Lang was sent home with a tracking anklet after his arrest at the end of Civil War. Apparently, he and Clint Barton cut a deal so they could go home to their families. Which is why Ant-Man is getting his own standalone movie in a couple of months and Hawkeye is… not? I don’t know.

Let’s move on to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), though I scarcely know where to begin. He’s still trying to figure out his mentor/father figure/whatever relationship with Spider-Man, and still trying to find a way toward his Happily Ever After with new fiancee Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Given the all-encompassing stakes of the story, with the real possibility that he or Spider-Man or anyone else could be killed, these personal journeys reach new levels like never before.

Most importantly, this is the ultimate culmination of the journey that Tony started at the climax of Avengers, when Tony first realized just how massive the universe was, and how many beings out there are so much more powerful than he is. He’s spent every waking moment trying to square that with his mammoth ego, working to make himself into more than an insignificant speck in a metal suit. Every day for the last six years, he’s been struggling toward and dreading the day when he’d finally have to take on what he saw when he went through that portal. Now that day is finally here, he still doesn’t know what to do, and that scares him shitless.

What makes it worse is that he’s a very materialistic man used to getting his way, and he’s dealing with mystical forces beyond mortal comprehension that couldn’t give less of a shit about what he thinks. This is perfectly expressed in his interplay with Doctor Strange, and it’s fantastic to watch RDJ go back and forth with Cumberbatch. The two match each other pound-for-pound, which says a lot about Cumberbatch and his talent — one of these men is playing the signature role he’s inhabited for a decade, and the other has only played his character for two years in one movie and change.

Getting back to Stark, it must be mentioned that he goes into this with the single greatest Iron Man suit he may ever create. This is a nanotechnological wonder, capable of pulling blasters, shields, blades, and anything else out of thin air. It’s insanely cool to watch, the apotheosis of everything that Stark has done to try and make himself a superhero to rival the most powerful beings in the universe. It’s a perfect representation of Stark’s intelligence and tenacity, and it makes Thanos look that much more powerful because he can stand up to it. That said, it’s exactly the kind of thing that could only be introduced after ten years of buildup and development. If Stark had come out with this thing back in Iron Man, the filmmakers never would have gotten away with it.

Then of course we have Steve Rogers. Sadly, he doesn’t have nearly as much development here. He mostly serves as the general of the Avengers who are still on Earth. He coordinates the troops, determines the strategies, serves as the moral compass, etc. And of course he’s right there kicking ass on the front lines when the shit hits the fan. It’s nothing new for his character, which is rather disappointing as no one ever goes into how he’s not Captain America anymore. Still, while Steve does more of the same here, there’s no one who does it better.

Speaking of the front lines, let’s move on to Wakanda. While T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) appears alongside many of our favorite characters from Black Panther, none of them make much of an impression as individuals. Collectively as the great nation of Wakanda, they leave a far greater impact on the plot, as Thanos and his forces are baited into a sprawling and bloody battle with the most technologically advanced military the world has ever seen. Alas, those waiting for Shuri (Letitia Wright) to share the screen with Tony Stark will have to keep waiting.

All that’s left among the heroes are War Machine, Falcon, and Black Widow (Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, and Scarlett Johansson, respectively). Alas, all three of them are little more than support characters. Even when they kick ass in the action scenes, they don’t really do much except follow Steve’s orders. There is a brief moment when it seems like Rhodey finally looks like he’s going to take charge and show some autonomy, until Steve comes in and Rhodey fades into the background from whence he came. Pity.

Which brings us, at last, to the real star of the show.

Thanos was created in 1973 by Jim Starlin, who had spent the ’60s with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. His status as a veteran is important here, given that Thanos’ entire character was built around the concept of nihilism. Thanos is a character who worships death, who sees the end of all life as the end of all suffering. This is taken to a very literal extreme in the comics, as Thanos is madly in unrequited love with the actual living personification of Death itself, and kills half the universe to try and impress her. Obviously, this motivation would have been too silly even for the MCU. So instead, movie Thanos wants to kill half the universe to restore balance, freeing up more resources and living space for those left alive.

On the one hand, I don’t like how the filmmakers completely and totally dispensed with Thanos’ obsession over death. His nihilism is what defines the character and makes him so iconic. And even if they couldn’t make Death an actual character for Thanos to fawn over, they could’ve found some other motivation.

On the other hand, I can see how it’s hard to justify leaving anyone alive if Thanos is really so obsessed with death as perfection. And as I’ve already pointed out, this theme of balance — some must die so others can live — is more closely tied to the MCU as a whole. Then again, refuting Thanos by rejecting the loss of life and hope wouldve also been in keeping with the greater MCU.

What it all comes down to is that this new version of Thanos is markedly different (and less interesting, in my opinion), but he still works. That’s due in large part to Josh Brolin’s performance, but it also helps a great deal that even though Thanos is a massive universal superbeing with planet-destroying armies at his command, we still see vulnerability in him. Thanos has worked for so long and given up so much, all in pursuit of what he believes to be a noble goal. We see for ourselves precisely how and why he justifies his actions, and we see the deeper emotional toll his efforts have taken on him. He’s a fantastic villain, it’s just a shame the previous movies didn’t do more to build him up. In particular, there’s a Thanos/Gamora flashback that would’ve been SO much more effective if it was put in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, to draw out the setups and payoffs a bit more.

Thanos has four generals to act on his behalf, but I won’t bother recapping them here. They’re scowling lackeys without personality or backstory, nothing more than dispensible sub-bosses. We don’t even know where they came from, though they are introduced as “Children of Thanos”, so I assume that they’re adoptive siblings to Nebula and Gamora. Likewise, Thanos sends several thousand weird alien beasts to attack Wakanda, and we’re left with no idea of what they are or where they came from. Does Thanos command them like he does the Chitauri? How did he ever command the Chitauri anyway? What are they, where did they come from, and perhaps most importantly, does it even matter?

Rounding out the cast, Peter Dinklage makes a fantastic supporting turn that I don’t dare spoil here. Suffice to say that he plays a totally new character. Also, major kudos to Ross Marquand, who seamlessly takes a character from an actor no longer willing to return to the MCU.

On the technical notes, I had a fantastic time watching the movie in 3D. It would probably be fine in 2D, but the 3D was definitely an improvement. Otherwise, the visuals are more of the Marvel house style. The CGI is breathtaking throughout, and even the weaker effects were far from dealbreakers. The camera movements and editing — with a few overwrought exceptions — were very clearly designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, the better to see the action onscreen. Even so, the film tries to juggle so many plotlines that the editing has to interrupt climactic action scenes by cutting from one end of the galaxy to the other. It’s a tall order to try and do that without wreaking havoc on the pacing, but this movie does it. Barely.

I was also thrilled to see Alan Silvestri return to compose the score, though the use of his Avengers theme was sadly excessive. I was disappointed to see it used as the de facto theme of Steve Rogers, rather than a theme used to represent the Avengers at their peak. Then again, since we never see all the Avengers together onscreen at any one time, I guess that was never an option.

So should you see Avengers: Infinity War? Well, that really comes down to two questions: Have you already seen every other movie in the MCU to date; and are you okay leaving the movie on a massive fucking cliffhanger? If you think you need a refresher on the other movies before you see this one, then you should probably wait until you’ve gotten that refresher. If you don’t like the thought of being left hanging, you can wait a year for Avengers 4 comes out. And if you’re not the kind of person who spent the last decade sitting through every movie and waiting for the end-credits stinger… well, this movie wasn’t made for you.

From start to finish, this movie was very clearly made as a reward for the fans who kept watching and supporting this historic experiment in cinema franchising. This is what the filmmakers have been working for, and it’s what we’ve been waiting for. So if you’ve stuck with the MCU this far, you should absolutely go see this movie as soon as possible. You’ve earned it, and I think you’ll be very happy with the end result. Even if the Guardians of the Galaxy are overused in their capacity as comic relief, everything about this movie is just as epic and entertaining as we were promised.

But we should definitely put a pin in that until we see how everything shakes out. It’s entirely possible that the next movie could come along and ruin so much good will. So let’s enjoy what we have while we have it, shall we?

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