Read on with confidence, because this Avengers: Infinity War review is SPOILER FREE!
There’s a moment early on in Avengers: Infinity War where Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) are standing in a circle, at odds with each other while something terrible approaches Earth… and they’re bickering about ice cream flavors.
It’s one of the many examples of loopy, warm humor that pervades the otherwise apocalyptic events of this behemoth of a movie, and it also serves as a perfect example of why and how the Marvel Cinematic Universe–which was born almost exactly 10 years ago when Downey first put on the armor in 2008’s Iron Man–has succeeded beyond possibly even the wildest dreams of its parent company, Disney. It continues to borne from the creative ingenuity of a team led by studio mastermind Kevin Feige, who have caused one iconic image after another leap from the page to the screen during this past decade.
Like the comics, the MCU has never lost sight of what makes its stories and its characters work when they’re at their best. Underneath the armor and the weaponry, and the magic spells and the cosmic powers, these are all human beings–or at least something close to human–with recognizable flaws, weaknesses, insecurities, and problems. By developing the characters and their relationships with each other over time, Marvel has created a family of heroes, oddballs and, yes, assholes as recognizable as our own.
Even so, this family has never faced a threat like the one that comes calling in Infinity War, and what catapults this epic instantly into the top ranks of Marvel films (and comics-based movies overall) is that at long last the MCU deals head-on with one of its biggest criticisms: that the stakes are never high enough, that the heroes never die, and that everybody just gets up and keeps on punching. That’s not the case here at all. From the opening scene of the movie, death and destruction are everywhere; there is real loss and there is a sense that things will never be the same after this.
The engine for all this is, of course, Thanos, the uber-villain who has been lurking in the shadows for most of the past decade but now steps out, front and center, in his quest to obtain the six Infinity Stones that will give him unlimited powers over all of reality, space, and time. And in that character, played to perfection through motion capture by Josh Brolin, Marvel has solved another one of its longstanding issues: that its bad guys never seemed quite up to par.
Things have improved of late with Cate Blanchett’s wicked Hela in Thor: Ragnarok and Michael B. Jordan’s magnificent Eric Killmonger in Black Panther, but neither of those characters were hellbent on wiping out half the life in the universe. That’s what Thanos wants to do, and it’s a credit to the writing by Marvel’s reliably ace team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as well as Brolin’s performance, that Thanos is a more complex, layered, and even tragic character than anything Marvel has done before in this department. This is Thanos’ moment, his movie, really, and he is both incredibly ominous and undeniably compelling.
The story this reminds me of the most, in a way, is The Lord of the Rings, and in movie terms, The Return of the King specifically (minus the multiple endings, although of course make sure you stay to the very end of the credits). In both cases, the premise is simplicity itself. In the Rings films, the One Ring must be destroyed before Sauron can get it; here, Thanos must be prevented from getting his hands on the remaining Infinity Stones. With all the multiple storylines happening in both films, it’s the basic, core motivating factor that ties it all together and keeps things focused and moving forward. Even with a first act that takes a bit of time to get cranked up and locked in, the writers and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, never lose sight of where this massive ship they’re steering is headed.
To say much more about the plot might take away the element of surprise, which is even more important to this movie than usual. But Thanos is coming for the Stones, one of which resides in the head of the synthetic being known as Vision (Paul Bettany), the other inside an amulet in the possession of master of the mystic arts, Dr. Stephen Strange. A third, the Soul Stone, is hidden away and only one person knows where it is. The Mad Titan and his Black Order are destroying everyone and everything that gets in their way, which leaves it to the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and standalone heroes like Strange and Spider-Man to stop him.
The story spans the cosmos in true space opera fashion, and the mechanics of the story result in some weird team-ups that create both humor and melodrama. You can only imagine the fireworks that fly when two bastions of arrogance like Tony Stark and Stephen Strange get together, and you won’t be disappointed. Yet you might never expect the friendship that develops between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), even if the God of Thunder repeatedly refers to the mutated raccoon as a “rabbit.”
Speaking of Thor, while Thanos is the unquestionable star of the show, it is the one-time King of Asgard who shines perhaps the brightest here of all the heroes, even more so than in his sterling Thor: Ragnarok less than a year ago. There are moments here when we see Thor at his most vulnerable and uncertain, but those are balanced out by scenes where he truly fulfills his destiny as the God of Thunder. Likewise, Benedict Cumberbatch is much more dynamic and comfortable as Strange, and with the origin story in the rearview mirror, we really get to see him bust out as the Sorcerer Supreme.
The rest–Downey, Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, the Guardians–are all as familiar and fun to see as those family members we spoke of earlier. Some get major story arcs while others don’t. Everyone has a moment and contributes something to the plot, but if, say, you’re still high on Black Panther and expect this to be a semi-sequel, you might be let down: Chadwick Boseman and his Wakandans are a force to be reckoned with, but the movie doesn’t advance their own story all that much. The one outright disappointment here is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, who has been given an inexplicable storyline that is played mainly for laughs but simply doesn’t work (hopefully it’s rectified or at least explained down the line).
The Russos have upped their game as directors here, mostly ditching the hand-held, grittier look of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War for real scope and grandeur. This is a knockout sci-fi movie that travels around the universe and back, and not only does it capture the vastness of that but it’s also perhaps the most beautiful, colorful film Marvel has released to date. Some of the action is still a bit hard to follow at times, but the brothers prove that they can shoot a spectacular interstellar adventure with the best of them.
There are, as we alluded earlier, lots of surprises and jolts in Infinity War (not to mention one mind-blowing cameo), but Feige, the Russos and Markus/McFeely reserve the biggest one for the end. The studio has been accused of making formulaic movies and sticking to a shopworn script, and–like any creative enterprise–it does sometimes fall into that trap. But more often than not, Marvel doesn’t get credit for the chances it takes, and it’s taking a hell of a huge one this time. Where things go from here is anyone’s guess, but after 10 years and two-and-a-half hours of calamity and battle, Avengers: Infinity War‘s strangely peaceful closing shot makes a kind of beautiful sense.