by Andrew Wyatt on Apr 25, 2018

It’s quite challenging to talk about Marvel Studios’ all-hands-on-deck superhero cavalcade Avengers: Infinity War without heading deep into spoiler territory. This isn’t just the usual critical reluctance to discuss crucial plot twists or the who-lives-and-who-dies specifics of the mega-franchise’s inevitable cast winnowing. Within the narrow limits imposed by the needs of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment brand, Infinity War is a surprisingly bleak film – but it doesn’t start to become clear how bleak until roughly the last hour of a 2-hour-and-29-minute marathon of planet-hopping action mayhem. The final 15-or-so minutes of this third Avengers feature are virtually guaranteed to inspire a tsunami of passionate comic-shop discussions, hyperbolic Reddit nerd-rage, and the inevitable chin-stroking essays on What This Means for Superhero Films.

In the interest of dialing back on the overheated dialogue that will inevitably surround this perhaps critic-proof feature, it’s worth stating at the outset that Infinity War is a perfectly serviceable, unavoidably busy keystone chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It has everything this franchise’s devotees have come to expect from the series: memorable characters, stark pathos, cheeky one-liners, and lots of overstuffed splash-page posing that exploits this film’s mammoth assemblage of superpowered heroes. Infinity War also possesses most of the flaws that have long bedeviled the MCU: glossy yet unmemorable action, timid cinematic ambition, an absurdly elastic timeline, and some downright illogical plotting. Suffice to say that viewers who have already eagerly devoured 40-odd hours of Marvel cinema will find Infinity War to be consistent with everything that has preceded it, both narratively and aesthetically.

Except … Infinity War eventually does something that no MCU feature has done before: It throws out rules that have until now been sacrosanct to Marvel Studios’ house brand of PG-13 superhero storytelling. It doesn’t do this in a way that is the least bit artistically nervy or even necessarily all that imaginative. It doesn’t truly start to do it until the audience has settled into the familiar rhythms of a boisterous MCU slug-fest – although there is foreshadowing to be found if one squints hard enough. The film still clings to the franchise’s well-worn template of three to five CGI brawls in eye-catching locations, the smash-bang-pow edifice held together with the mortar of exposition, sentiment, and droll humor.

Nonetheless, Infinity War emerges as a modest yet startling exercise in deconstruction in a vein that recalls comic landmarks like Watchman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come. The third Avengers feature isn’t as remotely revolutionary as those works, but Infinity War comprises the first evidence in 10 years that Marvel is willing to monkey with their reliable money-printing formula to deliver a series of stunning (and almost certainly divisive) story- and tone-related jolts to its loyal audience. In short, Infinity War is going to be the Last Jedi of the MCU.

In the event that the reader hasn’t been paying attention to pop culture at all in the past decade: Avengers: Infinity War represents the culmination of the sprawling, serial-style story that Marvel has been telling over the course of 18 theatrical features. (Some of these chapters function better than others as standalone tales, but all of them contribute in their iterative way to the overarching epic.) This third Avengers film finally sees purple alien ogre Thanos (Josh Brolin), aka the Mad Titan, emerge from the shadows to assemble the six Infinity Stones that have repeatedly popped up (often under other names and in other guises) in previous MCU features. Once he gathers these ancient cosmic MacGuffins and places them on a custom-made mystical gauntlet, Thanos will be literally omnipotent.

However, the Mad Titan’s intentions are nothing so prosaic as ruling the universe as a self-made god. Rather, Thanos is a kind of intergalactic radical eco-terrorist: He contends that the cosmos’ finite resources will be exhausted if all the sentient species continue to pillage, pollute, and multiply at their present rate. Once all the Infinity Stones are in his control, Thanos intends to eradicate half of the living beings in the universe, a feat that he will be able to accomplish with a mere snap of his gauntleted fingers. The reasoning behind this seemingly arbitrary 50 percent rule is never elaborated on, and Thanos’ motivations are not as sharply defined in this film as in the early 1990s comic series that loosely inspired it, The Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet. (In those books, the Mad Titan is literally trying to impress a girl: the embodiment of Death itself.)

No matter: All that Infinity War viewers need to concern themselves with is the fact that Thanos is a genocidal madman who is only a few steps away from his unthinkably catastrophic goal. Remarkably, after wiping out trillions of souls in the blink of an eye, he intends to simply rest and enjoy the sunset. This prosaic endgame, Brolin’s melancholy performance, and the film’s surprisingly poignant focus on the dysfunctional relationship between Thanos and adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) lend the Mad Titan some depth that puts him, if not among the very best MCU villains, certainly the better third of them.

Naturally, the only heroes who can stop Thanos’ deranged plan are the Avengers, plus a handful of other guardians from Earth and points beyond who are recruited to help stop the Mad Titan, ideally by securing the Infinity Stones before he does. The Mind Stone is lodged in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) forehead, and the Time Stone is encased in Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) amulet, but the rest of the artifacts are scattered across the galaxy. Substantively, this dueling scavenger hunt is simply a justification for directors Anthony and Joe Russo – the MCU helmers who are the most modest, consistent, and attuned to the franchise’s overall sensibility – to assemble faintly arbitrary groupings of Marvel heroes to tackle various tasks.

Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), for example, focus on protecting the Time Stone from Thanos’ alien zealots. The Guardians of the Galaxy cross paths with the newly hammer-less Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who then pairs off with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to create a (hopefully) titan-slaying weapon in a forge fueled by a neutron star. Captain America (Chris Evans) proposes taking the Mind Stone to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose bleeding-edge Wakandan scientists can perhaps remove the relic without killing the Vision in the process. And so on. Despite the apocalyptic tone and stakes, the clashes in Infinity War are mostly in the spirit of Captain America: Civil War (2016): small, WWE-style fights that allow the heroes and villains to combine their abilities in intriguing ways. Only in a late-film sequence set in Wakanda does the feature embrace the expected “epic battle” sensibility, complete with colossal dreadnaughts and thousands of computer-generated aliens.

Viewers who have been able to follow the MCU’s colorful but convoluted sci-fi plotting up to this point shouldn’t have any problem keeping up with the story, even if some of the specifics get a bit nonsensical. Thanos captures one of the Infinity Stones entirely offscreen, a development confusingly conveyed with a single line of dialogue, and a few of the old familiar MCU faces who appear in this sweeping tale are more likely to elicit confusion than fanboy glee. (“Wait — He’s here? Why? How?”) There’s also the matter of the Mad Titan’s general strategy for acquiring the Stones, which doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why does he send bland (and incompetent) alien minions after these cosmic artifacts when he’s apparently capable of teleporting anywhere and crushing anyone who stands in his way with a wave of his hand? No matter: Without these illogical leaps, the viewer wouldn’t be permitted the sitcom-y pleasure of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) vainly attempting to out-macho Thor, or the delight of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Wakandan battle maiden Okoye (Danai Gurira) cutting down slavering monsters as they fight back-to-back.

In the immediate wake of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018), Infinity War feels comparatively uninspired – in terms of design, themes, and humor – but it’s still an engaging popcorn flick when all is said and done, with a welcome, generous helping of that patented MCU charisma. This, ultimately, is what makes the film unexpectedly affecting: Marvel’s 10-year plan to get viewers invested in its flawlessly cast roster of geniuses, weirdos, misfits, and monsters has actually worked, finally paying some real emotional dividends. Every MCU enthusiast has their favorite characters, and Infinity War’s fundamental allure lies in seeing the viewer’s pet heroes rise to the occasion, risking death to save the entire cosmos. The time for nuanced character arcs and personal evolution is long past, but the Russos don’t treat that as an opportunity to favor spectacle over heart. Death is real in Infinity War, and it stings. Superhero skeptics who sneer at the idea of fist-pumping for the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), squealing over Groot (Vin Diesel), or crushing on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) probably won’t feel even a glimmer of grief when one of Infinity War’s characters falls in battle. However, this film wasn’t made for them.

Of course, death is never permanent in superhero comics, especially with the genre’s penchant for cosmos-reordering feats of wonder, not to mention its endlessly fragmenting chronologies and dimensions. Not only have heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man perished and been resurrected several times, they’ve proliferated across alternate Earths, tangent timelines, and “What If?” one-shots. (A cynic might contend that these copious loopholes and reset buttons mean that death has no real resonance in superhero stories; an optimist would say that great characters like Cap and Spidey are robust enough to sustain myriad storylines, each with their own potent, self-contained pathos.)

Such “magic wand” conceits have led to some stellar tales on the comic page – such as the House of M limited X-Men series, wherein a empowered Scarlet Witch re-writes reality simply by willing it to be so. However, the MCU has so far been reluctant to embrace such outlandish sci-fi storytelling, perhaps out of fear that filmgoers will revolt if things descend too deeply into Twilight Zone or Rick & Morty weirdness. (Only Fox’s X-Men films have dared to wade into time travel and parallel dimensions, to exceedingly mixed results.)

Regardless, mythos-rich science-fiction and fantasy franchises like Marvel are sufficiently sprawling and multifaceted to handily illustrate Orson Welles’ adage about happy endings (and, by extension, tragic endings) – they depend on where you stop the story. This principle is vividly illustrated in another Disney property: the Star Wars series Clone Wars, a show that extracted remarkable drama, wit, and heartbreak from a tale where the tragic endpoint is essentially already written in canonical stone. Infinity War suggests in its harrowing way that Disney’s Marvel Studios arm has finally come to appreciate this flexibility, and is thus willing to kill the cinematic versions of its darlings – if only for a little while.

Rating: B- (B+ for the ending)