Avengers: Infinity War Review
Warning: This review contains major spoilers.
When I first saw Iron Man in 2008, I didn’t get what I expected. Oh, twelve year-old Chris got all the heavy metal superhero antics he wanted, but there was one pivotal surprise in store. At the very end of the film, having defeated his nemesis and saved the day, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man stands before a press conference, ostensibly to deny his company’s involvement with the preceding mayhem. “The truth is...” he utters, suddenly lifting his gaze from the pre-approved cue cards and looking almost directly to camera “...I am Iron Man”. Far from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) breaking into Stark’s living room to deliver that now historic post-credits job offer, the biggest surprise of that movie was that a superhero happily revealed their secret identity. After years spent in the company of Raimi’s Spider-Man, Nolan’s Batman and the veritable hive-mind of mid-2000s comic book movie loners who never showed their true self for fear of repercussions, it was something fresh and exciting.
These exhilarating surprises have sadly come few and far between as the Marvel cinematic universe has evolved in the ten years since Downey Jr. first donned the tin can. Sure, there’s been the odd divergence or two dotted along the way (the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 is probably the closest the franchise has come since to an actual twist), but by and large, each movie since has followed the tropes and plots of their respective worlds and heroes to the letter. Most are essentially Star Wars: A New Hope, reworked to fit whichever villain-of-the-week is throwing a strop: a male hero is sent on his journey of self-discovery by parentage (Thor), power (The Incredible Hulk), pre-manhood angst (Spider-Man: Homecoming) or various combinations of the three (Black Panther). He faces great challenges, perhaps finds a love interest, there’s a big climatic showdown with a seemingly unstoppable force, but the good guys win in the end and evil is temporarily abated. The many movies of the MCU have carried this off with a reasonable rate of success, and one or two (most recently Black Panther) have actually brushed the edge of genuine depth and subtext beyond their bonds to a growing cinematic titan. While Infinity War has no subtext at all, it does deliver on the surprises, and teeters on the brink of true shock-and-awe right until the bitter (or is it?) end.
We begin moments after the epilogue of Thor: Ragnarok: the Asgardian refugee ship has been boarded and torched by Thanos (Josh Brolin); the purple, thumb-headed villain glimpsed here or there over the past decade. Thanos and his ‘children’, a squad of super-powered creatures that resemble rejected World of Warcraft concept art, are on the hunt for the infinity stones. These legendary elemental gems (power, space, reality, soul, time, mind) gift whomever wields them the power to control the universe itself. In search for the space stone, Thanos obliterates the Asgardian vessel and murders Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is left adrift in space, while Bruce Banner/the Hulk is beamed back to Earth by the dying Heimdall (Idris Elba), hotly pursued by the violet victor. Bruce returns to New York and informs his fellow Avengers of the oncoming calamity, and the stage is set for the mother of all showdowns, as heroes from every corner of the MCU are drawn together to prevent Thanos’ ultimate goal of destroying half of all life in the universe. This search for the stones is a remarkably simple and unusually non-trivial pursuit for a film of its size and roster. A cast list and running time that go to infinity and beyond instil (well-founded) fears of tangled plot threads and jumbled pacing, but to the great credit of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely, the true objective and associated stakes are never far from view.
The screenwriters and directors (Joe and Anthony Russo, returning) have taken on a ludicrous amount here, and what failings there are in the film’s construction are easily made up for by a handful of key victories. For one, in-amongst finding new ways for Iron Man to punch things and giving us those stand-up-and-cheer moments, they make a concentrated effort to develop the villain these movies have been building up for six years. Thanos could so easily have been another Malekith or Ronan, a one-note grimace on legs, but his motivation is leveraged with cool, even remorseful logic over shouty monologues. His relationship with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is fleshed-out and adds weight to his ultimate goal. Her sacrifice hits hard not only because we’ve spent two-and-a-bit movies getting to know her, but because you genuinely believe that it causes Thanos pain. Incidentally, hats off to the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, who have spared no expense in bringing a totally digital character out of the uncanny valley whilst not skimping on the effects elsewhere (looking at you, final third of Black Panther!).
The second is consistency of character. Civil War was a great demo reel for the Russo/Markus/McFeely quartet to show how well they can bounce different heroes off one another while still retaining their core characteristics and growth from preceding stand alones. In Infinity War, the same is true: Thor’s encounter with the Guardians allows for more of Drax’s mockery of Quill. Peter Parker is just as quick to try and impress Doctor Strange as he is Tony Stark. Okoye is still dispensing disparaging glances to everything and everyone. As the largest chunk of development goes to Thanos, the writers have to abbreviate character motivations into neat dialogue packages for everyone else. “You can’t be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighbourhood!” is a particularly lovely sentiment. There are too many great character moments to give them all a fair appraisal, but personal highlights include Chris Hemsworth’s uncrackable smile, Drax’s interruption of a tearful moment between Quill and Gamora, and the holy trinity of Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Okoye teaming up on the battlefield.
Thirdly: those surprises I wanted. Whether it’s the moments that left me beaming like a kid in a toy shop (Thor’s glorious arrival in Wakanda), the ones that I could never have seen coming (Red Skull’s re-appearance) or witty casting choices (Peter Dinklage as a giant dwarf hangs as a genius piece of anti-typecasting), Infinity War is never more than 10 minutes away from a revelation or reward. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the truest sense: there’s those Easter eggs for die-hard fans, plenty of broad humour for the multiplex crowd and kid-friendly whizz-bang action to spare.
But much like Cap struggling to hold back Thanos’ deadly fist, the strain of juggling two chess boards-worth of pieces all at once is keenly felt. A selection of the gargantuan cast are relegated to background extras until they’re demanded by the plot (the running gag of teenage Groot with his head stuck in a video game feels like a cheap way to keep him out of action), and the Russos' efficient but uninspiring direction means the final confrontation on Titan threatens to become a repetitive tag team event. Alan Silvestri returns to score for the first time since the first Avengers and delivers something grand and operatic, but lacking in consistency. The MCU still has a music problem, and aside from a hasty cut-and-paste of Ludwig Göransson’s theme from Black Panther, none of the individual hero themes are utilised or replicated. The moments that land are reprises of the main Avengers theme, which admittedly still has the power to bat aside minor musical misgivings the instant that rousing brass kicks in.
And then, there’s the ending. With Avengers 4 to come next year, Infinity War feels every bit the half-story it is, but unlike the penultimate outings for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, it reserves its heftiest emotional blows for the finale. Oh, there are one or two heart-straining moments along the way, centrally the tragedy of Vision and Scarlet Witch’s doomed romance, Gamora’s aforementioned fate and Peter Quill’s later realisation (an emotional reaction that turns the tide in Thanos’ favour). Too many times in these films, a genuine emotional moment is quickly undercut by a gag, perhaps for fear of losing an audience who’ve learned not to take anything onscreen remotely serious or with any sense of consequence. Infinity War comes close to learning a pivotal lesson in shunning this approach, reserving those laugh-out-loud moments to small, self-contained sequences that have little effect on the overall narrative thrust.
As he crushes Loki’s neck, Thanos declares “No resurrections this time”, which feels like the masterminds of the MCU finally acknowledging that they have lasting issues when it comes to killing off anyone remotely important. The ending of Infinity War, which sees every major hero besides Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, War Machine and Rocket Raccoon turn to ash at the snap of the violet titan’s fingers, feels like a solution, but only temporarily. Once the initial shock of seeing characters you’ve spent almost a decade getting to know disintegrate with varying degrees of confusion and fear, you immediately start theorising how they might survive. No-one really wants to see their heroes die, but if you never kill any of them (or worse, resurrect them over and over again), you don’t really believe they’re in any danger, and you start to care less and less. What this cliffhanger does is offer a brief solution that hits the initial emotional beats, puts the fan theory machine into overdrive, but offers little lasting impact.
I don’t want to go into the arena of speculation here, but not only is there literally a green stone that can reverse time, said MacGuffin is used barely five minutes before the final devastation to bring Vision back to life. When the list of the dead contains some of the MCU’s freshest icons, it’s very hard to see their deaths not being retconned in the next chapter. Certain losses nevertheless leave a mark: anything that brings the unshakeable Tony Stark to speechless horror is nothing to be sniffed at, even if Spider-Man’s heartbreaking “I don’t want to go” feels like getting to the end of Deathly Hallows Part 1 and experiencing the trauma of Dobby’s death, only for him to come back in a year’s time. The inevitable rematch against Thanos and certain actor contracts may claim a cataclysmic wedge of Marvel’s roster, but until trailers begin to emerge, we can only guess. If they stick to their guns and provide a conclusion that delivers big on consequence and resonance, perhaps giving these comic book legends the screen send offs they desperately need, the biggest empty threat of the MCU may at long last be fulfilled.