Avengers: Infinity War is too much too late, a torrential rainstorm of superheroes and explosions and death rays beamed from Infinity Stones. Oh, and then there are more superheroes. I wondered once, way back in 2003, if X2 would be able to balance its extensive ensemble cast as the second, larger X-Men movie. I had no idea what was coming.
To be fair, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely done a decent job of juggling its many characters. In 2012’s The Avengers, which was the first time the whole team was assembled, writer-director Joss Whedon gave ample time to the relational dynamics at play when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the others all shared the same room. This personal focus faded a bit in the frustratingly bombastic Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it proved crucial to the success of Captain America: Civil War, one of the best MCU installments. The rift between Iron Man and Captain America drove everything in that film, so that even the fight scenes had a bristling intimacy.
In Infinity War, the Cap-Stark debate is brushed aside—indeed, almost forgotten—as the Avengers, although scattered, are all forced to contend with a larger, outside threat: Thanos (Josh Brolin), a massive, galaxy-trotting warlord who believes the universe would be better off if half of the population was exterminated. This is an extreme brand of eco-terrorism, but Thanos also frames his plan in religious terms, telling those he has spared—even as they stand amidst their murdered friends and family members—that he is providing “salvation.” Thus far Thanos has pursued his genocidal plans one planet at a time (he’s popped up in a few previous MCU films), but if he can get his hands on all six Infinity Stones—all-powerful gems, a couple of which are in the hands of Avengers—their combined power would allow him to reduce life in the universe by half with the literal snap of his fingers.
Thanos, I must say, is more effective than I expected, especially considering the movie’s trailers suggested yet another faceless, CGI space troll (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). There is some clever use of scale that takes advantage of Thanos’ immense size: when we first see him, he’s holding Thor, who’s no Jack Sprat, like a rag doll. And whether it’s makeup work or CGI or a combination of both, Brolin’s actual face manages to register on the screen. It even has a tactile quality, with curious grooves running down Thanos’ cheeks, which in one interesting moment serve as channels for unexpected tears.
Yes, Thanos cries—a noble attempt by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to imbue their villain with emotions, and conflicted ones at that. Much of this is related to Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Thanos’ adopted daughter and one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. While we do get one affecting scene in which Thanos momentarily questions how much he’s willing to give up in order to pursue his deranged vision, it’s still not enough to overcome the character’s primary purpose: to stand there as a muscled-up megalomaniac at which the Avengers throw their endless punches.
Thanos mostly serves as a muscled-up megalomaniac at which the Avengers throw their endless punches.
The action is a real disappointment in Infinity War, especially because the returning brother directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo brought a gritty, hand-to-hand aesthetic to both Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another one of the better MCU efforts. I think of the bitter brawl involving Cap, Stark, and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) at the climax of Civil War or the close-quarters elevator fight in Winter Soldier and lament that Infinity War fails to provide a single action sequence to match either of them (despite the fact that it consists of a third act comprised almost entirely of battle scenes). Instead, we mostly get those signature, powerful punches that result in a reverberating thud—I called them “punchplosions” in Age of Ultron—rather than the sort of personal combat that exudes actual physicality.
Avengers: Infinity War isn’t a total loss. Tellingly, what I most enjoyed were the lighter, personal moments. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meeting Thor and trying to match his booming vocal style out of hero envy is a highlight, especially because Groot—now a teen tree—can’t be bothered to look up from his video game in the background. (Plus, give me that Thor-Rocket buddy movie ASAP, where Thor can finally figure out that Rocket is a raccoon, not a rabbit.) Stark and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) also share some amusing scenes in which they suspiciously sniff around each other, probably because they’re essentially the same character. Another good, recurring gag is how Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) seems to be suffering from Hulk-tile dysfunction, given his inability to reliably make the big green guy appear.
I should probably address the movie’s ending, which I’ll try to do without spoiling anything. Some will likely regard it as courageous, given the dramatic developments that take place. But the only thing that shocked me was how little I was moved by what transpired. I’ve grown surprisingly attached to many of these characters—again, the strength of the MCU has always been relationship—so why wasn’t I more affected by the various fates they meet in Infinity War’s final moments?
Perhaps, by this point, any emotional attachment I previously felt had been punchplosioned out of me. But leaving the theater, I realized I did feel something: as if I had been the victim of a long con. This is the 19th MCU film, and it offered the least return on my continual investment. I’m not looking for closure, exactly—I know there’s another Avengers movie next year—but I did hope for something more than a business play forcing us to make yet another payment on our collective Marvel mortgage. At this point, Avengers: Infinity War should have offered some sense of culmination. Instead it felt like foreclosure.