After ten years, 18 movies, 30,000 visual effects (someone actually counted), and multi-billion-dollar grosses the envy of every Hollywood movie studio (except Disney, of course), the Marvel brand of superhero storytelling has never been stronger or more popular with mainstream moviegoers. The 19th – and far from last – entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the Anthony and Joe Russo-directed Avengers: Infinity War, delivers everything moviegoers have come to expect, sometimes even love about Marvel: layered superhero characters, screen-splitting, epic-scaled action, and a cannily calibrated mix of drama and comedy, usually with the fate of the world, the galaxy, and sometimes even the universe at stake. It’s practically impossible to get bigger, more meaningful stakes wise than the known universe (unless we bring the multiverse into the discussion, but that’s for another time and place). Be prepared: Avengers: Infinity War may be the darkest, most downbeat, least emotionally gratifying entry in the entire MCU canon. The stakes feel real, the threats to our favorite superheroes even realer.
Grim and downbeat isn’t usually part of the Marvel formula (that’s been DC’s take until recently), but then again the Avengers are facing possibly the greatest super-villain in the MCU, Thanos (voiced and mo-capped by Josh Brolin), “The Mad Titan.” The purple-skinned, scrotal-chinned Thanos might have spent the last six years sitting on a golden throne floating in the middle of nowhere (not Knowhere, that comes later), hanging back while he lets his minions, acolytes, and wannabe world conquerors like Loki (Tom Hiddleston) do the dirty work of acquiring the Infinity Stones (Mind, Soul, Power, Reality, Space, and Time) for him. (Collectively, the Infinity Stones give the owner the ability remake the MCU in his or her own image.) Thanos might be as powerful as a god (small “g”) in the MCU, but he wants to be a god in the big “G” sense, except he’s less about creating and more about destroying (as in half the universe) via universe-wide genocide. No one, not even his forcibly adoptive daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), can convince him otherwise. The scenes they share have more drama, more emotion (played straight too), than just about anything else in Avengers: Infinity War where in typical Marvel fashion, every emotional beat gets undercut by a one-liner or four.
But that’s not where Avengers: Infinity War ends or even begins. Avengers: Infinity War picks up where Thor: Ragnorak left off back in November, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a space freighter filled with Asgardian refugees facing off against Thanos’ massive space ship. It’s venturing into spoiler territory, but it doesn’t go well for Thor and the Asgardians. In fact, it goes badly, very badly, as in Star Wars: The Last Jedi badly. In fact, Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t feel so much like a third, trilogy-ending entry, but rather a second, middle chapter, where everything that can go wrong for our favorite superheroes just might, where they’ll lose more than they’ll win. That might make Avengers: Infinity War a tough sell for repeat business, but credit to the Russo Brothers (Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Community) and their screenwriting team, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they lean heavily on the Marvel formula of mixing light and dark, comedy with drama, to keep Avengers: Infinity War from feeling like a Zack Snyder-directed DCEU entry.
That means leaving Thor temporarily behind and shifting to Earth, where the arrival of Thanos’ minions, the Black Order, in one of his ring-ships pulls Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Tom Holland) together in New York. The Russo Brothers leverage Strange and Stark’s immediate dislike due to their similar, big-brained personalities into much-needed humor. They also continue to build on the Stark-Parker, father-son relationship that pays off in less surprising, but no less welcome ways when all three inadvertently team-up. Avengers: Infinity War also pairs up Thor with the Guardians of the Galaxy™, Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a now teenaged Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), though it doesn’t take long for the Guardians to break up into two teams and two separate, if related, missions.
Remarkably, the Russo Brothers end up juggling five or six different storylines and superhero team-ups, though ultimately the different storylines converge on or around Thanos. A vacationing Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff / Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) get thrown into the mix, not by choice, but due to the Mind Stone that keeps the Vision operational. Eventually, Steve “Don’t Call Me Captain America” Rodgers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlet Johanssen), and T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Bowman), join the fight against Thanos, though in a movie with the size and scale of Avengers: Infinity War, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they do little except fight prep and fighting. If anything, Avengers: Infinity War belongs to Thor first (he gets maximum screen time and an actual arc), the Strange-Stark-Parker combo second, the Guardian offshoots/sub-team third, Rodgers-Romanoff-T’Challa third, and Vision-Scarlett Witch a distant fourth. That can totally turn around, of course, with the still-to-be-subtitled Avengers 4 (suggested title: Avengers: The Reset). However much – or little – screentime our favorite and not-so-favorite superheroes have, though, the Russo Brothers and the Marvel brain trust always manage to nail the individual voices and personalities of the MCU characters moviegoers have come to know over the last decade.
That’s a huge plus, especially for a movie that brings together practically every first-, second-, and third-tier superhero character from across the MCU (minus two, but it’s easy to guess who doesn’t make the cut). Some critics have dismissed Marvel and the MCU as the “Marvel Industrial Complex”, but that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – minimize the technical, logistical, and storytelling achievement that Avengers: Infinity War represents. It’s practically all three Lord of the Rings movies rolled into one. And even if Avengers: Infinity War feels like it’s purely plot-driven (Thanos and the built-in, mechanical countdown to getting all six Infinity Stones), it’s hard not to admire or respect the culmination of massive, decade-plus-long efforts to bring superhero entertainment from the comic-book panel to multiplex screens everywhere. Thanos may or may not get all of the Infinity Stones and remake the universe by the end of Avengers: Infinity War, but it’s abundantly clear Marvel has.