Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johannsson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (screenplay)
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 2 hr, 29 min
There’s an urge to overpraise Avengers: Infinity War solely on scale alone. As you may have deduced, this is a big ‘um: with significant parts for over 20 MCU heroes and a beefy running time that exists mainly just to pack them all in. This is not a movie concerned with nuance or quiet moments, and the very fact that it stays together with such discipline is a testament to the filmmakers’ skills.
And yet it still exists primarily as popcorn: a chance to deliver the length and depth of the Marvel Universe with the same breathtaking excitement that used to accompany event comic book releases like Secret Wars or Infinity Gauntlet (upon which this one is largely based). It succeeds marvelously well at its primary task, and the fact that it simply lacks the time to plunge into anything deeper than pure entertainment shouldn’t be held against it.
Having said that, some of its best moments come in the quiet pauses between the set pieces, when the gaggle of characters get a little room to breathe and interact. The best of it comes from unexpected directions, and features heroes we haven’t previously seen so front-and-center. Chief among them are the Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), engaged in a secretive romance after ending up on opposite sides in Civil War and desperately trying to follow their hearts as the universe comes apart without them. Other moments represent further development from series stalwarts, such as Spider-Man (Tom Holland) who still desperately wants to prove to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) that he’s ready to sit at the grown-ups table, while Stark watches his grim vision from Age of Ultron start to come true and fights with all his might to stop it.
Naturally not everyone gets such attention, and a number of heroes here exist simply to charge at the bad guys. Captain America (Chris Evans), for instance, does little more than rally the gang and kick some alien butt, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is occupied largely with Find the Magic Weapon duties in the depths of outer space. Thankfully, Infinity War never feels like it short-shrifts any of them, since most are series stalwarts with multiple earlier movies to work out their personal issues. (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man are the only big no-shows, presumably waiting for later in the summer.)
The bulk of the film focuses on action, of course, and in that realm it has a terrific straw to stir the drink. Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mad titan, has hit upon the notion of solving the universe’s problems by murdering half of it, and to do that, he needs the six Infinity Stones to reshape creation to his will. He dispatches him minions to collect some of them while focusing on the trickier ones himself: setting the terms early on and letting the mayhem unfold as a matter of course.
Said mayhem is glorious of course: in a wide variety of places, with an array of different stakes, and a surprisingly diverse mixture of heroes struggling to halt Armageddon in its tracks. As summer entertainment, you couldn’t ask for more, and yet Infinity War never loses its soul beneath the copious visual effects. Credit for that belongs to its surprisingly thoughtful take on Thanos, his motivations, and the past that brought him to this state. Not only does it give various members of the Guardians of the Galaxy the chance to address their grievances against him, but it provides some understandable purpose to the swirling chaos encapsulated in the movie’s running time.
Infinity War reaps the benefits in terms of sheer storytelling technique: an impressive feat simply because of the discipline and skill required to deliver so much in such a comparatively tight package. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have already proven their bona fides to the Marvel faithful, and while this one can’t quite reach the brilliance of Civil War or Winter Soldier, that isn’t the purpose of the exercise here. This is a tentpole: the culmination of 10 years of movies woven together in one single, impressive moment. It honors that legacy without leaning on it, finding a few genuine surprises along the way (which I have studiously avoided discussing here) and opening the path to the next stage of this incredible cinematic experiment with the same skill and aplomb with which the MCU built its empire.
At the end of the day, the person most responsible for all of that is Marvel’s resident evil genius Kevin Feige, who never stopped being a hard-core comics fan even as his creation grew larger and larger. His greatest trick has simply been to transfer the experience of buying and reading comics to the big screen. We just pay $12 every four months now instead of $2 every month. But the storytelling techniques are the same, complete with massive crossovers, surprise twists and cliffhanger endings. The MCU remains “Marvel,” first and foremost, and as big as this movie can be, you can still readily spot the pulse of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and countless writers and artists who poured their hearts and souls into those funny little magazines.
Infinity War – and the MCU as a whole – thrives simply because it never lost that DNA. It’s a straightforward feat in many ways, and we’ve grown accustomed to its presence. But it’s no less rare and no less extraordinary for the results. In and of itself, Infinity War is simply a solid event picture, here to start the summer off properly. But it carries the soul of five-plus decades of comic books at its heart, and with the franchise, it represents showing no signs of slowing down, that fact is worth noting. Who knows how much further this journey will go… and what wonders it will show us along the way.