Ten years ago, if you had argued that Iron Man of all things would be the most important and influential superhero film of the year – if not the most important film of the year, period – chances are that no-one would have believed you. And yet here we are, a decade in to the grand experiment that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th (!) film in the series and the culmination of everything that’s gone before. With enormous hype and a presumably even more enormous budget behind it, it has a lot to deliver on – but will people be satisfied?
With the Avengers scattered following the events of the previous films, a massively powerful alien conqueror named Thanos has begun his campaign to gather all six Infinity Stones, put them all together in his Infinity Gauntlet, and bring “balance” to the universe. Obviously, he’s bad news, and only the combined might of almost every single superhero in the Marvel Universe can stop him.
The big question with Infinity War was always going to be the doubtless daunting business of juggling many plot threads and many, many characters without having the whole thing devolve into incomprehensibility – and while it probably won’t make a lick of sense if you’re not familiar with the other instalments of the franchise, it achieves this goal remarkably well. It’s actually quite miraculous just how deftly it manage to interweave all these characters and their separate story lines, diverging and recombining as the film progresses, without ever feeling ponderous, overstuffed or bloated. It’s nearly 150 minutes long, but it’s so briskly paced that the potentially bum-numbing running time never becomes an issue. Something this stuffed full of characters and plot has no business being so lean and fluid; it’s a genuinely stunning achievement from that point of view.
Practically every one of our heroes gets a moment to shine as well, with none of them feeling shoved to one side or inconsequential to the story. There’s even time for some deft and, at times, touching character work in amongst all the explosions, and when the inevitable Big Hero Moments arrive they’re nothing short of spectacular. There are welcome surprises and satisfying payoffs galore here, more than a few of which are likely to have audiences cheering and applauding. The inevitable hostility between Doctor Strange and Tony Stark is as funny as we all suspected it would be, and Thor’s interactions with Rocket lead to some of the most memorable scenes in the whole film. The Guardians of the Galaxy are particularly well served here, in fact, presumably due at least in part to James Gunn being on board as a producer, but they’ve lost none of their edge or appeal in the process of being written and directed by people other than the auteur behind their own series.
But the heroes being appealing and engaging is nothing new for Marvel – where they’ve consistently stumbled in the past is with the villains. Fortunately, and crucially, that is not the case here. Brought to life by Josh Brolin in a performance-capture suit (and near-photorealistic CGI), Thanos is a genuine triumph, and unquestionably the driving force of the film. Where previous Marvel villains have frequently served as elaborate roadblocks on the heroes’ journeys, Thanos is arguably the closest thing Infinity War has to a singular, central protagonist. He’s afforded all the care, depth and even sympathy that the protagonists of previous Marvel films have been, easily catapulting him to the upper tiers of MCU villainy. Without Thanos being as believable and compelling as he is, this film simply would not work.
And what would a superhero movie be without humongous, super-powered fight sequences? Infinity War delivers in spades on that front, with some of the biggest, most elaborate battles we’ve seen thus far; while the sheer amount of fighting runs the risk of overwhelming, the fact that it’s all grounded in characters that we’ve spent years growing to know and care about means everything has real weight and significance. There are several beats in the massive battle in Wakanda that rank among the MCU’s finest moments, and the ending, when it comes, is one of the boldest and most daring creative choices we’ve seen in any blockbuster of recent years.
Suffice to say, without getting into spoilers, that this is not the end – the as yet untitled Avengers 4 will be on its way next year, and we have almost no idea what it’s going to entail. But for now, Infinity War is a monstrously entertaining and profoundly satisfying rollercoaster ride that, crucially, never feels like Part 1 of 2 with all the good stuff saved for the next one: everyone involved has brought everything they have to it, and it’s paid off in glorious fashion. Is it flawless? Of course not, but the missteps are relatively inconsequential next to the rest of it – and besides, many of them aren’t safe to discuss in this spoiler-free zone. This is the full fruition of the whole bonkers, decade-long experiment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s astounding.