There was an idea, to bring together a group of remarkable superhero films, to see if they could become something more, see if they could fit together when needed, to provide a cinematic experience that no other could. These lofty words, or at least an approximation of them, were first spoken in reference to assembling Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to defend against super-threats, but it easily translates into a pitch for the then unheard of scope of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. After a full decade and eighteen films of slow, deliberate build up, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR finally arrives to fulfil this pledge, delivering event cinema like nothing that has ever come before it, with an incredibly bold and dramatic story that, despite its cosmic scale, succeeds by balancing hilarious, often heartfelt moments between its heroes, with one of the most powerful and compelling villains in franchise history.
It was back in 2012, during the standard post-credits scene of the debut Avengers film, that audiences were first introduced to Thanos, with a fleeting glimpse of a big purple guy in a floating space chair, and since then he has lingered as an enigmatic shadow, looming over the dozen-or-so films that followed. Little by little, his plan began to take shape, and, thanks to a little cosmic exposition in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, it became apparent that there existed in the universe six singularities that were compressed into the form of colourful gems, known as the Infinity Stones. Each of these powerful little rocks offer control over one element of the universe – Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Soul, and Time – and when collected together, their combined might is strong enough to make their wielder as good as omnipotent.
After ten years of trying to get others to bring the stones together for him, Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally decides to take care of business himself. Sort of. INFINITY WAR begins with the six gems scattered across the known universe, and, impressive as he is, Thanos still only has one pair of big purple hands, so he brings along his own super-team to back him up, who reverentially refer to themselves as The Children of Thanos. Out in space, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoë Saldana) and the other Guardians find themselves on a collision course with the destruction left in Thanos’ wake, while Earthbound heroes such as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of the disassembled Avengers face a rude interruption of their attempts at normality, when the Children arrive to claim their father’s trinkets. Hopelessly outmatched, the two teams are forced to unite, or face decimation.
INFINITY WAR opens with stakes and tensions usually reserved for the final act, and only escalates from there.
While that may seem like a rather vague synopsis, it is literally as detailed as it possibly can be without drifting into spoiler territory. Keenly aware of exactly how much plot and how many characters it has to fit into its already substantial run-time (the internet can’t quite agree on the precise figures, but it’s the longest MCU entry yet), INFINITY WAR opens with stakes and tensions usually reserved for the final act, and only escalates from there, careening through action set pieces, character introductions, jokes, tears and a million other things at breakneck speed. While this accelerated pace allows for very little down-time between the epic battles and vicious struggles, the merging of story-lines and continuation of character arcs are neatly woven into the exponentially rising action, allowing the heroes to lead the drama, rather than be fully swept up by it.
Given the distinct stylistic separation between the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy corners of the Marvel Universe thus far, not to mention the sheer number of primary characters there are to play with, bringing them together is no easy feat. With so many big personalities, the meeting of worlds can’t be given too much focus, or it risks detracting from the central narrative, however too little attention would be a disservice to both camps, and feel less like a successful team-up, and more a watered down version of two superior franchises. Thankfully, the creative team behind INFINITY WAR have had some practise with this particular dilemma, as directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, are all veterans of multiple Marvel films, including the superhero smack-down, Captain America: Civil War.
Though not technically an Avengers flick, Cap’s third “solo” outing ended up starring more heroes than either of the supposed team-ups that came before it, and as such, gave the writers and directors plenty of practise in ensuring each of their many characters got some time to shine, without losing focus of the overall plot. It was like the cinematic equivalent of tipping out your toy box and making all your action figures fight each other, while you do hilarious quips in their different voices. This legacy is evident in the plot structure of INFINITY WAR, as the story quickly divides up its innumerable heroes into separate arcs, with mixtures of the different franchises quickly thrown together, and forced to work beyond their personality clashes against the superior might of Thanos and his Children. Once again the toy box has been tipped out, only this time the bully from next door is coming, and he’s bringing a magnifying glass.
This format works to the credit of the characters, allowing the heroes from different properties to intersect, many for the first time, without too much discordance – with the whole world going to hell, nobody’s wasting too much time on introductions. Benefiting especially from this status quo are the zanier Guardians of the Galaxy and post-Ragnarok Thor, both of whom are able to retain their unique, wacky brands of humour, offering plenty of the film’s biggest laughs without ever undercutting the impact of the more dramatic scenes. The knife’s edge balance between comedy and tragedy that the film so brazenly walks is also afforded more room to breathe by the split arcs: as the story is being told over a literal galactic scale, a harrowing moment in one plot-line can be followed not to soon after by a slick one-liner or hilarious character meet-up in another, without either the joke falling flat, or the sense of peril slipping for a moment.
Thanos […] quickly asserts himself as the most powerful and ruthless foe that either Avengers or Guardians have ever faced.
None of these moments, neither side-splitting or heart-wrenching, would have half the impact without the actors behind them, and each of the heroes, all of whom have been fantastic in their roles before, bring their performances to new heights for this special event. Saldana, whose Gamora has had little emotional material to work with in her previous two films, is given more than enough to make up for it this time around, with plenty of screen time dedicated to the complex step daughter/father relationship she shares with Thanos; Downey Jr. has been going from strength to strength since his powerful turn in the introspective Iron Man 3, and here bumps it up another notch as Tony Stark faces his hardest trials yet; And with just one solo outing apiece under their respective belts, relative newcomers Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are given a fair amount of character development, with Holland in particular bringing an incredible emotional depth to his iteration of Spidey, perfectly emoting a teenager enduring such a world-ending event.
With so many characters, not everyone has such an involved arc – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain America felt particularly lacking – but the film makes sure that everyone is given their moment to shine, often in the forms of unlikely team-ups and interactions. Star-Lord insecurely tries and fails to compete with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) when the other Guardians take a liking to him, the ever skittish Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has a couple of great moments with both Shuri (Letita Wright) and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) as he tries to find his feet being back on Earth, and the absurd notion of Captain America meeting teen Groot (Vin Diesel) ends up exactly as hilarious as it sounds. On the battlefield, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Black Widow and Okoye (Danai Gurira) engage Thanos’ forces together, while Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) get the best of both worlds, fighting together and then capping it off with a perfectly characterised quip.
While an understanding of the heroes’ individual personalities is generally assumed, and certain references may go over the heads of some viewers (not Drax of course), this is a necessary sacrifice to make room for the real star of the show. As much as anyone can be called the main character of INFINITY WAR, The Mad Titan is indisputably it, racking up more screen-time than any other, and joining Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in the very lonely club of well-developed Marvel villains along the way. Huge, imposing and horrifyingly calm, Thanos exudes an aura of fatality from the first moment he steps onscreen, and he quickly asserts himself as the most powerful and ruthless foe that either Avengers or Guardians have ever faced. His might and will make him incredibly exciting to watch, as he tears through the heroes like a chainsaw through butter with a vast array of inventive, visually spectacular fight scenes, and yet, that is far from all that makes Thanos such an enticing adversary.
Unlike his comic-book counterpart, whose odyssey of destruction was a really elaborate courting ritual to get the attention of the physical embodiment of death, film Thanos posits an interesting philosophical conundrum as the root of his mission. While not being compelling enough to convince any of the heroes, the issue is sufficiently complex that it advances his motivation beyond being a simple, blood-thirsty war-lord. Less of a Mad Titan here and more a weary, yet dutiful soldier, his relationship with Gamora adds a further wrinkle to his already multi-faceted makeup, With Brolin expertly realising the emotional vulnerability brought out in Thanos by his favourite daughter. Unfortunately, the rest of his children aren’t anywhere near as impressive, with the snide Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) easily being the most memorable, while Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) are all entertaining enough in fight scenes, but ultimately make very little impact as characters.
INFINITY WAR […] is completely unrivalled, and has set a benchmark for what a cinematic universe can accomplish in the right hands.
This lacking in secondary antagonists can easily be forgiven, as not only is Thanos more than enough villain to carry the plot, but with 18 films worth of backstory to work from, it is astounding that the script manages to present an engrossing narrative of such vast and incredible scope, filled with surprises and fan-pleasing cameos, without collapsing in on itself under the sheer weight of expectation. Instead, it is a well-spun, intricate tale that, by focusing on Thanos as its main character, manages to feel like a self-contained story, despite the fact that its phenomenal and devastating finale will almost certainly lead into the as of yet unnamed Avengers 4. The achievement of Markus and McFeely, in picking up story threads from Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy, all while sprinkling callbacks and references to pretty much every other film in the MCU, is an incredible triumph, and neatly begins to wrap up the first three phases with finesse.
As other comic-book adaptations have shown, bringing something so cherished off of the page can be a daunting task, and a slip in the script, or a wrong turn in the direction can quickly lead to the end product emerging uninspired, overly reliant on CGI to make up for a weak story, or, worst of all, just plain boring. For the Russo brothers, the use of CGI was always going to be an issue, given the extra-terrestrial threat that is Thanos and his minions, but the strong focus on relationships, be they between heroes, villains or both, keeps the story grounded. This leaves plenty of room to display a wide array of inventive and impressive visual effects as the Infinity Gauntlet and the powerful gems it harnesses bend and break the rules of the universe, leading to some strikingly unique fight scenes, and reinforcing exactly how powerful Thanos would be if he got his hands on all six of the stones, and the inescapable devastation he could wreak with them.
Paired with legendary composer Alan Silvestri’s majestic and versatile score, that gels the different franchises as deftly as the visuals, the cinematic experience here is truly like no other, with extra levels of satisfaction to be wrung from it when watched in sequence with the rest of the franchise entries. Without that context, it may not make much sense, but it was never intended to, and with just a vague understanding of the first three phases of the MCU and its heroes, the plots and drama of the film can be easily followed, and the emotional punches can hit just as hard. It may have under-used it’s secondary villains somewhat, but everything else that is stuffed into the run-time is an amazing experience that induces laughter and tears with equal abandon. INFINITY WAR is the most bold and beautiful that an Avengers film has ever been, its ambitious scope is completely unrivalled, and it has set a benchmark for what a cinematic universe can accomplish in the right hands.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles