As the lights turned on and the credits began to roll, I blankly recalled the wreckage—figurative and literal—that had just whizzed by during Avengers Infinity War. The biggest Marvel superhero film to date leaves a ton of stuff for its viewers to unpack, and fans of Marvel’s recent high-quality output may assume that’s great news.
It is definitely not a spoiler to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is significantly changed by this film. Infinity War has long been touted as the face-off to end all superhero face-offs. Forget Superman dying to Doomsday’s spiky hands in the ’90s comic book pages; we’re talking about every Avenger-affiliated movie star combining forces to face a single, long-teased foe. Thanks to satisfying action sequences, location variety, and cross-franchise pollination, the film earns its “Avengers 3” status (a feat that the second film, Age of Ultron, fell short of).
Up front, know that this film is clearly ahead of a DC Comics equivalent like Justice League. But with that out of the way, let’s be real and judge Infinity War based on the MCU’s higher grading curve. Great action films have to carefully combine stakes, tragedy, and triumph, and the most spoiler-free criticism I have of Infinity War is that its MCU-shifting ambition doesn’t pay off in kind. A sequel that’s somehow both too long and too short, Infinity War will leave viewers hollow with an ending that asks, “What the heck did we just sit through all that action for?”
Gritty meets witty
I’d be crazy to say this sequel is without merit. The film’s first hour, for example, will make you wonder what any nay-saying critic is talking about.
Infinity War opens with an impressive cross-stitching of plotlines and film franchises. The casts of Thor Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-man Homecoming, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 each received juicy loose-ends opportunities in their respective films to segue into the crux of Infinity War; all those characters get to cash in. Thanos, the MCU’s baddest bad of them all, is finally making good on his evil promise to collect every Infinity Stone, which would allow him to overtake the Universe by way of incredible, mystical might. Now, he’s on the homestretch.
With that backdrop, the film starts off on a nimble foot. Thanks to Thanos’ latest strides, it doesn’t take long for these casts to commingle and face off in puffed-ego fashion. Tony Stark and Doctor Strange make for a great anti-hero pair by mining opposite ends of the pompous-ass rainbow. Thor and Star Lord come from divergent comedic perspectives while forging a strategic path, which plays out with great dialogue—and this sequence is peppered with tasteful quips from the rest of the GotG cast, to boot.
The world is in dire straits, and the dialogue reflects this, but every early-film exchange benefits from MCU’s established formula of gritty-meets-witty. (My notebook is packed full of quality quotes from a range of heroes; I’m choosing to leave those as a surprise for filmgoers.)
So what goes wrong? For starters, the frigid, fractured state of the core Avengers team only gets lip service. Captain America and Iron Man never take a moment to lock eyes and establish any progress or recognition in their long-standing feud. Hawkeye’s retirement and absence is left untouched at the moment the Avengers’ all-hands-on-deck situation heats up. Black Widow’s silence as a character—both as a remarkable action-hero fighter and as an emotional rock—is deafening. And fallouts from other MCU films are either totally ignored or glossed over in single-sentence blips.
These cross-franchise connections also never rise much beyond sharp-tongued one-liners. The most egregious example comes from Stark and Strange, who stop talking to each other midway through the film after they agree upon certain terms. It’s the kind of “this is how things are going to be” declaration that viewers can expect to be upended in an action-film-cliché way, but Infinity War doesn’t justify or explain the eventual switcheroo. All the actors can do once the logic breaks down is sell its believability with a lengthy, emotional stare.
The rest of Infinity War‘s superhero face-offs feel even flimsier, if not redundant. Iron Man and Spider-man rehash the “you’re not ready/yessss I ammmm” paternal conflict from Homecoming; the nation of Wakanda receives a one-dimensional refresh of its military and scientific might solely to push a certain battle forward; and the film’s romantic entanglements rely entirely on relationships established in prior films. Infinity War offers no new revelations to push any of these pairs forward.
“I know what it’s like to lose”
Worse than all of those shortcomings, however, is the massive logical hole that accelerates Thanos’ rise to power. He, a murderous, unfeeling titan, evidently has something in his heart worth sacrificing.
Through much of the film, when Thanos stomps his way through good guys, he only needs to apply his might to come out ahead. The sole exception is when an unseen, cosmic force requests that he give something up. Going into specifics on this point would be a massive spoiler, but there’s no getting around how lousy this part of the film is. Thanos must go through a few characters in the lead-up to this moment, and even they all loudly, clearly remind him via words and actions that he has done nothing to merit the emotional stakes to come. Thanos has killed millions; decimated worlds; heard families cry in the wake of his murderous vision. And he appears totally fine with that, as most supervillains would be.
Brief, catchy lines and references would benefit from a “see So-And-So-Hero issue #5” footnote.
Yet when the time comes and the cosmos challenges Thanos to make a real sacrifice, we must watch this brute pivot on a tender, cutting-onions foot and crow about how much he’s giving up and losing, all in the service of moving forward as the Universe’s potential new master. Symphonic music swells in the background, and Thanos does something brutal. We’re supposed to believe it’s real. But seconds later, he wakes up newly invigorated. Back to the murderous, unfeeling titan. Back to the lengthy action sequences.
Context is important here. This logical and emotional hole might not have been so glaring if the film successfully executed on other character arcs. Instead, most of Infinity War‘s characters interact in superhero-book-crossover fashion—with brief, catchy lines and references that would benefit from a “see So-And-So-Hero issue #5” footnote. And if the film wasn’t interested in taking a huge, universe-shifting step, I’d surely be more forgiving of a bad guy who shows no signs of feeling or being anything beyond bad. The action scenes, in particular, see Marvel Studios’ VFX teams unloading some of their best, most insane experiments one after another. Not once did I look up at a mishmash of real-world locales, green-screen trickery, and dimension-warping insanity and feel like the results were cheap, slapdash, or sloppy.
But there’s no leaving this film in a turn-your-brain-off, have-a-good-time way. The stakes of Infinity War feel impossible to shrug off like other popcorn-munching blockbusters. That’s the worst part about this film—it left me feeling hollow, both as an incomplete story and as a parable for what heroes can, and should, do in the face of great adversity.
At one point in the film, Thanos plainly announces his vision: that he should be the Universe’s decider of who lives and that his vision somehow trumps all others. It’s disgusting stuff, not without human-history precedent, and some of the film’s events are seemingly designed to justify a speech he gives in the opening minutes: “I know what it’s like to lose. To feel like you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless.”
Filmgoers have seen this before: hope’s flames flickering in the face of adversity. It’s the hallmark of some of modern cinema’s biggest classics. But Infinity War concludes by leaving viewers with very little hope on both a macro level—how major plot points play out, how Thanos gets away with that ridiculous plot hole—and on the micro level of seeing heroes unite or grow by way of compelling character arcs.
Clearly, more Marvel films will follow to upend Infinity War‘s lowest lows. Disney can’t make billions of dollars off a universe where the villains always take a bigger slice of the victory pie. But as its own self-contained film, this Avengers sequel fails to make viewers care, or believe, that any of the heroes we invest in had true faith or hope in each other. That’s the quality I kept pining for beneath every stellar action sequence and quirky moment of repartee. And that is why this is the most disappointing MCU film yet—no need to even agonize over some of the sure-to-be-dissected specifics.
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