Avengers: Infinity War

Ten years is a long time. If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be seeing a movie like Avengers: Infinity War, where all the heroes of the Marvel Universe (including the Guardians of the Galaxy!) would be fighting against an Infinity Gauntlet wielding Thanos, I absolutely would not have believed you. Back in 2008, I was deep into comic books, but especially Marvel cosmic comic books ranging from the first Annihilation through everything Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning were writing. Thanos was my favorite villain this side of Galactus, and I was a huge fan of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline. And now? A big budget Marvel movie that’s destined to be the biggest release of the summer with two and a half hours of runtime-y goodness?

“Pinch me!” 2008 me would have said. “Clearly, I am in some fantasy dreamland.”

Now, in 2018, walking into the theater for my press screening of Avengers: Infinity War, my demeanor was a lot more cautious. Not just because it’s usually a good idea for any film critic to leave their expectations at the door going into a screening, but because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has slowly evolved into something more akin to the cursed wish granted by a djinn, asking for unlimited riches only to be buried in it. After eighteen movies, many of which could be best described as of questionable quality, focused far more on leading into the next movie instead of focusing on the one at hand, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned into the sort of crossover event these same comic book fans used to (and assuredly still) complain about. You may not give a hoot about Ant-Man, but you better watch his movie if you don’t want to miss anything.

But all of those eighteen films and ten years have built to now. Ever since showing up in the post-credits stinger of Marvel's The Avengers, the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has skulked on the margins, attempting to corral the six ultra powerful infinity stones that exist throughout the universe to become all-powerful. And that means everyone (well, just about everyone) is on deck to bring his menace to heel. That means Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). It means Captain America (Chris Evans). It means Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his gaggle of Asgardian buddies. It means the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, et al). It means Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). And it means the return of 2018’s hottest box office star, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). And that barely scratches the surface of this giant-sized cast, all united to fight a common enemy. Surely nothing will go wrong and the heroes will succeed in the end, right?

It should be noted that while this is the first time directors Joe and Anthony Russo have helmed an Avengers movie, they aren’t exactly strangers to a massive cast. Their last effort, Captain America: Civil War, was basically Avengers 2.5, boasting the largest cast of the MCU prior to this one. And indeed, a movie like this is almost entirely predicated on the ability of the directors and writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) to juggle a billion plates in the air and make it look like the most natural thing in the world. As you probably expected, Avengers: Infinity War moves at a breakneck pace, zipping from planet to planet and setting to setting as it lines up it's chess pieces. It can be incredibly easy to lose the plot here, as we cut away from one group of heroes to a completely different part of the universe to check in on another, all while Thanos and his minions hunt down the Infinity Stones. It's a lot to take in and a lot to follow, especially if there are any gaps in your MCU knowledge.

And throughout pretty much all of it, it is very much a Marvel movie. Everything you expect to be there is there. The tension-cutting jokes, the chiseled actors named Chris, the world-threatening baddie who brings them all together, the thinly sketched villains. It’s all there. The Russos fit the Marvel style like it’s a second layer of skin; it’s easy to see them making these movies until they’re octogenarians huddled over monitors while an entirely new generation of impossibly famous people flail away in front of green screens. Honestly, things benefit more than a little from the diffuse nature of the cast, allowing some of the characters who were in danger of becoming overexposed in their own features to stick and move. A character like Spider-Man just works better surrounded by other heroes to play off without the spotlight squarely on him. The same can be said about Doctor Strange. Sure, we're still not getting a lot from Black Widow or Falcon or some of the other second tier folks, but there's only so much time in the world to devote to such things.

Perhaps most impressive is how well Josh Brolin brings Thanos to life; his shoehorned cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy made me expect the worst, but the full-blown version of the giant purple monster has the nuance required to make his character and his motivations work. There’s a disaffect to Thanos as played by Brolin; he’s swatting at flies who think they’re superheroes while he works to bend the universe to his will while he carries a cloud of dread with him everywhere he goes. Like some of the better villains in the MCU canon (well, really just Loki and Killmonger), he makes you sit up and take notice whenever he enters a scene. He is not simply a boogeyman, a brute or a thing to be conquered. There’s a introspection to him, a deep thoughtfulness. It’s a remarkably faithful adaptation from the comics, and he carries the action with aplomb.

I can't say it all works, though. The world still hasn’t managed to make CGI lips look convincing. There is the standard jokiness (especially from the Guardians, which is really starting to play itself out) that continues to hit and miss. There are a few additions to the cast that don't really work, and Thanos’ lieutenants look more like XCOM rejects than compelling characters. As someone who force-fed himself Marvel cosmic for a long time, I was also likely far more predisposed to go along with all the Infinity Stone nonsense (why have one macguffin when you can have SIX?!), but someone who hasn’t dedicated a lot of time to the finer points of the work of Jim Starlin could be more than susceptible to having their eyes glaze over every time another colored rock shows up and has to be explained. It also doesn't help that this movie is the first two acts of a larger story, something that can be tough to swallow if you're counting on resolution. Avengers: Infinity War is not about resolution in the slightest. Resolution seems like a mirage just outside of reach.

What it is about, magically, is stakes. The biggest criticism I have levied against the MCU films is their complete lack of stakes, creating movies filled with all sorts of heroes being grievously and mortally wounded only to show up on the mend on a doctor’s slab in a later scene because they’ve got to be right as rain in time for the next movie on the docket. And Avengers: Infinity War attempts to establish those stakes almost immediately, making a claim that this one isn’t a game. It’s a tough pill to swallow, and I certainly had my skeptical hat on after years of disappointment in that arena. But I dare say that this time around is different. As each character comes up against the abject power and horror of Thanos, they change. They stop making jokes. They realize how deathly serious this is in an entirely different way than before. And I bought in. It’s a hell of a trick to pull, one that arguably relies on those years of disappointment to be as effective as it is. As they push on toward the climactic battle, there’s a sense of despair and helplessness alongside the standard heroics that has never worked as well as it does here. That’s one of the big factors on where you’re likely to land when Avengers: Infinity War’s credits roll. If you buy into it, the Infinity Stones, the stakes, Thanos as a villain, this could be the Marvel movie you’ve been waiting for. If you don’t, things could get ugly. There’s a real chance this could be contentious (like Star Wars: The Last Jedi contentious), but that’s the price to pay for ambition. This movie is not lacking in ambition, that’s for sure.

In some ways, this is perhaps the biggest gambit we have seen in the blockbuster franchise model. Avengers: Infinity War asks a lot from it's audience, not simply the commitment to having seen 18 movies over ten years, but to where this next one goes and to, as they say, trust the process. But regardless of where you land, let it not be said that Marvel and Disney lacked conviction. As said in my opening, this movie was made for the comic book fan in me, and it is so acutely tuned to that fan that it is honestly tough to look at it from a purely critical perspective. Many have commented on the critic-proof nature of movies like this, and it's easy to see why. Regardless of what we think about this movie, people are going to be talking about that last shot for a long time. This is the sort of event these Marvel movies have been striving for all along. It is something of consequence and weight. I’ve been waiting for that for some time.