Avengers: Infinity War is a movie on the model of a mid-series episode of Game of Thrones: a massive cast of characters is paired off in new combinations and sent on quests, and the story jumps between these dispersed quests, presuming that, for the most part, you already know each character’s motivations for driving forward. This should be a problem for a film—sequels have always had to re-exposit some of the previous films’ backgrounds for new viewers—but in the age of media convergence, giving a feature film the dramatic structure of the most serialized of serialized stories does gangbusters.
The film picks up where about six or seven films (or their post-credit stingers) left off:
- in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Asgard, the home of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had been destroyed, with residents escaping on a giant space-ark;
- Dr. Strange ended with the eponymous wizard using a “time stone” to defeat the big space entity Mads Mikkelson works for
- at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016), the superhero team The Avengers had broken up (“Broken up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?” Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who’s been in space for two years, asks when updated);
- in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Banner and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) had created a transcendent form of A.I. (The Vision, played by Paul Bettany) using a magical, glowing stone;
- in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the titular ragtag guardians had left a similar magical stone with an eccentric space-person named The Collector (Benicio del Toro);
- in this year’s Black Panther, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) had opened his isolated country Wakanda to the world;
- and in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) … maybe Peter Parker ended up on a bus, on his way to school? (I didn’t see that one. It may not be very important.)
Those of us who have seen and maybe even revisited all 18 Marvel films will be able to follow the significance of each character’s journey in this film, but just as I wouldn’t recommend with starting Game of Thrones with episode 5 of season 6, it’s hard to see how the uninitiated would have a satisfying experience at this movie.
The figure lurking behind many of these Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) events is Thanos (Josh Brolin), the large purple outer-space man who is designated a “Titan” with no explanation of what constitutes a Titan in the Marvel cosmos. (To be fair to Infinity War, it’s also somewhat unclear what a god is in the Marvel Universe, considering characters like Thor and Loki are literal gods.) Thanos wants to exterminate precisely one half of all the life in the universe because of overpopulation. He’s on a quest to collect the magical stones that have shown up in many a Marvel picture, because once he has them, he will be able to accomplish his ideal genocide “in the snap of [his] fingers,” in a turn of phrase you’ll only think is a trite metaphor.
As usual, one Marvel strategy to appeal to those viewers not closely following its sprawling movie mythology is to make the on-screen interactions fun and poppy. With a charismatic cast and characters who are just similar enough to maintain brand integrity and just distinct enough to buoy interest, Infinity War excels at making its talking bits fun to watch. Given that there are two dozen or so major characters dispersed across time and space, it would make little dramatic or narrative (or even spatial) sense to get them all together; instead, it pairs them up in fun but natural combinations: the space-opera heroes Thor and the Guardians; the New York natives Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange; the globe-trotters Black Panther, Captain America, and Falcon.
Joe and Anthony Russo, the sibling duo responsible for writing and directing this and a few other Marvel films, know that a movie that just cuts between three or four groups of heroes for three hours wouldn’t, well, cut it. They wisely, then, anchor the film with Thanos, whose inner conflicts and motivations are explored more than any other individual character in this story. The MCU is famously plagued by a villain problem, and in Thanos the Russos seem convinced they have found a solution, crafting a portrait of a hulking purple monster who cries and bleeds for what he believes in. Some of the film’s most interesting scenes, dramatically, come from Josh Brolin’s purple-ified face.
But Thanos is not as complex as the film needs him to be. For one thing, he lacks the capacity for self-reflection, and in that way, he’s a less complex villain even than Joss Whedon’s Ultron, an abortive attempt to make the MCU talk seriously about artificial life. And as much as the film wants to center Thanos and his mission to exterminate 50% of life, Infinity War presents an outrageously superficial understanding of genocide in order to make its villain relatable. Thanos is worried about overpopulation, which is apparently a literally universal problem. But his concern is not framed explicitly as ecological, because that would make the film political. It is also avowed to be non-eugenicist--even though racism is the primary reason anybody has ever actually committed genocide--because being so would alienate audiences.
As a result, Thanos lacks an ideology, the extreme conviction that should drive a madman to genocide. The movie needs him to be genocidal for its spectacular events and dramatic turns, and so he is, and the film proceeds as you suspect it might, with a couple more onscreen deaths than the average Marvel movie. The character deaths that will probably be permanent (all comic-book deaths are reversible) may be surprising, but they are clearly all calculated from a marketing and actor-contract standpoint, and the film even telegraphs them in advance by the relationships it chooses to develop most strongly. And without truly impactful consequences or a convincing Thanos, the film is reduced to a series of enjoyable skits involving the Avengers and Guardians characters—a mildly entertaining return to characters we haven’t seen in upwards of five months.
After the triumph that Black Panther was on almost every level, the dramatic problems of the MCU reassert themselves with overwhelming force in Infinity War. The CG that crowds every image is often distracting, the dialogue mixes quips with rushed exposition, and it ends feeling more like a teaser for the next episode than a completed film. The finale is surprisingly dark, and even the negative reviews of Infinity War have found it effective. But in the age of Internet fandom, both Marvel fans and haters know this is not the final word, that purely for business reasons it could not be the final word on the Avengers. Its events stand to be reversed—they occurred so they could be reversed.
The second part of this film comes out in 11 months or so—although Disney has stopped referring to the next Avengers movie as a “second part,” in order to hold close to their chest the card they’d already exposed to the world. That film will reverse some of the consequences of this one, institute a new status quo for the MCU, and then end with a post-credits stinger that teases how that status quo will be upended. The true status quo for the MCU is that catharsis is deferred indefinitely so that we’ll see the next picture: Advertisement infinitum.