Whether you are a passionate fan who has kept pace with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for an entire decade, or a more jaded detractor who believes the franchise has constrained true creativity in blockbuster filmmaking, there is simply no denying that “Avengers: Infinity War” will go down in cinema history. At the end of the day, this much-anticipated threequel is little more than payoff for those who are up to date with the series, but it is handsomely mounted payoff that treats us to a whirlwind of planet-hopping, superhero shuffling, stylized fisticuffs, and tragedy the likes of which the MCU has never seen until now. But as even the average viewer is aware, “Infinity War” is a Marvel movie through and through, meaning imperfections are aplenty. Given its reputation, it may well be the final manifestation of the “Marvel movie” as a genre unto itself.
More often than not, these films are caught in a tug of war between creative ambition and studio agenda. It’s no real surprise that “Infinity War” falls victim to this as well, being that it is the Marvel movie that every Marvel movie before it was made for. Anthony and Joe Russo, returning to the helm after “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” are well-fit for this production in terms of their ability to command massive ensembles and meet studio demands without much fuss. Beyond that, their handling of the material has ultimately defined the overarching aesthetic of these films.
With only a few exceptions (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Black Panther”), the MCU genre, as it were, is defined by its matter-of-fact presentation. The characters, and the universe in which they exist, are inherently immaculate, yet they do no come across as such, due to relatively plain cinematography and editing for the sake of narrative logic and the investment of a wide audience. “Infinity War” is the apotheosis of this troubled marriage between comic book zest and real-world dynamics. In an alternate universe where creative liberty was the rule, not the exception, this would have been a full-blown space fantasy. Here, the Russos’ trademark grit suffocate the Metallica album cover vistas and intergalactic travel sequences.
Cynics will have a field day criticizing “Infinity War” for struggling to stand out among its predecessors, but there is more to applaud here than they might be willing to admit. Other than the fact that this behemoth actually exists, it is the first MCU flick that is so thrillingly unpredictable. Over half of this film’s successes are attributable to its big baddie, Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a sensational performance). As with all great stories of good vs. evil, the bad guy is just as relatable as his opponent(s), and Thanos is easily one for the books. As he charges through the universe to collect the mythologized Infinity Stones and use their power to wipe out half of all life, Thanos hopes that his murderous rampage will result in long-term survival for those left untouched.
The impending doom of an easy victory for someone with unflinching resolve is what gives “Infinity War” a gravitas that most of the MCU never tapped into. This is definitely the darkest of all 19 films, though it doesn’t come without the franchise's unstoppable sense of humor. If ever there were a Marvel movie to go full “Batman v Superman” with operatic darkness, this would take the cake. Nevertheless, Thanos’s mission and its grave effect on the Avengers keep the film grounded in tragedy. The urgency sold by the performers also makes the usual banter forgivable. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Pratt continue to act their asses off as Iron Man, Thor, and Star-Lord, respectively. The most surprising turns, however, come from Zoe Saldana, Elizabeth Olsen, and Paul Bettany as Gamora, Scarlet Witch, and Vision, respectively. Everyone else is sadly given little to do. Fans of “Black Panther” will be saddened to know that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his fellow Wakandans are little more than grace notes in the final showdown.
At two-and-a-half hours, “Infinity War” oddly feels both incomplete and overstuffed, though fans probably won’t mind since this was originally slated to be Part 1 of the final adventure. It juggles more subplots than the average soap opera, but it’s hardly a mess, thanks to the Russos’ proven ability to structure ensemble epics. Compared to past entries, this is the cinematic equivalent of dumping out your childhood toy chest, something we’re unlikely to experience again after the series finally reaches its end. If you are of such mind, “Avengers: Infinity War” will probably be the best movie-going experience of the year, and if you aren’t, you’d be a fool to say that it doesn’t have what will surely be one of the most talked-about endings ever realized for the medium.