Thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War
I won’t be writing one of my usual reviews for Avengers: Infinity War. I have two big reasons for this:
I am incredibly biased when it comes to the MCU. I generally try to maintain a certain degree of academic distance when I dissect a film, but Marvel’s work tends to hit me on a visceral level, rather than an intellectual one. After all, I’ve been a fan of most of these characters for over twenty years; it’s hard to talk about their adventures without regressing into a hyperactive six-year-old (see: my Spider-Man: Homecoming review). I think my breakdown of Captain America: Civil War comes closest to remaining objective—and only because its thematic clarity made it such a gimme.
The story is not yet complete. Because the narrative ends on a cliffhanger, I won’t be able to properly assess its structure, character arcs, and themes until the still-untitled sequel is released next year, resolving all of the dangling plot threads (hopefully).
That being said, while I may not be ready to evaluate its cinematic merit, I’m certainly not above gushing about the elements that appealed to me as a lifelong comic book nerd. In no particular order, here are some things I liked about Infinity War:
Thanos absolutely lives up to the hype, continuing the Russo Brothers’ winning streak when it comes to compelling villains. Yes, he’s a badass galactic conqueror, but unlike Malekith, Ronan, and Hela, he’s a human being first and foremost (purple skin and wrinkly chin notwithstanding), motivated by unspeakable trauma and utterly convinced that his genocidal crusade is not only justified, but also necessary. More importantly, he’s subtly flawed: the fact that he can’t imagine anything better to do with unlimited power than eradicating half of the universe betrays an obsessive need to validate the very zealotry that his doomed species rebuked (which I predict will pay off in part II).
Much like Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War positively bursts at the seams with crowd-pleasing references to the source material. The forging of Stormbreaker is torn straight from the pages of Walt Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, Doctor Strange’s brief metaphysical duel with Thanos evokes Steve Ditko’s psychedelic visual style, and the sequence in which Thanos claims the Soul Gem is reminiscent of Jim Starlin’s The Thanos Quest, a personal favorite of mine.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the two major cameos—and no, I’m not talking about Stan Lee’s obligatory appearance. I found Peter Dinklage’s role as Eitri far more satisfying, if only because I never thought I’d see Asgardian Dwarves on the big screen. And then, of course, there’s The Red Skull’s not-so-triumphant return (albeit with a different actor donning the iconic makeup), which was totally unexpected, but not at all unwelcome.
Although I’m sure this will alienate certain viewers, I’m thrilled that this franchise has finally reached the point where the writers can dispense with longwinded introductory scenes, allowing our heroes to enter the fray without killing the narrative momentum. Need Spider-Man to join the fight? He wakes up on his school bus, looks out the window, and spies an alien spaceship. Bam, off to the races, no need to explain what his deal is. Infinity War represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of storytelling; by now, we know these characters as intimately as we know our own friends and family members, so the filmmakers can afford to trim the fat and focus on keeping the action moving.
The Mind Stone induced nightmares from Age of Ultron feel significantly more prophetic in light of that soul-crushing climax. Iron Man—who saw himself stranded on an alien world, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades—winds up facing pretty much that exact scenario when the Guardians, Doctor Strange, and Spidey disintegrate as he gazes on helplessly. Captain America—who was tormented by the ghosts of his fellow WWII veterans before ending up alone in an empty dance hall—loses Bucky, the last remaining link to his past. And Thor—who was mocked by the phantom of a blinded Heimdall for leading Asgard to ruin—has seen his people decimated twice over, witnessed the violent demise of both Heimdall and the recently reformed Loki, and been denied the vengeance that might otherwise have soothed his anguish. No wonder they all look so utterly broken before the credits start to roll: their worst fears have been realized.
How appropriate that Thanos deems Tony Stark to be particularly worthy of his respect, considering he made his big debut in a fill-in issue of Iron Man (#55, to be precise).
Thanos’ obvious disdain for Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy makes more sense given the revelation of his motives as a galactic conqueror. He aims to bring balance to the universe; of course he views a personal vendetta against a single planet as petty and childish.
I don’t want to gush about Thanos to an excessive degree, but it is refreshing to see a villain that isn’t a hypocrite. Black Panther’s Killmonger nearly eradicated the culture of his ancestors in the pursuit of his collectivist agenda, and Alexander Pierce’s desire to dismantle the American government’s ineffectual bureaucracy was compromised the moment he joined forces with HYDRA. The Mad Titan, on the other hand, sincerely admires those who possess the willpower to make “the hard calls,” even when their efforts directly oppose his own: he respects Star-Lord’s attempt to fulfill Gamora’s death wish, and sympathizes when Wanda is forced to kill her lover for the greater good. Sure, he’s a bloodthirsty galactic conqueror, but at least he stands by his principles.
Yes, many of the film’s shocking “deaths” will doubtlessly be reversed in Avengers 4; Marvel isn’t crazy enough to permanently kill off reliable breadwinners like Spidey and Black Panther. Contrary to what I’ve seen other fans argue, however, this doesn’t make the climax “cheap”; even setting aside the fact that those losses will surely serve to motivate the remaining heroes in the next chapter, it’s a goddamn ballsy note to end a major blockbuster on (The Great Silence is the only point of comparison that springs to mind, and that’s a fifty-year-old Spaghetti Western).
Upon reflection, each of the four major Avengers (meaning the ones featured in a self-titled solo movie) has a reason to blame himself for Thanos’ victory: Iron Man was allowed to keep his life in exchange for the Time Stone, Captain America refused to sacrifice Vision in order to destroy the Mind Stone, Banner was unable to transform into The Hulk, and Thor chose to prolong Thanos’ suffering instead of immediately striking a killing blow. This groundwork will certainly lead to some interesting conflicts in the sequel.
[Originally written April 30, 2018, with additions on May 5, 2018 and May 14, 2018.]