Infinity Wars (2018): Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring: EVERYONE. Running Time: 149 minutes. Based on the comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
It’s all been building up to this. 10 years of some of the most ambitious expanded-universe filmmaking in cinematic history, and the cumulative effort has finally hit theaters and is already breaking box office records. And for my money, one of the most highly-anticipated movies of all time pretty much manages to meet most of what could have reasonably been expected of it. It has far more named characters than any other superhero movie to date, and there are about a dozen moments where the whole thing could have easily flown apart at the seams, but it works (mostly). It’s beautifully crafted and realized, and is noticeably more cohesive and tightly-managed than its predecessor, Age of Ultron. While I’m not sure its one of the “best MCU offerings ever” (though definitions of that are highly variable), it is a solid work worth seeing and experiencing cold on the big screen.
One of the smartest moves the creators made- one really only possible with a dozen-and-a-half prequels backing it up- is to not stop for more than a few seconds at a time to try and exposit who Thanos is, what infinity stones are, and what they do. The story and action just starts, and flows until the end. As such I, too, will not bother to try a plot summary, because this is an Event Film, and no one’s here for the story- we’re here to see Ironman and Doctor Strange try to out-wit each other while fighting off a Space Magician. And besides, anyone committed to knowing the minutia and lore already does, and anyone who doesn’t will have no trouble following along, because the primary plot of “Magical McGuffin is bad, no let Bad Guy get Magical McGuffin” is about as simple and straightforward as human storytelling gets.
The real trick is in taking the sheer number of named characters coming together, in many instances interacting for the very first time on-screen, and balancing out their scenes to let them feel fun and interesting and action-packed, but not too uneven. Thankfully, the movie pulls this off; this is a massive, loooooong cinematic undertaking, but it pretty much never drags or feels padded out just to get one more quip between Thor and Starlord muscled in. There are plenty of jokes that made me laugh out-loud, but many of the central characters get powerful acting moments that build on character development set up in previous films. Thor, Starlord, Gamorra, Spiderman, and Captain America each get to do some real heavy lifting here, highlighting some of the best scenes in the film.
And that, for me, speaks to what has always been the greatest strength of the MCU, one that I suspect is the key to their success, despite the very real flaws in many of the movies and in the expanded universe concept as a whole. For all the massive budgets and fancy special effects and oddball fighting powers they toss around, these movies ultimately work because they have always gotten the characters right, through perfect casting and solid writing. These characters have always felt vibrant and real even in the weakest MCU offerings, and the scenes that make this movie one of the best are all scenes that hinge on one or several characters having moments of real emotional pathos.
This is especially true for, of all people, Thanos. I have always felt the trope of “MCU villains always suck” to be a tad overblown- they’ve had plenty of effective antagonists, even if few of them are really great- but Thanos easily earns a ranking as one of the best. Josh Brolin is able to convey the twisted internal logic of Thanos’ mind through facial expressions and his voice despite all that fancy CGI work making up his body, proving yet again that he is both one of the best, and yet most underappreciated, actors working today. That said, some of the debate around his character has already gone way too far; why no, having a purely logical argument in its favor does NOT make genocide okay, because that’s what separates Fascists from Not-Fascists.
We are long past the point where any one human can reasonably be expected to have followed up on EVERYTHING in the MCU, and we are also long past the point where there is much use in trying to bring people in cold who aren’t already on-board; either you are with this crazy ride, wherever it may lead, or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, that’s fine! But if you are, this movie is as great, and in a few instances as daring, as anything this project has yet offered us.