The narrative around the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to focus on risk. When this experiment started a decade ago with the first Iron Man, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc put out a pretty costly loan in pursuit of creative control over a cohesive vision for a franchise. This obviously paid off as recent history – and cinematic present – has shown off. Of course, plenty have taken similar risks. Taking that plunge isn’t the hard part. See Universal’s hysterically misguided flop attempt at a large universe known as “Dark Universe” for an idea of how such a risk can fail. The key ingredient missing there that’s present in the MCU is a clear trust in the material and the creatives. MCU guru and producer Kevin Feige knows that the key to the consistency of this universe is mainly kept alive is finding the right chef for the recipe on file. Sure, he may have had a few bumps along the way. A forgettable Incredible Hulk film there. An Edgar Wright leaving a production there. After all, gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, right? Well, if Avengers Infinity War proves anything, it’s that such an omelet can be stuffed with more eggs, bacon, peppers, cheese, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ham, chicken, parsley, potatoes and whatever the hell else than most audiences can handle.
Seriously, Avengers Infinity War has a pretty stacked cast of superheroes. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt) just to name a few. And that’s not even counting all the supporting characters and surprise guests who show up from prior films. All of those talented faces vying for the spotlight in this two hour and forty minute package seems daunting. Of course, directors Anthony and Joe Russo would arguably be the most equipped to do so given their superb work at juggling so many characters for Captain America: Civil War as well as their history with ensemble TV like Arrested Development and Community.
To their credit, the character interaction is what really shines in Avengers Infinity War, mainly in scenes between people who have never met before like Black Panther and Captain America or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The banter back and forth between most of them gives us the type of comedy and pathos that’s made these movies connect so well with audiences. I say most because certain pairings definitely did seem to expose some familiarity in terms of certain characters. Namely, Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, which was an inherent problem with the latter’s original movie that becomes strikingly obvious here. Their egotistical charisma just feels like a rather boring game of tennis. Perfect in terms of timing, but lacking much of any individuality. Still, Cumberbatch and the rest of the individuals portraying these characters are incredibly committed to their parts. Even if Benedict’s American accent still leave a lot to be desired.
The actors who have appeared in more movies clearly show how well they’ve embodied the characters and have grown since their original appearances. Avengers Infinity War feels less like a sequel and more like a season finale as it gives crescendings to firmly established characters. Chris Evans’ Captain America gives off so much war torn regret that’s made him a believably embittered version of the bright eyed kid from Brooklyn we first saw in Captain America The First Avenger. Mark Ruffalo’s slipping of control over his Hulk form shows the degradation of power yet change of motivation for his version of the character since The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. culminates the most impressive arc of the MCU as Tony Stark tries to settle himself to his more conventional desires yet can’t help but be a hero when Earth truly needs him. Still, there isn’t a huge amount of progression for any of them here, mainly because we have sort of hit a plato point for them. Which isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t that impressive. This is mostly a showcase for how the actors and previous films have progressed these characters rather than progressing them. Some even repeat their threads from previous films, particularly Star Lord with his emotional stuntedness that seemed to be retreading what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 already seemed to make him grow out of.
This isn’t to shut out some of the other heroes who have only popped up a few times prior to Avengers Infinity War. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) gears up for his first official Avengers mission with the type of gumption and heart that makes him a fantastic Spider-Man. T’Challa cements his status as King of Wakanda with a generosity of spirit and command that’s shown his rise to power. Still, there’s a clear amount of people who sort of seem lost in the shuffle with little to do that isn’t plot threads. Vision and Scarlet Witch even manage to give their love story started in Civil War genuine weight. Some of the secondary Guardians characters like Drax (Dave Bautista) or Mantis (Pom Klementieff) very much fall into this category as they bumble along with the crowd to either hold someone down or freeze people in time. Same for someone like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as mere muscle for Cap’s crew or Wong (Benedict Wong) who ultimately is just assistant Doctor Strange. Obviously for them to get real spotlight character development is a tough task to fit in, but it’s less so for someone like Strange himself who is mostly there to carry the burden of one of the Infinity stones from Thanos and snark in the same way Stark essentially does.
Speak of those Stones, the true highlight of Avengers Infinity War is someone who has been in multiple Marvel films but never really gotten much of a chance to do anything; Thanos (Josh Brolin). Since the character’s initial appearance in the post credit scene of the first Avengers, the big purple dude has been the main source of building dread for the MCU. A menace that hides in the shadows for mysterious reasons that weren’t really explored. He’d just pop up to introduce some angst for characters here or put on his big old glove there. For someone like myself who wasn’t a huge comics person, it seemed like Thanos would be some sort of letdown, especially with how many times MCU villains have fallen flat on their faces in comparison to the heroes. Yet, Thanos proves to be an exception that’s worthy of previous great villains like Loki or Killmonger who stood out as the better elements of some of their entries. Thanos’ central motivation is one that makes you understand his position. Not sympathize, but grasp why is doing such a thing. He’s out to kill so many beings, but in the pursuit of saving others. What we consider cruel he considers humane. It’s a form of population control that could be manically evil in the wrong hands, but instead comes off as the type of horrific behavior that could only come from someone who has developed a thought process that makes sense from their experience, no matter how awful it honestly is to contemplate.
It helps that his adopted Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a crucial part of this contemplation for Thanos, as her resentment of him not only feeds into her own arcs from the two Guardians films but also gives Thanos a realization about the one thing that kept his evil in balance. A person he could love and hold amongst the chaos he was creating who grew to loathe him. Gamora’s loathing of him translates to her own doubts and worries that make her both a very strong warrior and a closed off individual who doesn’t play nice with many others. This ripples onto people like Star Lord or Nebula (Karen Gillan) in ways that support story points, but I wish carried over into developing those characters further. Still, Gamora’s growth here feeds into the larger arc of her character, which is more than any of the other characters from Guardians here who mostly spew jokes. Funny jokes, but without the pathos that Guardians writer/director James Gunn consistently strewn through the humor.
Of course, Avengers Infinity War is still very much an action sci-fi adventure so the spectacle is all over the place. It’s clear that every cent of the budget is on the screen as the action here shows off some impressive scope and tight editing. Admittedly, there are definite points where the budget slightly strains to show off all the characters with a sense of consistency. The CG does slightly wain at awkward moments. The big climactic set pieces occasionally show the limits of compositing real faces onto CG worlds. Money can only go so far when rendering is as complex as this surely was. Yet, it still allows for weird things like Peter Dinklage appearing as giant being out of an 80s fantasy film where the compositing and force perspective is more charming than obvious. The all CG characters are far more consistent than expected, as Thanos or his minions blend pretty well in most environments and alongside living counterparts. Especially during the action sequences that are kinetic yet edited well enough to get a sense of where everything is. Of course, some of these all CG characters are various copies of the same creature design that attack our heroes en masse, which can get repetitive in ways that remind one of the lesser Chatri fight scenes from the first Avengers.
Now, this all leads into some of the large problem with Avengers Infinity War. One that may just expose how much of a comic book person I really am. Or rather how much I’m not one. See, even with all the ambition that goes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the hours we’ve spent seeing these people fight and win… the consequences haven’t been felt. On a smaller more human level, sure. Civil War opened the door for how the interpersonal character stakes could really be shaken quite aggressively between the Avengers as individuals. Yet, when it comes to really feeling the weight of the battles that happen, there never seemed to be much permanence in major characters being affected. The lack sticking to deaths has always been a factor, what with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) resurrecting himself multiple times in previous Thor films or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) being alive midway through Captain America The Winter Soldier. It’s a trope known as Disney Death, which is pretty appropriate given the parent company for these Marvel films. Thor even jokes about this at one point during the course of Avengers Infinity War.
Now, Avengers Infinity War tries very hard to avert this. Without spoiling things, this entry does everything it can to convince you these stakes are permanent and will totally carry over to great ramifications with the universe. And… I want to believe it. I really want to believe that some of these big heart string pulls will mean something because these characters have go through some seriously traumatizing events here that’s pretty hard to deal with and that the actors wonderfully show off the heft of. If many of these moments stick, it would challenge the MCU audience way that would change the dynamic of the entire MCU for the better. As much as I enjoy these characters, I want to see some of them bite it. Not because they deserve it or it’s a move that always works, but when executed right it allows a fan to remember and grieve for with complex emotions. Something a long lasting franchise rarely can achieve. But… I just don’t trust this universe to stick to many of them. The MCU has yet to prove themselves as willing to step over such a line unless it’s with a character who matters little or is clearly designed to die from the start. One moment in particular involving both Iron Man and Doctor Strange during is really where that realization took hold. And even more than any outside announcement of upcoming Marvel films, a decision like that shows a true lack of commitment to keeping all bets off and always keeping a back door open that could undo a lot of the gravity of lasting stakes, which is something comic book fanatic friends of mine have told me they’re used to. Characters who die often come back to fight in their tights again. It’s accepted as common fact for the serialized comic fan.
However, while I do understand that is common in the original source medium, moves like this can only be done so often in cinematic form before one loses faith in the stakes of two beings fighting each other. Before it becomes clear what the outcome is doesn’t matter as long as the fight looks cool. And if the fight is dazzling that’s nice. I enjoy seeing Black Widow and Okoye (Danai Gurira) kicking random alien drone ass as much as the next person. But knowing there’s not even the slimest chance of real danger at this point just makes things feel sort of robotic. It worked for the first Avengers because the experience of seeing these people was novel and more important than grounded stakes. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula is something we’re all aware of. Avengers Infinity War wants to have its cake and eat it too with those recurring tropes and sometimes it succeeds. Other times it kind of shows that – while superhero fatigue may be a bit far fetched – Cinematic Universe fatigue may be brewing. Of course, Avengers Infinity War is really the first part of a two part film. The as-of-yet untitled sequel will close these threads and likely put Avengers Infinity War in its ultimate light, which could go either way. It’ll likely still remain a consistently fun piece of spectacle, but it may or may not keep its attempted high mark of being a risky gravity by that point. And the ending here honestly makes me more excited for a smaller scale Marvel film like Captain Marvel more than the big crossover event. Only time will tell.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Infinity Stones On A Gauntlet