With “Avengers: Infinity War” the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) supposedly reaches its climax.
As the film opens, Thanos, the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin) is searching for the six Infinity Stones that will grant him total control over reality. (For the uninitiated, these Infinity Stones—Loki’s staff, Thor’s Aether, etc.—served as the MacGuffins in many of the prior films.) When the Titan’s emissaries appear on Earth, it’s up to the whole Avenger gang—Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Black Widow, and many others—to rally in defense of the cosmos.
With nearly twenty films’ worth of baggage, obviously there’s a lot going on here, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do an admirable job juggling so many protagonists. Meaningful character development is in short supply, but that’s to be expected.
In many ways, “Infinity War” does succeed. It’s pretty great to see everyone together at last—the Guardians of the Galaxy are a particularly welcome addition to the team. (And for the record, I didn’t know how much I needed Spider-Man to be in these movies until I saw him in action).
The film is at its strongest when it suggests a bolder, darker vision for the MCU. For instance, the movie opens with not one, but two, significant character deaths. And these deaths hurt in a way we haven’t felt before, because it’s pretty clear these folks won’t be coming back. “No resurrections this time,” Thanos growls. It’s a bracing, stomach-churning opener that infuses the proceedings with real menace. Who else is going to bite the dust, we wonder.
And along those same lines, Thanos himself is a much better villain than most of those we’ve seen before. He’s a quasi-Malthusian figure, devoted to ending the problems of suffering and scarcity by cutting the universe’s population by 50%. There are also shades of Heidegger and antinatalist philosopher David Benatar here: for Thanos, there is no intrinsic beauty in being, only the potential for pain. To exist and suffer, for Thanos, is far worse than never to have existed at all. (Jordan Peterson would have a field day with this.) Perhaps it’s not the most novel of supervillain philosophies, but at least it’s something more substantive and idealistic than “world domination.”
But alas, in many other ways, “Infinity War” doesn’t live up to its promise.
As Doctor Strange puts it, “we’re in the endgame.” “Infinity War” was supposed to be Marvel’s big blowout moment, where everything’s at stake and no one is safe. And sure, a few secondary characters definitively bite the dust. That said, MCU films have always suffered from the problem of “comic book deaths”—the stakes in each character’s solo movies have always been pretty low, because we all know the main characters will appear in the next “Avengers” flick. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: nobody expects Captain America to bite the dust in a stray sequel.
But at some point, it’s time to go all-in. And the MCU keeps shying away from doing just that.
I’d go so far as to say we haven’t seen a really satisfying Marvel blowout since the original 2012 “Avengers” movie. “Age of Ultron” felt like unnecessary, consequence-free filler, an extended commercial for the next wave of Marvel movies (remember Thor’s random disappearance midway through?). And with each successive wave of MCU releases, more and more screen time is invested in setup for subsequent installments. In short, we have a cycle in which the “big meaningful moment” is endlessly deferred: we keep watching in the hopes that the saga is building up to something big, something that will leave a lasting pop-cultural impact on par with Darth Vader’s “I am your father.”
I won’t spoil anything, but “Infinity War” does not leave me confident that such a moment will ever arrive: too much money is riding on this franchise. By contrast, the genius of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was its willingness to subvert expectations and lean hard into its shocking twists. (One possibly explanation: the source material for Nolan’s movies was primarily one-shot graphic novels—like Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” and Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth”—rather than longstanding comic arcs. Graphic novels generally don’t have to worry about prior or subsequent continuity.) As a result, Nolan’s films will be remembered as meaningful artistic achievements; MCU movies will run endlessly on basic cable. For better or for worse, in an age where superhero sequels rake in billions, Disney won’t let a good thing die.
Furthermore, I’m sorry to say that the grand all-hands-on-deck final battle of “Infinity War” is tragically uninspired. I’m generally of the opinion that the best Marvel climaxes have been the most personal: Captain America and Iron Man going toe-to-toe in an abandoned laboratory, Thor and Loki dueling on a rainbow bridge, and so on. But if those kinds of relationships aren’t in place, there are still a few principles that make for a good battle scene: a really satisfying final conflict (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Kingdom of Heaven”) occurs within a finite space where our heroes face a series of escalating challenges. The fight unfolds as a “story within a story”: as the struggle rages on, events occur that force characters to adapt their tactics. The bad guys bring out a battering ram? Better hurry over and reinforce the gates. Siege towers are inbound? Better make sure your archers have some flaming arrows.
Yet in the big throwdown of “Infinity War,” all we have are some Avengers knocking around a mob of faceless CGI aliens. There’s little real threat, except for some alien war machines that pop up out of nowhere and are swiftly dispatched. There’s no progression or sense of real jeopardy. And frankly, the Avengers-vs-Avengers airport battle in “Captain America: Civil War” was a lot more entertaining. For something that’s supposed to be the climax of “the movie we’ve all been waiting for,” it’s a pretty generic sequence.
With that, I’ve said my piece. And let’s not kid ourselves: all of us will go see “Infinity War,” because that’s what we do when big Marvel movies come out. But notwithstanding the real genius of many MCU solo films (“Black Panther” comes to mind), I’ll confess that my interest in this saga is waning. Maybe, just maybe, next year’s “Avengers 4” will be the big throwdown we’ve all been waiting for. Maybe everything I’ve said here will be proven premature and I’ll have to eat some crow.
Or maybe “Avengers 4” will merely set up the pieces for 2027’s “Avengers Reincarnated.” Who knows.
A serviceable, if not particularly compelling, installment in the Saga That Will Still Be Running By The Time My Grandchildren Keel Over.
(p.s. you should really go see “A Quiet Place” instead)