The looming challenge of Avengers: Infinity War has lurked on the horizon of the MCU pretty much since the end credits of 2012’s Avengers. This was especially the case for comic book fans familiar with Thanos and his signature, Gauntlet-themed storyline from the comics. The mad Titan’s pursuit of the gauntlet in print—and more importantly, the gems that bedeck it—was itself madly ambitious in scope and consequence, and the mere prospect that Marvel Studios would attempt to pull off a cinematic equivalent was itself daunting. For all the just complaints about the formulaic nature and often lackluster villains of the MCU, Kevin Feige and company have demonstrated plenty of measured ambition in both the big picture and small. Still, even as they methodically opened up different corners of the Marvel Universe—the Asgardian (Thor, natch), the Cosmic (Guardians of the Galaxy), the magical (Dr. Strange), the microverse (Ant-Man), etc.—and populated it with heroes by the dozen, the prospect of actually bringing it all together?
In that sense, watching the MCU since 2008 has been a bit like watching a favorite performer pull off one great trick after another (even if some are a bit repetitive in nature), knowing that no matter how successful the individual tricks—no matter how many balls were kept in the air—there awaits a finale whose technical and artistic demands so dwarf what’s come before it that all could end in a spectacular failure.
That may explain the rush—or was it a figurative release of breath?—I felt perhaps 20, 25 minutes into Avengers: Infinity War. The balls were in the air. Chainsaws and torches (and a raccoon and a sentient cloak) had been added. It was working. I could relax my wincing anticipation that something would go wrong at the start and just begin marveling at all the things that were going right.
Avengers: Infinity War is epic in a way that has been often aspired to but never fully grasped when it comes to the translation from comic book panel to the Big Screen. It’s what happens when moviemakers take their source material seriously, eschewing unnecessary melodrama even as they fully embrace the grandeur, the sheer spectacle, of it all. (And if there’s one lesson Disney has learned, it’s that if you focus on the viewer experience, the product lines will take care of themselves.)
Though I concluded my 2016 review of Captain America: Civil War with a comment on how, with all the extra moving pieces of the film, Kevin Feige and his team were “building toward Infinity,” I didn’t fully anticipate the true payoff of all that Marvel Studios was doing in terms of character development. For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. (It grounds such moments in ways that viewers unfamiliar with the bulk of the MCU will likely still recognize, as well.) It also generates a surprising amount of humor, especially for a two-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute film about a godlike being trying to exterminate half the population of the known universe. (It will forever bear repeating—when all is said and done, the casting of the MCU may go down as its most astounding achievement of all.)
For anyone familiar with the source material—or anyone who has been paying attention to the movies—it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say things don’t go well for our heroes. In fact, in the genre of fantasy-sci fi franchises, probably only The Empire Strikes Back can make a case for ending on as dire a note. That, too, is sort of exhilarating, especially for those of us who remember seeing Empire in the theaters. Sure, you knew deep down that Han would get out of that block of carbonite and the Empire eventually be thwarted in the next film, but somehow that didn’t make you feel any better in the meantime. The one character you can be guaranteed will return for the next Avengers film is Thanos.
I look forward to seeing him again.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay); Jim Starlin, George Pérez, Ron Lim (comic book story); Jack Kirby, Stan Lee (based on the comics by)
Release Date: April 26, 2018
Michael Burgin is Movies Editor for Paste.