When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War in these pages two years ago, I said that at some point the Marvel films were going to have to kill off some of their superheroes, if for no other reason than to make these omnibus movies more manageable. Well, I got my wish in Avengers: Infinity War, not that I feel terribly good about it. Then again, the comic books and other sources give us reason to think that the high death toll in this movie may be reversible to an extent, something to remember as the bodies drop in this movie’s last 10 minutes.
Where the previous Avengers films gave us faceless hordes for our heroes to fight, this one makes the necessary move of creating a single villain so powerful that it takes the combined might of all the heroes to fight him. He is Thanos (Josh Brolin), an extraterrestrial overlord who believes that the universe is overcrowded and aims to halve the population of every planet by gaining control of all six Infinity Stones, which have been scattered annoyingly throughout the other Marvel films. That’s particular trouble for Earth, because one stone is embedded in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany) while another is in the custody of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). In the face of universal catastrophe, Iron Man and Captain America (Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans) have to reconcile their differences and gather up all their friends and distant acquaintances who can stand up to the threat.
The publicity materials have hyped up the fact that there are 22 superheroes in this film, but it’s even more gridlocked than that, because many of the heroes are towing in the supporting casts from their own movies, so we’re also getting Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Wong (Benedict Wong), Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), Star-Lord’s crew, Asgardians, Wakandans, and Spider-Man’s high-school buddies. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo did a decent job handling 12 characters in Captain America: Civil War, but managing all of this is an impossible logistical task even for them as the action skips from Wakanda to New York to Scotland to more exoplanets than I care to keep track of. People like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) wind up disappearing for lengthy stretches, the comic interludes – even the ones that work – sit uneasily beside the grim stakes in the larger plot, and the romance between Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) doesn’t carry the weight that it should. This movie needed to be four or five hours long.
Still, it’s something of a miracle that the film works as well as it does, without dragging too much and with most of its individual scenes accomplishing what they set out to do. I particularly like a quiet scene in which Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) gently teases out how scarred Thor is from the loss of his family and his home planet. The Russos have a stroke of inspiration in casting Peter Dinklage as a 15-foot-tall giant, and he gives yet another soulful performance as a dim blacksmith who needs to be shaken out of his trauma to reforge Thor’s hammer. Chris Pratt gets back to his old hilarious self when Star-Lord’s male insecurities surface in Thor’s presence. The action scene when Thanos takes on a six-person team of Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Star-Lord, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is neatly executed, making good use of all the players. During Thanos’ climactic invasion of Wakanda, it’s good to see his giantess of a daughter (Carrie Coon) matched up against a team of Scarlet Witch, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Okoye (Danai Gurira).
I would suggest that this needed to be two films, but it looks like the as-yet-untitled Avengers movie next year will undo a lot of the carnage from this, because Marvel’s not going to suddenly end the Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy series. So Avengers: Infinity War is really just a massive jam the filmmakers have created for our heroes so they can get out of it. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back or The Last Jedi written on a scale that dwarfs even those. Clearly this is meant to change the nature of the entire superfranchise, but how it does that won’t be clear until 12 months from now. I will be there for it, dear readers, and I’ll be keen on the results.
Avengers: Infinity War
Starring 22 superheroes. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Rated PG-13.