As all of pop culture has undoubtedly reminded you of late, Avengers: Infinity War is an Event with a capital E. It’s the culmination of a decade of storytelling, branding, and an interconnected film franchise which has grossed more than the GDP of many small to mid-size nations. It’s a gathering place for audiences all over the world, to enjoy one of the few truly shared experiences this generation has enjoyed in an era of mass fractionalization. It’s the end of a great many character arcs, short- and long-term alike, in which Disney and Marvel has asked us to become extremely invested. But somewhere in there, Infinity War also has to be a movie.
For the most part, it’s effective at being all the things it needs to be, even if that necessity is the thing that holds it back the most. If you want to understand just how overwhelming Infinity War is, let’s start with a roll call. By the end of its 160 minutes, Infinity War features Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Okoye (Danai Gurira). That’s not even close to accounting for everybody who appears onscreen, but in the interest of preserving as much as possible for those of you at home, we’ll stop there.
Most prominently, and at long last, Infinity War also features Thanos (Josh Brolin), a cosmic being of unimaginable horror. As the early scenes of Infinity War will helpfully remind you, Thanos has been the cause of everything from the cataclysmic New York attack in The Avengers to the wholesale destruction of entire galaxies. So when a new alien ship arrives in New York City, and a group of aliens declare that Earth is about to be decimated by the mercy of the almighty Thanos, it’s key that Thanos actually meet the years of threatening hype he receive. And while the CG-heavy character design will undoubtedly become a source of debate in the coming months (he’s human enough to be emotionally evocative when it counts, but also a shade less threatening for it), Brolin’s vocal performance is what puts the character’s menace over in a convincing way.
There’s a horrifying logic to Thanos’ endgame, one which involves completing the Infinity Gauntlet and eliminating half of all life in existence with the snap of a gigantic finger. As the Joker once put it in a very different kind of superhero movie from this one, “that’s the thing about chaos. It’s fair.” To Thanos, the natural order involves a culling, one for which we’re long overdue. He’s just taking the universe where he thinks it needs to go. All he needs is the remainder of the Infinity Stones, the MacGuffins around which many a previous Marvel movie have been built. Diehard audiences will recall where the various Stones have appeared and last been left, but if you’re coming in as a layman viewer, don’t fret (at least about that). Co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo do their best to catch the audience up, even if watching Infinity War without a functioning awareness of at least the most recent phase of MCU movies is a fool’s errand.
By streamlining the story to a planet-trotting race against time, as the disbanded Avengers and other Marvel characters attempt to beat Thanos to as many stones as they possibly can, the Russos pitch Infinity War at a breakneck sense of pace and stakes that’s often been lacking elsewhere in the MCU. There’s no longer any later payoff for which the Russos have to hold back, and before long, Infinity War takes off sprinting with the propulsive energy of a longform montage. For a movie so obviously heavy on fan service, there’s also a satisfying amount of delivery on the promises of earlier stories, if without much of the emotional depth that made those worth following in the first place. That’s the monkey’s paw tradeoff of Infinity War: you’ll get a full Olive Garden bottomless meal of Big Moments and major revelations, the kind of material that’ll keep fans and casual appreciators arguing all summer long, at the expense of any one particular character or moment having a chance to breathe.
While the rollicking cadence of the film keeps the proceedings brisk, Infinity War is also endlessly overstuffed with plot and character and easter eggs in every scene. Infinity War features so much visual and aural stimulation that you’d be forgiven for being deafened by it all at points, as the film moves from battles to intergalactic vistas to breathless character moments at a speed that would border on infuriating if the movie wasn’t so committed to delivering on every promise it represents. It’ll be the individual moments and a handful of well-delivered one-liners that endure when the initial buzz of discovering Infinity War wears off, and what each viewer will get out of it mostly depends on what they came in wanting. If it’s payoff to the many disparate stories established over the past decade, it’ll satisfy as much as the first installment of a two-part “season finale” possibly can. If you want to see every Marvel name you enjoy interact onscreen for the first time, the Russos have a ball matching together the many different heroes and antiheroes together in clusters throughout. If you want a movie that justifies all the ominous mentions of Thanos, tuck in.
But if you want a movie that actually feels like its own movie, Infinity War will likely embody your greatest frustrations about the Marvel Cinematic Universe model as a whole. It might be sidestepping the film’s purpose to consider Infinity War as its own standalone piece of art, because in so many different economic and social and narrative respects alike, it isn’t. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, but Infinity War being packed to the gills with the plot of a full season of television is simply a reflection of what audiences were compelled to expect from it. That it’s generally successful at delivering on this is certainly worth acknowledgment, but it’s not a movie for anybody who isn’t already interested in it. Infinity War isn’t the Marvel movie that brings new audiences in, it’s the one aimed squarely at the people who’ve been there for every second since Iron Man changed the film industry for good.
It’s exhausting, but it’s also frequently effective. It’s surface-level with its emotional beats, but a number of them still land, largely thanks to the continuously all-in performances of the series’ endlessly patient stars. It’s an event that advertises itself as an event in every way, while somehow still managing to justify the immense hype around it. It’s not built to convert the skeptics, or usher in the next generation of Marvel admirers, but that’s for later movies to accomplish. It’s a movie built by a massive committee, in the service of leaving audiences breathless, and there are at least two sequences in the film that will absolutely do so. It’s a movie made for Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, and one largely made by them in a broader sense. But it’s one that earns all that trust and investment, and that’s arguably the thing that matters the most.