I’m not going to tell you who dies in Avengers: Infinity War.
Nonetheless, death hangs like a shroud over the latest—and, to date, largest—entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, which assembles just about every previously introduced series character for all-out CGI war against Thanos, a purple-faced behemoth (embodied by Josh Brolin via motion-capture technology) with arrogant boasts and apocalyptic rationalizations dripping off his tongue. Thanos has traveled to Earth (and the far reaches beyond) in search of the Infinity Stones, those six magical cosmic objects that provide all sorts of limitless powers, and which he plans to use (in a shiny gold glove known as the Infinity Gauntlet) to obliterate half of the world’s creatures in his ongoing quest to bring balance to the universe.
It’s a plan for combatting overpopulation that only a super-lunatic could conceive.
Marvel has been teasing Thanos’ arrival since the post-credits sequence of 2012’s original Avengers, as well as building to this all-star extravaganza for the past decade. Die-hards will thus be pleased to hear that Joe and Anthony Russo’s blockbuster—even more eagerly anticipated since February’s Black Panther became an outright phenomenon—does not disappoint where it counts. Audiences should be warned that this locale-jumping Battle Royale is merely the first installment of what is, at heart, a two-film tale. Yet while that inherent construction may frustrate those looking for stand-alone cohesiveness, the directors so capably capture, and blend together, their myriad disparate personalities for a thrilling campaign against annihilation that their would-be epic ably justifies the studio’s interconnected storytelling approach—and immediately solidifies Avengers 4 as the multiplex event of 2019.
There’s no need to start looking ahead just yet, however, given the nightmare staring the heroes of Infinity War square in the face. The Russos waste no time getting down to business, picking up with Thanos aboard the intergalactic ship Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his merry mates were aboard at the conclusion of Thor: Ragnarok. Accompanied by his four horsemen-esque minions—Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw)—Thanos tries to claim the Infinity Stone contained in the Tesseract, which is currently possessed by Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Once he’s finished his business on this craft, the Mad Titan dispatches his underlings to seek out the rest of the coveted gems, including the two found on our own home planet.
Part of what makes Infinity War thrilling is the way it weaves its various narrative strands into a seamless whole—or, at least, as close to seamless as one might reasonably hope from such a mix-and-match endeavor. Consequently, explaining the schematic intricacies of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script would only function as a killjoy exercise on my part. Suffice it to say, the film divides up its geographically separated characters smartly, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) initially paired with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in New York; Thor teaming up with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper) in outer space; and Captain America (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and War Machine (Don Cheadle) reuniting with Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch in Scotland before taking off to Wakanda to meet up with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Shuri (Letitia Wright).
It is, shall we say, an overstuffed roster, and that’s not even including the peripheral figures and surprise cameos that make brief fan-service appearances. At times, the sheer scope and scale of the enterprise means that characters get lost amidst the mayhem. For the most part, though, Infinity War—even at 149 minutes—is an even-keeled and fleet machine, bestowing each of its stars with at least a couple of amusing/exhilarating moments. Moreover, it smoothly segues between its points of interest, and strikes a sure-handed balance between diverse combat sequences and sharp dialogue interplay. Be it Dr. Strange and Iron Man’s mutual distaste for each other, Thor’s affection for Rocket Raccoon (whom he refers to as “Rabbit”), or Star Lord’s aversion to Iron Man and Thor (the latter dubbed “A pirate angel” by the rest of the Guardians), there’s plenty of humor to help prevent the proceedings from drowning in self-serious geekery, particularly thanks to the stand-out wittiness of Hemsworth, Downey Jr., and Holland.
As another superhero saga involving a quest to save the world from cataclysmic threats, Infinity War doesn’t do much to shake up the genre’s standard operating procedure, and its splintered focus does result in casualties (notably, Evans’ underutilized Captain America). Those shortcomings are largely offset by the Russos’ ability to convey the distinctive dispositions of their many protagonists, so that the Guardians scenes boast their typical droll banter, and Cap and Black Panther’s partnership is marked by stout, resolved gravity. As these characters’ paths crisscross in unexpected (and absurd) ways—including an excellent first meeting between Cap and teenage Groot—the film reconfirms the fundamental compatibility of the MCU’s numerous ventures, as well as proves that its heroes are at their most entertaining when both collaborating together on the battlefield and treating each other as comedic foils.
The center holding Infinity War together, ultimately, is Brolin’s Thanos, who lumbers about the frame with a weightiness that bespeaks not only his power but also his unshakeable confidence in his reasons for embarking on his Infinity Stones hunt. With a face and chin lined with symmetrical scars, his enormous frame encased in armor, and his left hand sporting the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos is a formidable and compelling villain, as well as a sad and soulful one, driven by a fantasist’s desire to do what he believes is right. If he lacks the scene-stealing charisma of Michael B. Jordan’s recent Black Panther baddie Killmonger, he exudes a heavyhearted menace that’s made more unnerving by his clearly articulated, wholly insane justifications for his mission—and the lengths he’ll go to complete it.
As it turns out, he’ll go pretty far, and those who’ve long expected Thanos to spell doom for some of Marvel’s popular house players won’t be dissatisfied with the fatalities that litter this summer spectacular—beginning with an introductory scene that claims two franchise mainstays. “We don’t trade lives,” Captain America states early on, yet as Infinity War depicts on both sides of its good/evil divide, there can often be no triumph without sacrifice of those things one holds most dear. While a few of those losses are bound to be retconned via the Time Stone next summer—in other words, don’t take Thanos’ “No resurrections this time” promise too literally—the film’s willingness to create real, if sometimes modest, stakes for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes breathes considerable life into this carnival of comic-book chaos.
It is, in a certain sense, an end—but one that presages a promising Marvel future to come.