Relentlessly formulaic structure has long been an Achilles heel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it builds to profound effect in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the franchise’s latest megablockbuster. Not adhering to the series’ usual patterns, this one begins in medias res and immediately accelerates in a series of frantic action spectacles, before finally resolving in a genuinely surprising way. It’s frenetic, overstuffed, and uneven, but also refreshingly dark and different.
Picking up post-Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War begins in the aftermath of a slaughter: the survivors of destroyed Asgard, led by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), have been attacked and decimated by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who kills half of the refugees in his pursuit of one of the six Infinity Stones. These stones, when assembled, would essentially render Thanos omnipotent, and his plans for them are positively genocidal. The defeated Asgardian contingent, thanks to Heimdall (Idris Elba), manage to teleport Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) back to Earth as an envoy to warn the Avengers what Thanos is planning, and what his targets are. Led primarily by Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Avengers—in various subgroups—engage in a series of dangerous confrontations with Thanos and his minions, in an epic struggle to save the universe.
Managing to deliver, somehow, exactly what I was expecting and what I was not expecting simultaneously, Avengers: Infinity War is a massive, ambitious, star-studded exercise, to say the least. It’s a feat of film-making logistics, if nothing else. That said, I wish I hadn’t quite seen into its logistics quite so clearly. My reaction, through much of the film, was that it was trying too hard to do too much. It’s like a season of television crammed into two and a half hours, rushed and cluttered, not quite allowing enough time for its characters to breathe—or, in some cases, to even get to know each other. In a sense, then, it doesn’t entirely capitalize on a major element of its appeal: its epic crossover cast, which blends the disparate characters of the MCU—from the Avengers to Dr. Strange to Spider-Man to (even) the Guardians of the Galaxy—into one megafilm. As a Marvel fan, I loved seeing all these heroes—especially less prominent ones like Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), among others—interact in unexpected new configurations. But by attempting to give us everyone, it doesn’t quite give us enough of any one, and I left vaguely dissatisfied on that score.
Still, the predictable rhythms of its plot—Thanos’ methodical pursuit, one by one, of the Infinity Stones—does build to a mindblowingly unexpected final act, an earned and well orchestrated surprise. It inverts the MCU formula, thrusting the franchise into uncharted territory at a time when it’s most needed. Considering so many Marvel films build to muddy, predictable action- setpiece finales, Infinity War’s reversals are a welcome change of pace.
Is it a great Marvel film? On reflection, I’m not convinced it is, especially not on the heels of Black Panther. I grew impatient with its violent spectacle, rushed rhythms, and predictably problematic story choices. On the other hand, it is an impressive logistical achievement that saves its most riveting moments for the end—finally, a destination more satisfying than the journey. There are many things I wish it had done differently, but in the moment, Infinity War is a stirring event.