by Benjamín Harguindey
Presented as the epic conclusion to a decade of “cinematic universe” build-up, Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is actually the first half of a two-parter. It’s not that the movie has a somber ending so much as that it has no ending at all. Following the latest in a series of skirmishes with big bad Thanos, the Avengers take a breather and the movie sort of cuts to black – a “To be continued” on par with The Matrix Reloaded (2003).
“Infinity War” is being hailed as the most ambitious MCU flick yet because of the scale of its production, the size of its cast – besting Civil War‘s crossover with some 30 named superheroes – and the scope of its story, which includes the odd 20 movies preceding it. In many ways this movie is the final act to something bigger, longer, older than itself. But does it work on its own? Please. There’s barely time for roll-call. Not five minutes in the movie is already essentially in its final act, as the Avengers not so much assemble as scramble to defend Earth from genocidal alien Thanos.
Thanos (voiced and portrayed by Josh Brolin via mo-cap) has been teased as the MCU’s secret chessmaster for years, behind the NYC attack at the end of The Avengers (2012) and orchestrating events ever since on a quest to obtain all six Infinity Stones, which have popping on and off under assumed names. As he obtains the second stone at the beginning of the movie Thanos sets course for Earth, where Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Vision (Paul Bettany) protect two more.
The whole movie is essentially driven by Thanos’ hunt for the stones, with the Avengers’ sorry attempts to stop him kickstarting most of the action. The heroes are divided into three groups: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and upstart protege Spider-Man (Tom Holland) go on an intergalactic mission to rescue Dr. Strange, the ragtag crew of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) cross paths with castaway Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the rest of the heroes team up under a very weary Captain America (Chris Evans) in Wakanda for a heroic last stand. Anybody hitherto unmentioned you may consider superfluous to the plot, including Black Widow, Falcon, War Machine, Winter Soldier and the cast of Black Panther (2018). At least Mark Ruffalo is allowed some notes as an anxiety-ridden Bruce Banner, and Elisabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch worries over robot sweetheart Vision.
Cross-cutting from set-piece to set-piece throughout is lengthy 150 minute run, “Infinity War” is every bit the epic action crossover event you expect it to be – and never more than that, which is a disappointment. As always the standouts are the candid, casual interactions between its characters. The movie discovers two genius pairings: Tony Stark and Dr. Strange, arguably the two biggest egos in the MCU, nicely play off each others’ narcissism; Thor, something of a recent comedy reveal, is great when unwittingly playing off against Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) wounded sense of masculinity or Rocket Raccoon’s spite.
The other standout is Thanos himself. Though he may look like another generic baddie, Brolin imbues the CGI concoction with gravitas. His scenes with hateful daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are the closest the movie gets to tragic, and CGI Thanos ironically ends up feeling the most human out of several live-action co-stars. In a way the movie is about him, all the more hogging the spotlight while the scattershot heroes try sharing it. Yes, in the grand scheme of things Thanos is nothing more than another genocidal megalomaniac – his mission to randomly wipe out half of all living things to sort out overpopulation doesn’t make a lot of sense – but compared to the wholly reactionary Avengers he comes across as passionate, driven, all the more hellbent on winning than the other team.
So “Infinity War” checks all the familiar boxes in the standard Marvel Studios movie but for its unusually dark ending, which as I mentioned above is no ending at all. You only have to take a look at Disney’s release schedule for the next two years – which includes “Untitled Spider-Man Homecoming Sequel” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” – to spoil the status quo retcon that is inevitably inbound come Infinity War 2 or whatever it’s called next year.
The intention here is to manufacture a dark cliffhanger akin to The Empire Strikes Back (1981) and I predict a nearby future in which fans compare the movies and defend Infinity War’s hokey switcheroo by stating that the happy (if temporary) conclusion to The Return of the Jedi (1983) was no less foregone. Maybe so, but consider this: Empire didn’t just put its characters in a bad spot, it ended on a dark note by revealing disturbing, game-changing information that sealed the tragic fate of its protagonist. What does the “ending” to Infinity War entail, except more fighting?
Marvel has this tendency to cry wolf by killing off characters only to have them resurrect later in the same movie, or the next movie, or one of its many Netflix shows, and all the supposed game-changers like the S.H.I.E.L.D-Hydra connection and the Civil War are usually rendered moot by the inevitable sequel. Even simple character beats, like Tony’s estrangement from Pepper or Spidey refusing to don the Avenger mantle, are rendered meaningless in just as throwaway a fashion. The MCU is riddled with fake-outs, tiny and massive, to create the illusion of instability when in fact it’s nothing but carefully mapped out status quo.
“No resurrections this time” says Thanos at the beginning of the movie. Uh-huh.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).