With Iron Man turning ten years old this year the Marvel Cinematic Universe it spawned has reached a massive milestone, and the minds behind it have chosen to celebrate the occasion in the most fitting of ways. Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth entry in the mega-franchise, is one of the boldest blockbusters in recent memory, with genuinely affecting emotional development for its core heroes and humor that is both tonally appropriate and simply hysterical, perfectly balancing out an epic spectacle that features some of the most visually stunning and unique action set pieces ever filmed. While very much the first half of a two-part story that will be concluded with next year’s as-yet-untitled fourth Avengers film, Infinity War clearly represents the start of both an ending and a new beginning as the MCU’s older characters are pushed to their limits as some of their stories likely near their ends and newer faces have their tales complicated to set their future narrative trajectories.
The film’s chillingly simple premise is also the most effective evidence of its place as the beginning of a massive event in the MCU’s history; Thanos (Josh Brolin) is here. The Mad Titan behind such calamities as Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) invasion of Earth in the original Avengers film, as well as the increased militancy of Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy is done sending underlings to try (and fail) to accomplish his will. The strangely magnetic cosmic killer has finally set out to collect the Infinity Stones, the most powerful objects in the universe (many of which have already served as McGuffins in past MCU films), in order to “balance the universe”, his polite way of phrasing genocide. Having already obtained the first stone offscreen, this quest next leads Thanos to head a devastating attack on the Asgardian refugees that have been in Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) care since the end of Thor: Ragnarok. The slaughter of many of these innocents serves both to introduce Brolin’s imposing menace as Thanos and to set Thor on a compelling quest for vengeance for the rest of the film. Mixing both unfiltered grief and rage mixed with his usual knuckle-headed humor results in one of Hemsworth’s best performances as the character, making him a highlight among one of the most talent-filled casts in cinematic history.
After Thanos’s advance forces make their first strike against Earth the Avengers and their allies, still divided by the emotional and ideological splits introduced by Captain America: Civil War, ready a multi-front response. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) teams with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to attack Thanos directly while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a unit that unites with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), among others, to protect the Infinity Stone that powers android Vision (Paul Bettany). This mixing and matching of characters provides much of the crossover’s greatest appeal, with the all-star cast bouncing off each other brilliantly. Downey clashes with Cumberbatch in a tense battle of ego and methodology while also nailing Tony’s irritated yet amused reactions to the quirky antics of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Hemsowrth also shines alongside the outer-space heroes, with Thor and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) forming a particularly interesting and funny bond. Steve’s essentially good nature is still as clear as ever, even as Evans subtly displays that the captain holds some anger towards Vision’s betrayal and failures in Civil War (and, by extension, Tony’s), even as he risks life and limb to protect the naieve A.I.
If roughly half of the film’s focus is devoted to the interactions between the wonderfully mismatched heroes, the other half turns its eyes directly to the villain. Brolin is absolutely mesmerizing in a motion capture performance that would impress Andy Serkis. Both Brolin’s efforts and those of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely display Thanos as the complex, frightening enemy that the majority of MCU films lack, and one worthy of the ten-year wait for his full debut. As violent and destructive as the Mad Titan is, the film is uniquely empathetic to him, and Brolin is gifted with a complex arc in which the character’s convictions to his genocidal intentions are tested by a dark sacrifice. The character’s impact is furthered by his large amount of screen time. Indeed, it would not be hard to view this as a Thanos movie featuring the Avengers and Guardians as antagonists. All this contributes to the creation of a screen villain that is perversely noble while still being our heroes’ most genuinely intimadting threat yet.
Brolin’s memorable character is rivaled for screen time and narrative focus only by Downey Jr.’s, a fitting reflection of Tony’s place as the original MCU hero. The arrival of the alien warlord is everything the always personally and morally conflicted Iron Man has feared since he glimpsed the dark outer reaches of space in The Avengers and Downey makes the most out of the especially personal stake Tony has in this fight. The reemergence of the cause of the character’s post-traumatic stress provides a narrative opportunity for the immensely popular actor to give one of the best of his body-language-driven performances in his career-defining role. Downey Jr. skillfully alternates between radiating fear and anxiety in the quiet moments and palpable rage and determination while in the heat of the fight. Cumberbatch and Holland both serve mostly as support to Downey Jr., though the former’s character does have a well-executed arc in which his gray morality is challenged by the more clearly heroic Iron Man and Spider-Man. Despite the supporting nature of their roles, however, both are highly enjoyable presences, with Holland giving what may be his best performance yet in the iconic part of Peter Parker. Among the Guardians, the greatest focus is given to the romantically-linked Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), which is unsurprising given the latter is Thanos’s favorite daughter, and both actors do good work at conveying the nature of the massive threat on an interpersonal level, with Pratt also providing a couple of the film’s stronger comedic beats. Despite Banner’s place as the prophet of the coming calamity, Ruffalo’s performance is, for the most part, an unexpected source of levity, producing more than a few laughs out of the sometimes-Hulk’s re-acclimation to Earth’s superhero community after the two years he spent in space between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok. Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Vision’s lover, Wanda/Scarlet Witch) receive more prominence than usual due to Vision’s key place in the narrative, and Olsen is particularly impressive, making the most of Wanda’s greater emotional vulnerability in comparison with her more world-weary friends. The final role of real thematic purpose goes to Captain America, despite Evans smaller-than-usual amount of screen time. Steve doesn’t make any great strides in his personal development here as he has in all past appearances, but this may very well be intentional. Infinity War is very much Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back (or really a mix of that film and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1 wrapped in a superhero coating) and the hopelessness of the situation is sold by Cap’s confused emotional state. While Stark may be the backbone of the MCU, the Captain is very much it’s heart and if he’s lost it seems very believable that everything else is as well. Beyond this group the rest of the extensive cast are relegated to supporting roles of varying sizes, many of them there for little more than (impressive) actions scenes and jokes. Johannson and Boseman make larger impressions than most but this is due more to the strength of their characters and their gravitas as performers than any special material given them. Danai Gurira is also a stand-out as Okoye, T’challa’s right hand, with a series of meme-worthy reactions and facial expressions.
While the massive, star-studded cast is perhaps the most memorable individual piece of Infinity War, the massively satisfying experience the film is results from all its elements working together in concert perfectly. This is one of the most visually vibrant MCU films yet, with shifts in color easing the transition between different corners of the Marvel Universe, such as Panther’s high-tech African home of Wakanda and the far reaches of space that Thor and the Guardians explore. Perhaps even more importantly this is arguably the franchise’s highest achievement in tonal balance, providing just enough of the humor expected from characters like Spider-Man and the Guardians while maintaining the high-stakes sense of dread necessary in depicting the apocalyptic conflict. The separate stories of the individual groups are united by a well-written exploration of sacrifice, strongly displayed through the actions of Thanos, Tony, Strange, Quill, Wanda, and Cap, among some others. All this lends weight and investment to some truly stunning battles, with the Russo brothers continuing to display that they understand how to display super-human abilities (particularly strength and speed) better than perhaps any other filmmaker that has attempted to do so in live-action. All things considered Avengers: Infinity War is an epic achievement that serves both as a loving tribute to everything Marvel Studios has achieved so far while also promising that there are more exciting adventures to come.