WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War because I found it pretty damn hard not to do so.
Last week the creatives behind Avengers: Infinity War told members of the media all agreed on one thing: they knew they had cracked the film’s plot when they decided that Thanos must be the film’s protagonist. Despite the film being stuffed with characters we’ve grown to love over the 10 years that Marvel Studios has been making films, it would be a disservice to make this film revolve around any other character. It was the machinations of Thanos that brought this cast of disparate characters together from their own corners of the MCU to face common foe; it was Thanos that taught these heroes what true willpower, determination and sacrifice look like; and, ultimately, it was Thanos who won. After this, the MCU can never be the same.
The film managed to pull from and adapt several different Marvel Comics event series and still be its own version, something that directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted very much to accomplish but they did so by doing in a film what comic book creator Jim Starlin was never afraid to do: make a villain the central character. There can be no mistake about it in this film: from the first scene until the last, this is Thanos’ film. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who, along with the Russos, did a fantastic job of creating some very comic accurate scenes for the film) wasted no time in establishing Thanos as the ruthless, powerful and terrifying threat he’d need to be in order for this film to work. While many certainly may have seen the demise of the God of Mischief coming, the especially personal and violent end he suffered at the hand of Thanos sent a message both to the film’s audience and to its cast of heroes that the Mad Titan is not be trifled with.
The opening scene also works nicely to set the film’s divergent subplots in motion. While the film sometimes seems structurally erratic, it sets its course early and never veers from it. Thanos, now in control of two stones (Power and Space), uses his allies to help him as he tries to track down three more: Mind, Time and Reality. Thanos’ children, known in the comics as the Black Order, go after two of the Stones and Thanos himself goes for the third. It’s this decision that leads to both the breakneck structure of the film and to one of the film’s highlights: the regrouping of the Avengers and Guardians. Doctor Strange finds himself begrudgingly allied with Iron Man, Spider-Man and, for a time, Bruce Banner; the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assemble in Wakanda in defense of the Vision.Thor first finds himself with the entire team of Guardians before heading off with Rocket and Groot; Star-Lord, Drax, Mantis and Gamora find themselves face to face with the Mad Titan on Knowhere.
Each of these subplots is important to the overall narrative and, in each case, the heroes find themselves forced to make some terrible choices with the fate of the entire universe in balance. It’s in those moments that the film, a spectacle unlike anything previously attempted on screen, finds a way to feel small and personal. Marvel Studios has cleverly spent 10 years making us fall in love with these heroes only to put them in no-win scenarios that demand sacrifice and loss. And while Thor, Star-Lord and Scarlet Witch have heavy tolls extracted from them, it’s the film’s central character, Thanos, that loses the most in order to achieve his goal. While the Mad Titan’s goal is genocide on a universal scale, the choice he faces in order to achieve that goal is one that could not be more personal and singular and Josh Brolin, through fantastic mo-cap acting, pulls off one of the film’s most heart-wrenching and terrible moments in a way that makes you forget you’re looking at a massive, purple alien. It’s in this moment that the decision by the creative team to make Thanos the film’s central character pays off. Thanos has already shown himself capable of torturing his daughter Nebula and his decision to sacrifice Gamora to obtain the Soul Stone cements him as one of the true villains in cinematic history.
The film’s ending, which divided audiences seemingly along lines of comic readers vs. non-comic readers, was either fitting or infuriating depending on which side of the divide you found yourself. The Battle of Wakanda, one of the grandest action scenes Marvel Studios has put on film, ends with the simplest of gestures and we see Thanos, omnipotent and omniscient, ride off into the sunset. Those scenes pay homage to Marvel Comics’ creator Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet and deserved to find their way to film; however, the post credit scene reminds us that there are other heroes (where are you, Carol?) and more stories to tell (we know Spidey 2 is just about to start production and Black Panther 2 is sure thing) and reminds us of an iconic line, spoken by Captain America in Infinity Gauntlet that didn’t make its way to the film…at least not yet: “As long as one man stands against you, Thanos, you’ll never be able to claim victory.” And thus we move on to next May’s Untitled Avengers where though they have taken heavy losses we can be sure that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will assemble one more time.
Thanos is one of Marvel’s grandest characters and the decision to make this movie his movie was a bold one, but one that was ultimately satisfying. By giving an entire film to their greatest villain, Marvel Studios did right by the character but also knew they’d have to face the same choices given to the heroes: they’d have to sacrifice something they love and, to that end, there are some characters that won’t be coming back. As a lifelong comic reader, the film was thrilling and the risk of allowing the villain to walk away victorious was the right one. For too long, critics have bemoaned the lack of consequences the heroes in the MCU face and that the villains are weak and one-dimensional. No such criticisms can be applied here. In fact, if the movie had been called Thanos Quest (a comics story in which Thanos assembles the gem) and we perceived the Avengers and Guardians as the antagonists, they’d actually seem like pretty damn good villains themselves. Each of them, or at least their groups, was given something to do that felt meaningful and not contrived. This is a tribute to creative team. With a snap, they totally flipped the script on everything that came before and nailed it. This film, for better AND for worse, rewrote the reality of the MCU that fans have come to accept. This is a film that demands more than one screening and one that we will look back on in retrospect in high regard. It kept moving, each scene felt necessary and while some were bothered by the film’s pace and editing, I didn’t find it a distraction. In weighing the film against my own expectations, I find that it most definitely exceeded them and it certainly seemed to have the impact that the directors desired. At this point, it sits atop the MCU films for me, either alongside or slightly above Captain America: The Winter Soldier.