–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It’s all been building to this. The Infinity Stones have been moving in and out of the series, and we’ve had glimpses of Thanos working behind the scenes. Now we enter into the climactic conclusion of nearly twenty interconnected stories.
Following the events of Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian refugee ship has been assaulted by Thanos’s forces and blasted in half. Valkyrie is nowhere to be found, but Thor and Heimdall have been subdued (one of the gladiators from Ragnarok is visible among the dead, which is a great detail) and Loki is being interrogated by members of the ‘Black Order.’ Thanos himself gives a speech about the inevitability of destiny, then defeats the Incredible Hulk in single combat before forcing Loki into giving up the Tesseract by torturing Thor, confirming once and for all that Loki does care about his brother. Loki then makes a desperate effort to kill Thanos and is strangled to death in retaliation, leaving Thor cradling his brother’s body as the ship blows up around him while Thanos sends the Black Order to retrieve the two stones on Earth.
On Earth, Banner (teleported to safety by Heimdall as his final act) arrives in Doctor Strange’s mansion, where soon he and Tony and in a discussion with Strange and Wong about the nature of the Infinity Stones and how they can keep them out of Thanos’s hands. Tony is prepared to make the call to Steve Rogers for help, but before he can go through with it the Black Order arrives for the Time Stone in Strange’s keeping. The Hulk refuses to make an appearance, so Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Wong, and Spider-Man (swinging in from a field-trip) battle the two aliens. Strange is captured, but Stark and Peter manage to hitch a ride on the ship (Peter now in the new ‘Iron Spider’ suit that was teased at the end of Homecoming). From there we cut to the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are responding to the Asgardians’ distress call and find Thor alive. Upon hearing of Thanos’s plot, Gamora recounts her history with him and the teams splits up; Thor, Rocket, and Groot head for the ancient dwarven forge where Mjolnir was made in the hopes of getting a weapon that can match Thanos, while Quill, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis head for Knowhere to get the Aether from the Collector before Thanos can.
Meanwhile on Earth, Vision and Wanda – whose relationship has progressed to romance and even to the point where he wants to stay with her despite their conflicting responsibilities – are assaulted by more members of the Black Order, but are rescued when Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow intervene. They head for Avenges HQ to team up with Rhodey and Banner (the former of whom pointedly ignores Ross’s orders to arrest the fugitives), and they determine that the only way to save Vision and stop Thanos would be to remove the Mind Stone from his head, and the only place with the technology to do so is Wakanda. The stage is thus set for a galaxy-spanning battle against Thanos with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance.
This film is incredible. They are juggling so many different elements, so many different characters, continuing on from so many different storylines that merely to be watchable would have been an achievement. But it’s more than that; it’s indisputably one of the best superhero films ever made.
Just consider the sheer size of the cast: we have the Avengers, the Guardians, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Spider-Man and a sizable portion of all their supporting casts – Pepper, Ross, Loki, Heimdall, M’Baku, Shuri, Wong, Ned, the Collector, Red Skull, and Nebula – not to mention introducing what is effectively a brand new villain (since Thanos received little more than cameos and allusions in the previous films) and one or two new characters – such as Eitri the Dwarf. Yet not only do they have all these characters, but just about every single one of them has a character-appropriate moment to shine, or a bit of development, or generally contributes to the film. Even the Cloak of Levitation gets its share of memorable moments. The way every scene, every line of dialogue, almost every action contributes to the story, the level of respect given to these characters and this world, is nothing short of staggering. The only major figures missing in action are Ant-Man and Hawkeye, and the film takes the time to account for them by saying that they struck a deal in order to care for their families and are under house arrest (this also prompts Banner to ask, “There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?”).
But not only that, but while juggling this huge cast and epic scope the film still takes time for thoughtful, quiet scenes where the characters just breathe and interact with one another. Like the conversation between Rocket and Thor on their way to the forge, where Rocket (following on a joke in an earlier scene) decides to “be the captain” and check whether Thor is all right, given all he’s been through. Or the scene between Thanos and Gamora in his throne room. Or when Tony and Strange debate the best strategy for tackling Thanos. Even just having Cap and Bucky take a moment to greet one another as Wakanda prepares for war, or introducing Tony discussing the prospect of having a son with Pepper. The film shows genuine respect for its massive cast; it isn’t just throwing characters at the screen in order to pack theaters, everyone has a reason to be here and everyone is treated like an actual person. It is truly amazing how well all these vastly different characters are captured. Just think of the different styles necessary for Doctor Strange, Drax the Destroyer, Spider-Man, and Captain America, but they absolutely nail everyone. With about six or seven major players, any of whom could be called the protagonist, every one of them gets more humanity and development than most characters with a whole film to themselves.
Then there is the villain, and my goodness, what an incredible character Thanos is! He makes a strong impression right from the start, standing amid the wreckage and bodies of the Asgardian ship he just massacred (the opening distress call emphasizes “This is not a war craft!”), dragging a beaten and bloodied Thor around while making a grandiose speech about destiny. He then proceeds to beat the Incredible Hulk unconscious in single combat before strangling Loki to death after taking command of two Infinity Stones (which, as one of his servants says, is an unprecedented situation). The scope of his evil – slaughtering hundreds of civilians – is established, as well as his sense of destiny and sophisticated dialogue (when Loki says he has experience on Earth, Thanos answers, “If you consider failure experience”) and his modus operandi of forcing people into impossible choices where they either help him or watch those they love die in agony. It also shows that, whatever logic Thanos will bring to bear in defense of his vision, he is ultimately monstrous and insane, as we know the Asgardians are on the verge of extinction, yet he still subjects them to his ‘culling’ by slaughtering defenseless women and children.
From there, we spend a good deal of the film getting to know Thanos, to understand his perspective and to feel his drive and sense of destiny. His plan, though appalling, has a cruel logic to it; believing the universe’s resources to be finite and overpopulation the source of hunger, suffering, and conflict, Thanos means to wipe out half of all living things, believing that would prevent a total extinction – such as happened to his own planet – and create a better life for the survivors. The film takes the time to let him actually debate the question both with Gamora and Doctor Strange, the latter of whom asks what happens if he wins. “I finally rest,” Thanos answers. “And watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”
Most importantly, though, Thanos, evil as he is, is not inhuman. He shows respect to his enemies, he honestly cares for Gamora, and though, when presented with the choice between an Infinity Stone the person he loves the most, he (unlike everyone else in the film) chooses the stone, we can see that the choice nearly kills him (contrast Killmonger, who murders his girlfriend the moment it becomes the easiest way to enact his plan and doesn’t even react). He’s a monster, yet like with Zemo before him we find ourselves actually sympathizing with him, as when Mantis announces that he is in anguish after killing Gamora. Moreover, Thanos goes through a lot in pursuit of his goal; we watch him fighting, suffering, struggling to achieve his vision, and though that vision is horrifically evil, his twisted devotion in pursuing it is nevertheless affecting to watch.
However, though Thanos claims his motivations are purely altruistic and based on necessity, the cult-like nature of his organization, with his reverent servants speaking in evangelical terms of him, as well as the way he tells Gamora that everything great about her comes from him, suggests that he is in truth more motivated by diabolical pride than by misguided generosity. This is particularly intriguing in light of Loki – so perceptive about everyone but himself – telling him with his dying breath “You will never be a god.” It also raises serious questions about just how honest he is being about both the reason for Titan’s fall and the current state of Gamora’s homeworld (he assures her it’s a paradise, while she tells him that they were happy there before he came and slaughtered half the population).
There’s a common canard that a good villain thinks he’s the hero. That’s not really true, of course (does anyone suppose that, say, Count Dracula or Blofeld or the Joker think they’re heroes?), but it is one way to make a good villain, and Thanos is one of the best embodiments of that idea. He’s an all-around fantastic character who sticks with you long after the film is over and is easily one of if not the best villain in the whole MCU; the absolute ideal figure to serve as the antagonist to all our heroes at once.
Which brings us to the film’s central theme, contrasting those who will sacrifice lives for their ideology and those who will not; those who love their friends and family more than their goals, and those who will sacrifice anything and anyone for what they think has to be done. Again and again, the heroes have the option to keep the stones out of Thanos’s hands at the cost of someone they love, and again and again they can’t do it. Even Loki can’t stand to actually watch Thor die. But the brilliant part is that this is precisely what makes the difference between them and Thanos. He is able to progress along his plan precisely because he is a monster and they aren’t: because he’s willing to sacrifice literally anything to achieve his end and they are not. As Captain America says, “we don’t trade lives.” Whatever the consequences, our heroes will not abandon the ones they care about, because that is the kind of people they are. The very thing that separates them from Thanos is precisely the thing that ends up giving him his opportunity and why he wins in the end. Yet the way the film is staged makes it clear that, even so, the heroes are right because the steps Thanos takes – torturing Nebula, murdering Gamora, and his final ‘snap’ – are so horrific.
In other words, this film is a thorough deconstruction of consequentialism, even as it shows the pitfalls of adhering to a strict code of right and wrong that prioritizes people over ends. It makes us feel the devastating cruelty of the one and the nobility of the other, and it does so while having the wrong side emerge the victor.
The entire perspective is summed up perfectly in a devastating exchange at a crucial moment. Thanos has been temporarily subdued and Tony and Spider-Man are trying to get the gauntlet off him. Quill takes advantage of Thanos’s immobility to demand to know where Gamora is. Nebula soon realizes that he must have killed her, and Quill orders Thanos to tell him it isn’t true. Thanos’s answer is an agonized, “I had to.”
To which Quill, in a hollow voice, gives the unanswerable response, “No, you didn’t.”
Quill then utterly loses control, ruining their best chance at victory. Again, the fact that the heroes love real people more than any goal or ideology costs them dearly.
During this exchange, Tony quickly realizes what’s happening and begs Quill to stop, to think, to stay calm. This harkens back to Tony’s own loss of control in Civil War: he knows exactly what Quill is about to experience and what the consequences might be. But while Cap stopped Tony from going too far, Tony fails to stop Quill in time.
This brings us back to the care that went into this script and the deep respect paid to the rest of the franchise. I want to say that every past film is mentioned, alluded to, or has consequences at work in the film. Sometimes Infinity War actually does a better job of dealing with the consequences than the earlier films did. For instance, when T’Challa is gathering his forces for the coming battle, he asks if the Border Tribe – which sided with Killmonger in Black Panther – and Okoye sadly answers, “those who are left,” showing more grief over the loss of her lover / husband and the divide in her country with one line than she ever showed in the earlier film. Meanwhile, the fallout from Civil War is still being dealt with (Ross orders Cap’s arrest even after the attack on New York, further validating Cap’s fears over the Accords), Rhody is still paralyzed, even Doctor Strange’s surgery scars are still visible. There is a tremendous amount of detail in this film, all meant to bring the weight of those eighteen earlier films to bear on what happens.
We finally get to see Quill and Gamora acting on their ‘unspoken thing,’ confirming their romance just in time to have it ripped apart (their connection is smoothly established in their introductory scene, where they’re both singing along to ‘Rubber Band Man’). Rocket’s development from Vol. 2 also carries over, as he expresses his compassion and empathy in the aforementioned scene with Thor (basically assuming the role Yondu took with him), though he has to take a moment to sort of psych himself up to the effort.
Thor, for his part, strikes a balance between his jokey, comedic person in Ragnarok (“So cool,”) and his more traditional, grandiose character (“Destiny will deliver Thanos to me”) to very good effect, in the process allowing the writers to gracefully correct the mistakes of past films without simply negating them. They showed a talent for this back in Civil War by actually making something out of Iron Man 3, and here they exercise it by, among other things, ignoring the gadgets on Spider-Man’s suit (and making him generally a much more competent fighter than he was in Homecoming) and emphasizing the fact that Wakandan spears double as energy weapons (correcting the moronic scene in Black Panther where Okoye has to climb out onto the roof of a car during a shoot-out in order to throw her spear).
Speaking of development, we get a lot of it for Wanda and Vision, who step into the role almost of supporting protagonists. Their doomed romance is beautifully conceived and painfully tragic as it becomes increasingly clear that Vision will have to be sacrificed if they want to save the universe, and the only person who can do that is the woman he loves: a woman who has already lost the only person she loved once before and now is faced with the prospect of not only going through that same heart ache again, but of having to be the one to pull the trigger. At the same time, though, Scarlet Witch has continued to grow in power over the years and is now one of the most fearsome of all the Avengers, able to almost single-handedly turn the tide of whole battles (prompting the hilariously on-point question, “Why was she up there all this time?”).
Then, of course, there are our two protagonists, Cap and Iron Man. The two of them still haven’t reconciled, but the details of their relationship are excellent: Tony carries the phone Steve gave him around at all times, suggesting that he longs to be able to talk to his friend but can’t bring himself to do so. When Steve learns that Tony is missing he says, “Earth’s lost her greatest defender.” The remnants of their shattered friendship are still there, as is the pain of their falling out. Yet, appropriately, the film suggests that their conflict is ultimately why they can’t beat Thanos. Tony’s hesitation to call Steve prevents the two halves of the Avengers from uniting until Thanos’s people have already made their move. this means that he and Strange have no idea what is being planned back on Earth when reaching their decision about facing Thanos. Had it been otherwise, they might have returned to join in the battle of Wakanda and things might have turned out different. Thus Tony’s fears are brought to pass by the fact that he failed to heed Cap’s advice in Age of Ultron; that whatever happens, they should face it together.
Captain America’s re-introduction – emerging from the shadows to rescue Vision and Wanda – is note-perfect, as is his new, somber-colored uniform and beard, showing the passage of time (I’m less pleased with Natasha platinum dye-job: I think black would have been more fitting). Likewise the fact that he doesn’t get his shield back yet – that has to wait until he reconciles with Tony (the question of why T’Challa doesn’t outfit all the Avengers with some of the extra vibranium suits we know he has lying around is entirely the fault of Black Panther, so I won’t cite it as a real flaw here). One of the few issues I have with this film is that I wish Cap had more screen time, but what he does have is excellent, especially his final clash with Thanos. It’s the only time the two characters meet, and they don’t exchange a single line of dialogue, but you can see on Thanos’s face that Cap has made an impression.
Tony Stark, appropriately enough, takes center stage here. As the film reminds us, he’s been fearing and planning for this exact scenario for years. It was why he made Ultron, why he’s been unable to permanently hang up his suit despite his desire to be with Pepper; because he knows something terrible is coming, and he’s the one with the knowledge, the power, and the will to do something about it. Again, he’s an engineer, and faced with a problem his instinct is to somehow work out a solution. The potential end of the world at Thanos’s hands has been the problem eating away at him since the attack on New York, and he simply cannot accept the idea that it might not admit of a solution, or at least, not one he can count on.
When he first faces the Black Order, he’s evidently confident that he can take them on. However, as the film progresses, he grows more and more desperate as it begins to dawn on him that he can’t, in fact, win this fight. In their duel, he throws absolutely everything he has at Thanos, and all he can manage is a scratch.
The film explicitly points out that Tony and Thanos have a similar basic personality: they both think of themselves as specially appointed geniuses, who alone have the knowledge, the power, and the will to do what needs to be done for the greater good. Tony has been struggling with this question, of what his life will ultimately mean, of what he’ll leave behind him, of what good he can do with his gifts, ever since he came out of that cave in Afghanistan, and here he meets his ultimate test…and fails.
Part of the reason he fails is, again, because he makes the gamble to take on Thanos on Titan, not Earth, since he fears the potential collateral damage that might result. Sokovia and Ultron evidently still haunt him, and he is still unable to take Cap’s view that you cannot save everyone, you can only try to save as many as you can.
In summary, the character work in this film is incredible, and I’m really only scratching the surface. Like Civil War, if I tried to list everything this film does right, to describe every great scene and every detail of development and plot, it would easily out weigh the original script. The ideas alone – of morality, of division, of fanaticism and ideology, the evil doctrine of overpopulation, Thanos’ parallels with real-life monsters, and so on – could devour whole essays.
But layered on top of this fantastic writing is some of the most jaw-dropping spectacle in the franchise. There’s the opening battle in New York, a hilarious exhibition match between the Guardians and the Avengers, the sometimes-surreal effects of Thanos’s gauntlet, and the two parallel climactic battles; a full scale battle of Wakanda and the Avengers against a hoard of savage monsters that look like multi-armed xenomorphs from the ‘Alien’ franchise and the fight of Iron Man’s team against Thanos. During all of this we have some glorious visuals that look like classic comic-book covers brought to life: Spider-Man standing on the rim of one of Thanos’ space ships. The eerie, almost silent world that holds the Soul Stone. An enraged Thanos tearing a whole moon apart to throw it at Iron Man. The cold forge where Thor tries to build a new hammer. Doctor Strange unleashing the full might of his magic against Thanos and actually matching him for a brief time. That isn’t even considering the amazing CG work used to bring Thanos to life, which is so good that you soon stop noticing it’s there at all. In fact, it’s a little jarring to look back afterwards and remember that he is computer generated (I also can’t say enough about Josh Brolin’s performance, though the acting in this film is excellent across the board).
On top of all that, the film continues the tradition of great dialogue and great jokes, even amid all the drama and tragedy. We have things like Ned’s ‘distraction’ (“We’re all gonna die!”), “You’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards,” Rocket vowing to get Bucky’s mechanical arm, Drax training himself to be invisible, Peter trying to introduce himself to Doctor Strange (“Oh, we’re using our made up names? Then I’m Spider-Man”), and Tony’s thousand-yard stare after trying to talk with the Guardians. Watch the Cloak of Levitation while Peter and Tony are arguing about the former’s decision to hitch a ride on the spaceship.
After the horrifying opening sequence, we get some badly-needed comedy as Strange and Wong discuss buying lunch (“I’ll see if they can make you a metaphysical ham-and-rye”), followed by Strange porting over to Central Park to collect Tony, pausing to congratulate him and Pepper on their engagement. One of my favorite lines has Tony sternly telling Peter, “I do not want to hear another pop-culture reference out of you for the rest of the trip,” which is both hilarious in itself and extremely satisfying given how often such references are used in place of actual comedy in lesser films.
Added on to that are just great bits of dialogue, such as Thanos telling Tony, “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge,” or when the Collector asks why he would lie, Thanos dryly responds, “I imagine it’s like breathing for you.” Or we have Loki’s last words to Thor: “The sun will shine on us again.” Or Cap’s dismissal of Ross: “I’m not looking for forgiveness, and I’m way past asking for permission.” Or Okoye and M’Baku’s comment right before the battle: “This will be the end of Wakanda.” “Then it shall be the noblest end in history.”
I really can’t say enough about how good this film is. The expert juggling of so many different characters, tones, and plotlines; the powerful characterization; the spectacle; the humor; the tragedy, all of it adds up to one of the greatest film epics in decades. The closest comparison would be with The Return of the King back in 2003, which was itself something of a throwback to the likes of Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and The Longest Day. I don’t think I would say Infinity War is on par with the likes of those films, of course, but it at least feels like part of that same tradition. Yes, there are flaws; individual moments that don’t work as well as they might, questions about how exactly Thanos’s gauntlet works (its precise nature seems to have been left ambiguous to maintain drama, since if the stones do what they’re implied to, there’s no way the heroes could have even gotten as far as they do), questions about particular strategies they might have tried or applications of established powers that weren’t used, and so on. There’s also simply the fact that the film more or less requires the viewer to be familiar with eighteen previous films to receive the full impact and that its final status will depend, to an extent, on the quality of its conclusion.
But at the end of the day, Infinity War will stand as the culmination of a glorious and unprecedented achievement in filmmaking; nineteen films over ten years, all of them financially successful and very few of them genuinely bad in terms of quality, all culminating in this single, suitably epic tragedy. Whatever happens next, it is one of the best superhero films ever made.