Film Review | Avengers: Infinity War
For a while now, Marvel has been issuing trigger warnings about impending demises in Avengers: Infinity War —with good reason, it turns out. Not only are several prominent players bid farewell, the film is consumed with the prospect of mortality. More than one character tasks a loved one with killing them if things go bad. Another admits to having little to live for besides revenge. And while they go about their task with respect, directors Anthony and Joe Russo aren’t paralysed by the prospect of dispatching fan favourites—many of the deaths are sudden, few are lingered upon.
Behind the culling is a franchise decision years in the making. Infinity Wars is the penultimate offering in “phase three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a slate-cleaning exercise before a new band of superheroes is brought together over another set of films. You’d expect the old roots to be pulled out first—fans have been debating the likelihood of either Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) dying at the end—though if Thanos (Josh Brolin) has his way, there will be destruction without discrimination, a purge free of bias.
Thanos, a giant purple being from Titan, has set out to destroy half of all life in the universe because there are too many mouths to feed at present—a most unlikely manifestation of what 18th century economist Thomas Robert Malthus called positive checks on population growth. To do this, Thanos must gather the Infinity Stones, all-powerful gems that Marvel has scattered across its various story arcs. These six stones are the ballgame: Thanos must have them all to wreak the sort of havoc he wants to; the Avengers, Guardians and other superheroes like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) must prevent him from getting to them.
In Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel’s last mashup, the Russos displayed a knack for juggling universes and personality types. Here, tasked with stirring an even bigger melting pot, they emerge with more coherence than one might expect, pairing Stark and Strange (the best sparring partner Downey’s had in ages), Thor and the Guardians, Cap’s team and T’Challa. This opens up possibilities for visual and aural flexibility that are only cursorily explored—the trippy effects in some of scenes with Doctor Strange are reminiscent of Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film, a hooky radio hit signals the presence of the Guardians, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) seems to have retained some of the humour of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Infinity War occasionally rises above all the information it must convey and offers memorable individual scenes: Rocket acting as reluctant shrink to Thor; the extra second the camera lingers on Tom Holland’s face when Tony Stark mock-knights Spidey and tells him he’s an Avenger; the pained interactions between Thanos and his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). But there’s too much business to take care of, and little time to pause and let the viewer take it all in. The narrative is affecting (assuming you’re already invested in the series) but the treatment is unimaginative: good for instant tears or cheers, but not, I think, the stuff you’d remember 20 years later.
The denouement left the audience, which had been whooping in all the appropriate places, quiet on their way out. Maybe some of them were wondering if what they’d seen was going to be reversed, at least in part, in the sequel. As a piece of filmmaking, Infinity War is efficient, professional—the sort of qualities prized by studio heads and fans who resent authorial personality superseding source material. Its boldness lies in the decisions taken at the “universe” level. The cutting of multiple threads shows how much confidence Marvel has in its ability to forge a new set of relationships. Thanos, immortal, achieved through thanatos, death.