Avengers: Infinity War begins with the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) on board the ship that housed the surviving Asgardians from the end of Thor: Ragnarok. He is gathering the Infinity Stones, six powerful gems that will give him the power to kill off half the universe with a snap of his fingers. Heroes from all over are brought together by fate, and they must somehow work in unison in order to keep Thanos from achieving his dark ambition. On Earth, on a long dead planet, and in the heart of a dying star, these heroes fight to save everything they hold dear.
Let it be said that if you haven’t seen the last 10 years of Marvel superhero movies, don’t let this be your first. The nuts and bolts of the narrative work well enough, but so much of this film is founded on the recognition of existing dynamics between characters. The movie, burdened with having to juggle a ludicrous number of characters, doesn’t really have the time to pay off all of the individual character threads. So some familiarity with what the characters have already gone through will help quite a bit.
Having said that, this movie does something a little audacious and unexpected: it isn’t really about The Avengers. If one is asked to identify the protagonist of this movie, one might actually have to name Thanos as the main mover of the narrative. The heroes are all there, doing cool things and getting big moments, but the emotional core of this movie lies in the journey of its nominal villain, whose philosophy of salvation through eradication comes off as much more compelling than one might be expecting. The movie strains under the weight of its characters, but Thanos’ journey creates a dramatic center that ties together the often disparate actions of the heroes.
Mostly, that is. There are still plenty of moments where the movie is unsuccessful in juggling its competing concerns. There are at least a couple of really clunky cross cuts between sequences that break up the momentum of the action. The film is pretty good at giving everyone a chance to shine, but this actually works against it as it moves into the climax. At times, it just feels like the movie is sacrificing pacing and brevity for the sake of fan service. When you get down to it, some of them just didn’t need to be there, and the table setting necessary to bring some of the characters into the story isn’t always worth it.
That said, the film does deliver its big moments. The action is crisp and impactful, in spite of the VFX-heavy nature of the whole thing. Small moments are consistently being elevated by the cast, who all continue to be the best thing about all of these movies. And we need to talk about Josh Brolin, who gives weary gravity to Thanos. The film’s most audacious dramatic gambit bends on our perception of the villain, and Brolin’s performance just shines through the obfuscate of the VFX-constructed exterior. Taken line by line, a lot of Thanos’ arc may feel like shorthand, but Brolin imbues everything with substance.
Avengers: Infinity War shouldn’t work. It feels impossible. It has too many characters, too many disparate threads that it has to bring together. And yet, here it is. It definitely does feel bloated beyond what is reasonable for a film, and there are several clunky moments borne out of the demands of juggling all of these properties. But more often than not, the movie delivers where it counts. There are points where it genuinely manages to surprise, making unexpected choices that send the story off into interesting directions. It remains to be seen if the second part can actually pay off a lot of what is set up in this movie, but for now, it is worth acknowledging the craft and the narrative audacity present in this installment. It just adds up to a lot more than the empty spectacle that this movie could have been.