“The fate of the universe is at stake,” warns Doctor Strange, early on in Avengers: Infinity War. That’s no overstatement. The first of a two-part story – an untitled Avengers 4 is due next year – that’s widely pitched as the endgame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this latest superhero mashup promises to bring 10 years and 18 movies of unprecedented world-building to a close with planet-shattering consequences. That’s one hell of a mission statement. Yet Infinity War not only matches its gargantuan ambitions; it smashes through them, delivering Marvel’s most shocking, dramatically hefty movie so far.
That Avengers prefix is a tad misleading, though. Infinity War might involve pretty much every major character in the MCU, but they’re all overshadowed by the giant, purple-skinned titan who’s finally decided to get off his space toilet and join the fight. A darkly operatic opening sequence immediately dispels any lingering doubts about Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) effectiveness as a villain, with a ruthless demonstration of power grimly kick starting a rampage across the cosmos as he makes a smash-and-grab for the remaining Infinity Stones.
That he is such a frighteningly formidable foe owes a great deal to the emotional weight Brolin brings to Thanos’ pixelated heft. His plan to exterminate half the universe is completely mad, but it’s powered by traumatic experience and his victories come at great personal cost. He suffers for his cause and the unimaginable lengths he’s prepared to go to succeed in his mission make him a far more compelling villain than we’re used to seeing in the MCU.
It’s this unflinching determination that sets Thanos apart from the splintered band of heroes who try to stop him. “We don’t trade lives,” Steve Rodger’s (Chris Evans) nobly claims at one point in the movie – Thanos spends most of the near-150 minute runtime testing that conviction. Time and again the Avengers are forced to chose between saving a life and doing what’s necessary to win, a constant turmoil that drags them into dark, challenging places as they confront their deepest demons. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) comes face to face with the monster who has tormented him since the Chitauri invasion of New York. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to consider how far he’s prepared to go to keep his promises. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doubts how much more he can bear to lose. Is the price of being a hero one any of them are willing to pay?
For all the bleak, existential quandaries, this is still a Marvel movie – so there’s plenty of levity shining through the darkness. The fractured, disparate nature of the heroes leads to several delightfully unusual combinations. The meeting of egos between Stark and Strange certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thor’s unexpected arrival aboard the Guardian’s ship is another hilarious highlight, as is his amusingly accurate retelling of his family history. And Tom Holland continues to prove he’s the best on-screen Spider-Man yet with his naive exuberance landing some of the film’s best lines.
Naturally, not every thing works perfectly. With such a massive cast, it’s unsurprising that several characters struggle to make an impact – the Children of Thanos fail to register as anything more than surprisingly handy henchman – and it feels like directors Anthony and Joe Russo are pulling their punches with some of the bigger plot twists. These minor quibbles feel just that, though, when the rest of the film is such a bold, exciting spectacle. That’s especially true as the movie enters its thrilling endgame, culminating in perhaps the most strikingly inviting of cliffhangers since Han Solo was dipped in carbon. Think Infinity War is the end of the Marvel Universe? On this basis, it’s just getting started.
Runtime: 149 minutes (approx.)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth