AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Review

Where does one even begin? That is the question the screenwriters of Avengers: Infinity War must have been asking themselves when they sat down to pen what will ultimately come to be a five-plus hour finale to what the world has been witness to the construction of for a decade. There is so much happening and so much seemingly left to happen with Infinity War and whatever the as of yet untitled sequel is sure to include that it's almost incomprehensible anyone in their right mind took this on as a challenging endeavor they'd be willing to try their hand at. And say what you will about Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of Winter Soldier, Civil War, and now both the third and what will be the fourth Avengers movies, and how they might feel like Marvel's "directors for hire" that bend at any whim studio head Kevin Feige commands, but these guys get the work done and do so in a way that is both dramatically satisfying as well as colossally entertaining. With Infinity War, the Russo brothers along with series screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films, Thor: The Dark World, as well as Agent Carter) have somehow managed to tackle the unenviable for them, but extremely exciting for audiences in the vein of making eighteen previous movies come together and intertwine in a way that is as natural as possible with clear motivation as to why as much is necessary at this point in time all while keeping it all, as Thanos would put it, "well-balanced." Where to begin in such an endeavor is certainly not a question with an obvious answer, but Markus and McFeely begin in what feels like the most natural of places given the hints that have been being dropped since that post-credits scene in 2012's The Avengers and where we last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after the destruction of their home world, Asgard. If you haven't been paying attention, the aforementioned post-credits scene delivered a slight smirk by a guy named Thanos (Josh Brolin) AKA a titan who sees fit to invade planets and wipe out half of their population in order to keep balance among the galaxies. This is who Infinity War centers around and in more ways than one this is Thanos' movie. This is a smart decision as this was never going to be able to be one heroes movie more than another's, but by giving this villain who we've been hearing whisperings about for almost six years now the credit he is due the movie allows this antagonist to live up to the mythos those past movies have built around him.

From left: Wong (Benedict Wong), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Avengers: Infinity War.
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In James Gunn's 2014 flick, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos' adopted daughter of sorts, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), tells her new comrades that, "Thanos took my home world. He killed my parents in front of me. He tortured me, turned me into a weapon." Outside of that smirk this was the most information we'd received about the so-called mad titan and thus Infinity War really is this kind of put up or shut-up moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that needed to deliver where the majority of Marvel films had failed thus far meaning it needed to provide a veritable villain; a real threat. Since the first Iron Man film in 2008, there has been a lack of real stakes in these films and thus a certain tension that always eluded them as audiences were aware more adventures with these characters were inevitably coming down the pipeline, but going into Infinity War there is no real sense of what might happen next and this coupled with the intensity, ruthlessness, and surprising pensiveness of Thanos and Brolin's performance as Thanos make him a genuinely frightening bad guy. Not because we know his plan and know his end-game, but because we can never figure out exactly where he lands on the spectrum between compassion and logic. In one moment we may see tears falling down his face while a few scenes later this same individual is pulling a moon to his home planet without a second thought. Markus and McFeely make clear the mindset within which Thanos operates, but they don't hold him to this code in an absolute fashion making his character a wild card; a being who has strong points and reasons for why he's doing what he's doing, but is also tempted with bouts of emotion and sympathy. Such feelings are never actually an option, but there is more of a connective tissue from the audience to Thanos that exists than one might have imagined. In this regard, it is no doubt thanks in large part to Brolin's portrayal of the baddie and the few connective tissues he has to other beings that have been established in prior films. The strongest of these are obviously those to Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), but there is also this unspoken bond between Thanos and his cronies, known as The Black Order, which includes Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), among others that consistently illustrate the lengths to which Thanos is willing to go in order to achieve this goal of obtaining all six infinity stones for his big golden glove.

Of course, by this point the MCU has explored so much terrain both on earth and in the cosmos that it's impossible for Thanos to not run into a fair amount of super folks on his journey to collect all of those infinity stones. At the same time, many of the heroes we know best are still dealing with the fallout of the events that occurred in Civil War whereas Thor and Hulk, fresh off their Ragnarok experience, have already diverged paths-Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) returning to earth while Thor runs into Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of his Guardians gang that now includes Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a teenage Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). The Hulk's return to earth is not without some blowback from his previous experiences though as Banner and his alter-ego have never been more at odds. Luckily, Banner lands back on earth in the middle of Greenwich Village where the sorcerer supreme, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), resides with fellow master of the mystic arts, Wong (Benedict Wong). Banner immediately summons old friend Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to warn him and their new wizard friends about the impending threat of Thanos who seeks the two infinity stones that reside on earth; the green time stone that Doctor Strange keeps on his person at all times and the mind stone that sits in the center of Vision's (Paul Bettany) head. These plans to get ahead of whatever strength and army Thanos might be bringing with him are foiled when Stark and new apprentice Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are swept up into the stars on Ebony Maw's spaceship in an effort to rescue Strange and to prevent Thanos from obtaining the time stone. Meanwhile, Banner has to do all he can to ready Earth for what he knows is coming which means reuniting with Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) or War Machine as he's often referred which subsequently leads Banner to be able to locate Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in over two years, but was willing to run away with the last time the two were together on Earth. If that wasn't enough, Thor splits up the Guardians so that he, Rocket, and Groot might seek out a weapon that can match Thanos' gauntlet while Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis head to Knowhere to try and stop Thanos from taking the reality stone from The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) have also been sneaking around, trying to make a life together work, but once it becomes clear the threat level Thanos and his goons pose to Vision specifically it is off to Wakanda in hopes that T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and their people might offer a more attractive option than having to sacrifice himself in order to destroy the stone that powers his being. 

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is one bad, merciless dude.
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Needless to say, there is a lot going on in Infinity War, but while there are times the film will cut back to a certain situation with a certain set of characters that takes you off guard due to the fact you forgot that storyline was also taking place the majority of the time things are being kept on track and at an efficient enough pace that it feels there is plenty to go around for all that are worthy. It is in these moments of all these heroes coming together and being able to play freely off of one another that are what really make these crossover films so special and Infinity War may as well be the greatest example of them all. Markus and McFeely deliver several different combinations of characters audiences likely won't expect and/or haven't seen before and while some sets are more familiar there is a worn familiarity to them that gives this sense of belonging and level of comfort that is hard to find in any other franchise that hasn't been carefully putting its pieces in play for a decade. The highlight of these pairings and the new dynamics introduced are that of Stark and Strange with a little Spider-Man thrown in for good measure. Then there is Thor's introduction to the Guardians and the eventual buddy cop subplot with Rocket that develops. The matching of Stark and Strange's egos with the eagerness and slight naivete of Parker is a smart way to demonstrate both intelligence and strength while keeping the right amount of perspective between the two. Rocket and Thor on the other hand, couldn't seem more different, but Thor's fearlessness and Rocket's willingness are a strong match that allows each of them to push the other forward. Is there as much screen time for Cap and the rest of Wakanda as one might imagine given the time dedicated to these locations in the trailers? Not really. If there is one major complaint about Infinity War it is the fact that there is essentially no arc for Cap and that his story has been reduced to that of a drifter, still on the run from William Hurt's Thaddeus Ross, and this glaring kind of admission that he isn't the same, idealistic soldier he once was. Cap is a changed man, for better or worse, after the events of Civil War and though he is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the planet from Thanos there is a keen if not outright awareness that his service has turned into something more akin to servitude. Whether this be Evans own disenchantment with the role at this stage of his career or how far Rogers has fallen despite honoring his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), consistently and through to the present day without hesitation. Barnes presently recuperates among the farmers of Wakanda. Captain America is no longer the first avenger though, but more he is a man without a home; a man searching for a sense of belonging that we'll root for even if contracts and mad speculation tell us otherwise.

Are there deaths? Yes, of course. These were inevitable and I doubt it comes as a shock or should be considered a spoiler by saying that some characters do in fact meet their demise in this installment, but this ability to feel free to do whatever the story calls for is an advantage Infinity War has over every other MCU film that has come before it. There is a tension that presides over everything that happens in the film, a sense that anything and everything could happen and that it might if we aren't careful. This is especially true when it comes to those super-powered beings that play with the infinity stones closest to their chests, but by extension, is also a possibility for everyone that is willing to protect them; meaning this large ensemble is a barrel of fish that Thanos is essentially shooting at. With such tension holding a thick fog over every scene then, how well does Infinity War manage the balance of tone that is typically of an expert blend in these MCU films? That question is answered simply through the fact the Guardians of the Galaxy and their "plucky" banter is included here, but so is the charming wit of Stark, the innocent yet wry mentality of Parker, with Thor even allowed to retain some of his more comedic tendencies. That said, Infinity War is also one of the more serious-minded and dour experiences in the MCU as things happen and I mean things that cannot be reversed. These are things that will permanently alter some of the characters we've come to know who will no longer operate under the pretenses of who they once were. In short, Infinity War is a game changer in many respects and not just because it is able to successfully accomplish such a staggering crossover, but due to the fact some of these characters will be defined as how they came into Infinity War and how/who they were when/if they left it. To this extent, it was surprising to see a greater impact left by a handful of these characters than had been dealt even in their stand-alone films. I wasn't the biggest fan of Doctor Strange nor did I understand the extent of his powers as he comes to be one of the most crucial components of the Avengers here. Same can be said for Thor who, up until this point has always been the trilogy of films I didn't mind, but never had a desire to re-visit. In Infinity War though, Thor delivers on his pre-ordained destiny as a God and as a King. There is a certain sequence in particular featuring Thor that will make you want to stand up and cheer. Last, but never least, is Black Widow who, despite having no other-worldly superpowers or unstoppable weapon, is able to hold her own against an alien army and members of Thanos' Black Order. Having always kind of dismissed Widow as more of an obligation than an organic member of this team, her ability to prove her worthiness and inclusion here make it all the more obvious as to why her presence is appreciated.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssson), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) stand ready for war.
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Beyond giving each character their moment, beyond balancing the several tones the MCU movies have enlisted throughout the years, and beyond being able to somehow pull off a cohesive narrative by focusing on the antagonist as the main character what the Russo brothers have actually accomplished with Infinity War is allowing the audience to feel what it's like to read a comic book and imagine it coming to life while actually watching it unfold on screen. There is a sense of goofiness to it all for sure and the insanely weird and out there science fiction aspects of this film should not be dismissed, but the fact most of us will view this as a serious film with major objectives not just in terms of plot, but theme tells us more about what the MCU has conditioned its fans for than it ever could what it has made them immune to. This is popcorn entertainment to the max, it is a behemoth, it is the seven layer-dip of movies, but while it can easily be recognized as such and digested as nothing more it would be a disservice to the Russo's, to Markus and McFeely, and to all of the actors and artists that contributed to making this fantasy world a not-so-far-off reality to actually consider it as nothing more. Infinity War resonates emotionally and in big ways quite frequently. There are laughs to be had throughout-Pratt's Peter Quill garnering many of these and for good reason-yet there are philosophical questions to be pondered in light of such froth. Thanos is a maniac, no doubt, given his willingness to even consider wiping out half the population of the universe, but when he explains his reasoning behind this line of thought-it makes sense. There is an ethical quandary in Thanos' plight and while audiences will never waver in who to root for Marvel doesn't make it an easy out when killing a villain either; there is no longer such black and white lines between good and evil, but rather varying perspectives on the same issue that present a messy, but stimulating world in which these Avengers are able to exist and play in. To this end, Infinity War is as sprawling as you'd imagine, as epic as you'd hope, and as devastating as you thought it needed to be, but hoped it wouldn't be. That this works as well as it does and that it was pulled off at all is a miracle and earns the movie points upon points, but that-by the time the credits come to a close-the film has shaken you and chilled your skin is a sign of something more than satisfying and more than popcorn entertainment, but more it signifies the arrival of a game-changer and if Infinity War is anything at all it is groundbreaking.