“Dread it, run from it,” Thanos was always going to arrive. The Russo Brothers say they see him as Genghis Khan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but truthfully, as a villain, he’s an entirely new breed. In years, even decades, to come, antagonists in other franchises will likely be compared to the Great Titan, with good reason too. “I know what it’s like to lose – to feel so desperately that you’re right, but to fail nonetheless,” is his first line, a now chilling warning of the unprecedented trauma that shocked moviegoers around the world.
Thanos’ reign of terror upon the earth’s mightiest heroes was an inevitability. Ever since The Avengers’ post-credits stinger in 2012, fans’ appetites have been slowly whet with Infinity Stone-related plot threads and a couple more cameos from the villain himself (personal favourite comes after Avengers: Age of Ultron, when we get our first glimpse of the gold gauntlet, and Josh Brolin’s goosebump-inducing “Fine, I’ll do it myself”).
Satisfying the hype train for his full introduction in Avengers: Infinity War was surely a terrifying prospect, but the opening sequence establishes a very new power dynamic. We get the standard Marvel Studios scrawl, but Michael Giacchino’s fanfare track is missing. Silence turns to radio crackle, then to desperate pleas of Asgardians aboard the ship last seen in Thor: Ragnarok. “This is not a warcraft, I repeat, this is not a warcraft!” they beg, their ship taking the brunt of fire on port, starboard, stern and bow.
“Hear me and rejoice, you’ve had the privilege of being saved by the Great Titan,” says Ebony Maw, a sharply grandiose, sneering henchman (who you’d swear was voiced by Domhnall Gleeson, it’s in fact Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), as the camera tracks over the devastation; Heimdall (Idris Elba) is ground-ridden and clearly injured, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stands with a quiver. Then, there he is. Near-silhouetted, holding Thor (Chris Hemsworth) like a carrycot.
Writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus continue the brotherly jabs that flowed through Ragnarok (“You really are the worst brother” Thor says after Loki reveals he has the Tesseract). But it’s all very miserable in the first minutes – that is, until, “We have a Hulk”. He bombs in, plowing into Thanos with frenzied smashing. You’ll feel like cheering, but then Maw says as another accomplice moves to assist his purple boss: “Let him have his fun.” One wouldn’t expect the central threat of the movie to be brushed aside in the first set-piece, but it’s still a surprising little rug-pull; Thanos starts to fight back. Powerful but calculated; his first punch on the Hulk provokes a whimper akin to a kicked puppy, proceeding to beat him down like a finely tuned machine (all that’s missing is Joe Rogan).
Just a blip of hope, then. Before you know it, Thanos has laid waste to Loki by route of a snapped neck and smashed the Tesseract (containing one of six Infinity Stones, the MCU maguffins which he seeks) with his bare hands (!). Indeed, a fittingly eyebrow-raising, side-glancing start to the Russos’ superhero feast.
The film brings together a mammoth ensemble of 40 Marvel characters in a 149-minute rollercoaster of short, very effective bursts of storytelling. No segment of the trip overstays its welcome, each one complementing the last; naturally, there are some elements which pump the blood a little more – but in that, the writers, directors and editors (Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt) orchestrate a gripping pace, making a two-hour-plus runtime feel like a mere 90 minutes.
Naturally, the filmmakers have to set about introducing these characters in their own quirky, suitable ways. We start off with Tony (Robert Downey Jr) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), all cutesy and such, with the man of iron promising “no more surprises”. Right on cue, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) appears through a Catherine Wheel portal, with grave warnings that the universe is at stake on a scale hitherto undreamt of (yes, I did seriously just say that). Tony is unconvinced; until Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) appears; that look on his face is both a credit to Downey Jr’s nuances and an indicator he knows this is serious stuff.
This sparks another explanation (by Benedict Wong this time) of Infinity Stones and their origin – probably the most comprehensive so far, considering Doctor Strange’s bond with the time stone. Their expositioning, however, is interrupted by the earthly arrival of Maw and a hammer-wielding sidekick. “I’m sorry, Earth is closed today,” Tony says, but they are intent on getting that stone. Strange refuses, Tony backs him up: “It means get lost, Squidward.” Their relationship is deliciously arrogant, two cuts of the same cloth in that; they are both at the top of their respective professions, have self-established superiority and have a condescending sense of humour. When they clash, it provides some killer lines, with one of the best coming from Strange after Tony questions what he even does apart from blowing up balloons: “Protecting your reality, douchebag.” The insult itself is juvenile, but the cold, smirking delivery of Cumberbatch is terrific.
Oh, and how could we forget Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who finds himself on the alien ship en route to Titan (Thanos’ home planet) after defying Tony’s orders to go home. (Don’t worry; we’ll get back to him in a bit.)
This is the perfect chance to cut to, as the humorous title card reads, “SPACE”. In a galaxy far, far away, from the gorgeous fluorescent vista, the rhythmic tapping of The Spinners’ Rubberband Man – it must be the Guardians. They’re all here: Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). They respond to a distress call (because they’re good people and they might get “a little cheddar cheese”) – and find bodies, thousands of them, floating through space. It was the destruction of the Asgardian ship (the look on Gamora’s face makes very clear she knows her dad is involved). As they take in the genocidal view, Thor lands on their window – and he’s still alive.
After pulling him in and some mutual appreciation of his figure (“It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel” Drax says), Thor takes Rocket (or as he calls him, Rabbit) and Groot away to Nevadilir, an almost-mythical star-forge where the God of Thunder hopes to get a new hammer (built by a giant Peter Dinklage with an outrageous accent: “Where’s the handle?”). Whereas the others go to recover the reality stone from Knowhere, where they expect Thanos to be also.
The last bit of set-up comes from Edinburgh, Scotland, where Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) have found sanctuary together. Their romance is one of the most effective parts of Infinity War, building upon the hints in Age of Ultron and the conflict of Captain America: Civil War, we finally have some sort of peace between them. The strength of that, to the audience, is carried through the performances – Bettany is reliably charming but it’s Olsen who is really rather extraordinary, particularly so in their final moments together. As the tender composition sneaks in, her trembling lip would crumble the hardest of hearts.
It’s necessary to talk about the successes of the movie in terms of the music; Alan Silvestri’s insanely re-playable score was rightly on the Oscar shortlist for best original score. Assembled like a greatest hits album with fresh material (Ludwig Goransson’s winning Black Panther theme even sneaks in in style), he gives heartbreaking and pulse-racing weight to key scenes. Bearded Captain America’s (Chris Evans) emergence from the shadows (alongside Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon) is pure joy, Gamora’s shocking death is layered with arguably Silvestri’s single-most powerful piece of music (‘Even for You’ on the album) and Thor’s late Wakanda entrance is the cinematic equivalent of 100% pure, Columbian cocaine, taking the now eternal Avengers theme and thundering it through every orifice.
A huge concern prior to the release of the film was: “Will this be a spectacle with little depth?” But what the Russos’ remarkably pull off is a cohesive narrative where each performance, small or large, is allowed at least one moment to shine. Some highlights though; first up, Downey Jr and Holland. Through Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War, an endearing, believable father/son dynamic is struck between the pair; the former seeing honour and wanting to impart wisdom in an initially professional, but soon loving way, and the latter clambering after an idol without the presence of a male, leading figure in his life (we know Uncle Ben died, thankfully the MCU has never felt a need to comment on that). They bicker so naturally in times of genuine peril, but you know Tony can never stay mad at Peter (“You can’t be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighbourhood” particularly warms him over on the spaceship). Holland subtly adds a touch more maturity in each new performance as Peter, but still carries that loveable naivety that makes Spidey such a relatable hero for kids and adults alike (when he’s officially deemed an Avenger, his pride practically bursts through the screen). Downey Jr started off in Iron Man with snarky sarcasm outweighing the earnestness, but as the franchise has progressed, it’s allowed his insecurities and demons to unravel; by the end of Infinity War, like many, he’s broken.
Saldana and Brolin are the standout stars of the movie though, with the latter essentially taking the lead role. Other films have only allowed us one side of the resentment, with Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) regularly speaking of their hatred for Thanos after his cruel paternal practices. With him now fully in the picture, his actions are far from justified; but they’re creepily easy to get on board with. First off, Saldana is absolutely fabulous in this role, and it’s by far the meatiest in terms of emotional impact. There’s a brilliant fake-out where she stabs a blade through Thanos’ throat and breaks down almost immediately; they have a firm bond, despite the long-standing conflict. With poorer writing and a sub-par actor, Thanos could have easily been an enjoyable, but one-note lunatic. But his appetite for mass murder is matched with surprising humanity, through a flashback scene to Gamora’s youth and continuous explanations of why he not only wants to balance the universe, but also religiously believes it’s essential. There’s also not a single off-kilter moment with other characters, each one appropriately realised (His only words to Peter are “Insect!” after catching him, while a conversation with Tony aptly comments on the connection between them over the past six years: “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge”).
In the conveyer belt of superstars and juggling a ginormous number of threads, some are considerably sized down. The rest of the Guardians are afforded a mixed bag; Pratt’s Star-Lord plays a very problematic part in the downfall of the galaxy, but his well-established quirks make it just fair enough to not feel entirely contrived (as he points out, it’ll be his “50%” human side). James Gunn apparently wrote some lines of dialogue and is an executive producer, but in a similar way to GoTG Vol.2, they misbalance Drax’s humour (a long-winded invisibility gag still struggles to grab chuckles).
Many of the big hitters don’t actually have an awful lot to do or say. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M’Baku (Winston Duke) are all present, and highly watchable too, but are mainly pawns for fighting in Thanos’ (although Okoye does have a great line in the final Wakandan fight) game.
One of the big things that the writers smartly avoided was cramming in another major get-together – Tony and Steve’s reunion. Early on, Tony very nearly uses that flip phone from the end of Civil War; but it would have been entirely inappropriate. Likely to be a major Avengers: Endgame plot-point, it would have been insulting as both a long-time fan and follower of the series to have that complex fall-out, one rooted in a dire mix of regret and betrayal, written off in a two minute scene because there’s “bigger fish to fry” (or something along those lines).
Naturally, the geekiest appeal of Infinity War is the gathering of heroes through one lens. In this regard, the action sequences have a consistently ball-tingling quality. The afore-mentioned entrances aside, the fluidity of the choreography in the set-pieces is A-class. You have the Guardians tangling with the Avengers and all the hilarious hiccups that comes with (and the surprising closeness of a Star-Lord/Iron-Man bout), Bucky picking Rocket up and circling in a pirouetting blaze of machine gun fire, and Thanos chucking an actual fucking moon (!!). The Russo’s are dab hands in energetic entertainment, and Infinity War is their strongest showing on the action front since Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Civil War is also excellent but is occasionally inhibited by the stylistically dodgy shaky cam).
The greatest moment of confidence comes from Thanos and Doctor Strange’s mystic battle of wits, the pair playing off each other’s powers in mesmerizing, wonderfully bonkers style. It’s an extravaganza of imaginative tussling and dazzling visual effects, another area in which the film excels. A couple of moments – The Collector (Benicio del Toro) being chucked into a pod, the rendering of Bruce’s head in the Hulkbuster – wobble, but generally, on a technical level, the film is a feast for the eyes.
But as the scars on our hearts remind us, the Russo’s weren’t messing around. Infinity War was always about more than the culmination of movies, more than Thanos’ simple full-feature debut; it was a showcase for one thing. Power. Just as Thor lands Stormbreaker right into the mighty villain’s chest, he says: “You should have gone for the head.” Thor screams, but it’s too late. Thanos snaps his fingers. He actually did it.
Slowly, we watch heroes disintegrate to dust. Bucky, Groot, Falcon, Black Panther, Drax, Mantis, Star-Lord and worst of all, Spider-Man (it’s too painful to talk about that “I don’t wanna go, please” scene but you all know how blindsiding it was). Captain America, utterly hopeless, plunks down. Staring aimlessly, he says the film’s last words: “Oh God.” We cut to Thanos, at peace, serenely smiling as he watches the sun rise on an (un)grateful universe. Just as your pulse is racing and your mind is completely scrambling, the screen mercifully cuts to black.
Now, the disdain people have grown for this ending is understandable (if not entirely fair). Some have accused the film of manipulating us, cheating us of our feelings, because we all know they’ll bring the dusted characters back (particularly Spider-Man and Black Panther). They argue that it’s a meaningless ending because chances are it’ll be pretty much reversed.
Firstly, films, by their very nature, are manipulative creations. They make you smile, laugh, cheer, sorrow and cry because the filmmakers wanted you to do that. Secondly, how else could we have fully appreciated the seismic powers of Thanos, a villain teased over the course of six years as the world-ending final boss he is, without him getting a chance to snap those gold-clad fingers of his? One could argue in terms of creating a satisfying end, to have Thanos show up and not use the Infinity Gauntlet to create some sort of unexpected hysteria would be even cheaper. And thirdly, just because the heroes will be brought back, does not mean the ending is meaningless. Look at the structure of numerous superhero movies, they generally follow a familiar route; suit-up, build-up, first failure, regroup, retry and triumph. Endgame was originally titled Infinity War Part II, but the Russo’s realised that it was very much a game of two different halves in terms of tone, but they’ve spread that structure over the course of two features.
Infinity War is a gargantuan experience; a conglomeration of a decade’s worth of superhero stories and a fitting hello to the baddie to beat all baddies. It’s a film that allows your heart to soar as you ingest the soul-powering action, your belly to feel the pangs of laughter and your heart to be sucked dry. Some people have moved on from the gut-punching finale, but not us. Doctor Strange was right; we are absolutely in the Endgame now. Avengers, assemble.