Avengers: Infinity War is a celebration of the preceding ten years of Marvel films and in this regard is an undeniable success. An unparalleled cinematic event, the Russo brothers have masterfully woven together a wealth of plot threads and characters from eighteen antecedent films, creating in a hundred and fifty-minute behemoth that miraculously never outstays its welcome.
The film is the ultimate testament to what has come before; it turns what should be an impossible task (utilising a vast universe of characters without compromising their individuality or personal journeys) into its greatest strength. Much of the groundwork in terms of establishing character motivations has already been done, so Infinity War simply assumes you know who everyone is and gets on with the action.
There is no clearer encapsulation of this than the opening scene; Infinity War begins moments after Thor: Ragnarok ends, with Thanos’s ship assaulting the Asgard refugee vessel. The audience’s knowledge of what this ship is, and what its destruction means for our characters makes the scene more impactful than any standalone science fiction film could hope to accomplish.
Furthermore, this allows the Russos to establish Thanos’s power early on; an essential part of any crossover is providing a reference for how strong each character is. In Avengers: Assemble, this took the form of a fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America in the woods, but for Infinity War, the opening conflict establishes that Thanos is more powerful than the Hulk, Thor and Loki. A concise demonstration that this villain can defeat the two strongest Avengers and their first major adversary is the perfect way to set the stakes and create a tone of dread that persists throughout the run time.
Indeed, the film is tinged with sadness and inevitability, due in part to its structure. Avengers: Infinity War is a bit of a misnomer, in that this is Thanos’s story. Sure, the Avengers are present, but in terms of narrative form, it is very much a tragedy, with Thanos as the protagonist. His goal is to gather the six Infinity Stones, so that he can ‘balance the universe’ and to accomplish this, sacrifices what remains of his humanity (or titan-ity?).
Whilst wiping out half the universe’s population may seem, well, evil, Thanos believes that this will allow the survivors to prosper, giving him a strong motivation that Josh Brolin’s motion capture performance sells excellently. In fact, the visual effects work on Thanos and in the film as a whole is genuinely impressive, even when compared to other contemporary blockbusters. The only weak effects are when characters like War Machine (Don Cheadle) lift their helmet, showing a human head is composited on a computer-generated body. Otherwise, the fight scenes all feel tangible, and the subtlety in the animation of Thanos’s facial expression creates real emotional impact in pivotal scenes.
Infinity War is full of these emotional scenes, highlighting the real strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; its characters. Like with soap operas, devoted viewers will have followed these characters for a decade, creating a sense of strong familiarity. It is this familiarity that allows the emotional moments to feel ‘earnt’ and affecting even on successive re-watches. The only dynamic I felt didn’t work especially well was that between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and a little more establishment would have helped justify the dramatic weight given to their relationship. Nevertheless, other interactions more than made up for this; personal favourites were those between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), as well as between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).
That is not to say that Infinity War is unintelligible to a casual viewer. Through sheer cultural osmosis, one is likely to recognise most characters and for those more obscure, the narrative set-ups and character relationships are easily deduced from context. The film is incredibly self-aware; it doesn’t aim too high in terms of commentary or theme, recognising that it doesn’t need to, and is comfortable with its place as a piece of mass entertainment.
Indeed, despite the darker tone, the film refuses to shy away from its sillier elements, instead lampshading them. Yes, the idea of a purple giant collecting magic space rocks is ludicrous, but characters acknowledge this, “He’s from space, he’s here to steal a necklace from a wizard.” Similar quips pepper the script, as is commonplace from Marvel films. Though it is pretty hit and miss, there is enough to coax semi-frequent laughs, with many audience-favourite lines coming from guardians of the galaxy: Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
Though some may argue that the juxtaposition between tragedy and comedy creates a tonal whiplash, I disagree. Without the light-hearted elements, darkness becomes monotonous and unengaging. This is something that Alan Silvestri’s score demonstrates tremendously. His ‘The Avengers’ theme is teased at key situations, indicating a moment of triumph, before returning to the tense and brooding soundscape that dominates the rest of the film.
Music dictates the tone from the opening titles; there is no familiar fanfare over the logo, instead a panicked message voiced by Thor director Kenneth Brannagh. Similar call-backs littered throughout Infinity War tell us that this is the beginning of the end as we know it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And so, Infinity War stands as just that, the set up for the final chapter in a decade-spanning saga. A cinematic event unlike any before, unlikely to be replicated to the same degree of control, talent or self-awareness.
And if nothing else, it’s given me a reason to watch Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Avengers : Infinity War is still being screened in Everyman Cinema and York City Screens.