Ah, how times passes. It seems like only a couple of Marvel movies ago that the original Avengers—Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye—were duking it out with Tony Stark’s high-end, ill-advised kitchenware Ultron and his shiny utensil-minions. But actually—trust me, and take a deep breath—that was eight Marvel movies ago. Feeling old yet?
So when Bruce Banner—a.k.a. the Hulk, a.k.a. the actor Mark Ruffalo—shows up early in Avengers: Infinity War, he has a bit of catching up to do. (Marvel fans will recall he spent the interim years perfecting the extraterrestrial ultimate-fighting skills that he showed off in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok.) At one point, having sat out the whole Captain America: Civil War storyline, Banner asks, “The Avengers broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?” Later, he’s more incredulous still at the launch of not one, but two new arthropod-based Marvel franchises: “There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?” Oh, Bruce. Try to keep up.
Never has the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” seemed like more of a universe, in ways both good and bad. Infinity War—the title is almost too apt—is a narrative juggling act the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. It is far from a perfect movie, but it is probably close to the best movie it could have been. There are a few unforced errors—a late defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory moment, the ongoing Iron Man–ification of Spidey’s “suit”—but the film’s number of actual missteps is a tiny fraction of the potential missteps inherent in an undertaking this vast.
I could try to name all the MCU characters who make appearances in the film, but I’d just wind up leaving a few out, and then we’d all feel bad. So let’s save that for later, and start with the reverse, which is far easier: There’s no Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), no Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), no Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), no Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and no Everett Ross (the CIA agent played by Martin Freeman). My guess is that most of the random bystanders from the various Avengers dustups in New York, Sokovia, and Lagos don’t make appearances either. And … well, after that, I’m stumped. Now I’ll just feel doubly bad for leaving out someone whom the movie already left out.
The story, which Marvel seems to have been building toward since our collective childhoods, revolves around the existence of six “infinity stones” created during the Big Bang and sent “whizzing across the universe.” (This information comes courtesy of Wong—played by, no, not a typo, Benedict Wong—the mystical sidekick of Dr. Stephen Strange. Try, along with Bruce, to keep up.)
By far the Biggest of the Big Bads we have yet encountered, Thanos—a motion-capture performance from Josh Brolin—believes that if he can get all six stones and affix them to his “infinity gauntlet,” he will be able to destroy half of all life in the universe with a literal snap of his fingers. Why would he want to do this? Well, consider Thanos the most enthusiastic—and unfortunately, also the most super-powered—disciple of Thomas Robert Malthus, who argued that appetites would always outstrip resources, leaving humankind perpetually poor and famished. Malthus, as a cleric, offered this thesis as an argument for less “vice,” later marriages, and greater celibacy. Thanos, as an all-powerful giant purple space-maniac, arrives at an alternative argument for more intergalactic genocide. (It is, in its way, a classic supply/demand dispute.)
I should note here that if the central flaw of many Marvel movies to date has been the relative lameness of their villains—Ronan the Accuser? Malekith the Dark Elf?—Thanos is very much in the studio’s top tier. He’s no Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, with his problematic but hard-earned racial politics, or Loki, with his wicked yet adorable mischief, but he’s only a notch below them.
Though still in its infancy, and frequently misused, motion-capture is gradually, if intermittently, living up to its cinematic potential. Gollum of Lord of the Rings, Caesar of the last two Planet of the Apes films: For a time, it seemed that only Andy Serkis, the early maestro of motion capture, had any real idea how to bring the medium to life. But Brolin’s Thanos is an unexpectedly resonant monster, filled with sadness and even a perverse sense of honor. Deranged though it may be, his population-control rationale for mass murder is actually an upgrade from the comics, in which he mostly wanted to kill trillions in order to earn a date with the female embodiment of Death.
So: Almost 700 words in, and I have so far mentioned only one—Bruce Banner, for those who might have lost track—of the multivarious superheroes inhabiting this largest of superhero movies. Such are the conundrums that Marvel now poses. Let’s try to break it down by category, beginning with outer space: There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), god of thunder, and various other Asgardians, including his adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There are the Guardians of the Galaxy: Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
From Earth—and please, by all means feel free to skip ahead—the original Avengers: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Banner; the more-recent joiners Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie); and a few new recruits in Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the rehabilitated Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Also: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and most of his Wakandan co-stars.
Newly introduced are Thanos’s henchmen, the Black Order, whose names alone may be worth the price of admission: Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary). And finally, for any among you still reading, Peter Dinklage as Eitri, the last of the race of “dwarves” who made Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir—the gag, of course, being that Eitri is 20 feet tall.
The writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the co-directors, Anthony and Joe Russo (all four of whom also worked on the last two Captain America movies), take this gargantuan cast and bang them off one another like super-powered billiard balls, arranging and disassembling duos, trios, and quartets at will. Is it a coincidence that they enjoy pitting like against like to snarky effect? Surely not. One hunky blond Chris (Pratt’s Star-Lord) finds himself jealous of another (Hemsworth’s Thor), especially when he witnesses the depths of Drax’s man-crush. (“It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel,” Drax marvels.) And one pompously goateed master of the universe (Downey’s Tony Stark) is sure to be annoyed by his near-doppelgänger (Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange), even if the latter gets in perhaps the all-time best Marvel-DC dig of all time when he says, of Stark’s young project, Peter Parker: “What is he, your ward?”
Hemsworth gets to prove the comic chops he suggested in Thor: Ragnarok by teaming up largely with the space-raccoon Rocket (whom he consistently mistakes for a rabbit), though thank goodness the latter is prevented from finishing the Pulp Fiction–inflected story of how he smuggled out a new eye for Thor. There are jokes about Aliens and Footloose, and even an Easter egg from the great Arrested Development, of which the Russos directed many episodes.
But lest anyone get the impression that Infinity War is just another example of the increasingly comic tenor evident in comic-book fare, I should warn that it is also Marvel’s most somber movie. There has been much speculation that major characters might die, and that speculation is not idle.
Indeed, if Marvel learned anything from Joss Whedon, who helmed the first two Avengers films, it was that you kill off characters at the precise moment of their most likable—and typically, romantic—vulnerability. It is, again, no coincidence that the movie is at pains to remind us early on of its various love-struck pairings: Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner; Star-Lord and Gamora; Scarlet Witch and Vision; and, let’s face it, though theirs is a sibling affection rather than a carnal one and definitely qualifying as “love-hate,” Thor and Loki. (Sorry, Jane Foster: You were always runner-up.) To be very, very, very clear: I am not saying that any of these characters die in the movie; rather that the brothers Russo are quite consciously setting things up such that, if any of them do, we will feel it.
There’s also been much speculation about which actors might be ready to cash their final Marvel checks, largely focused on franchise stalwarts Downey Jr. (now in his eighth major Marvel role) and Evans (now in his sixth). I suspect only their accountants know the precise contours of their contracts with the studio. But both actors have made enough noise about moving on that they clearly qualify for the “lovable veteran cop who’s two days away from retirement” exception to the rule about killing major characters.
Again, without giving away details, I can say that Avengers: Infinity War ends on by far the bleakest note of any Marvel movie to date. Or perhaps I should put “ends” in quotation marks, because it is clear that—in notable contrast to Marvel’s previous offerings—this storyline is very much incomplete, in a way that will surely frustrate some viewers. Many heroes are dead, but it seems unlikely that all will stay that way. Early in the film, Thanos promises, “No resurrections this time.” But then, Thanos is a liar, and infinity is a long, long time.