We can say this much for Thanos. For the greatest villain in all the universe — a tyrant whose chin might be lumps of grape mashed potatoes scored with a fork to resemble Devil’s Tower — he’s got some ideas that aren’t all that bad. His mission, to gather all six of creation’s so-called infinity stones, is a bit of childish collector’s mania, a bit of a prank on the superfan marks who buy multiple copies of an Avengers comic to get all the “variant” covers. But Thanos’s endgame I can understand: In the name of achieving “balance,” he aims to blink away half the population of existence. I admit that when he announced this, not too long into Avengers: Infinity War, I started thinking about the film’s running time (160 minutes) and daydreaming that he might vacate his asteroid lair for the editing bay. Forget the cosmic genocide, Thanos, and show Marvel how to kill some darlings!
Infinity War does claim a body count, the specifics of which, I’m happy to report, fans probably won’t guess. As the third Avengers film, it has an air of senior year about it: There’s some drearily solemn speeches, but you’ll remember the blowouts, and there’s plenty of time to wonder which of these faces you’ll see again. This epic, the first of two final Avengers films, finds the Class of ’12 — the core Avengers — getting together for one last rager, joined by select newbies and spazzes from the ranks of sophomores and freshmen. Here’s Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, all giddy heart and whip-fast Looney Tunes action. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange takes up the role of square-jawed stiff who just can’t believe/grudgingly respects this Iron Man fellow. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther turns up much too late in the movie for the superhero whose own film is Marvel’s top grosser. (His job, essentially, is to host the apocalypse.) And the Guardians of the Galaxy zip through to get caught up in yet more daddy issues and remind us that, even with the fate of all creation on the line, there’s no joke they can’t belabor a couple of beats too long.
Simply put, the Marvel Universe is too big to squeeze into one movie. But the biggest surprise here is that much of Infinity War fairly zips along, as directors Joe and Anthony Russo and their armies of previz teams and editors cut between dozens of competing characters and cliffhangers; they’ve yanked all the good parts from a colossal Marvel comic-book crossover event and chucked them onto the screen. To the heroes, they dole out big moments the way awards-show producers dispense goody bags, making sure each star has reason to go home happy. Everyone gets a quip to crack, an ass to kick and an opportunity for noble sacrifice. (The latter especially — Thanos the editor would have cut one.) The second biggest surprise, after many spectacular faceoffs and showdowns, is the ending, which I’ll not spoil except to say this: I didn’t see it coming. I mean that literally. When the screen faded to black, I thought there must still be half an hour of fighting to go. What higher praise can one give a movie that takes all day than, “I got caught up enough that I didn’t notice how much day it had taken”?
The first action set piece, in Greenwich Village, stands as a highlight of all the Marvel films, a witty world-outside-your-window dustup full of teamups, tech upgrades and a wizard fighting space aliens at high noon in Washington Square Park. The second, set in what we’re told simply is “Scotland,” whiffs, but it stars the android Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), mopey characters whose souls have not survived the promotion from comics to movies, possibly because the movies cut away every time they start making eyes at each other. Here, their limited screen time is amusingly at odds with their crucialness to the plot. That’s perhaps proof that Marvel movies truly are made by fans for fans — whenever these two are on screen, Infinity War itself seems like it’s ready to sneak out to the bathroom.
Their scenes seem trimmed to make way for Josh Brolin’s Thanos, the character whose movie this is — nobody’s onscreen more than this brooding purple titan, and he’s a more compelling villain than most non-Loki, non-Killmonger Marvel screen baddies. Still, his pronouncements veer from the monumental to the tin-eared, often in a single line. “I ignored my destiny once,” he rumbles, before adding, unnecessarily, “I cannot do that again.”
It’s the house style of the Marvel movies to undercut grandiosity with wisecracks, essentially Rifftracking themselves. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord points out that Thanos’s chin looks a “nut sack,” and Rocket, his one-racoon-army pal, tells a giant space dwarf played by Peter Dinklage that naming an ax forged from the very essence of a star “Stormbreaker” is “a bit much.” That ribbing often seems to me cheaply self-exonerating, a case of the filmmakers letting themselves off the hook for the goofiness of these stories — for their failure to sell us the most outlandish elements. Rather than commit the imaginative resources to stirring awe in us at the power of Stormbreaker, they layer a critic’s complaint about its cheesiness right into the scene. Rather than design the villain so that he doesn’t look like a rugged scrotum, they score a laugh out of it and move on.
Infinity War only sags, I think, in its middle, when the filmmakers give us too many underlit scenes in a row set in what seems to be the basement junkyards of a host of indistinguishable planets. Thanos stalks through some of these in ponderous monologue, as humorless as a pastor on Good Friday. That’s true to the comics — Marvel villains do go on — but the relative blandness of the cosmos is not. Jack Kirby, Jim Starlin and the many other architects of the pen-and-ink infinities that have inspired Infinity War all packed their universe with weirdness, visions and grandeur. The Russos and the hundreds of craftspeople who worked on this film have dreamed up marvelous battles — especially the one where a motley assortment of heroes take their cracks at the purportedly unstoppable Thanos. But only once here did an intergalactic vista catch my breath the way a splash page in a Silver Surfer comic might.
That’s partially because the filmmakers are always in a hurry: Grandeur takes time; jokes can come quickly. To be fair, in all Marvel universes, it’s the characters that count most. That’s what the films have gotten right ever since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man ten years ago. The world-building has sometimes come at the expense of narrative (Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron), the storytelling has often been rote or formulaic (Ant-Man, Doctor Strange), the action has sometimes looked like an afterthought (Spider-Man: Homecoming), and Thor: The Dark World remains, unforgivably, Thor: The Dark World. But through them all — even in Captain America: Civil War, which scrambled motivations to create conflict — is a certainty about just who these heroes are, what makes each interesting, and what fans have dreamed of seeing them do. More often than not, the filmmakers have achieved the latter.
(Super-vague ending spoiler follows!) The cliffhanger climax of Infinity War left the audience at my screening in a state that I can only describe with the most tired of critical clichés: They were stunned. No matter the film’s flaws, that decade of character work — of character love, even — powers an all-too-rare pop-culture wallop. For once, the superhero movie punches us.