Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Is Like a Comic Book Crossover Come to Life
Note: This review contains no spoilers beyond what is featured in the film’s trailers and publicity stills.
Every year or two, all of Marvel’s ongoing comic books pause their regular stories and merge up for a “crossover,” typically to face off against a threat so huge none of the heroes could stop it on their own. The story of Avengers: Infinity War is inspired by one of the first true crossovers, the 1991 miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim. A lot of the specifics of the book have been changed, but Infinity War’s spirit is very faithful to the comic. It feels just like a crossover come to life, for better or worse.
On the plus side, this is easily Marvel’s biggest movie ever, with an incredible, Hall of Fame lineup of Avengers, exciting action, and major stakes. Just like in a crossover, major status quo changes (like the deaths of some of your favorite characters) are very much on the table, ratcheting up the suspense, at least on first viewing. There’s also the classic crossover thrill of seeing characters who’ve never met before bounce off each other in fun and unpredictable ways; like when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teams with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) on a mission to defeat Thanos (Josh Brolin), the alien conqueror who serves as Infinity War’s villain.
Thanos is basically an alien eco-terrorist. He believes the universe is out of balance; resources are finite and there simply aren’t enough to go around anymore. The scales must be stabilized — which, in his warped mind, means killing half of the galaxy’s population. For proof that Thanos might be on to something, look no further than Infinity War itself, where screen time is the most precious resource and there definitely isn’t enough to go around to service all the characters, even in a film that runs well over two and a half hours. You almost want Thanos to win so he’ll bring the cast down to a more manageable size and you can spend more time with your favorites.
Most movies max out at one MacGuffin for the characters to chase. Avengers: Infinity War has six of them: the all-powerful Infinity Stones. As the film begins, two are on Earth; the Time Stone hangs around the neck of Earth’s mystical protector Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) while the Mind Stone is embedded in the forehead of the Avengers’ resident android Vision (Paul Bettany). The other four are scattered throughout the cosmos.
The movie opens with a ton of exposition to catch up those in the audience who missed any of the previous 18 Marvel movies and then launches into about two straight hours of non-stop parallel action. On Earth, the former Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and their allies work to protect Vision in Wakanda. Meanwhile, Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) head to space, where they hook up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
If you’re a fan of these characters and you’re invested in their fates, there’s plenty of thrills in watching them team up, and zing each other with witty banter. A couple of shots will give you chills. But you better be really invested, because what’s generally missing are the moments where the film can just breathe; where the characters enjoy a shawarma or try to lift Thor’s hammer or simply carry on a conversation longer than 15 seconds about something other than the Infinity Stones. With very few exceptions, Infinity War is all business from the moment it begins to the final end credits. Usually a comic-book crossover has tons of tie-in books where these kind of smaller moments can live outside of the main narrative and you can learn, for example, what Spider-Man thinks about being on a spaceship. Infinity War is just the main crossover without the supplementary stories and on its own, it feels both overcrowded and weirdly sparse. It’s the longest Marvel movie and the one that feels like it’s missing the most stuff you expect from the MCU.
Marvel spent 18 movies introducing all these heroes, for example, but they’ve spent almost no time at all on Thanos beyond a few brief appearances, most of which were devoted to him either kvetching about how he can’t get the Infinity Stones or him stupidly giving away the Infinity Stones he did have. Directors Anthony and Joe Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an admirable job fleshing out Thanos’ motivations so that he’s more than a one-dimensional monster. But through the first half of the movie, Thanos mostly hangs back while his goons, the Black Order, try to acquire the Infinity Stones for him, and the movie never explains who any of these new characters are or what they can do. (Also, they all look alike so good luck trying to keep them all straight.)
There are some things the movie gets exactly right. As always, Marvel’s greatest superpower is its casting. No studio has a deeper bench of stars to draw upon. A lot of your favorite Avengers get the short shrift in Infinity War, but they do deliver in their brief spotlight moments. (My personal favorites in this film: Chris Evans’ weary but sturdy Steve Rogers, Tom Holland’s infectiously enthusiastic Spider-Man, and Dave Bautista’s sublimely dunderheaded Drax.) And the ending, which is about as bold as any in the history of big-budget moviemaking, will leave audiences talking for a very long time.
If Thanos used the Time Stone to travel to New Jersey in 1994, and gave 13-year-old Matt Singer $300 million to make whatever movie he wanted, the results would have probably looked a little like Avengers: Infinity War: Pulpy, frenetic, intoxicated with the sheer love of these characters and their relationships, and wholly unconcerned with trivial matters like pacing, subplots, or anything that doesn’t involve the biggest freaking superhero battle you’ve ever seen in your whole life. Infinity War is certainly an epic adventure that spans the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, but all that hopping around comes at the expense of the intimate scenes and supporting characters that make the best Marvel movies more than the sum of their special effects. (A fun game to play: Try to count the number of characters with speaking roles who don’t have superpowers. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three. Maybe four if you count a TV newscaster.)
I appreciate the sheer logistical achievement of Infinity War (and the chutzpah of its ending). I laughed a bunch of times, and some of the scenes are definitely exciting. But I would be lying if I pretended this movie ever grabbed me the way the best MCU movies did. Time is a finite resource just like the ones Thanos worries about, and I can’t really envision myself spending much time in the future rewatching Infinity War the way I do the first Avengers or Spider-Man: Homecoming. That’s pretty typical for comic-book crossovers too. They’re important to read once. But they rarely become the stories you return to over and over.