Review: Avengers — Infinity War really is all about Thanos

Updated 05 May, 2018 05:12pm

Finally, a Marvel film where the villain is actually worth remembering

10 years. 19 movies. $15 billion at the box office. (Box Office Mojo, 2018); those are the numbers, but as you, I and millions more know, the Marvel Cinematic Universe means so much more.

From playboy billionaires to African royals, from Russian assassins to space pirates and assorted bug men, we’ve followed every character on this ginormous journey. And make no mistake, all of it, the whole complicated shebang, all roads lead to Thanos.

So the big question, of course, is: has it all been worth the wait, or does it all crash and burn?

Infinity War is about Thanos taking it upon himself to collect the Infinity Stones, so he can control six aspects of the universe: Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Soul, and Time. Why does he want to do that? Using the combined powers of the Infinity Stones in his infinity gauntlet, Thanos can destroy half of all life in the universe at random. Yes, that's his idea of saving the universe from overpopulation.

Infinity War kicks off where Thor: Ragnarok left us, with Thanos and co. holding Thor, Loki and their remaining fellow Asgardians prisoner on their own ship, searching for the Space Stone.

The opening establishes two things for us quickly and clearly. Firstly, Marvel is not messing around. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take the war aspect of the title very seriously, and as we all know, there are casualties in war. Secondly, it establishes that Thanos really earns his Mad Titan moniker, because even a surprise attack by the Hulk, is little more than a bit of fun for him. Seriously. Hulk get smashed. Though Heimdall manages to whisk Hulk to Earth with the warning of Thanos’s impending arrival, Thanos manages to get his hands on the Space Stone.

This sets off a mad dash between Team Thanos and Team Everybody Else to prevent the evil overlord from obtaining the remaining Stones, and finding something to stop him once and for all.

Thanos seeks the Infinity Stones to empower his gauntlet to destroy half the universe
Thanos seeks the Infinity Stones to empower his gauntlet to destroy half the universe

What the movie does then is that it splits the characters into teams, which neatly divides several concurrent subplots, to both good and bad effect. Thor soon encounters the guardians of the galaxy and joins forces with them on a mission. Stark joins up with Spidey and Doctor Strange to keep the Time Stone from Thanos. Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon come out of exile to help Scarlet Witch keep Vision (who literally has the Mind Stone in the middle of his head) safe from the henchmen.

And I’m not even going to get into the Wakanda bits and other juicy team-up surprises yet. This, of course, gives directors Joe and Anthony Russo the opportunity to throw one massive action set piece after another at us while keeping things chugging along at 110 MPH.

We all know that the Marvel's greatest weakness has been its utter dearth of compelling villains. However, Infinity War's most remarkable feat is that in its overstuffed 160 minutes, it manages to clearly convey Thanos' motivations, give him depth and even a hint of tragedy.

The team splits also keeps the visual palette nice and varied as we jump between various, richly detailed intergalactic and earthbound locales. Cinematographer Trent Opaloch and supervising art director Ray Chan manage to both preserve and expand upon the look of previous MCU entries from Guardians to Dr. Strange to Black Panther to often stunning effect. And with a production budget reportedly north of $320 million you, of course, get bigger, better, and did I mention bigger?

Now for the bad: While the divide and conquer method of plotting helps the Russo Brothers keep things nice and mostly easy to follow, the scripting also lends itself to a bit of emotional dissonance. One moment you’re watching Stark and Strange bicker aboard a spaceship, as Spidey wisecracks nervously in the background. All of a sudden you’re watching Gamora (Zoe Saldana doing her job well as one of the film’s key emotional anchor points) in a tender moment with her father Thanos. It’s understandable, as there is just so much story to tell, but it is at times tonally jarring.

Also, the occasionally overwhelming pacing means that the slower, quieter moments end up in a sharper relief, for better or for worse. These are moments that really remind you why you love Robert Downey Jr and Tom Holland as a team, and why Benedict Cumberbatch has really become the seminal Strange. Moments like these also make you truly appreciate Zoe Saldana and Elizabeth Olsen at their most searing.

Zoe Saldana does her job well as one of the film's key emotional anchor points
Zoe Saldana does her job well as one of the film's key emotional anchor points

In fact, for once, Marvel takes a page out of DC’s book and makes its female characters both smarter and more badass than the boys, by quite a distance. This is all the more apparent when we get to Wakanda, where Black Panther’s top General Okoye (“Danai Gurira”) and sister Shuri (“Letitia Wright”) once again steal the show.

Also watch out for the surprisingly dynamic duo of Thor and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by “Bradley Cooper”), to say nothing of some truly surprising cameos.

Infinity War will remind you why you love Robert Downey Jr and Tom Holland as a team and why Benedict Cumberbatch has really become the seminal Strange.

However, at the core of all the best moments and character arcs, is, of course, the centrepiece of it all: Thanos.

We all know that the MCU’s greatest weakness has been its utter dearth of compelling villains. In the 18 previous movies, it has managed maybe two: Loki (whose charisma and moral ambivalence make him more of a rogue than a true villain) and the magnetic Erik Killmonger from Black Panther, whose righteous racial anger make him all the more complex. I think you’d be hard-pressed to name the most of the others, let alone figure out their motivations or why you should give a damn. Go ahead. Try. I’ll wait. No, Ultron doesn’t count, his name is in the title.

However, Infinity War's most remarkable feat is perhaps that in its overstuffed 160 minutes, it manages to clearly convey Thanos' motivations and modus operandi, lend him depth, pathos and I daresay a modicum of tragedy, making him pretty watchable. Think of him as a cross between Friedman and say, super Hitler (minus the racial purity stuff) with a measure of King Lear.

If you can get past his resemblance to a bee-stung Bruce Willis, you really buy into Josh Brolin’s performance, particularly the moments he shares with his most precious child, Gamora, and separately with a few A-list avengers on his homeworld Titan. While he is singular in his vision, Thanos believes his quest is ultimately what will save an overburdened universe from collapsing under the weight of overpopulation. Even scenes without him carry his obvious magnitude, and then, when he is in the room, it’s really all about him. He is the driving, beating, bleeding heart of the film.

And therein lies Infinity War’s greatest success and perhaps, its greatest vulnerability. After piling the weight of a decade’s worth of stories and expectations on Thanos’s massive shoulders, Marvel doubles down in its high stakes bet that we, the faithful and the newbies, will be left wanting more, instead of disappointed and fatigued. I feel it’s a bet they mostly win, thanks to what seem at first glance to be some of the ballsiest storytelling decisions in franchise moviemaking history.

Believe me, you could be the most OCD Marvel fankid this side of Titan, and this movie will still manage to grab most of your expectations and predictions, and punch an Infinity gauntlet shaped hole right through them. You can love it or hate, but you really have to respect it. It will floor you…right until the shock wears off and you think about it for just a wee bit.

What Marvel does with Infinity War, very effectively indeed, is pull off a grand illusion worthy of Dr Strange himself: less a film than a stunning act of franchise sorcery. Chances are despite its flaws, you’ll fall under its spell. Excelsior indeed.