Not too long ago, the superhero was a punchline, considered appropriate for children’s entertainment and not much else. Superheroes were largely confined to comic books and campy movies (think “Batman and Robin”). The idea that the major movie of the year might be a Marvel Studios superhero movie that serves as a more-or-less direct sequel to eighteen other such movies would have seemed like a joke, though perhaps too unrealistic to be funny. But the superhero movie is so dominant at the box office today that it resembles nothing so much as the golden age of the Western.
These thoughts are a little vague for an 800-word review. But it is hard to watch “Infinity War” without noticing, at the very least, the weight of its task: balancing the characters, subplots, and settings of eighteen prior movies while still delivering an entertaining spectacle that will keep people coming back for more. The film sags a little under such a burden, but perhaps any movie would. Maybe this review should primarily consist of praise for not collapsing completely.
Marvel movies traditionally stand on three legs: witty dialogue, computer-generated set pieces, and a reassuringly reliable character arc towards romance, friendship, and the assumption of great responsibility for whatever great power the protagonist has. The primary innovation of “Infinity War” is to kick out the third leg, relying on past audience goodwill for their stable of pre-developed characters. The resulting film, at best, is a nonstop back and forth between witty dialogue scenes and superhero fight scenes.
By and large, this approach sustains “Infinity War” for its 2 hour, 40 minute runtime. The dialogue is reliably and genuinely funny, with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) emerging as startling leaders in a movie-long race to the funniest quips. All of the actors, however, perform with the reliable charm we have come to expect from Marvel movies. And most of the action scenes are expertly crafted, with various superpowers being used against each other in surprising ways. One battle across New York City is absolutely electric, for instance, demonstrating incredible control of tempo, tone, and special effects.
The fights and the quips are what audiences have come to expect from Marvel movies, and they were done well here. But for better or worse, the Marvel movie consisting entirely of fights and quips has not yet been produced, and the choices made to fill in the gaps are unsatisfying ones.
The problems largely center around Thanos (Josh Brolin), the villain of the sprawling film, a large purple man who wants to wipe out half the universe’s inhabitants in a population control plan that suffers from a basic misunderstanding of exponential growth. In order to do that, he needs to collect six glowing jewels with which to decorate a very large glove. By virtue of the film’s structure, Thanos receives more screen time than any other character, but it is hard to overlook the fact that his character is very silly.
This silliness is somewhat unavoidable. The comic books Thanos was pulled from were often silly, frequently by design. Unfortunately, the directors and writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) decided to respond to that silliness not by leaning into it, but by attempting to make this large purple man the most villainous villain that ever did villainy in the Marvel Universe. So Thanos kills people, and he kills superheroes. A lot of them. But “Infinity War” overshoots the mark, killing so many that the response becomes numbness, not horror, and a cynical skepticism that most of these people will actually stay dead.
The film opens with an extended sequence in space introducing Thanos that should have been cut altogether—it added nothing to the plot that was not mentioned later, did not develop any characters, and was not colorful (especially unforgivable in a film like this, since most extraterrestrial locations are presented as riots of color, exotic foreign lands for a globalized age). But worst of all, it simply was not fun. The movie has a number of such sequences—torture scenes, execution scenes, exposition scenes almost as tortuous as the first two. Most of them should have been cut. It is as though the writers were warned that movies had to include more than jokes and action, but barely remembered how to do anything else.
And yet, despite it all, “Infinity War” is exciting every step of the way. Something fun or unexpected is always going to happen in the next few minutes. Your favorite character might not get enough screen time in this movie, but you can always see him or her in the next, or the one after, or the one after that. And if the history of the Western is any indication, there may be many more of these films to come. But like any genre, superhero movies are at their best when they can conjure up compelling new worlds and characters. “Infinity War” creates nothing. Once the credits start rolling, the show is over.
—Staff writer J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at email@example.com.