Avengers: Infinity War (very spoiler free review…for the 2 people who haven’t seen it yet)
Despite 10 years without a real legitimate failure, the spectre of “too much” seems to hang over Marvel’s big team-up movies threatening to drop the guillotine. Whenever a new Avengers movie or similar multi hero crossover is announced you can’t help but go “this time, they won’t be able to pull it off, it’s just too much”. And Avengers: Infinity War seemed poised to be the one that broke the streak.
Regardless of how flawless the MCU’s (Marvel Cinematic Universe, an abbreviation that should be a household term by now) phase 3 has been thus far, Infinity War seemed a cinematic impossibility: a film that will collapse under the weight of its own hubris. But then you watch Infinity War and find yourself mumbling “Oh right, this is Marvel, a studio that, by now, has mastered muchness”. Muchness is that perfect state where a popcorn movie crams a film with excessive spectacle and eyegasm without it necessitating the too adverb.
Infinity War proves that the differences between muchness and too much is simply how well you balance the myriad heroes, action sequences, plot details, villains, and rest of the connective tissue that makes up a superhero movie. It’s like a Cirque du Soleil performer that juggles balls, bowling pins, chainsaws, knives, kittens etc. and despite how much more you throw at them, they simply mix that effortlessly into the already impressive circular motion. Failure is not determined by how many items they juggle, but by how skilled they are at juggling.
The first trick up Marvel’s sleeve is an easy-to-digest plot: bad guy Thanos wants to collect the Infinity Stones (magic space rocks that do powerful stuff) to put in his Infinity Gauntlet and do bad stuff. Nearly every hero, or hero team, wants to stop him. Clean and simple. This allows the film to divvy its almost 3 hour runtime (a necessity, trust me) between a series of different team-ups and subplots designed to play the impressive roster of characters against each other.
Want to see Doctor Strange have witty banter with Tony Stark? Well now you can! How about Rocket Racoon teaming up with Thor? Have a helping of that as well! And the moment there are simply too many heroes on screen the film wisely drops in an action heavy, expectedly impressive, set piece to remind you that it’s still a Marvel movie, a studio that seems to have a monopoly on fun.
And while its mission statement is still “have fun”, that doesn’t mean it can’t throw some really heavy emotional gut punches. The audience is very much aware that the stakes are high, and the directing Russo brothers are finely tuned to this awareness, so expect them to deliver on that promise.
But perhaps the films biggest strength comes from the most unexpected place: its villain. Normally a film of this scope would play it safe and go for a more cookie cutter villain that lacks any substance and motivation other than “because I’m evil”. Marvel has had a few of these, but normally when they have a 30% villain, they simply balance it out with a 70% hero. It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy was so memorable despite no one remembering Ronan the Something-or-another. But with Infinity War, Marvel really upped their game. Not only is Thanos — played by Josh Brolin like he was born to do it — a fully realised, surprisingly complex, perfectly fleshed out villain, he’s also the one driving force behind the narrative. Much a film is also experienced from the perspective of Thanos, who’s convinced he is the hero in this story, one who carries the burden of having to rectify a flawed universe.
Having the villain take centre stage is also the perfect way to address the potential shortcomings in terms of hero screen time. Since there are a truckload of superheroes, each with their own successful franchise, it’s inevitable that not everyone will get the amount of screen time expected from that particular hero’s fans. But making Thanos the protagonist circumvents this problem: you find yourself immersed in his journey, to the extent that you don’t mind some supposed main characters taking some time in the shade.
So yes, Infinity War delivers, possibly more so than promised. It’s probably wise to stop wondering whether or not Marvel could pull it off; that seems like an exercise in pointlessness. But I can’t say I wouldn’t be interested to see what a legitimate critical and box office Marvel movie failure would look like. I imagine it would feature a rainy exterior where an alcoholic Tony Stark asks Thanos whether or not he bleeds.