Every time I sit down to review a Marvel movie — and I’ve reviewed a lot of them — I ask myself the same question:
What do we expect from a Marvel movie these days?
Avengers: Infinity War is full of narrative challenges that would make a stand-alone film buckle. It groans under the weight of its cast, strains with the tension of holding four central plots aloft in nearly a dozen locations, flexes mightily between tones to fit the moods we associate with different Marvel subfranchises. Its strength is that we already know these characters, and that the movie is surrounded by a hype machine that has kept its central story — Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the Avengers — fresh in the audience’s minds. Infinity War was never intended to function outside the web of a franchise, so there’s little value in judging it separately.
What we expect from the directing duo, the Russo Brothers, and the screenwriting duo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, isn’t so much that they reinvent the genre. (Although we wouldn’t say no, Marvel’s most recent films — Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther — being exemplary proof that there’s life left in the much fretted-over bones of the superhero trend.) What we really expect from Infinity War is to see some old friends — because a decade in, that’s what the Avengers are. We want to see them see each other, to watch them struggle against insurmountable odds, to feel their fear and hope as our own, and be transported by it.
By that metric, Avengers: Infinity War succeeds, with a confidence that is almost entirely earned.
Without getting into spoiler territory, Infinity War dives into its story without wasting time: Thanos, the shadowy alien figure who put the events of the first Avengers movie into motion, is coming. He’s after the six Infinity Stones, which are scattered across Earth and space, and it’s up to our heroes to stop him before he gets them all and attains an omnipotent power to warp reality to his dark will.
Infinity War has a lot to do, and even though the Russos have a decent track record of packing a movie full of characters but still giving them room to breathe (Captain America: Civil War, for example), it might be better if you don’t walk in expecting the furtherance of anybody’s character arc in this one. Still, while the movie does flip all across the galaxy at a moment’s notice, it doesn’t flip too fast. It feels packed, but not rushed, delivering a story that’s surprisingly simple and straightforward, for all its threads — the Russos & Co. know exactly how much to bite off and chew.
True, the film does not have a particularly interesting structure. Narratively, it’s more of an inclined plane than an arc. But while I might not have been sure exactly when the third act began, I was thrilled by it all the same. There were really only a few moments where I was distracted from my viewing with the intrusive thought that this bit had really gone on too long or that Infinity War was building a moment that wasn’t earned.
The filmmakers gamely attempt to make an audience feel invested in Vision and Wanda, two characters whose development has happened almost entirely off-screen — not even Paul Bettany’s considerable puppy dog eyes could make me care about their relationship. Infinity War also does a lot of heavy lifting to turn Thanos into the compelling arch-nemesis that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been desperately trying to recreate since Loki’s post-Avengers semi-redemption. But in the end, no matter how many times you have him or one of his lackeys monologue about his motivations, he remains neither sympathetic nor even empathetic.
Overall, however, Infinity War lands the vast majority of the emotional beats it’s reaching for, which is why we’re here anyway. There are some tremendous surprises in store for viewers, including a wonderful cameo. The Russos play expertly in a sandbox that’s already chock full of castles built from 10 years of fan theories, speculation and even complete fiction about what might happen when Rocket Raccoon meets [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] meets Iron Man.
A decade into the franchise, what we expect from a Marvel movie is as informed by what’s come before it as anything else. It’s not just about the way that Marvel Studios has driven the evolution of the superhero genre in film, but in how it’s given us a set of characters and then consistently provided new adventures for them — for a full decade. There’s no way to do that without fostering an attachment between the audience and the story, and that attachment has evolved from a versatile foundation for larger stories to a narrative end in and of itself.
And that’s what we really expect from Avengers: Infinity War: We want to see the Avengers. We want to see them have a very big adventure. We want that adventure to be fun and sad and thrilling and hopeful, and to remind us why we like the Avengers. Above all, we want to leave the theater asking “what happens next?”