After taking my son to a sold-out showing on Saturday, I can personally attest that Avengers: Infinity War really throws down the gauntlet—both figuratively, and in the case of arch-villain Thanos, quite literally. Armed a metal glove forged from the same stuff as Thor’s hammer, Thanos is on a mission to collect all six Infinity Stones—gems formed at the moment of creation, which embody the elemental powers of the universe. With them, he can wield those powers as his own, and complete his mad quest to impose his idea of balance in all things. The catch? That balance requires eliminating half of all life on every world.
As the apes once lamented in Spaceballs, “Oh, sh*t. There goes the planet.”
I think it’s safe to say that the stakes couldn’t be any higher—as is only befitting for this, the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the culmination of ten years building the MCU beast. And what a beast it is. At over $15 billion in box office so far, the franchise is the most successful in movie history, with Infinity War that will pour even more truckloads of money on the pile. Between this and Star Wars, there’s no doubt that Disney has the world in its back pocket.
But is the film any good? That is the question.
In terms of delivering what the fans want, the answer is an unqualified yes. Infinity War picks up Immediately where Thor: Ragnarok ended, with a gigantic ship attacking the vessel carrying the last survivors of Asgard, which (spoiler alert!) had to be sacrificed to stop the ravages of Thor’s sister, who also happened to be the Goddess of Death. Talk about going from bad to worse. After seeing his world destroyed, Thor now has to watch as Thanos kills off half of the people he saved—a very dark fate that sets the tone for the rest of the film, and also sets up an arc of revenge that provides a big driver for the rest of the story.
Another hero arc comes from Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and her sister Nebula—both of whom are adopted daughters of Thanos. Gamroa’s daddy issues are pretty complicated, in that Thanos wiped out half of her planet’s population (including her birth mother) and yet raised her as his own child, teaching her how to become a fierce warrior. In a very real way, Thanos made Gamora who she is—so there’s a part of her that loves him, even though she knows he’s a genocidal maniac who must be destroyed. And to top it all off, she also lives in terror that Thanos will find out that she knows the location of one of the Stones—which she would rather die than give up.
All of which would be rather run of the mill if the script had painted Thanos in broad, bad guy strokes—a pitfall it thankfully avoids. Directors Anothony and Joe Russo, who also directed Captain America: The Winter Solider and Civil War—two of the best installments in the MCU—set out to do something different here, and actually give Thanos a reason for justifying his actions, other than just being power-mad and evil. They also give him a heart, showing that he is capable of paternal love in the way he feels about Gamora. That sets up a real conflict for him, and makes their relationship the emotional center of the film.
Ironically, though, it‘s that same emotional center that makes the rest of the film feel somewhat hollow. The other heroes carry on with their own subplots, giving each of them a chance to put in some screen time, but the sheer number of characters turns most appearances into little more than cameos. Steve Rogers, for example, barely has anything to do besides fight, projecting a sort of one-note angst from beneath his newly grown beard. Natasha Romanov kicks butt as usual, but that’s also the extent of her contribution. Black Panther fans, fresh off the monster success of that film, will enjoy the return to Wakanda for a climatic battle, but will probably be disappointed that T’Challa only gets a few brief moments to project his formidable charisma.
Bruce Banner, on the other hand, does get a chance to expand on the comedic potential he mined from Thor: Ragnarok, turning a certain, shall we say, performance anxiety with the Hulk into a running gag, while Tony Stark does more than crack wise as he decides to take the fight directly to Thanos himself. Doctor Strange and the Guardians also figure prominently in that story thread, although Peter Parker spends most of his time playing the sidekick as a CGI Spider-Man. With all the verve and wonder Tom Holland brought to the role, it’s a shame to sideline him like that.
Thor, meanwhile, gets his time in the sun—although it’s a dead neutron star, where he spends a good chunk of the movie trying top forge a weapon with which he can avenge his people by killing Thanos. It’s here where the story drags a bit, but the payoff when Thor shows up near the end to unleash holy hell is almost worth the buildup.
Even with all that, however, it’s still Thanos who runs the show—and while having a good villain is essential to making a film like this work, having the heroes spread so thin ultimately has the effect of diluting the protaganist-antagonist dynamic that could have made a good story great. That’s why it might have been a better idea to call this one Thanos: Infinity War. The movie belongs to him, far more than any of the Avengers.