Touted as “the most ambitious crossover event of all time,” Avengers: Infinity War is the apex of franchise movie-making, bringing together a plethora of heroes from a number of different franchises to form the blockbuster of blockbusters. That the film works at all is a feat of structural engineering that’d make even Tony Stark jealous, and that it’s also an emotional thrill-ride which manages to pay-off 18 movies of build-up is something close to a miracle.
It’s hard to believe that we’re now six years removed from the post-credits scene of 2012’s The Avengers, in which Thanos was introduced via his menacing grin, promising an even bigger and more thunderous showdown than the Chistauri invasion that just took place. After a dozen franchise films, Thanos has now arrived to an MCU that’s exponentially bigger and more complicated than those halcyon days of Phase One. On a mission to gain ultimate power, the Mad Titan is gathering the Infinity Stones in order to rid the universe of half of all life, a path that will eventually lead him to Earth, where at least two of the stones are currently dwelling.
At this point, one would need to go maximum Pepe Silvia to explain where and how every hero enters the story; some come directly after the events of their last appearance, others are a little more removed from when they last appeared. Almost every member of the Avengers initiative, both old and prospective, is brought in along with the Guardians of the Galaxy for the fight against Thanos and his minions. And not only are they present, but each and every character gets a moment to shine — if not in the drama and dialog, then in the action across the multiple set-pieces, with the film playing up the all-encompassing nature of its premise.
To say more of the plot would be to betray the principles on which Avengers: Infinity War’s excitement relies. This is The Empire Strikes Back for another generation — a darker, more villain-oriented piece that widens the scope of the universe and ends on a massive gut-punch cliffhanger. To talk about the story more in a review, even one post-opening weekend, is to risk lessening its impact. Even discussing more narratively inert aspects, like the unexpectedly mature turn from Rocket Raccoon or the forbidden-love intensity in Doctor Strange and Stark’s clash of egos, feels like a betrayal of the sheer event of it all.
That said, a major difference between this and The Empire Strikes Back is that this is a manufactured attempt to emulate the sci-fi epic’s cultural impact. Nothing had come close to the scale of the furore and reaction to the Star Wars follow-up upon release in 1980. There were franchises and big productions with dark endings — Beneath of the Planet of Apes created the blueprint for such things — but nothing had brought people together and shocked them quite like Lando’s betrayal, Han being frozen in carbonite and Vader bellowing “No, I am your father” to a beaten and distraught Luke. It was science-fiction and fantasy like nobody had ever seen, and pop culture was fundamentally and inexorably altered.
But where The Empire Strikes Back was the result of a then small-time filmmaker striking gold and going for broke (the movie was mostly self-funded by George Lucas so he could retain creative control), Avengers: Infinity War is a firmly studio work. It’s a product of Marvel Studios and everyone involved is merely fulfilling an appointed position. There’s no creative vision at its centre, rather its tones and moods are mostly dictated by the composite parts. The irreverent comedy of Thor and the Guardians; the comforting stoicism of Steve Rogers and Black Panther; the narcissism of Doctor Strange and Iron Man and the awkward innocence of Spider-Man — all of these dynamics and the requisite co-stars are more or less as previously seen, with the crossing over favouring like with like as the pieces gradually slide together.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Marvel has produced some potent filmmaker-driven work, particularly in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. But that they are all cogs in a machine is never felt more than in Avengers: Infinity War’s interweaving plotlines, which rely on the bulk of its 18 prequels for any added context its audience might need. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spawned some of the most creative large-scale pictures of the last decade, but there’s an underlying cynicism in the conveyer belt structure of their creation. Given that Avengers: Infinity War barely mention the Sokovia Accords while retconning whatever other minor details it finds inconvenient, it’s hard to completely reject the notion that the rest of Phase Three’s instalments, and Phases One and Two, were all expensive trailers for this, the real dramatic story of the MCU, with its real stakes and consequences.
Indeed, the greatest power in the hands of Avengers: Infinity War’s heroes is that of contractual obligation and box office draw, wherein having as many of these faces and costumes doing as much ass-kicking as possible is to everyone’s financial benefit. But where the filmmoves past this is in central villain Thanos, the great reckoning of the franchise. Shown in the opening scene in about as belligerent and threatening a fashion as possible without giving every audience member a black-eye, Thanos is the ego of Marvel’s protagonists taken to a cosmic extreme. He’s an evangelical archetype, devout malthusian and profoundly abusive father with a deep-rooted martyr complex. He believes he can save the universe, has the power to do it and emotionally cripples a set of chosen disciples to create representatives who can do the murdering and torturing in his stead.
And in making the central arc his journey to fill all the notches on the Infinity Gauntlet and restore balance to the universe (by killing half of it), Avengers: Infinity War steps away from being this mega-crossover of innumerable faces and brands and becomes a remarkably intimate character study. Thanos is absolutely convinced he is the chosen one to save the universe from itself, and he is absolutely convinced that all of the bodies in the wake of his crusade and all of the damage he inflicted on other people is just a price that must be paid. As a patriarch, he subjected Gamora, Nebula and Ronan (remember him?) to unspeakable psychological and physical abuse. He forced them to compete over and over, punishing them for each loss, drilling the emotion out of them bit by bit. Only his favourite, Gamora, was ever able to escape, while some became slaves to their desire for his affection — Ronan by trying to wield an Infinity Stone by himself, Nebula by trying to hunt down Gamora — and the remainder became his Black Order.
No part of Thanos’ belief system and intention makes sense, however by placing the spotlight firmly on him, the movie effectively zeroes in on the methods to his madness. We’re told his “kill half the people” plan has proven successful and, through Gamora, viewers see his manipulative tactics. What’s more, there is never any doubt as to the threat Thanos presents even without the Gauntlet, creating a troubling discomfort as face-to-face confrontations loom. To the MCU, Thanos is a manifest destiny that’s come to exact a toll on a franchise that’s become too big for its boots, and nothing will get in his way. The film makes a coercive case for his mission by making no bones about how sympathetic he is toward his own struggle, using the same basic beats by which audiences became enamored with all these different iconic heroes. At once the movie creates one of the most memorable antagonists of recent memory and a wickedly self-effacing comment on the formulaic nature of these stories and why fans fall for them.
And in an era of Trump, Brexit and a resurgence in white supremacy, such a narrative feels not only relevant, but necessary. Hourly, it feels like there’s a new sound-bite, tweet or piece of news that has us all collectively throwing our hands up for the zillionth time and wondering why any of this is happening while we fend off the desire do a load of psychedelics and fade off into space. The answer is because real evil — the kind of evil that counts, the kind of evil we need to be worried about — is often more persuasive than any of us would like to admit. Given half a chance, it can (and will) convince you that its perspective matters and its goals are honorable — impartial and necessary, even.
Fabrication or not, perhaps we needed to be reminded that when it comes to history, we are our parent’s child. And just as Return of the Jedi came after The Empire Strikes Back, so too comes Avengers 4 next year, a reminder that no matter how powerful feelings of hopelessness may be, they are as temporary as everything else.
Anthony McGlynn (@AntoMcG) is an Irish writer and film fan. He has strong opinions on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and thinks ‘Frozen’ is a better Christmas movie than ‘Die Hard.’