‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Spoiler Review: Let’s Break This Whole Massive Thing Down Into Hero-Sized Chunks

Marvel

If you’re one of the millions of moviegoers who helped Avengers: Infinity War to gigantic box office over the weekend, and would now like to discuss the movie in more detail — with full spoilers for the whole thing, like in one of my TV episode recaps — then I have many thoughts on the affair, coming up just as soon as I mistake you for a rabbit…

There’s so much going on in Infinity War, which features nearly every major hero (and at least one more villain than you might expect) from all the previous MCU films, in action that takes place around the globe and across the universe, that it makes more sense to do what the Russo brothers and Markus & McFeely did and break the whole thing down into more manageable chunks than to try to consider the whole thing at once.

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It’s been clear going back at least to Avengers: Age of Ultron, if not to the first Avengers, that the MCU movies operate as much like a serialized TV drama as they do a set of connected films. Some movies like Black Panther or Iron Man 3 are relatively standalone, while others like Captain America: Civil War or the three Avengers movies so far are the mythology episodes, tying together major plot threads and characters in ways that are most satisfying if you’ve seen and cared about the previous installments.

It’s not an exact match, any more than we should consider Marvel’s Netflix dramas to be “13-hour movies,” and when the Marvel films struggle, it’s often because they’re trying to be movie and TV show at the same time. I had a lot of fun watching Infinity War, but mainly for the individual moments and team-ups than for the story as a whole. Thanos had been teased in previous movies and talked about a lot in both Guardians of the Galaxy films, but this was his first time front and center and really part of the action. Despite some good work by Josh Brolin and the writers’ attempt to give him more nuance than Thanos has in the comics, he’s still a relative newbie to the saga, and our interests are more with the heroes we’ve been watching for a decade than with him. (Civil War wasn’t perfect, but it was also smart enough to make Zemo all but irrelevant to the conflicts between the characters we already knew and cared about, which may be the safest approach in a movie with that many heroes — only a fraction of what Infinity War had on display.) If these were being made as an actual TV show, I imagine we’d have seen a lot more of Thanos before his big moment, the way Buffy or Justified would slowly but surely increase the screen time for each big bad over the course of the season so that they really mattered by the time their plan went into full bloom. Instead, the more frequent presence throughout the earlier films were the Infinity Stones themselves, and only a very specific brand of nerd cares about them at all. And Thanos’ key relationship is with Gamora, who’s easily been the least well-written of the Guardians, even if the sequel devoted a good chunk of time to her and Nebula talking about what a terrible father figure Thanos was to them. So the emotional core of the movie — whose writers consider Thanos to be its protagonist — isn’t quite strong enough to keep the audience from wanting to jump back to any of a few dozen other character pairings.

Mr. Worf… Fire!

Plenty of film critics have compared Infinity War to Empire Strikes Back, but the first thing that came to mind for me was the famous “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which similarly brought a lot of subplots and character arcs to a boil before driving the audience nuts with a killer cliffhanger to hold them through the long hiatus until the next season begins.

Both the TNG cliffhanger and the one that ends Infinity War, like any cliffhanger going back to the early days of silent movie serials, are what TV writers like to call “schmuck bait”: obviously false stakes that you hope are executed well enough for the audience to not call you on it. Star Trek wasn’t going to kill off Captain Picard, and Marvel sure as heck isn’t going to let Spider-Man, Black Panther, and most of the Guardians — all of whom have future movies in the pipeline — stay dead. (The end of the movie “kills” most of the characters we know can’t die, while leaving intact a bunch of characters who aren’t likely to stick around after the next movie, based on their actors’ contracts.) And the fact that the Infinity Gauntlet has control over both time and reality provides plenty of ways to undo that ending. But in this case, it was executed well enough to work, particularly if you haven’t read the original Infinity Gauntlet miniseries by Jim Starlin and don’t know that Thanos succeeds in his plan, at least for a bit. The audience I saw it with was freaking the hell out throughout the post-snap sequence (the teenage girl seated in my row was simultaneously swearing off all future Marvel movies and trying to accept that this couldn’t be permanent), and stuck through the end credits hoping for some kind of optimism from the post-credits scene, only to howl again when Nick Fury turned to dust and Marvel trolled us all with a simple “Thanos Will Return” message.

And if the cliffhanger’s fake, it’s also smart, in that whatever the next movie is called will have to be more streamlined than this one was, since we’re basically back to the original Avengers lineup, plus a few hangers-on like Rocket and War Machine. As much fun as it was to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Star-Lord bantering on Titan, the strains that Infinity War went through to incorporate all these characters were evident throughout, and the sequel will hopefully be free to focus more on story, and on the relative handful of surviving characters (particularly Captain America, who got the shortest shrift of any major player this time), before T’Challa and the rest get unsnapped somehow.

Perfect Strangers

That said, I’m glad we did get this one crazy movie featuring virtually every hero save Ant-Man (who has to get ready for his solo movie, which I’m guessing will take place before the events of this one) and Hawkeye (who was… chopping wood on the farm as part of his house arrest?), because it did that thing you want from any good crossover, and smashed together all these characters who otherwise wouldn’t interact.

The movie leaned on a few pre-existing relationships, especially the Guardians with each other and Tony Stark with Peter Parker, but it also did its best to make various opposites attract — or, in the case of the two men who would be Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr and Cumberbatch), to have likes repel. Putting Thor in with the Guardians was a particular delight, first for the comedy of Quill being intimidated by a more blatantly alpha male, which allowed Chris Pratt to be funny again after the second Guardians movie mostly used him for drama, then for the appropriate blend of humor and pathos that came from Thor and Rocket bonding over how alone each of them now is in this universe. Thor: Ragnarok unlocked something great in Chris Hemsworth’s performance, and I hope he sticks around the franchise for a while even if Downey, Chris Evans, and some others put in for super retirement.

The mixing and matching wasn’t quite as thrilling in the Cap/Vision/T’Challa contingent, which had less dialogue and more action, and it’s only in the action sequences that Infinity War doesn’t fully take advantage of the crossover of it all. One of the treats of any big superhero get-together, which the airport fight in Civil War amply demonstrated, is seeing diverse personalities and power sets having to work together. The assault by Thanos’ army on Wakanda should have had plenty of opportunity for big moments like that, but there’s basically just Bucky spinning Rocket around and the bit where Black Widow, Okoye, and Scarlet Witch team up to take out Proxima Midnight. The rest of it is solo stuff, as opposed to, say, Cap hurling Black Panther through the air or War Machine coaching Banner on how best to use the armor.

For Wakanda!

That audience I saw the movie with was vocal throughout, but especially whenever something Black Panther-related happened. The theater nearly exploded with applause for an establishing shot of Wakanda, and Black Panther turning to dust easily got the loudest response of any of the climactic “deaths.”

But the film’s overall use of T’Challa and the rest of the Black Panther world felt a bit like the inverse of what happened with The Defenders and Iron Fist. In both cases, these series are being made in something of a vacuum, so the folk making Defenders had no idea that much of the audience would come to reject Iron Fist as a character when they built a lot of their season’s mythology around him, while the Infinity War creative team had no way of knowing that Black Panther would become the most popular and beloved Marvel movie to date. If they had, Cap’s contingent likely would have gotten to Wakanda much sooner, there would have been more than just the small taste we got of Shuri and Okoye, T’Challa himself might have had some kind of character arc rather than just being the field general, etc. There’s still a good amount of that group, but less than the audience was clearly craving. And now he’ll probably be absent for most of the next film.

Let The Mystery Be

Look, I know that it seems like every time I write about a blockbuster action movie, I find some excuse to compare it to The Leftovers. But it’s even more apt here than it was with The Last Jedi.

It’s not even so much that Leftovers star Carrie Coon is the voice and motion-capture performer for Proxima Midnight, since she’s not even the most memorable of Thanos’ henchmen in the movie. (That would be the Ebony Maw, who gets ejected into space as Spider-Man’s latest homage to a classic sci-fi film.) It’s that the state of the universe in the aftermath of Thanos snapping his fingers is like the TV show’s Sudden Departure, but on steroids: 50 percent of the population abruptly vanishes instead of only two. The Nick Fury/Maria Hill scene in particular very closely resembles what Leftovers showed of the Departure’s immediate aftermath, albeit with a much higher budget.

The comic book (which had similar moments) predates the show (and the book that inspired it) by a few decades, but when you put Coon into a movie that also features loved ones disappearing without warning, suddenly driverless cars causing accidents, etc., then all of my Leftovers nostalgia is going to come flooding back. I want reporters at the junket for the next movie to demand that the Russos tell them what happened to the cast of Perfect Strangers during the events of this story. I want video mash-ups where Cap watches Bucky turn to dust while Max Richter’s score plays. I want a slideshow of MCU movie cast photo with “dead” characters silhouetted out, scored to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be.” And heck, if Kevin Garvey were to appear in a hotel in the afterlife to help Spidey and the others find their way back to the land of the living, so much the better, no matter how much it might confuse 99.9 percent of the audience.

UPDATE: The mad bastards already did it:

Some other thoughts:

* The Infinity War trailers and TV spots had a whole bunch of shots that weren’t in the finished movie — or, in many cases, were digitally altered from what was in the finished movie to preserve surprises. In both the trailer and publicity stills, for instance, Banner is all Hulked out when the Wakandan army makes its big charge, where in the film he’s wearing the “Veronica” armor because Hulk refuses to come out and play. Trailers sometimes feature scenes or lines that got cut late in the process, but this is different, and weird.

* While I expect all the dust people to return to the land of the living, we’ll have to see with the characters who died before Thanos snapped his fingers. Loki and Heimdall could very easily be gone for good (Hiddleston and Elba have stuff to do where they’re the leads), and there are enough other Avengers that Vision probably won’t be missed, especially since Infinity War did an imperfect job of making his romance with Scarlet Witch matter. Gamora’s the one I wonder about. Like I said, she hasn’t been the best-written Guardian, but Quill’s love for her is a big part of his character, and if she stays dead, we’d probably get an even more morose version of him in the third movie than we got in the second, which would not be ideal.

* Speaking of Quill and Gamora, one of my favorite understated grace notes in the whole movie was the glimpse of her happily joining into the Guardians’ singalong of “Rubberband Man,” which told you how much of an impact Quill’s personality has had on her and the rest of the team.

* The film’s other use of an HBO prestige drama star was much more noticeable than Carrie Coon, with Peter Dinklage playing Eitri, the leader of the tribe of dwarves who forged Thor’s first hammer. It was a nice touch to have Eitri be by far the physically biggest character in the movie, and even though Dinklage didn’t get a ton to do, his experience at playing disillusioned characters struggling with grief and self-loathing worked as effective shorthand here. (Also, modeling Thor’s new hammer after the one Ultimate Thor used in the comics was a good Easter Egg, and was given its own cinematic personality by using Teen Groot’s arm as its handle.)

* Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t the best MCU film, but it’s one of the most rewatchable. Bringing back Red Skull (albeit one no longer played by Hugo Weaving) as reluctant protector of the Soul Stone didn’t feel wholly necessary, but I appreciated both that callback to the original film and, in the context of the debate over whether to sacrifice Vision to stop Thanos, the discussion of Cap’s decision to crash the plane into the ocean to save New York, which chokes me up every time I watch the scene in question.

* Again, I expect Ant-Man and the Wasp to be set before the events of this movie (and the ship has long since sailed on the various TV shows trying to link their plots up with the films), but I’ll be curious to see how Captain Marvel (summoned by Nick Fury in the post-credits scene) winds up involved, if her solo movie is going to be set in the ’90s. Will Brie Larson be wearing middle-age makeup? Will Captain Marvel, like Captain America, leap forward in time somehow? Or will her powers just leave her eternally youthful-looking?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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