Thanos has come. Seeking the Infinity Stones, the omnicidal maniac intends to use their limitless power to pursue his maddened dreams of death beyond cosmic measure. Every Marvel Cinematic Universe hero must band together on an epic quest to safeguard the Infinity Stones and defeat Thanos once and for all.
Or at least, it would have been an epic quest if it weren’t so forgettable.
The Spectre of Death
I won’t say who, but it’s thematically fitting. It is, after all, a war against the most powerful supervillain in the MCU. Having characters die demonstrate the grave threat Thanos poses, not just to Earth, but to the universe.
On the other hand, the film relies excessively on character deaths for emotional beats.
Death hangs like a pallor over the film. Everywhere the characters go, death follows — or else they walk in the shadow of the Grim Reaper. Every major plot decision involves death in some way.
I don’t mind such a heavy film, but every other emotional beat feels off.
One scene has Starlord being jealous when Thor shows up, and attempts to one-up him by deepening his voice. I guess that’s meant to be humorous, but it only makes Starlord look like a child. Starlord is supposed to be the leader of his crew, but he doesn’t demonstrate leadership or control either. The scene comes off as some misfit’s idea of humor at Starlord’s expense instead of a bitingly accurate portrayal of male jealousy and status-seeking.
Another major point has Hulk refusing to appear, keeping Bruce Banner in his human form. Hulk keeps screaming “NO!” even when he is needed the most. While consistent with the events of the previous film, Bruce Banner doesn’t seem too concerned about being depowered even though Hulk is absolutely needed now, and isn’t shown working on the problem in his off-time. Nobody else seems to find that a problem either, even though real professionals would not let such a problem slide. I can’t tell if Banner’s inner conflict was meant to be dramatic or comedic, but the overall effect is that it comes off as a cheap way to prevent Hulk from trashing Thanos instead of a conflict Banner must resolve.
These are just two of the most gregarious examples of non-drama. Humour and genuine character drama have always been the weakest points of the MCU films, and Infinity War is no different. In this particular film, I believe the key issue is that there are so many characters.
Too Many Heroes
Almost every MCU hero shows up in this film. Captain America to Iron Man, Spiderman to the Vision, nearly every hero who has ever appeared in an Avengers or MCU film answers the call of duty. With so many characters in play, inevitably most of them will be relegated to the sidelines.
Likewise, there are many plot threads in Infinity War. Tony Stark rallying the Avengers and hunting Thanos, Dr Strange safeguarding the Time Stone, the Vision and Wanda and the problem of the Mind Stone, the Guardians of the Galaxy and their connection to another Infinity Stone, Thor’s quest to obtain a new weapon — all of them wrapped up in Thanos’ overarching campaign.
There’s enough material here to pad out a computer game or a series of novels. In a movie, to keep so much plot, many sacrifices must be made.
To the actors’ credit, they all stay in character. Peter Parker is the teenager trying to prove himself. Tony Stark is the world-weary leader with the fate of the universe in his hands. Dr Strange is honour-bound to preserve the Time Stone. The Guardians of the Galaxy remain goofballs who somehow preserve planets and civilizations, and Groot is now in the stage of teenage rebellion.
But with so much attention on so few characters, the appearance of everybody else feels like fanservice cameos — and the events of the final sequence ensures that they will stay cameos. Infinity War and its sequel felt like it should have been spread out over a trilogy to do justice to the plots and characters in play.
At least not all is shallow fanservice. Minor characters have their moments in the sun. Some characters’ dedication to heroic ideals, of refusing to sacrifice an individual or refusing to break an oath, comes with terrible costs. Character flaws undermine the campaign against Thanos. In this respect, at least, Infinity War is an improvement over previous films.
Flash and Spectacle
There are many action scenes in the film. They are everything I’ve come to expect from Hollywood: flash and spectacle and little else. I’ll only comment on one scene: the invasion of Wakanda.
The Children of Thanos invades Wakanda with an army of multiarmed monsters. Aided by the heroes of Earth, the Wakandans mobilise their military to meet the enemy. After a brief standoff, men and monsters charge into the fray and meet each other in battle. It’s a busy visual spectacle and the apex of military idiocy.
Wakanda is supposed to be the most advanced nation on Earth — but when faced with monsters whose main weapons are their arms and teeth, their main strategy is to charge and fight them in close combat. That’s absurd.
To break a human (or monster) wave attack, the traditional response is loads of firepower and defense in depth. Wakanda certainly has the tech to deploy artillery, tanks, mines, trenches, earth-burning lasers, sonic wave weapons, even machine guns. Instead, the military fires a few desultory salvos of energy blasts before marching to face their doom.
Even if the Wakandan military lacks such weapons, their approach to warfighting is incredibly stupid. A massive force field keeps the invaders at bay; only a few monsters are able to slip through at a time. Eventually, Black Panther orders the military to drop an opening in the force field because… reasons. The opening allows the monsters to flood through, leading to a climatic battle.
Sure, the battle looks busy and complicated and visually appealing, and there is the romance of heroes fighting bad guys with melee weapons and techniques, but as a strategem this achieves nothing more than to put so many lives at risk. I was half-hoping that Black Panther was simply luring in the monsters into a massive kill zone, but that apparently required more brainpower than the script could muster.
Don’t expect any intelligence from any of the action scenes in the movie (or any other MCU movie). It’s just spectacle without substance.
At movie’s end, I was left with two major issues.
First, a major character breaks an earlier promise and hands Thanos an Infinity Stone in exchange for sparing another character’s life. By saving one life, that character has doomed so many more.
I can only hope that this is a Thanatos Gambit, with the character banking on everyone else being able to finish the job. Looking at the intellectual level of previous MCU films, as well as this one, I’m not certain that this plot thread can be satisfactorily wrapped up. I have, however, no doubt that there will be plenty of people who will watch the sequel anyway.
The second issue is more troublesome. Thanos can’t be an idiot. Having devastated so many planets, he must be a master at the art of war. Yet he does not proactively neutralize the superheroes, the only people that can stop him from achieving his goal. Thanos and his minions are content simply with snatching the Infinity Stones instead of preventing the superheroes from ever hindering Thanos again, and even at the end of the movie Thanos does nothing to destroy his future opposition.
I am reminded of Machiavelli’s dictum to never do a small injury to your opponent. Thanos should have learned this lesson by now. By failing to apply it, he is sowing the seeds for his own defeat.
Of course, if Thanos didn’t spare his enemies, the sequel would not be possible. This is, perhaps, the only reason why he did so. Which, in turn, speaks to the overall intelligence and quality of the script.
Was It Worth It?
The only descriptor I have for Infinity War is formulaic.
It’s a typical MCU film. Superheroes fighting supervillains, with higher stakes than before and with some moments of drama and attempted humour, and visual spectacle. Aside from the scale of events, Infinity War follows the MCU formula to a T.
Infinity War is a popcorn flick in the grand tradition of popcorn flicks. If you like the MCU films and if you have two and a half hours to kill, Infinity War is okay. Not magnificent, not excellent, just… okay. But if you look past the many deaths in the film, there’s not much substance left.