For the last ten years, Marvel Studios has been doing the impossible. Just look at the list of decisions they've made on the road to total dominance of the movie box office, Hollywood's action-adventure machine, and sizable chunks of the cultural conversation. Every one of them, at the time it was made, elicited loud cries of "why?", and more importantly, "how?" How can Marvel create a movie universe without the rights to tentpole heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men? How can they launch their new franchise with C-list weirdos like Iron Man and Thor? How can they create a successful team-up movie combining the heroes of five previous films? How can they incorporate genuinely out-there concepts like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man into their burgeoning cinematic universe? How can they re-incorporate Spider-Man into that universe, relaunching the character for the third time in fifteen years? How can they accommodate directors with a more definitive viewpoint and agenda, like Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler?#AvengersInfinityWar is the DC superhero movie of the MCU.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) April 28, 2018
And yet, every single time we've asked this question, the answer has been "like this". I don't like all of the MCU movies and I don't think all of them are good, but every single one of them works. Through a combination of inspired casting choices, a firm grasp of the kind of world they wanted to build and the stories they wanted to tell in it, and sure-footed leadership from mastermind Kevin Feige, Marvel has created a universe that is always entertaining to visit, with characters we can care about, settings we can become attached to, and, even in the worst films of the bunch, moments worth experiencing. It's all the more impressive an accomplishment when you look at other studios' (and even Marvel's sister division in charge of Star Wars) attempts to replicate it, almost all of which have resulted in half-baked or genuinely unwatchable fare.
So even though I wouldn't say that I walked into Avengers: Infinity War with high hopes, I had certain expectations from it. I'm not a great fan of any of the MCU's team-up movies--I think Avengers is more impressive for being attempted than for its limited success; I get more annoyed with Age of Ultron whenever I think about it; and though I praised Civil War when I first watched it, it has aged very poorly for me, and I now remember mainly its risible politics and the fact that it has made me dislike Steve Rogers. But for all that, I still believed that the question aroused by the Infinity War concept--how can Marvel rope together dozens of characters from multiple storylines into a battle against a single universe-destroying villain, and make a successful and entertaining movie out of it?--would be answered with the same definitive success as previous ones. I didn't expect to love Infinity War, but I expected it to work.
Instead, it is barely even a movie. The answer to "how can you give each of these lovingly crafted characters the space and attention they deserve" turns out to be "you can't". Characters in Infinity War turn up to prop up the plot and move it along, nothing more. There's barely any space for meaningful interactions or even the occasional revealing plot point. In fact, there's barely any space for story. Infinity War is simply non-stop event, one fight scene leading into another with only the minimum of connective tissue. And if that conjures up images of something energetic and exhilarating like Mad Max: Fury Road, Infinity War is the exact opposite, dutiful and airless. None of the fight scenes are bad, but they're the same CGI spectacle we've seen many times before, and all so clearly in thrall to the demands of the plot that there's no space to be excited, surprised, or worried.
Infinity War proceeds along three storylines. In the first, the Guardians of the Galaxy pick up Thor, left adrift in space after his crew of Asgardian refugees was slaughtered by Thanos, who was in search of the Tesseract Cube (along the way Thanos kills Heimdal and Loki; Valkyrie's whereabouts are never mentioned). Thanos is, of course, the estranged father of Gamora, and she reveals that his goal is to kill half of all living beings in the universe, to which end he needs to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, which will give him control over all aspects of reality. In a second storyline, an advance party of Thanos's henchmen arrives on Earth looking to collect the Time Stone (wielded by Doctor Strange) and the Mind Stone (currently powering Vision). Strange, Tony Stark, and Peter Parker fend off the invaders but in the process end up trapped on Thanos's ship on its way to his homeworld, where they decide to mount an attack against him. Finally, nearly every other major MCU player converges on Wakanda, where they hope to detach the Mind Stone from Vision so they can destroy it and foil Thanos's plan, and where they end up in a last stand against Thanos's regrouped forces.
The third of these storylines is nothing more than make-work, wasting the presence of such vital MCU players as Captain America, Black Widow, and pretty much everyone from Wakanda. The emotional crux is meant to be the revelation that Vision and Wanda have been carrying on a secret affair since they ended up on different sides in Civil War, which now turns to tragedy since only Wanda's powers can destroy the Mind Stone. But introducing a romance half a scene before telling us that it is doomed is a tough sell even if the lovers in question are well-developed characters (as seen with the example of Natasha and Bruce in Age of Ultron). Doing it with Vision, who is underwritten, and Wanda, who is inconsistently written, is a losing proposition, and so the entire storyline ends up feeling perfunctory, a chance to check in with our favorite characters--here's Shuri showing up Bruce! Here's M'Baku doing the Jabari war-bark! Here's Natasha with a new hair color!--without letting them actually be the people we've come to care about.
The Tony/Strange/Peter storyline is little more than an excuse for three of the MCU's most inveterate quippers to quip against each other, which is entertaining as far as it goes but not much more than that. The film's only real weight of emotional significance comes, strangely enough, from Thor and the Guardians. There's a genuinely touching scene between Thor and Rocket in which the former recounts the losses he's experienced in the last few years and tries to convince himself that he's still up for a fight. But most of the heavy lifting is done by Gamora, who struggles with her fear of Thanos, her guilt over the role she played in this atrocities, and her terror that he will capture her and learn from her the location of the Soul Stone, the final, lost Infinity Stone.
The problem here is that Gamora is by far the MCU's most underdeveloped headliner. She has an incredibly fraught, complicated backstory, and yet the character who has shown up on screen has always been overshadowed, playing a sensible mom type to her more flamboyant crewmates (and sister). And that's before we even get to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 apparently took place four years ago, and that Infinity War has so little space to fill us in on what's happened to the Guardians since then that it has Peter awkwardly reveal that he and Gamora are romantically involved during a fight with Thanos. So when Thanos tricks Gamora into thinking she's defeated him in battle and she breaks into uncontrollable sobs, it comes as a surprise in the worst possible way. We know so little about Gamora and how she feels about Thanos that we have no idea how she'd react to his death, how she thinks she'd react, or how she'd like to react. Zoe Saldana does the best she can, whether it's urging Peter to kill her if it looks like Thanos is about to capture her, or breaking down when Thanos tortures Nebula to get her to give him the location of the Soul Stone, or multiple scenes opposite Thanos himself. But she can't get around the fact that we have no idea who Gamora is, and that the writing for Infinity War isn't really interested in changing that, as the first Avengers did for Black Widow and Bruce Banner.
And then there's Thanos himself, who has been looming over the MCU since Avengers in 2012, for the most part to very little effect. Infinity War doesn't quite rescue him from the MCU's villain curse, but there's a solid argument to be made that he is the film's most interesting, rounded character, perhaps even its protagonist (that would certainly be one way to interpret the end title informing us that "Thanos Will Return"). After so much buildup, and with so much hatered registered towards him from Gamora, Nebula, and Drax, it's a reasonably clever choice for Infinity War to depict Thanos as even-tempered, patient, and wistful. When he listens to Gamora rail against him, or explains to her that in killing half the population of the planets he visits, he's saving them from resource scarcity, it's hard not to feel (despite the absurd purple CGI) that there's a thinking, feeling person in there, however monstrous his reasoning. In the end, however, the film can't quite make Thanos work. His relentless pursuit of carnage can't be squared with his oh-so-reasonable demeanor. Unlike, say, Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Infinity War doesn't do the work of building a character whose tremendous power and longevity has led them down a path of destruction that to them feels entirely rational. One eventually comes to feel that Thanos is pursuing his horrific plan of galactic genocide simply because the plot needs him to
(It should go without saying that Thanos's overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap. Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war. It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is, I'm not sure that it does. After all, we see Thanos tell Gamora that her home planet, whose population he massacred only twenty years ago, is now a paradise, which suggests the film does want us to see merit in his approach. So, before the first thinkpiece suggesting that "Thanos Was Right" drops, I want it on the record that no, Thanos is a moron.)
To be clear, none of what I've written so far is the reason I've come down so hard against Infinity War. If the movie was only what I've described in the preceding paragraphs, my reaction to it would be a resounding "meh". Not as good as Avengers, not as bad as Age of Ultron, possibly better than Civil War but mainly because it has no political message with which to infuriate me. The thing that makes me say that Infinity War is barely a movie is its ending, in which, well, Thanos wins. The film climaxes with an epic battle between most of our heroes plus the Wakandan armies, and Thanos's forces. (This would be a lot more exciting if it weren't so painfully dumb; naturally, if one side is invading from space, and the other is surrounded by a force-field dome, the thing to do is to have armies square off against one another on open ground like in The Lord of the Rings.) The point of this battle is to give Shuri time to remove the Mind Stone from Vision without killing him. But when Shuri's lab is overrun, Vision convinces Wanda to kill him and destroy the Stone, which she does. At which point Thanos, who already has possession of Strange's Time Stone, rewinds back a few minutes and retrieves the Stone, killing Vision. He then completes the Infinity Gauntlet and uses it to remove half the living beings in the universe, including Bucky Barnes, Wanda, Sam Wilson, T'Challa, Peter Parker, Doctor Strange, all of the Guardians except Rocket, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill. Roll credits.
Look, I don't have to tell you what this means, right? The combination of comics + lots of major character death + an established McGuffin that can and already has rewound time pretty much writes the story for you. True, some fans are already debating how much of the carnage of Infinity War is going to be rewound in Avengers 4 (personally, I think it's obvious that it's going to be everything, though perhaps some minor characters will die in the new timeline, just for appearances' sake). But to be honest, if the argument we're having while walking out of the movie theater is "how much of the movie we've just watched is going to be cancelled out of existence by the next one?" I think we can probably agree that we are not the richer for having watched it.
One of the reasons that I despise the way pop culture has come to conflate character death with meaningful drama (a development for which I mainly blame Game of Thrones, but which the MCU has happily indulged in) is that even when that death sticks, it never ends up feeling real and significant--more like a gimmick to make people gasp and then move on to the next big moment. The previous Avengers movies teased us relentlessly with inane "who will die" slogans, only to kill off minor characters (one of whom was revived almost immediately on TV). Infinity War obviously couldn't take that approach again, so by the time Thanos killed Gamora as a sacrifice to earn the Soul Stone, I was pretty sure that her death, and the ones that had come before it, were going to be rolled back. The ending of Infinity War virtually guarantees this. It's not that I want wholesale slaughter, but when characters die, I want it to matter. When characters suffer, or argue, or even just talk to one another, I want it to matter. The way Infinity War ends is a promise that nothing about it--the entire 160-minute slog--is going to matter. That the purpose of the whole exercise was the "gotcha" of the credits rolling on Thanos's victory.
You can get away with something like this in comics or TV, where it's clearer that you're telling a chapter in a story. (In fact I would argue that the excellent second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow tells a story that is virtually identical to Infinity War, to the extent that I'm pretty sure the Avengers will use the same tactic as the Legends did to defeat Thanos.) But those formats usually have enough space to make the journey worth the readers' while, even if parts of it are going to be erased. Infinity War, as I've written, is nothing but forward momentum, so to discover that the only thing that momentum was leading us to was its own cancellation--and that we're going to have to wait a year before the actual story happens--feels very much like having been cheated. It certainly doesn't help that Marvel has been insisting for years that the Infinity War story hasn't been split into two, even changing the names of Infinity War and Avengers 4. As the saying goes, you can trick your readers, but you can't lie to them, and pretending that Avengers 4 isn't Infinity War 2 was a lie.
A lot reviewers are going to praise Infinity War for having a "brave" downer ending, but that's not what we've gotten. A downer ending has weight. It leaves you feeling something besides shock. But shock is all Infinity War has to offer, bolstered by the freedom to do whatever it wants with its world, because none of it is really going to matter. It's the kind of emptiness I've come to associate with the DC movies (Wonder Woman excepted), where grandiosity and melodrama are allowed to stand in for genuine emotion and meaning--something I thought the MCU knew instinctively to avoid. There's no substance to Infinity War, only spectacle, and the fact that this was the capper that the remarkable ten years of the MCU have been leading up to leaves me thinking that I have massively overrated this entire effort.