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Avengers: Infinity War review: Marvel’s biggest, most bizarre movie

Avengers: Infinity War isn’t the best Marvel movie. But it’s Marvel’s most daring. 

Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Avengers: Infinity War feels like a Marvel movie on bath salts. Trying to describe any part of it alone will make you sound like you’ve lost your mind; trying to describe it all kind of makes it sound like it’s lost its mind. And it’s all the more confounding for how closely it mirrors its decade of movie predecessors only to end up shattering that mirror: Infinity War moves, sounds, and acts like a typical Marvel movie, but then unmasks itself as a creature distinctly its own.

Throughout Marvel Studios’ 10-year cinematic history, we’ve seen the world saved multiple times, from threats ranging from a chunk of Earth poised to crash down and wipe us out like the dinosaurs in Avengers: Age of Ultron to the unkillable goddess of death in Thor: Ragnarok.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see that all these villains and their endgames (take control of the planet and/or the universe), as well as our heroes’ efforts to stop them, have started to look essentially the same.

“We don’t trade lives,” Captain America (Chris Evans) tells his compatriots in Avengers: Infinity War, essentially summing up Marvel’s ethos over the past 18 movies: Leave no men, women, children, or any other life form behind.

Directed by the Russo brothers, the architects behind Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: Winter Soldier, Infinity War slyly betrays Cap, presenting his and the Avengers’ worldviews as naive and privileged. Instead, it dares to ask what happens if saving the day means taking real, tangible losses — a concept so foreign that it comes in the form of an intergalactic purple titan named Thanos (Josh Brolin).

It’s a testament to Marvel and the Russos’ daring that Thanos is actually one of the less surprising things about Infinity War. For the past six years, we’ve been told that he’s on a collision course with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, setting us up for the chaos that ensues in this long-heralded culmination. What I didn’t fully realize is just what that chaos would look like, and that Marvel had the guts to, mostly, pull it off.

Infinity War is more of a Thanos movie than an Avengers movie

Captain America in Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel Studios

The most difficult task facing Infinity War is addressing all of the characters, motivations, subplots, and relationships that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built up over the years without making it feel like an expository avalanche careening down a mountain to bury the audience below.

For example: Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are adopted daughters of Thanos, the villain of Infinity War and the big bad lurking in the shadows of Marvel’s movies since 2012’s Avengers. Gamora and Nebula hate each other and hate Thanos, who tortured them by pitting them against each other; he also killed the family of Gamora’s Guardians of the Galaxy teammate Drax (Dave Bautista).

Gamora, Drax, and the other Guardians aren’t technically Avengers, but that’s just because they operate in Marvel’s cosmic universe, which we found out in Thor: Ragnarok is connected to Thor’s Asgard, a recently destroyed world populated by Norse gods and goddesses.

That intricate web of characters and motivations barely scratches the surface of four of Marvel’s recent movies; there are 18 total, not including Infinity War.

The Russo brothers’ solution to this dilemma is to turn a movie nominally about the Avengers into a movie about Thanos, played by Brolin decked out in lumpy mounds of purple CGI.

The special effects needed to turn Brolin into Thanos distract in the villain’s softer moments, as when he explains how exactly he came to be the Mad Titan. We’re told that, ages ago, Thanos’s home planet was bountiful but resources were finite. To alleviate the stress on the planet, Thanos had the idea to reduce it by half, eliminating life in order to preserve it.

Not satisfied with culling his own planet, Thanos has continued on a mission to eliminate half the life in the universe, and needs the Infinity Stones to do so. And it just so happens that our Avengers are the only thing standing in his way.

Thanos’s story allows Saldana to shine, as she rounds out Gamora with more humanity and purpose than the Guardians movies have allowed her. That she’s acting opposite a computer-enhanced Brolin in a majority of her scenes is even more impressive.

But giving Thanos such an expansive history comes at a price.

Most of the Marvel superheroes appearing in Infinity War, particularly Black Panther and Captain America, are compressed, concentrated versions of themselves. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is given five or so lines to be majestic in his defense of Wakanda; Cap gets a few more minutes to be noble and inspiring. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is around to remind us that he’s young.

Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have scenes together to tell you they’re in love. Characters like Drax, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and, of course, Groot (Vin Diesel) have a few one-liners.

Instead of showing us why these characters are so beloved, the Russo brothers employ a Marvel shorthand of sorts, relying on past movies to do most of the work. And that’s not an unreasonable instinct: Captain America’s first onscreen return in Civil War is awe-inspiring in large part because he’s the Captain America who’s lived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past seven years.

The same kind of chills happen when the “Wakanda” theme plays in Infinity War — a testament to the power of Ryan Coogler’s massive film. For devotees of the MCU, there’s plenty to read into between the lines of Infinity War, but only if you know where to look.

Not all of the film’s heroes are underutilized, though. Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) fear of a galactic threat, established over the past few films featuring him, is fully realized in Thanos, and Downey sinks his teeth into Stark’s vulnerability and apprehension. Stark has to not only defeat this villain but also reconcile that mission with the fact that Thanos’s plan is horrifyingly adjacent to Stark’s dream of a universe so safe that Avengers are rendered obsolete.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor are apt counters to Stark. Cumberbatch’s Strange is coolly stubborn, calculating in ways that Stark isn’t. And Hemsworth, after flexing his knack for comedy in 2017’s Ragnarok, taps into that same humor but laces it with jagged grief and anger informed by having seen Thanos’s wrath firsthand.

It would have been stellar to see all of Marvel’s superheroes allowed these little pockets of storytelling in between the Thanos action, but there’s already not enough room in Infinity War’s two hours and 40 minutes. I don’t envy the difficult decisions the Russos had to make about the heroes and storylines to spotlight, but I’m also not convinced that giving us a Thanos origin story and relying on that Marvel superhero shorthand to fill in the gaps was the most efficient way.

Perhaps the easiest way to reconcile this is to understand that Infinity War doesn’t want to have multiple profound heroes, but rather have one profound thing happen to all of its heroes.

Avengers: Infinity War is the most comic book movie that Marvel has ever created

Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel Studios

The best and worst thing about Infinity War is that it’s a comic book movie.

Comic book artists aren’t bound by visual effects budgets, so they’re allowed to give us priceless imaginations on paper: new worlds on every page, mystifying beings, dazzling spacecraft, spellbinding powers, and megaton fights. Infinity War is the closest iteration of this limitless power that we’ve seen onscreen.

Midway through, I lost count of the planets and galaxies visited, each one terrifyingly beautiful in its own way. There’s a breath-stopping visit to a deserted ghost city of a planet, so evocative you can almost smell the sulfur in the air and feel the temperature drop when it comes on the screen.

And the faces of Thanos’s Black Order, his cabal of henchmen, are fearsome and distinct, offering both scintillating powers and copious nightmare fuel. Their fights with the Avengers are the film’s highlights, and a couple of them truly feel like significant threats to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

The problem with flexing this sort of expansive world building is that it requires so much jumping around the universe that the film feels like it’s spinning plates. That results in the compression I mentioned earlier, the feeling that some characters are around simply to remind you they exist. But it also, frustratingly, kneecaps what should be the MCU’s grandest fight scene, Infinity War’s invasion of Wakanda.

It’s the largest-scale onscreen fight I can recall since the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Our heroes, in a valiant last stand, are the only thing that stands between Thanos and universal destruction. And his generals have unleashed thousands of intergalactic hounds — what look to be a cross between snapping turtles and WWE wrestlers — upon Wakanda. Cap and Black Panther teaming up to hold the line is a strange mix of joy and stress. Seeing Okoye and Black Widow’s combat expertise in tandem is breathtaking. Same with Scarlet Witch unleashing her full powers.

Unfortunately, though, because there are multiple storylines going on at one time, we jump from Wakanda to outer space and another faction of Avengers doing their part to save the universe, or get thrust into Thor’s side quest to find a weapon strong enough to kill Thanos.

It’s frustrating that it’s so difficult to fully appreciate the fantastic work that went into orchestrating these massive spectacles when we’re constantly being jostled from place to place. Midway through, all these different settings and all these jumps begin to feel exhausting.

The same thing can happen in comic books. Some story arcs are better than others. And sometimes you’ll have to read through them all — even the most boring ones — to get the full crossover experience and make sure you didn’t miss anything.

But also as in comic books, there’s one absolute bombshell of a moment that grabs you by the neck and drives you back into the story. Infinity War boasts the most breathtaking, audacious moment in superhero movie history, one that rocketed through my brain and tore apart everything I thought I knew about the past 10 years of Marvel moviemaking. For the first time in a while, I can’t wait to see what happens next.