The MCU started to feel like hard work years ago. Film after film aping the same narrative arcs, slightly snarky humour and intermittently satisfying fight scenes have created a homogenised spread of competency. Yet, however long it’s taken, we were being slowly led to this point, to Infinity War, the Avengers’ long-teased showdown with Josh Brolin’s universe-balancing Thanos.
If the dross of Thor: The Dark World, Ant Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron felt like tough going, Infinity War could be the palate cleanser needed – a roster-resetting acid wash. Thanos is the big bad, has always been, and is finally coming to unite the infinity stones he’s been almost jaw-droppingly bad at securing through other agents. How, nineteen films in, has this guy still only got one?
To go into plot details beyond this would immediately and irrevocably threaten spoilers, and in so doing rob Infinity War of its greatest asset – a long-suppressed willingness to actually change things. This is a Marvel movie with threat – one where antagonists do antagonistic things to characters viewers might actually care about. Sadly, this bloodthirst also comes, in later moments, to showcase the film’s failures, and those of its shared universe.
For it has always been clear that the MCU has a front line and an assortment of backgrounders. From column A, RDJ’s Tony Stark; from column B, say, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. Infinity War is not so foolish as to assume that we care equally about all of these figures. Yet it does seem to think that we care about them all to some extent, despite cumulative screen minutes that rank in the teens for some, and character journeys snatched in short scenes across different films.
For example, when Olsen and Paul Bettany’s Vision plead for “more time” together, it feels an ironic mirroring of their desperate need to have been given more scenes in earlier films. Vision threatened to be an interesting and alien character when he arrived in Age of Ultron. Instead he is a moany, illogical contrivance. Olsen’s gradual dropping of her comical Russian accent has been a similarly cowardly creative choice. When these or other figures come under threat, it’s a struggle to care.
Still, it’s perhaps fair to concede that you shouldn’t go to an Avengers film expecting character studies. Infinity War boasts some of the MCU’s best work dialogue-wise, a sharp script that moves along nicely and does a surprisingly capable job of melding the tonal variety of its various component parts. The newly-funny Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is a scene-stealer (praise to Waititi) and Doctor Strange’s influence is nicely bounced off Downey Jr’s weary Stark. The inevitable and extended fights are also well-done – the Russo brothers direct after their good work on The Winter Soldier and Civil War, and their penchant for physicality is a boon to the otherwise CGI-dominated melees.
However it is again disappointing that after so much buildup, the radical potential of the infinity stones’ powers butting against the psyches and world-bending abilities of some the heroes is ultimately boiled down to a couple of rapid-fire exchanges. Instead the biff-bang-wallop action of our punchier protagonists is prioritised.
Infinity War is being lauded as radical and bold, labels that feel hopelessly naive to this observer. Marvel’s planning is too meticulous to allow for actual risk, its cast too riddled with flimsy ciphers to allow actual peril. Expectations would be better set low.