And so the hour comes round at last. Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, functions not so much as a movie in its own right as the biggest season finale of all time, bringing together a huge ensemble of characters from across the franchise’s various series to battle the space tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) for control of the Infinity Stones that have littered the Marvel films since 2011’s Captain America. Thanos’ goal is to wipe out literally half the intelligent life in the universe, and when all six stones are housed in his gaudy Infinity Gauntlet, he can do it with a snap of his fat, purple fingers.
Now, if none of that made any sense to you, you may want to seek your cinematic pleasures elsewhere. It’s not that the price of admission is particularly high for Infinity War, but you must be At Least This Geeky to Ride; the film assumes a knowledge of and investment in pretty much the whole sweep of the MCU, and has little time to hold the hands of any newbies. There’s simply too much going on, and too many beats to hit.
That also means a fairly frenetic and disjointed pace while all the pieces are put on the game board, and it’s a really good half an hour before Captain America (Chris Evans) shows up, Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme swells, and things really settle into a sweet groove. In the meantime, we have three plot strands getting set up and eventually woven together in the mandatory massive final act smackdown. After the Asgardian refugee ship is destroyed by Thanos, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hooks up with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Christ Pratt, Zoe Saldana, et al) and goes off in search of a weapon capable of destroying the Mad Titan. When Thanos’ henchman, Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) attacks New York City, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) hitch a ride on a giant space ship and find themselves on Thanos’ home world. On Earth, Cap and the gang hole up in Wakanda with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in order to protect the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who houses the Mind Stone that Thanos seeks.
As befitting its title, Infinity War has a huge canvas and the way it cuts between vast cosmic panoplies, alien worlds, the majesty of Wakanda, and the decimated landscapes left in Thanos’ wake is dizzying to the point of being overwhelming. This is a film that is absolutely packed to the gills with spectacle and action, to the point where it almost doesn’t have time to breathe. The thing clocks in at a whisker under two and a half hours, and a longer cut on home release would be welcome not to jam in more chaos, but perhaps a touch more character time.
For all that, we do get some nicely observed, generally quickly sketched, character moments, though. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts barely gets a look-in, but her relationship with Tony Stark, which has largely occurred off screen of late, has actually progressed the way human relationships tend to. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) relationship has not, given Banner’s two years’ crackin’ skulls in the Space Colosseum, but we get a brief and trenchant moment there. The relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought to the fore as the android argues that he should sacrifice his life to ruin Thanos’s genocidal plans, saying that his life is worth trading for the untold billions who will perish if Thanos wins (Cap, bless his red, white, and blue socks, will have none of that).
The film also gets decent mileage out of putting disparate characters together and letting them bounce off each other. Thor’s cosmic-level masculinity evinces jealousy in Star-Lord (Drax (Dave Bautista) decides he’s some kind of “pirate angel”), but the Thunder God bonds with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) over their shared sense of loss. Meanwhile, over on Ebony Maw’s ship, alpha dogs Doctor Strange and Iron Man, who for all their specific differences are damn near the same character in the broad strokes, butt heads over the leadership of their little team, which is never not fun to watch.
Yeah, the whole thing is a blast – which sits at odds with the often wrenching deaths of several major characters.
No spoilers here, but the body count in Infinity War is both significant and surprising. The sudden tonal shifts are essentially a genre feature inherited from the pages of the MCU’s source comics, which cheerfully bounce from action to comedy to pathos and back, to varying levels of success. Anyone with an eye on the broader MCU as both an ongoing narrative and a business has been in no doubt that some heroes would be left toes-up in the course of Infinity War, and that’s appropriate; a bloodless war is not a war. In execution, the effect of these deaths is… questionable. Or, at the least, variable. A couple seem arbitrary, cutting off character arcs that didn’t seem finished (then again, that’s what sudden death tends to do, right?). A couple are wholly dramatically appropriate and absolutely crushing. And the rest?
The rest seem temporary.
And now we must drift across the line into the Spoiler Lane just a little bit, because there’s something significant about Infinity War that must be discussed to put it into context as a film and as part of the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is as bold a filmmaking experiment as any, but has by this stage certain inherent structures and tenets which mean that we the audience should have, by rights, seen this coming. Bale out now if you feel the need.
And as for those temporary deaths alluded to earlier, that’s something the canny viewer picks up metatextually. We’re left at a narrative point where certain events are almost bound to be reversed – it’s just the way these stories work. This too is a hangover from the source comics. Death is very much a temporary condition in the on-paper Marvel Universe, and it’ll be interesting to see how this trope translates to the on-screen Universe and how it affects the emotional stakes thereof – self-sacrifice doesn’t mean much when there’s a spell or a widget or an Infinity Stone that can reverse the cost. And even putting those concerns aside, some of the casualties are just starting out in their own series – there’s just no goddamn way they’re leaving some of the fallen in the dirt for too long.
Which is not to say that Infinity War isn’t emotionally resonant. It packs a wallop, and if you’re invested in these characters and their stories, there are moments that are going to knock you back in your seat. Conversely, if you’re pretty much only here for the spectacle, you’ll get that in spades: the Battle of Wakanda is one for the books, and if you ever wanted to see a god kickstart a dying star, well, here’s your shot. Following in the footsteps of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War frequently goes full-on Jack Kirby, and that’s nothing less than a complete delight.
Infinity War also gives us a great, great villain in the form of Brolin’s Thanos, which comes as rather a big surprise. Largely relegated to glowering in the background in previous appearances, Thanos was looking like a bit of a risk, and possibly another addition to Marvel’s roster of weak villains. Instead, Infinity War goes out of its way to define Thanos as a character. Like all great villains, he thinks he’s right – his crusade to wipe out half of the universe is, to his mind, an act of mercy, a necessary evil, and a terrible burden he bears for the greater good. That’s a hell of a change-up; previously the Mad Titan came across as Ming the Merciless in purple warpaint, but now, along with Killmonger and Loki, he’s an upper echelon Marvel bad guy, and thank God for that – the last thing we needed was another Whiplash/Malekith/Ultron/name your poison.
Ultimately, Infinity War is not the stunning apotheosis of all that has come before, and that’s a bit disappointing. It is a hell of a lot of fun, though – an epic romp across the breadth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with all the action, comedy, pageantry, and sturm und drang you could hope for. It’s so damn close to being an all-timer, though, and what galls is that it falls short of greatness due to the self-imposed demands of serial storytelling. The irony is that the very story model that lets us have a big screen Marvel Universe is what prevents its flagship event movie from being as transcendent as it could be.
Third time’s the charm for the Thor strand of Marvel’s massive movie superhero franchise. While Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World have their charms and their fans, both lacked that je ne sais quoi that separates the high host of superhero films from the rank and file. This latest offering, Thor: Ragnarok, tries to course correct by drafting in director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to lean into the comedic elements, and it works a treat.
Ragnarok sees our lightning-swinging hero (Chris Hemsworth) banished to the far-flung planet of Sakaar where he’s forced by an alien despot, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum at his saturnine, eccentric finest) to battle in the gladiatorial arena against his champion – who turns out to be none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), lost at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron and making a life for himself crushing skulls at the far end of the universe.
The big green guy is not the only familiar face in the mix – treacherous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has wormed his way into a position of esteem in the Grandmaster’s court, and there’s also Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), once one of Odin’s chosen elite warriors, now a booze-hungry bounty hunter. Hopefully the Thunder God can win them to his cause and stage a Spartacus-style revolt quick smart, because he really needs to get back to Asgard, where goddess of death Hela (a slinky Cate Blanchett, clearly having All The Fun) has installed herself as ruler, and is oppressing the populace with the help of the Cockney-accented traitor, Skurge (Karl Urban).
That sounds like it has all the makings of a portentous, ponderous, self-serious sci-fi epic, and perhaps in other hands it would have, but Ragnarok is, first and foremost, a comedy. Waititi goes out of his way – indeed, sometimes far out of his way – to undercut the more stentorian, Wagnerian elements with his trademark deadpan Kiwi humour, which pairs nicely with Hemsworth’s impressive comedic chops. Every iconic shot is balanced with a self-deprecating one-liner, every big action beat includes one or more Stooges-worthy pratfall (look for Ruffalo’s brave leap into danger in the back half). There are times when it almost becomes too much, and you want the film to take itself seriously for one damn second.
It works because Taika and his team clearly love this stuff – the whole Frazetta-inflected, Moebius-inspired, ’70s-as-hell, OTT, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, isn’t-Flash-Gordon-amazing lot – which is why the movie is essentially a prog rock album cover come to life. They love this kind of cosmic nonsense in a similar manner to the way Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn does: a way that knows this is all ridiculous, but it’s still awesome, too. Yes, it’s fun to hear Thor drop non-sequiturs about how much he misses his hammer, Mjolnir, or have Waititi himself voice an alien gladiator in full “sweet as, bro” Kiwi mode, but here’s the Hulk fighting Fenrir, the giant wolf of the apocalypse – look at that!
Ragnarok is so much fun, in fact, that its faults take a while after viewing to land, and even then they’re fairly minor. For one, Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is mercilessly sidelined in a way that is both twee and nonsensical, and involves some of the worst CGI of the whole film. For another, the film is very quick to forgive Loki, who is, lest we forget, both a murderer and a would-be dictator – but let’s face it, Hiddleston is so charismatic, it’s forgivable. Perhaps the biggest issue is the way Ragnarok departs so completely from what has gone before in terms of tone and intent. It’s difficult to view the Thor franchise as a complete whole; rather it’s a series of attempts to “get it right”. You could make the argument that Ragnarok leans too far away from the sturm und drang that has characterised, or at least informed, the previous films, and while that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, it’s a fair observation.
But hey, here’s Tessa Thompson leading an army of women warriors on winged horses! Here’s Cate Blanchett in full supervillain mode!
Thor: Ragnarok is a good time all the time; a big, colourful, action-packed piece of spectacle cinema that’s smart enough not to take itself too seriously, and even smarter not to descend into self-parody. It’s really a joyous piece of cinema, a celebration of all the things that comics in particular and fantasy in general can do better than any other medium or genre, and almost certainly the best time you’ll have at the movies this year.