The weight of not just the world, but the very universe rests on the shoulders of the Avengers, Earth's Mightiest Heroes. And not just the fictional universe they live in, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too. Avengers: Infinity War signifies a decade of build up over 18 films – 19 including this one – and the culmination of years of planning, adventures, easter eggs, and stingers. That it works at all is to the credit of the Russo brothers, and that it's actually a blast to watch is nothing short of a miracle.
We're going to try to answer all of your questions without spoilers. Beware the potential for light spoilers below, however – just in case.
Needs no introduction
For all the time people spend talking about Infinity War as if it's just another action movie, it feels like anything but that now that I've seen it and had a day to think about it. Anyone can make a big budget action movie, but very few movies can do it on a scale that even approaches Infinity War.
One of the biggest indicators of this is a risk that Infinity War takes that spans the whole movie: In this huge cast, only one character is introduced. When Captain America steps out of the shadows, when Doctor Strange and Iron Man meet, it's just assumed that we know these people.
And that's a really good thing.
The vast majority of people walking into Infinity War are going to be at least somewhat familiar with some of the characters the movie revolves around. You've probably seen an Iron Man and a Captain America, or at least an Avengers. You've probably checked out at least one Guardians film. These characters need no introduction. Marvel has spent the last decade introducing them to us, and expects that we're familiar. So time isn't wasted on trying to catch up stragglers.
The Dad Titan
Earth may not be the center of the universe, but the center of the universe is coming to earth. The MCU has been giving us glimpses of the Mad Titan Thanos, but it's only with Infinity War that we really meet him and begin to understand his motivations. If the many heroes of the MCU are cogs in the giant machine of this movie, then Thanos is the central axle around which the cogs grind. It's Thanos that brings all these beloved characters together, giving them the chance to interact with each other and work together.
And so for Infinity War to work, Thanos has to work. And, amazingly, he does. After six years of expectations since the release of Marvel's The Avengers, Thanos is actually a satisfying villain for the heroes to face off against. Some crucial changes from the comic mean that we get a compelling villain who believes in what he's doing. His mission is a burden he bears, and that makes him both compelling to watch on his own and dangerous to the heroes. And dangerous he is, as we find out in the opening moments of the film when he comes to blows with the Hulk. Every moment he's on screen, he's nothing short of menacing. but he's never a mustache-twirling comedic villain, either. He's one we can take seriously and that the heroes have to take seriously.
If Infinity War belongs to anyone, it's Thanos, just as the screenwriters had promised. He's the character with the most to do, and Infinity War manages to make him not just scary but relatable and believable. That means that when the heroes come to blows with him, each battle has its own stakes in addition to those of the greater war.
All together now
With a movie like this, I worry going in that it will feel as meticulously planned as it is in reality. The movie should feel organic. If anyone is pulling the strings, it's someone in the movie. I fear someone will notice they're in a crossover and call it out like Mr. Peanutbutter does in an episode of BoJack Horseman.
To the writers' credit, though, it doesn't feel like that. There's the kind of serendipity necessary to make the story move forward, but characters interact naturally with each other. I don't want to go to much into who ends up meeting who, but there are countless interactions that fans will come back to in this movie. Whether it's Spider-Man doing his best to unintentionally make Iron Man feel old, or Thor's mere presence activating Star-Lord's masculine panic alarms, these characters belong on the same screen, in the same story. We get a few moments to establish why they're on the same screen in the first place, but the movie doesn't spend too much time lingering on it. For once, characters just explain why they're there in a few succinct words and people end up on the same page.
Despite having a good villain and a lot of heroes working together, though, Infinity War is unquestionably a complicated movie. You can't have this many characters and have it be a simple affair.
And so it feels to me like Infinity War eschews the three-act structure so many movies step through. It feels a bit more Tarantino-esque. The many heroes are split up across the universe, literally light-years apart, and spend most of the movie that way. You have five or so groups all preparing for this imminent threat, working separately from each other. So the movie hops between these groups and Thanos himself. Over the course of the movie, the groups start to tie together as they each encounter the Mad Titan and come away defeated and scared. It's more like the screenwriters are weaving the characters together, with separate threats lining up, joining together, and becoming part of the same narrative. And again, it works. It feels good.
Hype Train: Full Speed
It's hard to call Infinity War a good movie or a bad movie. It's definitely going to be a divisive one. If you go in without much or any knowledge of these characters, you'll be confused and, at best, impressed by the scale and effects. This is not the Marvel film to start with. If you have a prescriptivist view of how movies should look and be structured, you might be offended by Infinity War's eschewing of the typical movie structure.
But if you've spent the last 10 years investing in the MCU over and over again, Infinity War is satisfying. This is payoff we've been waiting for, and it doesn't disappoint. These disparate heroes each have their own stories, their own feelings and motivations. You don't need more than general familiarity with them, but the more you know about them, the better the movie gets. The more each meeting means.
Infinity War is a reward of sorts. A reward costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Its pure existence is predicated on the idea that fans are out there and ready for it, and it is unabashedly for those fans. Normally, this would be inexcusably alienating. It pushes newcomers out the door and risks negative word-of-mouth from those who haven't invested. But this is something Marvel can do. Marvel Studios and its growing stable of characters have cultural cachet that other franchises, other stories, don't. I still love independent and one-shot movies. I still love art films, monster movies, character drama. I want those movies to exist and to continue being made. But Avengers: Infinity War is its own special kind of treat. Its own thing that no other studio in Hollywood can replicate.
Infinity War does an admirable job of living up to the hype and the standard set by other Marvel movies, but there are a few shortcomings. A few shots amongst the countless FX shots don't live up to the standard set by the rest of the movie. The story moves at a breakneck pace that can leave some viewers with a bit of whiplash. Some of the mostly-very-good jokes seem like they're there to break tension that the movie might be able to use. And it definitely doesn't stand on its own. It depends on at least five or six previous Marvel movies, and one more upcoming movie, the still-untitled Avengers 4. If you know Marvel Studios' near-future plans or the story of the Infinity Gauntlet comic, you might leave feeling like the stakes of the film are somewhat lowered.
But Infinity War is a fun, eminently watchable, and satisfying movie that makes good on literally years of expectations. This movie was destined to fail, much like the heroes in the movie. But even if they do, Infinity War doesn't, and I can't wait for Avengers 4.