Perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, but I really love weddings. Beyond the pageantry and the professing of lifelong love, they are sort of a unique social setting. For many of us, our social lives are compartmentalized. We have work friends, college friends, friends from our hometowns, and rarely, if ever, will these various groups meet. These separations exist for many of us simply due to happenstance. But weddings are the one time these barriers are expected to come down. We can all drink, dance, and celebrate together in the name of a higher purpose. Some people may stick closer to their own group, but new connections may also form. Occasionally there might be some drama if your aunt has too many drinks, but for an occasion filled with such meaning, they are mostly fun.
Avengers: Infinity War is kind of like a wedding. Characters from different parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) need to come together for a common cause (which has more resemblance to the wedding in Melancholia than most). Much of the joy in watching Infinity War comes from character pairings both long awaited and unexpected. Seeing Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) verbally spar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was an expected delight, while Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt) sharing their immaturity caught me by surprise in the best way. It helps that this film was written by the “architects” of the MCU, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Their touch helps keep the characters sounding consistent from film to film, which is an overlooked aspect as to why these films are so popular. But their deep knowledge of everything in the 18 films that have come before allows for a film that is mostly a series of action sequences still rooting the best moments in the characters. People love these movies because they love Captain America or Iron Man more than they love any individual film in the series.
Structurally, the Infinity War isn’t all that different from the first Avengers film in terms of there being a threat so big that any one of these superheroes aren’t able to deal with it on their own. Of course, it is the very premise of a team-up comic book, and this film escalates it into a full linewide summer crossover. Rather than having Loki (Tom Hiddleston) descend from the sky with an army of (literally) faceless alien baddies, we have Thanos (Josh Brolin). Having been teased at the end of that 2012 film, and appearing again in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and 2015’s Age of Ultron, this movie wisely spends a good portion of its runtime establishing exactly who this space-based two-eyed purple-skinned people killer is.
Given Marvel’s history of having lackluster villains in their films (even I have to look up Darren Cross’ name–he was Corey Stoll’s character in Ant-Man), Thanos was the biggest unknown headed into Infinity War. And this is where the film completely bested my expectations. All credit to the Russo brothers as well as Markus and McFeely for prioritizing making Thanos a character rather than just a collection of pixels spewing cliche threats. All of the joy from those meetings works because it is audience payoff for seeing a decade of movies where we have come to love those characters. That payoff has been earned, and we don’t have any of that in his previous screentime, which literally totals about two minutes. His vendetta against our heroes isn’t personal, so taking the time to establish it makes the film a far richer experience.
Luckily, the source material provides a lot to work with. Thanos’ creator Jim Starlin (as well as artists Mike Friedrich and Roy Thomas) has always portrayed the Titan as a nihilist demigod burdened with a deep sense of Malthusian anxiety. He plans to use the omnipotence offered by gathering the six elemental forces called the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the life in the universe indiscriminately to correct how overpopulation strains resources. While of course the seven foot tall purple-skinned character is created using motion capture, he retains much of Josh Brolin’s performance, especially in the face and voice. It would have been really easy to digitally filter Brolin’s voice and make it sound otherworldly, but not doing so allows Brolin to act. The technology places the performance of an actor in a body they couldn’t inhabit any other way, and like some of Andy Serkis' best work, allows the performance to outshine the effect. The only two characters who have a pre-existing relationship with Thanos are Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen), and the relationship work in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films gives Brolin a lot to work with as well, and by the end of the film his character has much more depth than expected, not only being a monster, but a father as well. There’s a fine line between setting up the villain and tipping the film’s pace in the wrong direction with too much backstory, but Infinity War does strike that balance.
In a universe that is so vast, how much is one life worth? Can one moment of one life still affect us deeply when so much is at stake? These are questions the film circles around multiple times, and each of these moments are character-specific beats, and our heroes fighting impossible odds against the actual laws of nature as they reject Thanos’ philosophy, which–paraphrasing The Big Lebowski–isn’t even an ethos.
But given that there is that much time dedicated to the Big Bad, not all of the other 60+ characters in the film are going to get their due. It's not a flaw of the film so much as a fact of its existence. While everyone gets a moment or two to shine, there’s a few characters that do a lot of the heavy lifting. Your mileage may vary depending on who your favorites are. The “original Avengers” are prioritized somewhat, as are the Guardians of the Galaxy, considering how much of this film takes place in space. But a few of the more recently introduced characters really shine. Benedict Cumberbatch works much better here than in his solo film, but the real winners are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany). These are characters who have only appeared in two other films to date, but the filmmakers have a huge amount of confidence that the audience will have their heartstrings plucked by their story.
And while everyone should be applauded for taking some big risks, the film still relies as much on quips as it does drama, and some of those don’t quite land. I really like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, but there’s nothing here that we didn’t get from his much shorter appearance in Civil War and having a high schooler hang out with a bunch of dudes well more than twice his age feels as odd here as it does in real life, even if it gets played for laughs. Drax (Dave Bautista) also gets a little lost in the shuffle, which is disappointing since his character's entire rationale for doing anything is to get closer to killing Thanos.
Infinity War will likely get overlooked for the risk that it is, but there’s a confidence to admire in Marvel’s choices when it comes to trusting audiences. In terms of theme and tone, there are safe choices, sure. However, the idea of bringing to the screen a comic book universe had never been done before, and is still not as well understood as other studios seem to think. It's not that you need to see every Thor film to understand infinity War, but that you want to see those films to spend more time with Thor. The Russos may be ideal directors for this because of their mastery of television direction, but it would be wrong to say that Infinity War is part 19 in the Marvel novel. This is more like when all of NBC's "Must See TV" had a blackout one night, but even more ambitious, as if characters from every other NBC show had shown up at Ross’ wedding when he said Rachel’s name by mistake. And you had to wait not just a summer, but an entire year to see who was killed by that single utterance. This film left me like all good weddings do: my face hurting from laughing with people I’d never met before, a little sweaty, and a little hungover. I can’t wait to do it all over again.
Avengers: Infinity War opens in Philly theaters tonight.