There will be no major spoilers in this review, but several plot points will be discussed, the implications of which can be figured out.
In order to come to a conclusion about Avengers: Infinity War (because it’s that rare superhero film that forces some struggle on the part of the audience to come to terms with it), you have to decide what set of criteria you’re going to use to discuss it. Because, put bluntly, Avengers: Infinity War is not a well-made film; not if you’re applying conventional modes of criticism and expectations regarding filmmaking. Are the motivations and agendas of the protagonists and antagonists well-defined? Is there a rising and falling action in a story told over two or three acts? Are the visuals working in service to the storytelling in order to help the audience focus? Does the cinematography, editing and music elevate and inform the story by making it exciting to look at and emotional to hear? Do the main characters go on some form of journey, either emotional or physical? Are narrative themes established early and then paid off by the end? We can say definitively that the answer to all of these questions is a firm “No.” By conventional filmmaking standards, Avengers: Infinity War is not a good film; not a well-told story; not even a particularly satisfying cinematic experience. It is, in no uncertain terms, a total slog to get through.
But all of these critiques, while valid in the general sense, are not necessarily correct in the specific sense, depending on your expectations going into this film. We can warn you now: expecting a conventionally well-made film is a solid mistake. Marvel and the film’s directors, the Russo brothers, are banking on the vast majority of the Avengers filmgoing public to go in expecting a comic book crossover full of characters whose stories they already know meeting up for the first time. And that is exactly what you get, with all the bombast, broad characterization, and sensory overload that implies. You can’t expect well-realized character introductions and arcs, because they’ve all been introduced and gone through their own stories in other films. You can’t expect the storytelling to be clear and emotionally resonant throughout the film because the very nature of it calls for over-crowding and reducing virtually all of its characters to quips, sound bites and sometimes, mere cameos. You can’t even expect a satisfying ending, because it was clear from the start that this was not going to be a self-contained story.
Like the superhero comic crossovers it took its inspiration from, the point to Avengers: Infinity War isn’t necessarily the plot or even the characters. It’s the spectacle and the thrill of watching disparate stories and characters come together for the first time. It’s not about what happens in the story; it’s about who survives it and how changed the fictional world in which they reside will be when it’s all over. To paraphrase an old comic cover blurb, it’s about which worlds will live, which worlds will die, and how the shared universe they all exist in will never be the same again.
Given its goals, the film probably should be considered a masterful feat of film making, even though there are clear and obvious issues with all of it. Despite the crowding and the abundance of story, the Russos offered up something that was relatively easy to follow, because all of the various strands of the story laid out over the last ten years were tossed aside for a simple and basic plot of “Thanos wants the Infinity Stones for bad reasons and we need to stop him from getting all of them.” More importantly, most of the characters were given just enough breathing room to make an impression. We say “most” because some rather surprising choices receded into the background for this one. Chadwick Boseman, star of the most successful Marvel movie of all time, gets shockingly little to do here. And Chris Evans, whose grizzled visage takes up so much space in the film’s promotions, seems to get at most a dozen lines, and a third of them are about his beard. Having said that, there’s a real sense here of just why certain actors and characters became the standard-bearers for this universe. Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Hemsworth do their best character work here. And while Chris Pratt can’t quite hold his own as an actor (the film asks him to do something he’s just not equipped to pull off emotionally) against some of the others, there’s no doubt he’s a star in this firmament. Benedict Cumberbatch was a real surprise here. His scenes with Downey crackle with energy and the characters’ perfectly sensible disdain for each other. Josh Brolin was the true revelation here, offering up a subtle, weary, even delicate performance that somehow punched its way through the facial prosthetics and digital work required of the character.
Having said all that, we think there are still some valid critiques, even when taking the film on its own terms. The structure is repetitive and emotionally unsatisfying. Various teams fight Thanos or his minions on various fronts, all in order to stop them from doing one thing, and they fail over and over again. Everyone gangs up on Thanos and things look really bad for him – until they don’t, he rallies, and usually someone important dies or gets badly hurt. Then we move on quickly to the next battle, which ends the same way. This structure really sells that mounting sense of hopelessness and desperation in the characters, but it doesn’t progress or elevate the action, it just repeats it. After a while, it becomes clear that this isn’t so much a story as it is a list of narrative points being checked off, one by one.
In addition, the fight scenes are visually muddy CGI fests. There are definitely moments of grandeur and spectacle, shock and awe, but very few of these battle scenes have any true emotional stakes except when certain characters get killed. Scenes that should have been viscerally thrilling were instead somewhat difficult to follow. Even though the film spent significant time on the massive set piece of the battle in Wakanda, we honestly couldn’t describe the creatures being fought. They were just masses of teeth and snarling and writhing alien bodies.
It also doesn’t help that a movie loaded with the foreboding of death and the subsequent paying off of it, also includes both a mechanism designed to undo it all and even a scene showing exactly how it can all be undone. It’s impossible to truly feel anything about the fates of the characters when their fates are clearly so malleable (not to mention that so many of the characters are cash cows for Disney with more potential films in them). The stakes are high throughout the story, but then the story practically winks at you near the end and dares you to accept it, undermining the intended emotional wallop considerably.
The Russo brothers gave a definite answer to the question of whether or not a superhero crossover can be transferred intact from the page to the screen, keeping all the conventions of the story. They were successful in their goals and if you want to hook your vein directly into that nerdy crossover goodness, the film will deliver the goods for you. But Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther were all better films that indicated where the genre can go when it loosens up or opens up. Avengers: Infinity War, in the manner of almost all comic book crossovers, feels like the superhero genre closing the loop and circling its wagons.