In preparing for this review, I took a look at other reviews and think-pieces. One in particular drew my attention. “Are Movies like Avengers: Infinity War Worth Taking Seriously?” asks Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, which addresses critic A.O Scott’s “symphony… of resignation” in his New York Times review of the film that asks the titular question. Rosenberg comes to the conclusion in the article that yes, we should take Avengers: Infinity War seriously, although her reasoning is more that critics can teach the movie-going public how to be smarter and that critics are independent thinkers who can push and prod against “the Big Bad.” While I agree with a lot of Rosenberg’s article, the clear implication that she and other critics aren’t fans of this work can’t apply to me. I am a fan of Marvel and have invested in these movies. So when I approach these films, it’s with duality, because I want to embrace it. I’m not trying to push against the “Big Bad.” But I’m also trying to be a good reviewer. Can I do both? Or, like Thanos, who feels that destroying half of the world will make the other half better, do I have to destroy one of these sides of me to fully be the other?
This is a non-spoiler review, so here’s what I can tell you: Thanos, an intergalactic god, has to collect six infinity stone to have enough power to wipe out half of the universe. All of the Marvel superheroes you know and love and quite a few you probably forgot about form mini-teams and split off into different corners of the galaxy to prevent him from collecting them all.
Some critics have been comparing Avengers: Infinity War to The Empire Strikes Back. I would compare it more to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both have the characters splitting off into their different quests (some that drag or seem unnecessary), a lot of mythology you have to know to understand anything, and great action scenes. Both are not as self-contained as Fellowship of the Ring, yet neither have the satisfactory feel of The Return of the King. But like The Two Towers, Infinity War is necessary for the future, and it has things to offer on its own.
However, like I would not recommend seeing The Two Towers without having seen Fellowship of the Ring, I would also not recommend seeing Infinity War if you, like my mom, asked before the film, “Is Wonder Woman going to be in this one?” If you are a casual movie-goer and can’t name at least 3/4ths of the heroes on the poster, I can imagine this two hours and forty minute esoteric season-finale of a 19-film melodrama series feeling… well maybe like 19 films.
If you are a fan, then you probably already have your ticket, and I suggest you use it. Infinity War is both everything you expect and none of it. It is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie embody an amusement park ride, and there are genuine delights for fans. But I don’t think your experience is going to be satisfactory.
There’s a scene at the end of the film that is a perfect representation of the Infinity War as a whole. I promise it’s not a spoiler. Thanos, our villain, has a vision of sorts. In his vision, he finds himself walking on top of water, surrounded by a red dusk. He approaches a vaguely Buddhist-inspired temple, where he sees a character we’ve learned he has a complicated relationship with. This character says a few cryptic words, end vision.
This scene made me feel something. First it’s visually striking with the color palette and the Jesus-imagery with Thanos walking on water. Then we see him talk with the character, and the heartstrings are pulled because I know the relationship between the two, the complexities and emotions behind it.
But when I take a step back and think about it, the scene rings a bit hollow. This vision accomplishes very little, and doesn’t tell us anything about Thanos that we didn’t already know. Did Thanos show any previous affinity to walking on water? No, there’s no reason to have him do that except that it’s cool and seems tantalizing because it’s a religious allusion, and makes the film seem smarter. The Buddhist temple? I think for a majority of American audiences, including me, the first reaction will be, “oooh, that’s mystical. This must mean this is spiritual and stuff.” But it means nothing other than that. It’s lazy, uninformed short-hand for, “this is a mystical scene.” And then for the character interaction itself? There’s no actual work put into the scene to make it emotional. It’s all shorthand that I have to know to infuse it with any meaning.
Infinity War is all of these things: visually striking, suggestive of deeper meaning but without actual invention, and completely made up of shorthand. This film actually brings very little to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and there’s no character development. It only combines and uses what has been established before.
But… isn’t that also the point? Marvel has done something that has never been done before. Marvel created an interconnected cinematic universe, the equivalent of a television show with two to three two-hour long episodes a year, going on for ten years. As other reviews have pointed out, this is like the season finale. And it’s not bad to use a shorthand, that’s what all films do. Isn’t it then a narrative triumph that this movie has even been made, and audiences can understand and emotionally identify with it based on all the work done before? It’s indulgent, yes, but Marvel has certainly earned it with 10 years of consistent work.
Then why doesn’t it feel whole? While I’m still trying to unpack the film, I think there are a few reasons.
One, the ending. This film was originally conceived as a two-parter, and it certainly feels that way.
Second, we know the future roster of movies, and that keeps some characters completely safe and the stakes not as high. To the film’s credit though, I think it does all it can to make you feel like everyone is at risk, and some of the character’s fates are genuinely shocking.
Finally, all of the previous movies ended with saving the world, and hope. Sometimes it rang hollow and felt false, but it wasn’t until this film, which has very little hope, that I realized how comforting that is.
Now there’s no doubt that hope is coming in future films. So, on one hand, I would applaud this movie for ending on a hopeless note, unlike, say Batman V. Superman which couldn’t bring itself to do hopeless in an honest way. But, on the other hand, because this film doesn’t actually add anything to any characters, quickly patches over old conflicts and plot threads with a throw-away line, it is neither a celebration of this beloved universe, nor is it a complete reboot. It suspends everything in midair, without even hope to tide us over. And aren’t superheroes about hope?
Infinity War isn’t satisfying as a critic because this is a movie with very little actual substance, and needs not only knowledge, but emotional ties, to the previous films to work. It’s not satisfying as a fan because while it’s a thrill ride, it’s both a relentless beating to your fan-heart and its delights are quick and often feel more like a checklist. If you blink you might miss your favorite two characters meeting, interacting, and then departing.
But I’m still not taking the bait. I’m not killing my fan side, nor my critic side. I still believe you can be both, and even if Avengers: Infinity War isn’t complete, that doesn’t mean it is empty.