In its first decade, there have been nineteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the course of just ten years, Marvel has created the most successful franchise in movie history, making characters like Black Panther, Thor, and Iron Man household names, and by turning comic book films into a valuable cinematic commodity. Marvel has stated that their latest film – Avengers: Infinity War – is what this entire enterprise has been building towards, even calling it the “biggest crossover in history,” a statement that might actually be accurate.
While Marvel has dominated theaters for the last decade, that might actually be to their detriment when it comes to Avengers: Infinity War. Despite promising stakes and all-out Marvel war, the audience knows where Marvel’s money comes from. The casual audience member can tell that Marvel has a much clearer potential investment in characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Spider-Man then say, Falcon or Wong. In addition to this, when ultimate power and unlimited potential is on the table, it’s also hard not to imagine how limitless possibilities actually means a lack of stakes. When everything is possible, nothing really matters in the long run.
Regardless of the team’s name in the title, Avengers: Infinity War is truly the story of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Titan who seeks the six Infinity Stones to control the universe. Thanos wants to kill off half the universe’s population so that the surviving half will thrive. After having a string of forgettable villains, Thanos joins Black Panther’s Killmonger and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture as one of the few villains that is treated with a balance that makes them equally as compelling as our heroes.
And Avengers: Infinity War certainly has enough heroes to go around. Too many, actually. Once Hulk returns to Earth with news of Thanos’ plans, the Avengers splinter off into their own groups. Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man head to space, while Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy go after a weapon and pretty much the rest of the cast remains to protect Earth from Thanos’ upcoming onslaught.
While other Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War focused on the excitement of seeing this large cast team up, there’s just too much cast to pull such a sequence off. Instead, Avengers: Infinity War focuses on smaller, unique team ups that haven’t been seen before, which makes Infinity War feel more like a series of shorter sequels. This can pay off at times, as Thor basically taking on the tonal style of Guardians of the Galaxy with Ragnarok does make their convergence feel right. But these new amalgamations can also showcase the similarities of these characters. Iron Man and Doctor Strange meeting might seem fun, but their same style of humor and self-importance suggests they are facsimiles of each other. By the time the teams are all set into place and the plot finally begins, each team has their own slight variations on the same character types, be it the bulky hero (Hulk, Drax), the teenager (Spider-Man, Groot) and the egocentric leader (Iron Man, Star Lord).
By splintering off these groups, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo are trying to give each member of this gargantuan cast their own moment for fans, but instead it leaves this cast spread too thin. Some characters get about a minute or so of focus in the almost three hour running time, which both seems like needed fan service and contract obligation. The people who are interested in seeing what happened to Bucky Barnes and his missing arm apparently exist, and boy, will there be a solid minute made completely for them.
Yet it’s Marvel’s decade of becoming ingrained in the public consciousness that makes Avengers: Infinity War feel hollow. By knowing nothing more than their upcoming slate, one can figure out that with Infinity War II arriving next year, this is only half the story that will be told. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man 2 on the way in coming years, it undercuts much of the drama centering around these film’s characters.
Thanos’ journey throughout Infinity War is always heading towards an inevitable conclusion, and while the film’s end does pretend to have stakes, it’s easy to see through this facade. It’s this ending that asks its audience to play dumb, and will likely take the audience out of the moment to consider the repercussions of Marvel’s choices in the film’s final moments. This conclusion rings false, even as it tries to manipulate the audience’s emotions.
Throughout Infinity War, Marvel points out that regardless of whatever choices it makes, it can go back on them at any moment it chooses. Considering that Thanos’ goal is to wipe out half of the population with a snap of his fingers, the power is so great that Marvel has now presented multiple ways to turn the clocks back. This should’ve been expected since the moment Doctor Strange – a character that can literally manipulate time – was introduced. But Marvel is becoming this series’ own Strange, wiping away the past whenever it chooses, making the audience well aware it can do that at any time, and yet still asking them to emotionally invest in whatever narrative choices Infinity War makes.
Marvel has been on a roll with its choices lately, be it the charming, fun tone of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor’s humorous turn in Ragnarok, and the mammoth success of Black Panther that felt like a long time coming. But Avengers: Infinity War ends Marvel’s streak of good ideas by showing this entire enterprise’s flaws. Infinity War is the bloated direction this series was always heading towards, and despite the general amusement spread throughout, Infinity War still feels about as emotionally empty as a child slamming action figures together.