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[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War]
There are hints placed throughout, but once Avengers: Infinity War reaches its grim conclusion, it’s very clear that directors Anthony and Joe Russo had more on their minds with the massive blockbuster than just making another poppy, fun superhero movie. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows that these movies, no matter who the stars are, typically end with a strikingly animated series of end credits. Not Infinity War; this movie ends with a quieter take on Alan Silvestri’s musical themes while credits play as white text over a black screen. But the severity of the end credits and the preceding intended-to-be-shocking scenes aren’t able to hide the unavoidable sense that Infinity War is half of a larger Avengers story that won’t be complete for a year.
The film was once titled Avengers: Infinity War Part I, while next year’s Avengers 4 was initially titled Avengers: Infinity War — Part II. But Marvel pulled back from the two-parter billing, with studio head Kevin Feige later saying, “They’re two very different movies.” Now that Infinity War has been revealed, is that likely the case?
The last 10 years of Marvel movies have been structured to bring many of the characters in Infinity War together. Now, for the first time, the Guardians of the Galaxy get to meet the Avengers and vice versa. The new Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther have had their own movies, giving the characters more weight as they help Iron Man, Thor and other more veteran players fight off the fearsome alien Thanos, who wants to use the Infinity Stones to destroy half of the universe. The first hour of Infinity War brings some of these characters together for the first time and then delivers ways to split them apart. Instead of Thor reteaming with the Avengers, he encounters the Guardians before going off with Rocket Raccoon and Groot to forge a weapon to replace his destroyed hammer. Tony Stark teams up with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange to bring the fight to Thanos’ home planet. And so on.
But Infinity War feels like it’s taking a cue from the ending of The Empire Strikes Back in its super-sized finale; this is the equivalent of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, on steroids. It’s not just that we lose one character at the end of this film: We lose a lot of them, including Black Panther, Star-Lord, Doctor Strange, Groot, Scarlet Witch, Bucky Barnes and more. There’s not a very clear sense of how the remaining heroes will be able to regroup to undo the damage that Thanos has caused — there’s just one post-credits scene, in which we see Nick Fury and Maria Hill die, right after Fury is able to send a message to the as-yet-unseen Captain Marvel. But, of course, the heroes will undo that damage. Seeing as all of the original Avengers are still standing at the end, the second film may well attempt to bring the band more fully back together, to repair the relationships that were screwed up in Captain America: Civil War before they save the other heroes.
Because Infinity War exists with the knowledge that there’s another Avengers film coming next May, it’s hard to shake the sense that this movie doesn’t have a proper ending. As Han Solo seems to be gone for good at the end of Empire, or just as Captain Jack Sparrow is Kraken food at the end of the second Pirates of the Caribbean, the sense at the end of Infinity War is that we’ve seen the first half of a two-part Very Special Episode, not a distinctive film all its own. The impact of what Thanos is attempting to accomplish — and eventually does — mostly seems contained to the heroes we know. Aside from that post-credits scene, there’s barely an abstract threat to humanity as a whole. It’s as if Thanos exists only to torture our heroes, and no one else. Even as half of humanity is gone at the end of Infinity War, it feels much more like the Avengers are heartbroken at the loss of their comrades only.
Infinity War, like many of the MCU movies, ends with a title card promising the return of at least one character, but this time, it’s as dark a promise as the ending wants to be: “Thanos Will Return.” Thanos is the only character who concludes Infinity War in any way content, returning to his home planet to watch the sun shine on his world after achieving his goal. That goal speaks to the very struggle at the core of this movie: He wants to remove half of the universe in a movie that feels like half of a story. Though Infinity War has enough moments that are enjoyable, largely thanks to the cast and some charming banter, there’s no way it could ever feel complete. The loss of so many major characters at the end is surprising initially, but doesn’t seem creatively or emotionally satisfying or appropriately devastating. We may only get the promise of Thanos’ return, but these characters are sure to do the same next May, after which the entirety of Infinity War may prove more exciting than just this first taste.
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