“We’re in the endgame now,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange intones in the final stretch of the indisputably epic Avengers: Infinity War — and, more than in any other comics-derived superhero concoction one could mention, there’s a whiff of something resembling tragedy in a franchise that, for millions of fans, seems to play a role similar to what mythology did for the Greeks.
This grand, bursting-at-the-seams wrap-up to one crowded realm of the Marvel superhero universe starts out as three parts jokes, two parts dramatic juggling act and one part deterministic action, an equation that’s been completely reversed by the time of the film’s startling climax. “Huge” is the operative word here — for budget, scope and size of the global audience.
Back in Hollywood’s big studio heyday, the grandest company of them all, MGM, boasted of having “more stars than there are in heaven.” Marvel could arguably make that argument today, and it’s crammed almost all of them into this one densely packed superhero orgy, the first half of which is basically dedicated to finding a semi-coherent way of shuffling them into the same dramatic deck. How are ultra-egotists like Dr. Strange, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and even Chadwick Boseman’s more even-keeled Black Panther going to like having to share the heroic spotlight with one another, while also allowing some derring-do and dazzling deeds to be performed by at least another dozen characters with unusual talents?
The sharp-witted answer delivered by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, under the supervision of Marvel Films maestro Kevin Feige, is to acknowledge the traffic jam of egos and play it for laughs. The effect is both scatter-shot and precise, knowing and witty enough to be initially disarming and ultimately ingratiating. With more limited screen time than they’re used to and even more limited elbow room, the actors and characters (in what at least some knew would be their swan songs in these costumes) snap off one-liners and sharp remarks with an extra edge of sarcastic disdain. They don’t exactly send up their heroic characters, but there is more of a subtle commentary underneath it all (not so subtle in the case of Mark Ruffalo’s and Evans’ roles) about the frustrations of having two different personas in life.
Even early on, however, one makes note of tragic forebodings that Dr. Strange articulates. For all the activity generated by the superheroes, the fellow driving the action here is the heretofore glimpsed but never central Thanos (Josh Brolin), a brooding tree trunk of a man whose stated goal is to achieve universal dominance by acquiring all six Infinity Stones. Each of these variously colored gems confers distinct powers. As he acquires them, he becomes increasingly unbeatable, but along with his determination and brute force he brings a philosophical intelligence.
Thanos has thoroughly thought through his ambition, as well as the moral and emotional toll it will take to achieve it, and Brolin’s calm, considered reading of the character bestows this conquering beast with an unexpectedly resonant emotional dimension, making him much more than a thick stick figure of a supervillain.
The imposing and unquestionable danger Thanos represents, and the way it increases exponentially with each stone he acquires, becomes quite serious after a while. So what begins as a lark — with the vast assortment of comic book characters trotting out their costumes; middle-aged Bruce Banner humorously being so out of practice that he can no longer transform himself into the Hulk; Tony Stark bantering once again with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts; Holland’s Peter Parker looking so childish even he seems to wonder what he’s doing in this company; Dave Bautista stealing every scene he’s in; Scarlett Johansson and Don Cheadle being given absolutely nothing fresh or original to do; Evans trying to leave his Captain America persona behind him — transforms into something genuinely threatening and grim, something, in fact, that has to be taken seriously: the prospect that evil can win.
With so many ingredients to stir into this overflowing pot, you have to hand it to the two experienced teams of Marvel collaborators who had a feel for how to pull this magnum opus off. Markus and McFeely wrote all three Captain America entries and have a deft, jokey, sometimes glib touch that spreads the humor around and prevents this long film from ever getting stodgy. The Brothers Russo directed the last two Captain America features and have a breezy approach that prevents the action here from sagging in any serious way.
And the scale of that action is astonishing. Some of it is set in space or in different realms, while other scenes take place in New York and elsewhere on Earth. When the intergalactic conflict winds up in Wakanda, Black Panther’s African homeland, it provides a bit of a start: Wait, we were just there a few months ago, and here we are again already for another giant battle?
Another major dramatic thread concerns the hitherto secondary figure of Vision (Paul Bettany), who crucially possesses the final stone sought by Thanos and hies to Scotland with Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch before being tracked down.
But, after Thanos, the most significant figure of all, and the character who lends the tale much of its ultimately tragic stature, is Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Thanos’ adopted daughter. This relationship and story strain emerges from the distant background to play a decisive role both in the plot and the work’s ultimate thematic resonance, and the way it plays out is highly dramatic, upsetting and inevitable. By the time Thanos and Gamora’s relationship truly comes into focus, the film has rather remarkably shifted from a mood of larky fun to one of classical tragedy, not an inconsiderable feat in a comic book-derived entertainment.
Without giving anything away, the climax is startling in its gravity, and no Marvel fan will leave before the long final credits scroll gives way to the traditional kicker tease at the very end, which amplifies the ending by serving up even more questions, not answers. This will achieve the desired result of making millions of fans debate what it all means until the next installment. All we know for sure is that just one identified character will return.
No question about it, barely two months after the release of Black Panther, Marvel (and Disney, of course) has returned with another of the most expensive films ever made that will pull off another of the biggest commercial hauls of all time. This franchise isn’t going away anytime soon.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Tom Middleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, William Hurt
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Trihn Tran, Jon Favreau, James Gunn, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
Music: Alan Silvestri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan DeLeeuw
Casting: Sarah Finn
Rated PG-13, 149 minutes