Marvel Studios perfected the superhero film formula on its first attempt, Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). That film set the standard for fun, funny, colourful and, above all, faithful modern adaptations of enduring comic book characters. It established the winning formula that Marvel Studios would consistently use as the studio grew into a blockbuster powerhouse over the next decade.
Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began with Iron Man and culminated with Marvel’s masterpiece: The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). That film united four superhero film series, acting as a sequel to four different films while standing on its own as great entertainment. It delivered on the promise of an interconnected shared universe, which has long been a staple of superhero comics but had never been realized so successfully on screen. The Avengers also perfectly blended science-fiction, fantasy and other adventure genres, allowing them to seamlessly coexist and opening the door for any number of strange comic book concepts to be adapted in the future.
Full of post-Avengers confidence, Phase Two of the MCU took Iron Man and Captain America in bold new directions, and introduced an extremely niche cosmic property, Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), to great acclaim and success. These films were followed by the second Avengers film, Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015).
Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Age of Ultron is a flawed, nearly-successful sequel to The Avengers. Among other things, it delivers neither the same excitement from multiple series crossing over, nor the same sense of culmination, as the first film. Some new characters are introduced, but Age of Ultron didn’t expand or elevate the world of the MCU. And so, three years after the groundbreaking first superhero crossover the concept already felt unexciting. Unfazed, Marvel Studios continued to push the boundaries of superhero films with bold narrative choices and interesting new additions. The films became more niche (Reed’s Ant-Man, 2015, and Derrickson’s Doctor Strange 2016), more diverse and socially-conscious (Coogler’s Black Panther, 2018), and more openly comedic (Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming 2017, Funn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017, and Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), while also breaking apart the main Avengers in the Russo Brother’s Captain America: Civil War (2016).
This Phase Three expansion of the MCU positioned the third Avengers film to feel more like an event. This film had the opportunity to add newly-introduced characters to the team, expand the world of the MCU, and culminate long-running storylines. It could mirror the accomplishments of The Avengers but on a larger scale, drawing from 18 previous films rather than five, and with greater confidence informed by a decade of massive success encouraging the filmmakers to trust their storytelling instincts. Whereas The Avengers introduced the concept of a superhero crossover to film, the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War (2018) introduced the idea of a superhero event.
Characters “crossing over” into other ongoing comic books, such as Thor appearing in Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider appearing in Amazing Spider-Man, is a common occurrence. Team-up books like Justice League of America and The Avengers were built around the idea of groups of heroes regularly having shared adventures outside of their individual series. “Events”, on the other hand, are large-scale stories that play out in their own limited series. Regular, ongoing narratives build up to the event and then, while the event is occurring, the regular series are interrupted by stories tying into the event.
Events feature a wide variety of characters from many different books coming together, and the ramifications often disrupt the status quo for those books, opening up new story opportunities. If The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron are film versions of team-up books, Avengers: Infinity War and its companion, Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019) are film versions of event comics. They drew from the build up of 20+ other MCU films, and drastically changed the characters involved to open up new story opportunities moving forward.
Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (1984-1985) is the first company-wide event comic. It was 12 issues of Marvel’s most popular heroes and villains fighting each other for the amusement of an omnipotent being, and was conceived to promote a new toy line. DC Comics followed with Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), a storyline that collapsed the various different versions of DC’s characters from decades of storytelling into a single, streamlined continuity that was more new-reader friendly. Crisis perfected the event comic formula. Both companies have published many big events since, nearly one per year. To name just a few, DC has published The Death of Superman (1992-1993), Batman: Knightfall (1993-1994), Infinite Crisis (2005-2006), Final Crisis (2008), and Flashpoint (2011). Marvel has published Infinity Gauntlet (1991), Infinity War (1992), Age of Apocalypse (1995), Onslaught (1996), House of M (2005), Civil War (2006-2007), Secret Invasion (2008), Infinity (2013), and Secret Wars (2015).
Several of those Marvel events featured the villain Thanos and the powerful Infinity Gems. Both concepts were created by Jim Starlin as part of his highly-influential cosmic storylines for Marvel throughout the ’70s. Thanos first appeared in Iron Man #55 (February 1973). He’s a powerful being from Titan, a moon of Saturn. Thanos is defined by his nihilism and worship of death, literally falling in love with the physical embodiment of death and trying to please her. Starlin introduced the powerful Soul Gem in 1972, and soon expanded the concept to six Soul Gems, each with specific powers. Thanos collects all six Gems and plans to destroy stars with them. A collection of Avengers and cosmic heroes defeat him, turning him to stone, in a 1977 storyline.
In 1990, Starlin resurrected Thanos in the pages of Silver Surfer. In The Infinity Gauntlet event, Thanos once again collects the Gems, now called Infinity Gems, and uses them to eliminate half of all life in the universe. Many heroes and powerful cosmic entities attack Thanos, but are easily defeated and killed due to the overwhelming power of the Gems. Some of the remaining heroes are able to exploit Thanos’ insecurities to overcome him, and the universe is restored. Infinity Gauntlet provided much of the inspiration for Infinity War and Endgame. Its scale alone made it one of the few stories that could provide a satisfying climax to the first decade of the MCU.
Thanos and the Infinity Gems, renamed Infinity Stones for the films, were layered into MCU films from an early stage. The blue Space Stone (the “Tesseract”) is introduced at the end of Thor (Branagh, 2011), and later appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), The Avengers, and Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019). The yellow Mind Stone is subtly introduced in The Avengers, and later affixed to the forehead of the android Vision in Age of Ultron.
A quick shot of Thanos was featured as a mid-credits teaser in The Avengers. It was shortly after The Avengers that Kevin Feige, the creative visionary behind the MCU, held a story retreat to solidify plans for what would be called The Infinity Saga. An overarching plan was developed for how Thanos and the Infinity Stones would factor into future films, and how the first twenty or so MCU films would culminate in a massive two-film climax featuring Thanos gaining the Stones. At an October 2014 press conference, Marvel Studios announced many of its upcoming films, including Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 in 2018 and Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 in 2019.
Meanwhile, the red Reality Stone was introduced in Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), the purple Power Stone was introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy, along with an extended Thanos cameo, and the green Time Stone was introduced in Doctor Strange. This was all of the ground work, the loose planning, for the two-part climax of the Infinity Saga. But the tangible work did not begin until the lead creative team for the third and fourth Avengers films fell into place.
In the lead-up to Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon, the writer-director of the first two Avengers films, announced he was leaving the MCU. Shortly after, in the spring of 2015, directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hired to spearhead the next Avengers films. All four previously collaborated on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) and Captain America: Civil War. The latter featured nearly every previously-introduced MCU hero, preparing the filmmakers for the gargantuan task of juggling an even-bigger Avengers cast.
Writing began in late 2015, and everyone quickly agreed on the fates of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers at the end of the second film. They then agreed that the first film would end with Thanos winning, assembling all six Stones and instantly extinguishing half the life in the universe. These decisions actually made the beats of the second film, which would come to be called Avengers: Endgame, relatively straightforward.
Crafting the first film, Avengers: Infinity War, proved to be much more difficult. The mechanics of Thanos acquiring the Stones, defeating the heroes, and achieving his terrible goal were not easy to work out. The filmmakers quickly decided that Thanos would be the central character, the “hero”, of the film. Infinity War would be his story, largely from his perspective, and follow him to his ultimate victory.
Positioning a villain in this way is a unique approach for superhero blockbusters. The structure of the film ultimately settled into a propulsive “smash-and-grab” type of heist film, with Thanos relentlessly acquiring the Stones in a short period of time and the heroes constantly one step behind him. This focused the film, making the potentially unwieldy cast and years of continuity more manageable. If a character beat or story element is not related to Thanos’ quest for the Stones, it’s not in the film. This brilliant focus on Thanos single-handedly saves Infinity War from becoming the overstuffed mess that many feared, and lent the film a relentless action pace more akin to Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015) than a superhero blockbuster.
It was a risky choice, however, to make a genocidal maniac supervillain the protagonist of a megablockbuster, not to mention a megablockbuster featuring no fewer than 20 pre-established superheroes. And yet Thanos is a fascinating character. He’s a sociopath, but he’s righteous and philosophical about his plan. He has total conviction, which makes him both more terrifying and more impressive as he succeeds. Thanos had already been introduced in earlier films, so the filmmakers spent extra time digging into his motivations.
Okoye, Black Panther, Captain America, Black Widow and Bucky in Wakanda (Amazon)
As for the superheroes, Infinity War depicts them challenging Thanos with sheer force and failing, setting up a more elegant, ingenious conflict in Endgame. The filmmakers juggled the huge cast by breaking them into smaller groups and finding interesting pairings of characters. The conclusion of Tony Stark’s character arc from selfish jerk to selfless hero, which tracks brilliantly through seven previous films, begins in Infinity War and ends in Endgame.
Thor, meanwhile, follows a hero’s journey that parallels Thanos, and he would be the central character of Infinity War if he succeeded. Bruce Banner continues to merge with the Hulk in interesting ways, an arc that begins in Thor: Ragnarok. Banner is a perfect example of an arc that was cut short, however, as his budding romance with Natasha/Black Widow from Age of Ultron is completely discarded as irrelevant to Thanos’ quest.
In the same vein, Natasha and Steve Rogers/Captain America, two major MCU characters, are surprisingly minimized in Infinity War, saving their bigger moments for Endgame. Clint Barton/Hawkeye, an original Avenger, doesn’t even appear in the film. Other characters appear only in service of the Thanos story. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, a greater effort would have been made to increase the role of Steve Rogers, or even Black Panther, due to their popularity. But the directors and writers avoid this potentially fatal lack of focus by streamlining Infinity War around Thanos.
As the two films developed, they began to feel more distinct. The first film would be fast-paced and action-oriented, following Thanos as he successfully completes his mission. The second would be a more drawn-out, expansive look at the heroes dealing with loss, failure and destiny, following a very different structure and pace. The films were closely related, but not telling the same story. Thanos’ victory at the end of the first film was no longer a cliffhanger, but a tragic, definitive ending to the first film. The second film dealt with that tragedy, preserving Thanos’ actions while trying to mitigate their effect. And so, in 2016, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 was renamed simply Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 was given a more distinct name, Avengers: Endgame, that would be revealed two years later.
As Phase Three of the MCU played out, the Infinity War filmmakers worked very closely with other MCU filmmakers to ensure characters felt consistent across the films. Scott Derrickson consulted about Dr. Strange, James Gunn executive-produced Infinity War and consulted about the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Takia Waititi, who wildly altered Thor’s tone in Ragnarok, helped smooth out Thor. Infinity War and Endgame were initially planned to be filmed simultaneously in 2017, but they were reorganized to film back-to-back to accommodate actor schedules and the remaining work on the Endgame screenplay.
The shoot covered a full year, from January 2017 to January 2018, not including reshoots. Infinity War shot concurrently with Black Panther in Atlanta, allowing the depictions of those characters and Wakanda to be consistent between the films. The bulk of Infinity War wrapped production in July, and the filmmakers juggled post-production on Infinity War with production of Endgame for several months. This crazy amount of collaboration and scheduling genius are part of what make Infinity War work as such a perfect climax to the MCU. So many people worked for so many years to ensure it felt that way.
Ultimately, Avengers: Infinity War is defined by its scale, its focus, and its pace. The Avengers originated the superhero team-up, and then Avengers: Age of Ultron felt like more-of-the-same. Infinity War increases the scale, ballooning from less than ten heroes to over twenty, including Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The film also fully embraces the magical and cosmic elements of those characters, expanding on the more grounded first two Avengers films. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and many blockbuster sequels fall into that trap. Infinity War‘s focus on Thanos as the central character prevents the film from feeling bloated or overstuffed, and ensures that the extra characters only serve Thanos’ story, nothing more. The focus on Thanos’ relentless quest also creates the film’s dizzying pace, in which there’s little time for exposition or character development outside of Thanos.
If Infinity War has a fundamental flaw, it’s the expectation that viewers have seen and remember the preceding ten years and 18 films of the MCU. There’s no time to explain anything to new viewers. This risks alienating new viewers in an attempt to reward longtime fans. But, as indicated by the box office grosses, there were plenty of fans to reward. Over the preceding ten years, most viewers made up their mind whether or not to engage with the MCU, and Infinity War was never really going to attract new fans. And so, the flaw may not be a flaw. The increased, event-sized scale, the clear focus and the breakneck pace, not to mention the instantly-iconic, stunning ending, all came together to somehow make Infinity War not just succeed, but succeed brilliantly.
Avengers: Infinity War opens with the audio of a distress call from an Asgardian spaceship that has come under attack from Thanos (Josh Brolin). In a fun little easter egg, Kenneth Branagh, director of Thor, voices the distress call. The goal of this opening sequence is to efficiently establish the supervillain credentials of Thanos. He has already acquired the purple Power Stone, last seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, and has ravaged the ship in search of the blue Space Stone. He stands over an already-defeated Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and looks down on Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos’ primary henchmen, the Black Order, stand nearby as Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) pontificates about Thanos’ greatness with a religious fervour.
Loki distracts Thanos long enough for the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to attack him, but Thanos defeats Hulk with relative ease. As he dies, Heimdall (Idris Elba), another Asgardian, sends Hulk to Earth to warn everyone. Loki hands over the Space Stone, but then tries to kill Thanos. Thanos uses the power of the Stones to stop him, then strangles Loki to death.
To summarize, in the first sequence of the film Thanos defeats the two strongest Avengers, kills the villain of the first Avengers film, and acquires two of the six Infinity Stones. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and is confident enough in his power to remove his armour for the rest of the film. Thanos sends the Black Order to acquire Earth’s two Infinity Stones, then blows up the ship. On Earth, Hulk crash-lands in the Sanctum of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong). He reverts back into Bruce Banner, and warns that “Thanos is coming.” This is quite an opening. It wastes no time, hitting viewers with a dizzying number of characters and concepts.
After the title card, the relentless pace continues as more heroes are alerted to the threat. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) jogs with his fiancée, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), discussing the wedding, having kids, and finally settling down from superheroics. They are interrupted when Strange and Banner appear through a portal. Since the events of The Avengers, Tony has been driven by a fear of further attacks from space. With Thanos, Tony finally finds the source of his fears and he regards winning this fight as his ultimate purpose. Tony and Strange are a fun pairing.
Thor vs. Thanos (Amazon)
Their first solo films mirrored each other closely, both telling the story a brilliant jerk who is humbled and pushed to become more heroic. Both are still jerks, and they snipe at each other constantly. A plan forms right away around protecting the green Time Stone Strange wears in a pendant and the yellow Mind Stone in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany). Most fans assumed that Infinity War would address the schism left between Tony and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) at the end of Captain America: Civil War. But, there’s no time to deal with such loose ends or even bring the characters together. Tony simply decides that Steve can protect Vision while he protects Strange.
Before that plan can even begin, however, a spaceship carrying Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) arrives over Greenwich Village, and they attempt to take Strange’s Stone. Banner tries to change into the Hulk, but Hulk refuses. Hulk is upset that he’s always used to fight Banner’s fights, and chooses this time to protest. In another subversion of expectations, Hulk doesn’t appear for the rest of the film, forcing Banner to be heroic without his alter ego. The spaceship catches the attention of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who jumps out of his field trip school bus to help. As Tony surmises, “he’s from space, he came to steal a necklace from a wizard.”
Once again, the volume of characters and lack of exposition are certainly a drawback for new viewers, but the quick pacing is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Ebony Maw captures Strange and takes him to his spaceship, leaving Banner and Wong behind. Peter and Tony stow away on the ship. Peter is given the Tony-designed “iron-spider” costume to survive in space, and they are off to protect the Time Stone.
With Thanos established as a formidable villain and the heroes beginning to rally against him, the film is off and running. It rarely pauses until the end credits. These early sequences and the following introductory sequences are fairly dense, as the filmmakers work to efficiently introduce the massive cast, place them in clear groupings with clear goals, and establish the location of each Stone. Infinity War develops five major narratives: Tony’s team protecting the Time Stone, Steve’s team protecting the Mind Stone, the Guardians of the Galaxy protecting the red Reality Stone, Thanos searching for the elusive orange Soul Stone, and Thor seeking a weapon to defeat Thanos.
The film frequently cuts between these narratives, with some ending before others and groups merging as the film barrels like a freight train toward its finalé. It’s a testament to the writers, directors and editors that each narrative and character goal remains clear throughout the intercutting, and the fast pace helps to smooth over any of the rough edges. For the rest of the film everything is about Thanos himself or preparing for Thanos.
The next narrative begins with a funny title card that simply says “Space”, as a funk song by the Spinners plays. Space plus ’70s music can only mean the Guardians of the Galaxy. Infinity War transports the previously Earthbound Avengers into the cosmic realm and the Guardians are the main cosmic characters in the MCU, so it was essential for the groups to be integrated seamlessly. With the help of executive producer James Gunn, writer-director of the Guardians films, the filmmakers retain the look, tone and humour of the Guardians. The team investigates the Asgardian ship looking for a lucrative rescue or salvage opportunity, but only find devastation until they literally run into Thor. When Thor wakes up, he’s single-minded about his mission to create a weapon to kill Thanos.
Hemsworth walks a very tricky line, balancing obvious grief over his character’s recent tragedies with bravado over his mission, while acting as straight-man to the Guardians’ comedy. It’s a genuinely great performance, perhaps the strongest in the film. Meanwhile, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), the leader of the Guardians, is instantly jealous and insecure when his team fawns over this newcomer. He attempts to one-up Thor’s tragedies and speaks in a deep British accent. This is mostly beneath Thor’s notice. He commandeers the Guardians’ escape pod along with Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to make his weapon, while ordering the Guardians to protect the Reality Stone.
Another Guardian, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), was forcibly adopted by Thanos as a child and trained as a warrior after he massacred half of her planet. Before she betrayed and left Thanos, she learned the location of the orange Soul Stone and kept it secret. Terrified that her longtime abuser may force the information out of her, she insists that Quil kill her if they fail to defeat Thanos. Quill, her boyfriend, reluctantly agrees. In true Guardians fashion, this intense scene is humorously undercut by Drax (Dave Bautista), standing nearby, claiming to be rendered invisible by his slow movement.
The group arrives at the last-known location of the Reality Stone to find it abandoned except for Thanos and the Collector (Benicio del Toro). Thanos looks for the Stone, and Gamora uses the opportunity to attack. After she apparently kills Thanos, it’s revealed that he has already acquired the Reality Stone and used it to create an illusion to lure in Gamora. In a nice visual cue, each time Thanos uses a Stone it subtly unleashes energy that’s the same colour as the Stone. Thanos must also snap his fingers to use any power, which gives him the slightest limitation. After hesitating, Quill shoots Gamora as promised. But Thanos turns the blast into harmless bubbles and escapes with Gamora.
Meanwhile on Earth, Scotland specifically, Avengers Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision are enjoying a secret getaway. The Mind Stone gave Wanda her powers and it’s now a part of Vision, so they feel a connection. That connection has blossomed into a romance. Unfortunately, right after learning of the spaceship over Manhattan, Vision is attacked and badly damaged by the Black Order. He and Wanda hold off the attack long enough for Steve and his team to arrive and save them. Steve, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Athony Mackie) operate as a perfect fighting team, driving away the Black Order.
They look worn-out, with slightly dishevelled costumes and Steve sporting a beard, after operating for two years underground since Civil War. But matters are dire enough to convince them to put aside any issues with the government or the Avengers. They take Wanda and Vision to Avengers headquarters in upstate New York, reuniting with James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Banner. Vision suggests that Wanda could use her telekinetic power to destroy the Mind Stone, killing him but keeping it from Thanos. Banner suggests attempting to remove it first. But the only facility capable of doing so is in Wakanda. This storyline is all business, setting up for the major third-act battle.
As heroes rally to oppose Thanos, Infinity War finally zeroes in on its main character. Make no mistake, Thanos is a horrible, genocidal monster. That being said, the film makes an effort to explain his perspective and his righteous conviction, which only makes his efforts more frightening. His planet, Titan, became overpopulated and ran out of resources. His suggestions to cull half the population were rejected, obviously, but he devoted his life to carrying out such a plan on a large scale.
Thanos truly believes that he can save half the lives in the universe by killing the other half, and that the survivors will be grateful. He’s calm, measured, even philosophical, and has the strength of his convictions, which make him deeply horrifying. We learn this as he discusses things with Gamora on his ship. After years of living with Thanos, Gamora understands that he’s insane and cares for nothing, which ironically makes Thanos care for her. Her strength and forthrightness impress him.
Thanos knows that Gamora hid the location of the Soul Stone from him. He tortured the information from another of his adopted daughters, Nebula (Karen Gillan), when she tried to assassinate him. Saldana is given some interesting material, and she does her best with it, but Gamora is not well-served. She’s meant to be conflicted and angry about her abusive childhood, particularly with Thanos and Nebula, but she comes off instead as weepy and weak. She reveals the location of the Soul Stone immediately when Thanos tortures Nebula, trading her sister’s pain for the lives of trillions.
The Stone is on the planet Vormir, where it’s guarded by the Red Skull (voiced by Ross Marquand). He takes Thanos and Gamora to the top of a cliff, where the seeker of the Stone must sacrifice something he loves. Gamora finds this laughable, since she cannot imagine Thanos loving anyone, but he loves her. Tearfully, he throws Gamora off the cliff and gains the Soul Stone.
This is meant to evoke some sympathy for Thanos, highlighting the price he must pay to achieve his goal. Functionally, however, this sequence reduces a once-strong female character to a mournful sacrifice that furthers a male character’s plot. In comics this type of storytelling, nicknamed “fridging”, is endemic and problematic. If it was not such an uninspired storytelling crutch used too often by male comic book writers, no one would have thought twice about Gamora’s fate. As it stands, it’s a weak spot in Infinity War, and even worse when the filmmakers double down on the sequence in Avengers: Endgame. A sacrifice is needed for the Soul Stone, so killing Gamora makes logical sense. But the writers could have written a different way to acquire the Soul Stone, one that did not “fridge” a female character. Weak spot aside, now Thanos only needs two more Stones: Dr. Strange’s Time Stone and the Vision’s Mind Stone.
On Ebony Maw’s ship, Tony and Peter save Strange. This leads to the first MCU meeting of Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, the greatest creations of Marvel legend Steve Ditko, who died shortly after the release of the film. Tony and Strange debate whether to return to Earth to defend the Stone, or continue on the ship to Titan to ambush Thanos. They decide on the latter, but Strange makes it clear that he values protecting the Stone over anyone’s life. Meanwhile, Nebula escapes from Thanos’ ship and contacts the Guardians to meet her on Titan. After Tony’s ship crash lands, he meets the Guardians.
They have a very funny first meeting/fight, which ends when they realize Quill is from Earth and they are on the same side. They try to strategize an ambush, but Tony’s smart leadership contrasts with the Guardians’ casual, irreverent attitude, leaving Tony in a rare state of speechlessness. The joy of seeing these disparate, well-established cinematic worlds collide fulfills the potential of the shared universe. Scenes like these are one of the reasons The Avengers is such a pleasure, and they give Infinity War exciting energy. I really enjoy seeing Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and Star-Lord bantering while Drax and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) toss in hilarious non-sequiturs. Ultimately, Strange uses the Time Stone to explore 14,000,605 possible outcomes of the conflict with Thanos, and sees only one in which they win.
Vin Diesel’s Groot (IMDB)
This leads to the third act, in which the assembled heroes finally face Thanos and his forces directly. Steve and his team arrive in Wakanda. He reunites with Bucky (Sebastian Stan), his childhood friend turned brainwashed assassin who was healed by Wakanda after Civil War. None of this backstory is spoken — there’s no time. Either you know it or you just go with the flow. T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and his lead bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), fortify the central city with an energy dome to hold off Thanos’ incoming forces as his brilliant sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), attempts to extract the Mind Stone from Vision. If the heroes can hold back the attack long enough, the Stone can be removed and destroyed by Wanda, preventing Thanos from ever acquiring all six Stones.
It’s fascinating to watch Infinity War immediately after Black Panther. The latter is a deep, socially-conscious blockbuster and the former is an epic event film, and yet T’Challa and his world are versatile enough to exist in both. Led by the Black Order, an army of faceless alien creatures attack the energy field. They slowly break through and threaten to flank the heroes, so T’Challa opens part of the shield to keep the attack focused. Then comes the cinematic battle trope of the opposing forces running at each other across a field, but with the added touch of Steve and T’Challa speeding ahead of the pack as the most skilled fighters. All of the human fighters get a showcase, including Banner operating Tony’s enormous Hulkbuster armour from Age of Ultron because Hulk still refuses to come out to play.
Elsewhere, Thor has been following his own hero’s journey. Rocket tries to cheer him up when it’s clear that Loki’s death, not to mention his father’s death and the destruction of Asgard in Ragnarok, or his mother’s death in Thor: The Dark World, are bringing him down. “So, dead brother, huh? Yeah, that can be annoying.” Thor attempts his usual bravado and bluster, but we see him reach its limit. He says that if he’s wrong about defeating Thanos he has nothing left to lose, as a tear runs down his cheek. Hemsworth is really fantastic in Infinity War. If he succeeded in his quest, he would be the hero of the film. They arrive at Nidavellir, a dwarven weapon foundry powered by a dying star. It’s dark and empty, except for Eitri (Peter Dinklage), the last giant dwarf left alive. Thanos forced the dwarves to make him a gauntlet powerful enough to hold the Stones, then killed everyone except Eitri.
Thor convinces him to make Stormbreaker, a powerful axe capable of killing Thanos. He realigns the rings of the forge in space by holding on to the rings and a cable attached to Rocket’s ship. He then holds open the iris that focuses the power of the dying star, taking the brunt of the star’s energy long enough for the axe to be forged. Eitri says this feat will kill Thor, to which Thor replies, “only if I die.” “Yes… that’s what ‘killing you’ means,” says Eitri. MCU films always find humour, even in the most dire storylines. Thor’s actions at Nidavellir play out like the godly labours that fill mythological stories, seemingly setting up Thor’s legendary triumph against Thanos. In retrospect, this sequence actually just makes the tragedy of his failure more acute.
Thor nearly dies from the heat, but the axe is completed with a handle made from Groot’s branches. The power of the hammer revives Thor, who arrives triumphantly on the battlefield in Wakanda. He’s fully powered, giving the heroes reason to cheer and the Black Order reason to pause as Alan Silvestri’s iconic Avengers theme plays over the score. Infinity War seems to build from this point towards the heroes pulling off a last-minute victory, as audiences expect from pretty much every blockbuster. There are great character interactions as the battle unfolds. Rocket, who has a history of coveting prosthetics, plans to get Bucky’s metal arm.
Groot speaks the only words he knows, “I am Groot,” to Steve, who responds with a very sincere “I am Steve Rogers.” Natasha, Okoye and Wanda combine forces to defeat the female Black Order member, Promixa Midnight (Carrie Coon), in a nice ‘girl power’ moment. Vision is attacked and left undefended. Banner and Steve rush in to help him, and the Black Order are fully defeated. With only Thanos left to contend with, victory seems assured.
Thanos arrives on Titan, visibly weighed down by the cost of his mission so far. The heroes launch an extremely well-planned ambush, combining their powers to assault Thanos. They keep him from snapping his fingers and hit him from all angles. Even Nebula arrives in time to help, and Thanos is put on the backfoot. Mantis manages to subdue him as Tony and Peter begin to pry the gauntlet off his hand. And then, everything goes to hell. Quill realizes that Thanos killed Gamora and, in his anger, he punches Thanos in the face, freeing him from Mantis’ control. Quill ruins the plan, leading directly to Thanos’ ultimate victory. Several characters could reasonably be blamed for Thanos succeeding, but most viewers seemed to blame Quill.
Chris Pratt’s image was done serious harm by this character choice. It seems silly, but attitudes toward him have never seemed to recover. Thanos collapses a moon onto the heroes, and many of them are knocked out. Strange uses all of his magic to fight in a visually arresting battle, but he cannot compete with the Stones. It finally comes down to a fight between Thanos and Tony. This is Tony’s big fight, the fight to protect Earth that he has planned for six years. He makes a good showing, earns the respect of Thanos, but Tony loses. Thanos stabs him with his own blade. Strange saves Tony’s life by giving up the Time Stone, seemingly assuring Thanos’s victory. In retrospect, having seen Endgame, Strange was playing a very long game. He even says “we’re in the endgame now,” a line that was added in reshoots once the sequel was titled. In Infinity War, however, Strange’s capitulation is shocking.
With five Stones in hand, Thanos becomes unyielding. He teleports himself to Wakanda and easily, even casually, bats away any of the attacks he faces as he strolls toward Vision. Blockbuster audiences have been trained, film after film, to expect things to seem hopeless in the climax right before the heroes eke out a victory. At this point in Infinity War, audiences had no reason to expect any different, the heroes always win. But Thanos is the hero of this film, and that’s why he wins. Wanda is forced to destroy the Mind Stone, killing Vision. But it doesn’t matter. Thanos simply uses the Time Stone to reverse time, reconstituting the Stone. And then Thor’s arc culminates with his axe flying out of the trees, countering the power of the Stones and embedding itself in Thanos’ chest.
Thanos was almost defeated by Tony’s team, by Wanda destroying a Stone, and by Thor’s axe. These were major obstacles, but he overcomes them. Thor fails because he loses sight of the mission. He attacks Thanos in the chest, wanting to savour slow revenge. But Thanos tells him that he should have gone for the head and…
Thanos sees an orange-tinged vision of a young Gamora (Ariana Greenblatt) asking him what his victory cost. “Everything.” His gauntlet melts around his burned arm, and Thanos retreats. The film ends very quietly, with no score and only subtle wind and thunder on the soundtrack. People begin turning to dust, half of the people. Bucky, many Wakandan warriors, T’Challa, Groot, Wanda, Sam, Mantis, Drax, Quill, Strange and, finally, Peter all disintegrate.
Peter and Tony developed a father-son type of relationship over several films, and Peter’s death is drawn out to bring home the weight of the failure to Tony. Peter says he doesn’t feel good, says he doesn’t want to go, says he’s sorry, and then he dusts. The death was extended because Downey pushed Holland’s performance on set, insisting that Peter is a scared child using all his power to hold off the inevitable. Peter’s death became iconic but, really, the whole sequence is instantly iconic. And shocking.
“The snap” has become the “I am your father” moment of this generation. It’s a devastating loss for the heroes, ending Infinity War on a surprising down note. Endgame, the follow-up film and the highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide, is built entirely around the fallout to this moment. The filmmakers initially planned to cut to Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a retired Avenger, as the snap takes his whole family, showing the cost to the outside world. That’s smartly moved to the beginning of Endgame. Infinity War instead ends with Steve quietly saying “My god,” and cutting to Thanos smiling at his accomplishment on the porch of his cabin. The ending is stunning. The credits roll over somber music and no extra scene mid-credits. The filmmakers wanted audiences to sit with it.
Avengers: Infinity War has much in common with another major blockbuster that was released four months earlier: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnston, 2017). Both deal with the difficult theme of failure, making them less rousing and more thoughtful than most blockbusters. Both largely refused to deliver what fans expected, minimizing or altering fan-favourite characters and challenging audiences with story choices. However, whereas The Last Jedi became virulently divisive online, audiences praised Infinity War. It’s difficult to discern why the films were received so differently.
Perhaps the relentless pace and sharp focus of Infinity War made the experience more overwhelming and harder to nitpick. The film assembles over 20 heroes and culminates storylines that ran through 18 films over ten years, yet doesn’t feel bloated, overstuffed or confusing. That’s a miraculous feat and difficult to criticize. Maybe audiences had grown so familiar with Marvel Films, and their steady stream of reliably high-quality entertainment, that familiarity bred trust in the filmmakers. Regardless, Infinity War was a major beloved cultural event. It was marketed as the conclusion to the MCU thus far, a “can’t miss” spectacle for anyone who has ever seen an MCU film. This marketing angle succeeded despite the fact that Endgame, another “big conclusion” was set to be released just one year later.
Everyone knew that there was more to come, that major characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and Black Panther would not remain dead. And yet, people reacted to it as intended. The snap became iconic, launched a million online memes, and Marvel’s blockbuster domination continued as relentless and unimpeded as Thanos’ victory.
Infinity War was originally scheduled to be released in North America on 4 May but was brought ahead one week to ensure a simultaneous worldwide release. This prevented leaks and spoilers, and also contributed to it feeling like a worldwide event. The film earned $258 million in North America and $641 million worldwide in its opening weekend, both record grosses. It went on to earn $679 million in North America, earning less than Black Panther and selling fewer tickets than The Avengers, but still a massive amount. Worldwide, Infinity War earned $2 billion, becoming the fourth-highest grossing film of all-time.
The MCU had built and built over a decade to become the most reliable brand in blockbusters. The success of this fast-paced, massively-scaled, new viewer-unfriendly film is a testament to the success of the entire series. And they were not finished yet. The real heroes needed to win, the dead needed to be resurrected, Thanos needed to be defeated. On to the Endgame.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears as Peter’s school bus driver at the start of the film, totally unfazed by a spaceship over Manhattan. The filmmakers smartly include the cameo early, getting it out of the way before in pace and intensity ramp up. That’s 33 cameos in 48 films.
• The filmmakers strongly considered having no credits scenes, making the ending feel more definitive. There’s no mid-credits scene. The last time this was the case was Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013). Since then, eleven MCU films in a row featured a mid-credits scene until Infinity War.
• Post-credits we meet Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) as they monitor the situation before being dusted. Before he goes, Fury uses an alien-looking pager to contact Captain Marvel. Then, the credits state “Thanos will return”, further cementing him as the main character of the film.
• There’s no time for new cast members in this immense film. The only significant addition is Ross Marquand playing Red Skull. The original actor, Hugo Weaving, expressed distaste for working on Captain America: The First Avenger and refused to ever return. So, Marquand does a Weaving impression.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order: Infinity War culminates everything thus far, and even one yet-to-be-released film, so it comes at the end:
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
14. Captain America: Civil War
15. Black Panther
16. Doctor Strange
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming
18. Thor: Ragnarok
20. Avengers: Infinity War
Next Time: In a nice change of pace, a villainous Josh Brolin battles superheroes in Deadpool 2.
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