At long last, the Avengers seem to be getting somewhere. Since they first teamed up six years ago, Ive yearned for their bright, rollicking exploits to take on some summative shape or ultimate purpose, something that really binds together not strictly just the Avengers films (of which the new Infinity War, opening April 24, is the third) but all the other disparate movies in their orbit. If were being asked to watch 19 movies in a series, with more to come, a sense of a grander arc would be nice. Finally, Infinity War provides that, assembling nearly all the heroes weve gone zooming after over the years for a defining adventure with actual life-or-death stakes.
Or, at least, the first half of one. The story will conclude next year with a part-two film, which gives Infinity War a slightly unsatisfying tang. Still, I appreciate the films move toward something concrete, inching us closer to a time when at least some of these stories will be complete. I dont necessarily wish death upon any of these (largely resurrectable) gods and aliens and souped-up humans, but the faint sense of impending finality hanging in Infinity Wars air is refreshing.
The guy helping nudge things toward a conclusion is Thanos, big and purple and from another world. Weve met him fleetingly in the past, but now here he is front and center, a saturnine and surprisingly compelling villain given voice and lumbering body by Josh Brolin. Thanos has spent too much time on the wrong subreddit or something, and now lives by a pretty extreme philosophy that involves him trying to kill half of everything thats alive in order to finally bring peace and balance to the universe. To accomplish that terrible end, he needs all six of the Infinity Stones—enchanted objects weve seen scattered throughout the other Marvel Studios films, vied for and contended with but only now proving more than MacGuffins.
A threat to the entire universe, made by a big guy whose magic rocks give him ultimate and near-invincible power, is sort of an all-hands-on-deck situation, so here comes everyone: Black Panther, Iron Man, Cappy, Gamora, teen Spider-Man, Thor, Loki, the raccoon, Groot, Bucky, the guy with the wings played by Anthony Mackie, the Hulk. All of them and more! Its a vast ensemble, and though certain characters get more focus than others—Black Widow fans, manage your expectations—the film actually feels pretty thorough. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—none strangers to the Avengers franchise—find clever groupings of characters and an equitable rhythm as the film shifts between narratives. They wrestle some kind of balance out of crossover chaos, doing an expert bit of crowd control.
The movie is a relentless clobberer, going fast and hard on action and exposition, managing a few pensive moments here and there, but mostly raging at full blare for its 150-minute run. That outsized aural and visual register is something weve grown accustomed to, in the Avengers films and others. But it plays just that much louder in Infinity War, the film towering over us (and the mid-spring cinematic landscape) with such sleek, assured dominance that one feels half cowed into awe and half sick about the corporate slavishness of it all. I cringed when my audience applauded the Marvel logo, and yet felt a frisson of true excitement when we gasped in pain and surprise at the (likely temporary) death of a beloved character. Infinity War is much like Thanos, terrifying and magnificent in its bigness, both unfeeling juggernaut and alluring giant ribboned with pathos.
There are moments of high drama in Infinity War—between father and daughter, brother and brother, mentor and protégé, lover and lover—that these actors, as deep in this series as we are, deliver on with teary intensity. And theres a haunting final sequence that is as grave and, I daresay, almost poetic as anything the film series has done. One hopes that some of the more topical themes debated by the Avengers in the previous installments—particularly about their role in geopolitics and the security state—will be addressed at some point in the second film. It would be a little frustrating if all that half-baked discourse was just wiped out by a bad guy whos bigger than politics. For now, though, the emotional takes persuasive precedence over the pseudo-intellectual.
Amidst all that heaviness, and the repetitive C.G.I. crash and clutter, Infinity War has some droll, inspired bits: Groot as a surly teen tree, a foppish alien henchman who rains down destruction with the flick of a spindly finger, a consistent patter of snappy one-liners that remain on the right side of the narrow arch/smug divide. The winning Marvel house style is both intact and evolved in Infinity Wars maximalist pageant. Im almost reluctant to say that the franchises central spirit survives under all the added mass, because I wouldnt want to encourage them to go much further. Post-Thanos, the Avengers need not strip down to the lean musculature of something like Logan. But going much bigger—which the second part will likely do—risks achieving critical mass.
That said, Infinity War does find a clever, somber way to keep its successors proportions in check. Its both arresting plot development and efficient solution; like so much in the Avengers series, Infinity War is really a feat of good management above anything else. As Marvel nears the end of this particular saga—or, at least, this particular lineup of actors—its a mild, partly begrudging thrill to see them pull it off. Insanely, exhaustingly weve two more side films to go—Julys Ant-Man and the Wasp and next Marchs Captain Marvel—before Thanoss last stand. (Presumably, hell take some big heroes with him.) But Infinity War is an intermittently rousing reminder that well get there eventually. What lies beyond it, Im sure well know soon enough. For now, Im enjoying Marvels version of denouement—excessive and inevitable.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.