Avengers: Infinity War

Arriving just in time for the 10-year anniversary of Marvel Studios’ first blockbuster release, the long-awaited culmination of the long-teased threads of conflict connecting the franchise’s many heroes and the powerful purple plunderer named Thanos certainly feels, more than anything, like the fulfilment of a decade-long promise.

This is wall-to-wall superhero action with universe-sized stakes, a sort of show-off reel for the numerous visual effects artists involved and a flavour-packed dessert for all the fans that have stuck with the continuous adventures of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor. It’s both completely Marvel-esque and unlike anything they’ve done before. It’s impossibly huge, throwing its weight around as only a movie with so much (sooooo much!) careful build-up and franchise foreshadowing can do.

None of the characters require lengthy introductions and plot-concerning exposition is at an extreme minimum after so many previous movies have referenced top villain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who opens the show in the midst of his violent effort to collect six special stones that will grant him the ability to cleave the universe’s population in half. The stones have been scattered across various Marvel titles, with one encased in an amulet worn by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and another set firmly in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany), who was given life thanks to the stone in Age of Ultron.

All those previous Avengers-related adventures have been leading to this and the many Easter eggs planted throughout past plots allow Infinity War to launch with as pure and simple a setup as any superhero movie has ever been able to reasonably attempt. Thanos is bad and coming for his prize, which the heroes we’ve all come to know so well are in the process of protecting. There’s really nothing more to it than that, so the movie is free to skip from planet to planet to planet as it weaves together the franchise’s large roster of heroes through their interactions with Thanos and his nasty cronies.

Crucial to making this lofty exercise work is the decision to split the heroes up into slightly smaller groups, which allows directors Joe and Anthony Russo a constant opportunity to cut away from the action without sacrificing momentum. This is a standard movie structure, of course, since action-oriented editing benefits greatly from a rotating sense of perspective to keep things moving, but there’s a specifically slick fluidity at work here that makes the threat feel constant and inescapable.

It also helps that Marvel masterminds are so comfortable with assessing their characters’ personal strengths that they can smartly match them up in cozily complementary combinations. So cocky know-it-alls Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Star Lord (Chris Pratt), and Doctor Strange are all butting heads in one corner of the universe, while lovable goofballs Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and a now-adolescent Groot (Vin Diesel) all embark on a diverting side adventure.

In a third grouping, humble heroes Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) join their forces in Wakanda, which then brings many of the franchise’s female standouts, from Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to Okoye (Danai Gurira), into the chaotic fray.

Somehow, there’s still plenty of room to include Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and the Guardians of the Galaxy team members not yet mentioned, including sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who both have a particularly personal stake in Thanos’ wickedly waged war. That all these characters not only appear, but actually participate in the plot in important ways, many with touching emotional beats and thrilling acrobatic bits, is a testament to how streamlined Marvel’s moviemaking process has become.

They can now cram all their franchises into one movie and make it work because most of these characters have already experienced a meaningful arc, while the supporting players haven’t yet overstayed their welcome. With so much of the dramatic heavy lifting already done in numerous past entries, the heroes are now free to interact and express their personalities without each requiring an entire movie’s worth of motivation and/or redemption.

Instead, it’s the villain’s turn to get a more fleshed-out arc, which elevates Thanos beyond the trappings of a mere formidable adversary. He’s still driven by a standard evil villain plan that makes him easy to root against and the Avengers even easier to cheer for, so the complexities of the protagonist/antagonist dynamic recently explored in Black Panther are gone in favour of something simpler, but Thanos’ journey is more interesting and time-consuming than those of most other Marvel bad guys, so he represents another big win for the franchise.

Considering how much Marvel used to struggle with villains (Thor 2’s evil elf Malekith is certainly all-time awful), it’s quite impressive that they had such a good run with last year’s rogues’ gallery and have already unleashed Killmonger and now a truly towering threat with Thanos in the first few months of 2018.

Over time, Marvel has improved their formula with a strong focus on fixing their perceived flaws. That commitment has brought us here, not to Marvel’s best movie, but perhaps still Marvel at its best. Familiarity has been the key throughout this past decade, which has often left their movies teetering on the edge of hubristic homogenization, but instead of crippling their creativity, they’ve found a way to slyly innovate within their closed sphere of exciting entertainment.

The company’s ability to create such a consistent brand and increasingly enhance the quality of their products without sacrificing that consistency is the real superpower of this franchise. Infinity War is the wildest Marvel movie yet, a sort of party with an open invitation. Once the dust settles at the end of the battle, it’s hard not to just sit back and appreciate that Marvel Studios has pulled off such an astonishing feat. They’ve always pledged a fan-first philosophy and they’ve now delivered one of the biggest blockbusters ever on a scale that’s meant to weaken the knees of the most dedicated viewer.

It’s spectacularly ambitious entertainment, imperfect in many ways, but powerfully, perhaps even profoundly, satisfying, a memorable and magnificent rendering of pop art as patient payoff. Of course, Marvel is always eyeing the next hook and they sink this one in deep. For all the payoff that has just been delivered, the movie ends with the gargantuan guarantee of more. So much more. At this point, it’s easy to optimistically anticipate future instalments because, as they’ve just made epically clear, Marvel knows how to make good on a promise.