Marvel has raised the pressure for itself on Infinity War, widely touting it as the endgame of three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and promising earth-shattering – or at least, judging by the trailer, moon-shattering – consequences to this two-part story, which will finish with next year’s untitled Avengers 4. It would be hard for any film to live up to the level of sky-high hype that has resulted, and to satisfy the fans of every single one of these characters. Miraculously, this smashes right through your expectations and delivers shock after shock.
The film opens without the traditional Marvel fanfare, instead throwing itself into full-throated operatic drama. The opening minutes are designed to jolt you out of any complacency you may have felt about Thanos’ effectiveness, or the threat posed even by his minions in the Black Order. Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) and the rest make themselves instantly hissable. They may look like Lord Of The Rings rejects, and they boast little in the way of redeeming qualities, but that’s all to the good. They are big, they are powerful enough to test the Avengers independent of their boss, and that’s about all we need to know.
Brace for noble self-sacrifice, senseless tragedy and straight-up murder.
Thanos, meanwhile, gets monologuing from minute one, and it’s to Josh Brolin’s credit that he is never less than compelling, whether speaking or letting his actions speak for him. Thanos is mad, and the solution he sees to the galaxy’s ills both evil and ineffective, but he has a thought process that (sort of) makes sense, and his commitment to his cause is so absolute that it is almost admirable. Almost.
Standing against him is a team that is physically fractured, scattered across the galaxy between the remnants of the Avengers, the refugee Asgardians and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The plot’s machinations result in unlikely combinations of Avengers meeting, bickering and, usually, working together semi-effectively. The addition of the Guardians of the Galaxy happens smoothly – which is to say that there is fighting, flirting, bonding over heavy weaponry and the steady erosion of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) ego. Speaking of egos, the titanic clash between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a delight, especially given spice by the addition of the naïve, entirely good Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The combinations of heroes working together feels both inevitable and unexpected, and the sheer charisma of the cast means that whatever scene or planet we cut to, there’s someone there to care about.
Everyone is tested. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) comes up against obstacles he can’t smash, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — relatively underused — has to reckon with his own personal worst-case scenario. Thanos’ genius is to repeatedly use our heroes’ mutual ties against them. Thanos is willing to sacrifice half the universe to achieve his ends, but he knows that others are not so determined. Over and over again, the film tries to force one character to make concessions to save a life, and over and over again they try to live up to Vision’s claim that “We don’t trade lives, Captain”. They may not, but Joe and Anthony Russo, evil genius screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, and producer Kevin Feige, have no such mercy.
Brace, then, for noble self-sacrifice, senseless tragedy and straight-up murder. The good news is that it’s also really, really funny. Tony Stark is briefly reduced to speechlessness. Thor gives an account of his family history that is accurate and also hilarious. Groot (Vin Diesel), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) continue to leave a trail of much-needed laughs, without ever quite distracting from the danger they all face.
The film dances nimbly across the cosmos from one group to the next, turning the screws on each group, shattering them and pulling them back together in new combinations. With all these different strands, you might expect to see the gears move to keep this intricate plot humming, as in Age Of Ultron and Civil War. But this time the Russos achieve the impossible. Not only did they bring all these disparate characters and stories together, but they made it look effortless. And the ending laughs in the face of carbonite when it comes to raising the stakes for next time. “It’s not overselling it to say that the fate of the universe is at stake,” says one character, early on in Infinity War. If the universe he meant was the Marvel one, there’s no need to worry. We couldn’t tear ourselves away now if we wanted to.