BE WARNED: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Q: What do the directors of Avengers: Infinity War have in common with original Avengers villain Loki, God of Mischief (besides all the brotherly love)?
A: They’re big fat fibbers.
When the Russo brothers took the helm of what was then called Avengers: Infinity War Part I & II, the first thing they did was to change the titles in a small but significant way. By removing Part I from the title of the first film and completely renaming the second (an official title for Avengers 4 is still pending) they claimed that the films were no longer two parts of one story.
Now that we’ve seen Infinity War, we know that’s a big old lie. It is unquestionably the first of a two-part saga, and should be viewed as such. Otherwise, it may be the most depressing superhero film ever made.
The title change was a clever decision that subtly raised the already sky-high stakes. Viewers who went in expecting a self-contained film with a traditional happy ending had their expectations literally crumble to dust in front of them. In the boisterous, ram-packed press screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop when it happened. Jaws were on the floor: Thanos wins.
Infinity War is unlike any other film in the franchise, or indeed any other film in history. It’s the culmination of ten years’ worth of deftly-plotted storytelling, spanning no fewer than eighteen films. It juggles a cast of at least twenty-five major characters, and a dozen to spare. But the focus is on über villain Thanos, finally fulfilling his promise as the biggest bad of all.
The Mad Titan first appeared in the end credits of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and has remained a looming threat ever since. Now, we finally get to see him in action. He is a surprisingly complex villain, truly sinister in one moment and sorrowfully weary in the next. His goal is to rid the universe of half its population at random, redistributing the finite resources available on each planet in order to save those that remain. He believes himself to be the hero of this story, and this film really is his story.
To accomplish his mission, Thanos seeks to wield the fantastically-powerful Infinity Stones. One gem (Space) is on the Asgardian spacecraft we saw at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, while another two (Time, Mind) are on Earth. One (Reality) resides in the Collector’s vault on Knowhere, one (Soul) is unaccounted for and the last (Power) is already in Thanos’ energy-harnessing gauntlet.
As the Avengers battle to prevent him from collecting all six stones, the sense of dread and tension is unrelenting. The opening scene, which takes place moments after the post-credits scene in Ragnarok, sets the overarching tone: dark, nerve-wracking and distressing. We’d been warned that there would be major character deaths, but seeing it happen is heartbreaking. From the outset, there is a genuine sense that no one is safe.
As for our heroes themselves, there’s a great deal to unpack. Let’s do a quick character roundup, to see where each of their stories begins…
Thor, Loki and the Hulk:
Thor’s storyline is both the strongest and the most upsetting: the scene in which Thanos and his Black Order wreak havoc on the Asgardian rescue ship is frankly horrific. Thanos is there to collect on an old debt from Loki in the form of the Tesseract, and neither Thor nor the Hulk are a match for the Mad Titan – with the Power Gem already firmly in his gauntlet. Loki gives up the Space Gem to save Thor’s life, while a chained-up Thor can do nothing but watch as his brother is killed.
A dying Heimdall uses the last of his strength to send Hulk hurtling toward Earth on the Bifrost. That’s where we meet…
Doctor Strange, Iron Man and Spider-Man:
In a scene strikingly similar to the opening pages of the comic The Infinity Gauntlet, Hulk crashes into Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, heralding that Thanos is coming. The Master of the Mystic Arts seeks out Tony Stark, who is readying himself to settle down for a peaceful family life with his fiancée, Pepper Potts. Before Strange and Stark can really settle into their arrogance competition, Thanos’ spaceship sets down on New York City. A passing Peter Parker jumps in to help and the three of them wind up aboard the Good Ship Thanos, hurtling off into space.
Bruce Banner, having recently learned that Stark and Steve Rogers are no longer on speaking terms, decides to call in the Captain in the hopes of finding…
The Vision and Scarlet Witch:
The living Artificial Intelligence and the reality-warping Wanda Maximoff, who have been nurturing a secret romance, have gone off-grid to figure things out. Their decision to finally make their relationship official is interrupted by the Black Order, who are after the Mind gem which is lodged in the Vision’s forehead. He and Wanda are nearly overwhelmed when an unexpected rescue teams shows up, in the form of…
Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon:
Cap’s arrival is enough to make the entire cinema burst into wild, fist-pumping applause. He’s been operating outside the government’s authority with his Secret Avengers, Black Widow and Falcon. Steve Rogers hasn’t stopped fighting, but has absolutely stopped asking for permission. They rescue Wanda and the injured Vision, who is willing to lay down his life for the greater good. After discussing their options, they conjecture that Vision could possibly be parted from the Mind gem and saved with the right technology. This brings them to…
Black Panther, Shuri and Bucky:
The story pivots to the African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country on Earth. Shuri, younger sister of King T’Challa, is a scientific genius with the world’s most advanced tech at her fingertips. She is tasked with the Vision’s reprogramming, while Black Panther readies his army for the coming intergalactic war. Steve’s old pal Bucky Barnes (former Russian puppet-assassin the Winter Soldier) has had his mind healed by Shuri and is ready to return to action. Meanwhile…
The Guardians of the Galaxy:
The Guardians are answering a distress signal when none other than Thor floats onto their windshield in space. After briefing him, Gamora explains the depths of Thanos’ madness and depravity from her firsthand experience as his adopted daughter. Thor predicts where Thanos will go next, sending most of the team to the Collecter’s vault on Knowhere while he, Rocket and Groot head to Nidavellir to forge a new unstoppable hammer.
All these character pairings work remarkably well: it’s downright astonishing that with so many players, each has their moment to shine. Much of this depends upon audiences’ built-in familiarity with the franchise and the characters. A casual viewer, even one who’s watched the occasional MCU film, will be hard-pressed to appreciate the artistry at play, while dedicated fans will feel the maximum payoff. Either way, this film is a masterclass in storytelling balance.
And balance is definitely one of the key themes of the film and, in a cosmic sense, it’s actually Thanos’ ultimate aim. A flashback shows him explaining his ethos to a young Gamora, while illustratively suspending an ornate double-sided dagger on his finger. Tilt it too far to either side and it falls; this is his take on the universe. Overpopulation alongside a lack of resources means the end of civilization.
The rule of balance certainly applies to character choices in the film. Viewers may be annoyed that Cap and Black Widow got short-shrift, or that Hawkeye didn’t even show. But, it’s a two-part story, don’t forget. The emphasis is on building up a long-teased villain and giving screen time to blossoming (Phase 2 & Phase 3) characters. By temporarily wiping them out of existence, the stage is set for the six original Avengers to assemble once more before going out with an almighty blast.
It’s only fitting that the grand finale be a swan-song to Avengers Assemble, the film that made it all possible. For the record, I don’t believe that Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye and Captain America are all going to die in Avengers 4. I do believe that at least one of them will, and it will be to tremendous fanfare.
Avengers: Infinity War is the story of a genocidal madman who truly believes he’s a saviour, cementing his status as the Avengers’ most formidable foe. It’s the darkest, gutsiest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry to date, shattering hearts as well as expectations. While the film you wanted is yet to come, the film that you needed is here.