Note: There won’t be massive spoilers below, but there will be spoilers. Make like the rest of the world and see the movie before reading further.
You can’t call Avengers: Infinity War a “good movie.” Good movies have cohesive narratives, or at least visually engaging themes. They may not be entirely standalone affairs, but they exist on their own merits. They may not end definitively, but they do end.
Infinity War, on the other hand, is a cog in the Marvel Studios perpetual motion machine. Smarter critics than myself have recognized that this is a never-ending serialized drama; even the Avengers entries, meant to be bookends, mostly serve to unite and then disperse heroes for additional solo excursions. And this is the most open-ended of them all. The as-yet-untitled Avengers 4 comes out next summer and will resolve a boatload of unanswered questions; Marvel doesn’t want to call this part 1 of a two-parter, but Marvel doesn’t get to decide everything. Yet.
Even knowing all that, and understanding that nothing will be finalized or accomplished, Infinity War still works. It’s likely the darkest ending in blockbuster history—even if much of said darkness will be undone in short order—but it’s also engaging and fun. Much of that is thanks to a decade of expert casting; the audience and the actors and actresses know these characters like the back of their hands. But even more so, it’s a massive moviemaking apparatus functioning at the height of its powers. That could be a depressing thought, if we hadn’t had five decades of woeful big-budget reminders that this is, in fact, a sort of rocket science.
The movie hits the ground running, so hopefully everyone who buys a ticket has at least taken Marvel 101. Thanos (Josh Brolin), the oft-discussed mega-villain behind everything, is gathering the Infinity Stones. These will allow him to kill half the universe with a snap of his fingers; Thanos is deeply concerned about overpopulation. We know where a few of the stones are; Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has one in his necklace. Vision (Paul Bettany) has one in his head. To protect those, and/or hunt for the rest, pretty much every Marvel hero joins an impromptu group and prepares for battle.
Infinity War does a great job of logically splitting up its characters. Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Chris Evans) can’t be in the same room just yet, so Tony Stark goes to space while Steve Rogers stays put. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is Stark’s protégé; Dr. Strange is his natural frenemy. They blast off too. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was last seen in space, so of course the Guardians pick him up along the way. It all works surprisingly well.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all adventures are created equal. Stark, Spidey, and Strange all deal directly with Thanos; Cap, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and the rest concern themselves with Vision’s Mind Stone and an army of disposable monsters attacking Wakanda. You can guess which of the two stories is more intriguing, especially when Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians stumble upon Stark.
More than anything, Infinity War matters because Thanos matters. For maybe the first time in a Marvel movie, a villain gets not just motivation but a backstory. Sure, Thanos’s is “his home planet perished because of overpopulation, which he predicted; also, he’s insane,” but enough time is spent to make it feel genuine. It also helps that Brolin isn’t playing Thanos with a big booming voice or too much bluster. For the most part, he’s quiet, calm Josh Brolin. This makes Thanos feel more real; it also makes him a lot more threatening.
The best thing about Avengers: Infinity War is that it’s not a giant dead-on-arrival disaster. When it was announced, even Marvel’s biggest fans raised an eyebrow. The Avengers was universally beloved, but Age of Ultron took a major, boring step back. It seemed like Marvel’s magic might finally be running out, at least when it came to jampacked crossover events.
But then Civil War worked. And Black Panther made billions and got rave reviews. Even Doctor Strange turned out decent. Continuity certainly has helped; the Brothers Russo made the logical leap from directing Civil War to here, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have now penned five Marvel movies. Through instinct, repetition, or likely a little of both, everyone involved really gets why these characters matter. Especially what makes them funny, which is ultimately why we’ve kept coming back for a decade now.
We’ll see what happens with Avengers 4; the sneaking suspicion is that most—if not all—of the damage done will be reversed, which is great for printing money but bad for storytelling. Nobody expects titular leads of future sequels to straight-up disappear, but the studio should take care not to fall into the same trap its comics fell into. When everything can be undone, nothing matters.
Then again, that’s how this all goes; you can’t review Infinity War without discussing what came before and what comes next. To Marvel’s credit, they keep getting it right enough to make the whole enterprise feasible. That can’t last forever, but it won’t end in 2018.