Aside from the time Warner Bros. poured a fortune into the first two Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, superhero films languished for a generation. Comic book artists can draw on paper for comparatively nothing what no movie budget can match. It took decades for cinema technology to catch up. When it finally did, superheroes were finally able to move beyond the kitsch of television (Adam West “Batman”, Lynda Carter “Wonder Woman”, Lou Ferrigno “Hulk”) and the camp of its cinematic 80s and 90s versions (“Supergirl,” both Tim Burton “Batmans” and both Joel Schumacher “Batmans”). Only in the 2000s could movies capture anything close to the believable spectacle of comic book fantasy. Marvel Studios has capitalized on that starting with 2008’s “Iron Man.” Its 10-year culmination is today’s “Avengers: Infinity War” with a purported $300-400 million budget.
Whether or not you find that obscene, it’s here and it’s almost certain to make a profit as one of the top grossing films of all time, which perhaps makes this review unimportant, at least from a consumer advocacy perspective. Like “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and the “Transformers” before them, the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here.
Comics are a disreputable genre about men and women in colorful tights fighting crime whose starting audience in the 1930s were little boys. It has grown up since with “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” DC’s Vertigo imprint, and Marvel’s MAX line such that comics today cater far more toward adults and barely toward children any more. That the genre has taken over the film industry probably irks a number of film critics, but it’s not an either/or. There’s room for “Last Year at Marienbad” as well as “Spider-Man,” “The World of Apu” as well as “Thor,” and “Satantango” as well as “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Avengers: Infinity War” perhaps fittingly embodies the most MCU-ness of any of the franchise’s movies so far, and as such, it depends more than any of the previous film on those previous films. The movie assembles (no pun intended) roughly 25 heroes along with at least another 25 major or minor characters from the other films and then tosses in some new villains as well called the Black Order. They serve the lead antagonist, Thanos (Josh Brolin), who scores the most screen time of any character in the film. Justifiably so since he has only had cameos starting with his build-up in the first “Avengers” movie in 2012. Thanos comes off as the leader of a death cult whose mission is to wipe out half the population of the universe in order to make life better for everyone else since finite resources cause strife leading to the decline of civilizations. To do so, Thanos is trying to gather the ultra-powerful Infinity Stones to create the all-powerful Infinity Gauntlet. Splitting up the screen time between events on Earth and events in out space, the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy team up to stop him.
There are so many characters and so many stars who play them, that it would take half the review just to name them all and place them in the story. Insofar as there is character emphasis beyond the massive ensemble, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Vision (Paul Bettany) get it.
One of the strongest appeals of cinema is its spectacle. Film can take you into a level of fiction, a wholly different world, an emersion of fantasy unparalleled by any other medium. That’s also one of its most criticized elements, that spectacle has been overly embraced in blockbusters since “Star Wars” and has too often wallowed in mindless escapism. “Avengers: Infinity War” gives you $300-400 million of spectacle and mindless escapism, but mindless escapism isn’t always bad and this one is entertaining.
In hindsight, it’s surprising that a franchise hadn’t come up with the idea of the shared universe sooner – to do the opposite of spin-offs and manufacture stars of individual films and then bring them all together for something far bigger – before the MCU did it. Well, of course it had been done before when Frankenstein’s Monster met the Wolfman, Rodan and Godzilla teamed up against Ghidorah, and Alien fought Predator, but these felt more like gimmicks and after-thoughts. Marvel Studios or really rather Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pushed the shared universe concept hard from the very beginning of Marvel Comics.
The epitome of the shared universe concept in comics is the big crossover event, stories in which heroes line-wide gather to tackle the most cataclysmic forces writers can come up with. Marvel first did it first in 1984 with “Secret Wars” and DC with “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1986. These events have become so much part and parcel of the comic landscape though, that their shock and awe effect is long gone and good story ideas have mostly been exhausted. There are just so many times one can read a story in which every hero comes together and the threat level is ramped up as not to find it special anymore.
But it has never been done in movies. Until now. “Avengers: Infinity War” is an adaptation of one of Marvel Comic’s biggest, best, and most cosmic crossover events, 1991’s “The Infinity Gauntlet,” by Jim Starlin, who created Thanos in 1973, and artists George Perez and Ron Lim. The movie is supposed to be the biggest, most epic, most extravagant comic book movie ever made, and it mostly delivers in that respect.
But movies are supposed to be more than spectacle too, and “Avengers: Infinity War” has trouble fitting in so many characters and giving them proper emotional moments as well as the fireworks in its 149 minute run time. Even this though is perhaps more feature than bug as again, this movie depends on you having seen the previous 18 MCU films and it rewards you for that effort. The Infinity Stones that Thanos is after are the Soul, Space, Time, Reality, Power, and Mind gems. “Avengers: Infinity War” bends space, time, and reality with the power of its spectacle even if it doesn’t do a lot for one’s mind and soul.