Thor, Loki, Hulk, and the Asgardians have left their home world following an event known as the Twilight of the Gods – Ragnarok. However, their spaceship has been intercepted by the one who orchestrated Loki’s attack on New York City: Thanos. The Mad Titan has recently acquired the Power Stone from Planet Xandar and will stop at nothing to obtain the remaining five. The Infinity Gauntlet Thanos bears will unlock the Infinity Stones’ true potential. With them all in hand, he intends to kill off half of the universe’s population. With the Avengers divided thanks to the efforts of Colonel Helmut Zemo, Earth’s mightiest heroes will need to do everything they can to prevent Thanos’s unconscionable ambitions from coming to pass.
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.
The post-credits scene of The Avengers introduced Thanos to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though unnamed at first, fans of the comics knew exactly who he was and the threat he posed to the universe. Even if he didn’t directly influence the events up until this point, he had been firmly established as one of the biggest driving forces behind many of the conflicts. He was Ronan the Accuser’s benefactor and the original owner of the scepter Loki used to command the Chitauri army. This means he was also indirectly responsible for Ultron’s creation despite never facing off against the heroes directly.
Although a majority of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continued to garner acclaim, fans and critics alike felt this arc had gone on for long enough and desired for him to finally confront the heroes. The series managed to avoid the same trapping many other shows with an overarching plot fell victim to by focusing on stories unrelated to Thanos’s machinations, but the sentiment persisted all the same. This is because by the time Infinity War was released, it had been six years since audiences were first introduced to Thanos in The Avengers and three years after he first donned the incomplete Infinity Gauntlet in Age of Ultron. In short, the Russo brothers had their work cut out for them. This was a villain who had been lurking in the shadows from the very beginning. Their first order of business was to give their audience a payoff after six years of buildup. Fortunately, I can say that they were entirely successful.
Thanos immediately proves his overwhelming prowess in battle by besting the Incredible Hulk in battle. This was the same being who had little trouble decimating Loki as the god of mischief held the Mind Stone. Loki attempts to backstab Thanos after relinquishing the Space Stone, which was inside the Tesseract, but he too proves no match for the Mad Titan. Their one-sided battle is punctuated when Thanos kills Loki. Unlike his supposed deaths at the end of Thor and in the heat of battle in Thor: The Dark World, this one is the genuine article. Loki has found himself in the one situation he cannot swindle his way out of. One of Thor’s comrades, Heimdall, is able to send Hulk to Earth using the Bifröst before he too is slain.
Although the film is called Infinity War, it is more reminiscent of The Infinity Gauntlet storyline that ran from July to December of 1991. Hulk, having reverted back to Bruce Banner, is able to warn Stephen Strange and Wong about Thanos’s plan, essentially playing the Silver Surfer’s role in the comic storyline. The key difference between the stories is that Thanos has not amassed all of the Infinity Stones by the time Stephen Strange is warned, only having the Power Stone and the Space Stone. Still, time is of the essence, and Thanos’s forces arrive to take the Time Stone from Strange. This draws the attention of Peter Parker, who leaps into action without a second thought. Realizing Earth needs all the help it can get, Banner also contacts Steve Rogers.
Meanwhile, as he is a being powered by the Mind Stone, Vision is soon targeted by Thanos’s forces as well. Luckily, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Sam Wilson arrive in time to rescue him and Wanda Maximoff. Vision suggests Maximoff should destroy the Mind Stone to prevent Thanos from retrieving it, but Rogers instead proposes an alternate solution. They are to travel to the technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda, which has just opened their first embassy under the rule of King T’Challa. The scientists there indeed have the ability to extract the stone without killing Vision, but they need quite a bit of time to complete the operation. Rogers’s team quickly realizes how difficult this will be when the Children of Thanos surround the nation, determined to reach the Mind Stone first.
From the onset, it’s clear the Avengers are up against a foe so powerful, the entire universe is at stake. Although the idea of the Earth losing half of its population isn’t as bad as Ultron’s plan to wipe out all of humanity, should Thanos succeed in his quest, no one is safe. Even if you were in the far reaches of the galaxy on some uninhabited planet all alone, you would be in serious danger. Because of this, it is highly appropriate that, after having saved the universe from Ego the Living Planet, the Guardians of the Galaxy are the ones who respond to the Asgardian ship’s distress call. They successfully rescue Thor, who tells them that Thanos seeks the Reality Stone, which is in the Collector’s possession. Realizing it would be pointless to confront Thanos in his current state, Thor decides to travel to Nidavellir to meet Eitri – a renowned blacksmith capable of forging a weapon powerful enough to fell the Mad Titan. He is accompanied by Rocket and Groot while Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis decide to prevent Thanos from procuring the Reality Stone.
With the countless plot threads flying around all at once – both from this installment and in the ones leading up to it – and its incredibly large cast, the greatest challenge the Russo brothers faced was making a comprehensive narrative under these circumstances. Although some critics argued the cast and plot were overstuffed, I actually felt they did an excellent job making things cohesive. This is primarily because they were very effective when it came to separating the various heroic factions. A lot of what makes this film so intriguing is watching how these characters’ individual journeys because by the end, none of them quite have the same exact experience. Indeed, up until this installment, the Guardians of the Galaxy were completely disconnected from the rest of the universe. If it wasn’t for their battle against Ronan the Accuser, they would have had no relation to the Thanos arc at all. Seeing them take on this intergalactic threat underscores just how grim things have become.
Despite featuring one of the largest cast of superheroes the world of cinema had ever seen by this point in history, it is easy to make the case that the real protagonist is none other than Thanos himself. He is on an extremely twisted version of the hero’s journey, using his immense resources and power to locate all of the Infinity Stones and complete the gauntlet he wears. Despite his opponents’ lack of unity, he is arguably the one facing unfavorable odds – just like the heroes had countless times before.
He also has an interesting motivation for wanting to wipe out half of all life in the galaxy. His comics counterpart was a nihilist in love with Mistress Death, and would stop at nothing to earn her favor. He thus donned the Infinity Gauntlet and made half of the galaxy’s population disappear in an effort to impress her. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had a tendency to give villains more complicated motivations, and Thanos is no exception. He observed that with the limited resources available in the galaxy, it is headed for ruin if nothing is done. Therefore, by getting rid of half of that population, it would stand a much better chance of surviving in the foreseeable future.
While these would seem to be the actions of an extremist who ultimately has good intentions, it doesn’t quite work when you realize he could use the power of the Infinity Gauntlet to create more resources and keep the current population where it is instead. In other words, even if this depiction of Thanos is far more flattering than his typical one, he is, at the end of the day, an egotist pretending to be benevolent. Even if he is shown to be genuinely remorseful at times, particularly when he sacrifices Gamora in order to obtain the Soul Stone, he is absolutely not the kind of person who would wield this power responsibly. Like Ultron, he would carry out one extreme action only to justify later ones with increasingly tenuous reasons.
By 2018, Marvel Cinematic Universe releases had a clear pattern to them. The hero would begin the film resolving an easy conflict only for reality to rear its ugly head when they face off against something far more formidable. They would then spend a majority of the film’s duration preparing to face off against this new threat and, against any adversity they may face, triumph and emerge stronger for their efforts. Most of Infinity War appears to follow that pattern, and the heroes give Thanos a fight to remember – particularly when Stark, Parker, and Strange meet up with Quill, Drax, and Mantis on Titan. But alas, despite their best efforts, they are unable to overpower Thanos, and the battle ends when he severely wounds Stark. Only when Strange willingly relinquishes the Time Stone does Thanos prevent himself from landing the coup de grâce.
From there, the Russo brothers prove to be masters of giving the audience hope seconds before snatching it away. Thanos is able to use the Infinity Gauntlet to travel to Earth directly. The Wakandan forces prove no match for him, and in a last-ditch attempt to save the universe, Maximoff shatters the Mind Stone before Thanos can reach Vision. Unfortunately, with his newly acquired Time Stone, he simply undoes the heroic sacrifice, and rips the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head. Thor attempts to strike him down, but this effort proves futile as well. Thanos retreats from the battlefield and with the snap of his fingers, completes his master plan. The heroes can only watch in horror as their comrades turn to ash before their very eyes.
Among the casualties are Groot, T’Challa Barnes, Maximoff, Wilson, Drax, Quill, Mantis, Strange, and Parker. The stinger even explores the horrifying implications of what would happen if half of the world simply blinked out of existence with Nick Fury and Maria Hill crashing into a now-unoccupied car. Seconds later, they observe an unmanned helicopter crashing into a skyscraper. Due to the very infrastructure of the world, Thanos managed to kill off many people whom the gauntlet spared.
Suddenly, various conversations and character actions in previous films become much more poignant in hindsight. Yondu telling Rocket he acts tough and egotistical to hide his fear of losing those close to him takes on a new meaning now that the scrappy raccoon is the Guardians’ sole survivor. The hell Steve Rogers went through to rescue his close friend was all for naught when Bucky Barnes is among the casualties. Just when Wakanda was opening their borders to the outside world, they suffer a devastating loss and lose their beloved king. Then, of course, Tony Stark expressing that he wouldn’t want Peter Parker’s death to weigh on his conscience becomes downright painful when his apprentice disintegrates in his arms. Despite numerous setbacks, Thanos has won, and anyone foolish enough to challenge him will meet the same fate as those who turned to ash.
Though certain high-minded critics at the time often shunned the Marvel Cinematic Universe for pandering to the lowest common denominator, this moment simply would not have been as effective if we didn’t follow these characters across multiple installments. Many of the deceased were the central characters of their own film. Quill himself got two acclaimed films before Infinity War, and he was simply killed off along with nearly all of his team as though they were throwaway supporting characters. Even with the knowledge that there is little chance many of these characters will stay dead, there is no questioning the writers’ bravery.
Though the ending is incredibly grim, it is not entirely without hope. After observing Hill turn to ash and just before he himself succumbs to the Infinity Gauntlet’s power, Fury manages to send out a distress signal to a hitherto unknown lifeline. Though he wouldn’t survive to see it, the message was received by this mysterious individual.
In many ways, I have to say that a majority of what the latest Star Wars installment at the time, The Last Jedi, was praised for is far more applicable to Infinity War. The Russo brothers were clearly aware of the basic formula of the average Marvel Cinematic Universe feature, and did what they could to subvert expectations. However, what allowed them to succeed where The Last Jedi fell short is that their approach to subverting expectations was far more precise and deft. When Rian Johnson directed The Last Jedi, he came out of the gate swinging, ready to catch his audience off-guard with every development. In practice, it was akin to making a dish with the hottest spice extracts imaginable; at some point, you completely obliterate the flavor of the food. The Russo brothers’ own attempt at this subversive storytelling let their audience feel they were getting a typical Marvel Cinematic Universe experience before blindsiding them at strategically opportune moments. Keeping with this metaphor, it’s like making the perfect curry; it has just enough spice to give it a kick, yet the other flavors have an opportunity to shine as well.
In an age when the overwhelming majority of critical darlings were quiet, introspective, and minimalistic, the Russo brothers provided a perfect antidote with their own work, being one of the most notable epics since Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. More than anything, Infinity War completely succeeded at what it set out to do. It gave this sprawling universe a conflict that required all hands on deck, provided a lot of emotional highs the series needed to remain relevant, and left their audience excited for round two.
Final Score: 8/10