Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
12A | 2h 29min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 26 April 2018 (UK)
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★
Phrases like "the endgame is here" and "it has all led up to this" hang heavy in both the marketing campaign and the screenplay for this, the nineteenth movie in the Marvel superhero cinematic universe. Ten years. Eighteen films. Over that time Marvel studios have proved themselves adept at creating an entirely new type of fan: who follow the twists and turns of the various plot stands, hunt for easter eggs, and laugh at long-running in-jokes, but might never have actually picked up any of the comic books that these superhero characters originated in since Marvel started publishing as a brand in the 1960s. Thus the Disney-owned studio beast can drop the huge, sprawling team-up movie Avengers: Infinity War on us in much the same fashion that one villain character in the film tugs a small moon down from the sky above using his 'macguffin' power weapon. They have the power now.
It is easy to by cynical about this slick studio machine, and if you either don't like superhero movies at all, are a loyalist to rival DC Comics, or were irritated or just confused by the larger-scale Marvel 'event' movies like Captain America: Civil War (which was also directed by Infinity War's director team Anthony and Joe Russo) you probably won't like this behemoth. But as someone who is firmly in the 'interested but not a die-fan' category, I have to confess, I found that this monster of a movie delivered a lot of silly fun, was surprisingly coherent, and balanced the expected technobabble and bucketloads of quips against some real sense of there being actual dramatic stakes this time.
There is even a flash of The Empire Strikes Back in where the directors and screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) are prepared to leave you, and a touch of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in the way the Avengers heroes - scattered and broken and thus vulnerable as never before - are forced by the hulking and very purple supervillain Thanos to not only fight him physically (and, played in motion capture by Josh Brolin, he is refreshingly about more than just pontificating and sending out minions), but face the dreaded scenario where they have to balance principles against victory. Like the Joker, Thanos is a guy who really likes to really test out the superhero's smug declarations that "we don't trade lives". Marvel movies have frequently suffered from mundane villains, as if they had to be pushed aside to make way for the whale-sized charisma of stars like Robert Downey Jnr (who returns here as Tony "Iron Man" Stark). Thanos, who had become something of a running joke for having only hovered in the background for ten years, both makes more of an impact than I expected in terms of his power and ideology, but, interestingly, also has to face the same dilemma he forces on the Avengers. And as sprawling and messy as this film's plot gets, with at least five separate teams and battlegrounds to be rushed through, the disjointed structure sort of makes sense too in the larger scale of Thanos's plan. Splitting the Avengers up is what helps Thanos gain ground. When the heroes do manage to get their act together and team up, Thanos is shown to be vulnerable.
Of course, as the Avengers rally to confront the intergalactic warlord to stop him from collecting the six Infinity Stones that will enable him to bend reality to his will and wipe out half the universe, we do get a sense of the Marvel machine going through the motions. There are the self-deflating quips and pratfalls that you can see coming, and action sequences that quickly become incoherent or degenerate into the same types of rhythms we have seen before. Thanos is supposed to be a genius, but his actions (and a lot else in this movie) often scream of plot requirements than a masterplan for galactic domination: note his strange habit of leaving defeated Avengers wounded but alive even though they clearly represent a threat to him.
But the filmmakers twist in a few surprises to keep you on your toes just when fatigue threatens to set in, never let the structure of all these events collapse into a total mess through zooming ahead too fast or dragging along too slowly due to exposition dumps (though inevitably we get a few of those), and they wisely lean into the fact that these characters have been established over so many movies (and, in most cases, are very well cast) that less time needs to be given to each to make an impact. The likes of Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Downey Jnr, Chris Evans (a bearded Captain America), Chris Pratt (Star Lord) and even Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket Racoon already fit their roles like gloves, and the screenplay continues the tradition of effectively pairing off characters to provide maximum pathos and banter. Thus Tony Stark continues his charming frustrated mentor schtick with young Spider-Man (a likeable Tom Holland), whilst portentous Thor makes a great comedy duo with "good, noble rabbit" Rocket. Female roles sadly feel under-served, but that is more the wider studio's fault in not putting more female characters into the universe earlier. However, if anything is going to blunt off the cynicism about seeing this as just another giant cash-in, it is sensing the awareness by the filmmakers of how many of their audience members hand over that ticket money to see characters they have spent eighteen movies getting to know and care about already.