Avengers: Infinity War, rated PG-13
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Karen Gillan, Sebastian Stan, Peter Dinklage, Idris Elba, Vin Diesel, Gwyneth Paltrow, William Hurt
Austin Family Critical Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the original Iron Man (2008), which officially kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and redefined the career of one of the best actors in Hollywood: Robert Downey, Jr. In the years since, I’m astounded that it’s grown to this – a seemingly unending series of 150-minute films stuffed with more superheroes and divergent narratives than anything else I can recall. It’s certainly something to behold, even if it doesn’t seem exactly like cinema – after all, do any of the recent Marvel crossover films (namely, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) have the narrative clarity of the original Iron Man, or even The Avengers (2012)?
But I was surprised by the latest installment in the franchise, Avengers: Infinity War, because this one lingers in the memory for longer than I expected. I think that’s because of two reasons: one, the ending, when directors Joe and Anthony Russo really, for lack of a better phrase, go for it (I’m not certain if that counts as a spoiler or not). But more importantly, it’s because of Thanos (Josh Brolin), a surprisingly empathetic villain who is given such depth and layers, particularly for a character whose objective is basically world domination. Brolin is absolutely fantastic in the role, and there’s an inner conflict with this character that stands as one of the most interesting elements presented yet in a Marvel film.
The story, when boiled down to its essentials, concerns Thanos attempting to capture six infinity stones, each of which control a different element of the universe – time, soul, mind, reality, etc. Two of the stones are safely protected on Earth – one with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other with Vision (Paul Bettany). The film essentially concerns the Avengers breaking up into groups to track Thanos’s path of destruction across the universe, attempting to thwart his world-ending quest and protect the infinity stones he doesn’t already have. The final battle brings all parties to Wakanda, the homeland of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), for a traditionally large-scale battle scene.
All of your favorite Avengers are here (aside from, strangely, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) – Iron Man, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, again proving he’s brilliant in pretty much any type of movie), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and, in a rather moving and subdued performance, Chris Hemsworth as a one-eyed Thor. The Guardians of the Galaxy also play a major role in the proceedings. Even as Avengers: Infinity War moves into welcomingly despairing territory, the banter is particularly funny between all of these superheroes. It’s interesting to watch how the Russos mesh the varying tones of the individual, stand-alone movies together cohesively, and it’s mostly successful. (There’s no denying that the Guardians inject a lot of fun into the narrative, where it could have been simply brooding and mournful.)
I’ll admit that the beginning of the picture didn’t fully have me – I didn’t quite know what to think of Thanos. (I was so refreshed by Michael B. Jordan’s villain from Black Panther, whose motives were so clear and understandable.) I feared I’d be watching another Marvel villain determined to destroy the universe for murky reasons. But Thanos grows in complexity, and I was impressed by how scary and weird the film becomes at times. I was truly hooked by the time the movie got into the deep space sequences with Thor, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and teenage Groot (Vin Diesel) – there was a mysterious quality that I hadn’t quite experienced in one of these films. The movie, as a whole, does a great job of including all of its characters – naturally, some are given a slightly short shrift, but that’s the nature of having 20-odd lead characters.
By my count, I’ve seen 12 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films at this point, starting with the first Iron Man. But sometimes I still wonder how people find themselves so invested in a labyrinthine narrative that often relies upon the knowledge and context of at least 10 other movies. Part of the appeal of Black Panther (and the first Iron Man) was how well they worked as standalone movies. These packed-to-the-gills crossover movies may be thrilling, but like I said, they’re not exactly traditional cinema. If it weren’t for the presence of Thanos in this one, I might have trouble recalling whether certain scenes in Avengers: Infinity War actually took place in either Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – they run the risk of all feeling like the same, big movie. I think the great sequels offer a different tone and approach with each new outing – even within the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) is definitely not the same movie as The Dark Knight (2008), even though they share the same core characters and serve as narrative counterparts.
Even still, I found myself becoming surprisingly emotional seeing certain characters at risk. Perhaps somehow, over the years and somewhat against my will, I’ve become attached to these people, even the superheroes I don’t count as favorites. Just as I’d be drifting away during a fight scene, there would suddenly be a big, emotional scene in which I was completely engaged. (By the way, it’s always bizarre to me that audiences are so invested in some of these dramatic scenes when they involve superheroes, but can’t sit still for similarly paced dramatic scenes in regular dramas.)
I believe Avengers: Infinity War is the most memorable of the Marvel crossover movies, even as I recognize that this is not what I want cinema to become. But, much like Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), it takes chances (particularly with its ending), which is an admirable quality. And even when decked out in superhero costumes, it’s always a pleasure watching such talented actors interact with one another. For the first time in a while with this series, I’m truly interested in what comes next.
Avengers: Infinity War is rated PG-13, and there’s undoubtedly some material in here that’s more frightening than in the previous Marvel films. However, I think the emotional weight of the movie is ultimately good for young people – it gives an added dimension to these films, which are so often candy-colored and relatively consequence-free. Here, the stakes matter, and interesting questions of morality are called into play that may spark real thought among younger viewers.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.