“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” shouts the traveler Thanos from the cosmos as he throws fists and chucks moons onto the lesser living beings crawling beneath his boot. He holds the colors of the rainbow on his hand, except for purple which he proudly wears on his skin. He is the central character in Marvel’s first tragedy “Infinity War,” a doomsday prophecy nearly ten years in the making. Now that the prophecy is here and the reckoning has been accomplished, we’re left in the ashes of one noble truth: “Infinity War” isn’t the greatest Marvel movie, but it still has greatness shining at its core.
Marvel movies are constantly defined in terms of “firsts,” by their introductions of cinematic aesthetics or certain types of storytelling elements. Other Marvel movies had jokes, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the first true comedy. All Marvel films have serious plotlines, but “Black Panther” was the first whose quality reached the level of the Greek epics. “Infinity War” is the first to make its antagonist the central character of the film, where our mighty heroes are nothing more than obnoxious superpowered mosquitos to be swatted by Thanos’ mighty glove.
This centering on Thanos is a bold approach but not without its flaws. First introduced in 2012’s “The Avengers,” Thanos has been plotting to grab all those infinity stones that have conveniently popped up in the Marvel movies over the decade. There’s six in total, each of them tied in with nearly every hero we’ve encountered through the MCU to date. If they’re all gathered together, they turn the wielder into a sort of unstoppable space Jesus or space Hitler, depending on their motives. This makes “Infinity War” feel like Thanos is hosting an overcrowded, intergalactic party and doesn’t have enough time to talk to his soon-to-be-battered guests.
“Infinity War” does acknowledge this and does its best to give some sort of backstory or emotional pull for each of its heroes. There’s a chucklesome odd-couple dynamic between Tony Stark and Dr. Strange, some violent family dysfunction between Gamora, Nebula and Thanos, and a somber Thor repenting for his race through the forging of a new, legendary weapon. When they’re on-screen, the heroes shine, but when they’re off, their faces are forgotten in their anti-Thanos parade.
The two subplots that don’t really click are Vision and Wanda’s Scotland adventure and Steve Rogers’ random reappearance. We really just want Rogers to talk about how life in exile was for the last few years, or how this is the first time he’s gone to a real war since that one back in the forties. But that reminiscing is denied, with Rogers thrust towards the frontlines once again as Thanos and crew descend upon Wakanda (yes, there’s a Black Panther sideplot too).
It’s dizzying and chaotic, with each new character introduction and each reappearance jostling our moviegoing attention from side-to-side. If the other Marvel movies were a rollercoaster with a fast-but-focused track, “Infinity War” is an elaborate bumper cars ride, with vehicles bashing us over repeatedly as our most earnest driving attempts prove futile.
But in the bumping chaos, “Infinity War’s” enjoyment still manages to seep through. Even though his destruction is widespread, Thanos is an immaculate villain because he sees himself as a public service officer rather than a megalomaniac politician. He doesn’t want to rule the universe, he just wants to see it uptight and orderly, like a meter-maid who refuses to let a driver off the hook, or a by-the-books IRS auditor who reviews tax returns at home, just because he believes in the rules purpose of his institution that much. Past Marvel villains only worshiped themselves; Thanos worships everyone, as long as they play ball.
Strangely, “Infinity War” is the least visually-pleasing of the Marvel films, despite its years of hype and financial investment. Thanos’ cronies look like leftover caricatures from a cancelled “The Nighmare Before Christmas” sequel, and you can nearly see the green-screen poking from the corners in interstellar scenes. The entire film feels rushed, like the VFX artists and editors went on sabbatical three months before release because they thought “Infinity War” meant they’d have an infinite time to work on it.
But except for “Black Panther,” “Infinity War” leaves the rawest emotional impact out of any MCU film, where we feel connected and invested in each of the characters despite the film’s storytelling faults. As “Civil War” was the most philosophically poignant of the Marvel films, “Infinity War” is the most idealistically persuasive, making us actually consider if wiping out half the universe is really such a bad thing. Of course, we’d want to be one of the ones who were left alive if that happened. But after watching “Infinity War,” our doubts that Thanos or Marvel could ever pull a movie like this off are forever dust in the wind.