Ten years on from Iron Man and six years on from the first Avengers film, the big crowded finale of the Avengers has arrived. With a huge cast and an enormous roster of characters, the film picks a villain whose primary motivation is a pathological worry that the universe is too crowded. It’s almost too easy to see Josh Brolin’s purple Thanos as Disney – collecting franchises together (Marvel, Star Wars) to achieve an unparalleled commercial dominance – or perhaps as Marvel executives looking at the MCU and thinking “we need to rationalise this product line”.
As I said in the title “limited spoilers” but I will be talking about the original comic plotline and about Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet as established things within Marvel and also about the earlier films. So if you aren’t familiar with those and would like the film to be a complete surprise then READ NO FURTHER! I think the film might be better that way but all that stuff has been out there for years and has been discussed since Thanos made his first brief cameo in The Avengers movie.
That first appearance established Thanos and the infinity stones as a common thread through the Marvel films. In the comic books, Marvel has had various iterations of cosmically all-powerful objects but the relevant version of these is in Jim Starlin’s 1991 crossover event series The Infinity Gauntlet. In that story, the whole of the Marvel comic book universe is imperilled when the “Mad Titan” Thanos is discovered to have captured all six of the infinity gems and made himself a god-like being by virtue of a gauntlet in which the gems are embedded. Thanos (a mangling of the Greek ‘Thanatos’ i.e. death) is enamoured of the personification of Death and to win her affection obliterates half the living things in the universe.
The Infinity Gauntlet is something of a classic of Marvel’s big event crossover stories but it isn’t terribly complex. Where it works is by repeating a theme of the inevitability of defeat, as the heroes try various schemes to defeat a being who is genuinely undefeatable.
Avengers: Infinity War was never going to be a re-hash of the comic book. While there are many characters in common, key characters such as the Silver Surfer are not part of the MCU (as he is tied up with the Fantastic Four) and other characters have not been included (in particular Adam Warlock – although he keeps being hinted at). This is for the best and the MCU has often borrowed lightly from comic book source material to create something better (Civil War being the most notable example).
Still, if you are expecting lots of things based on:
- the existing comic books
- the trailers
- the fact that Marvel needs to change its roster of actors & characters to keep the MCU perpetual franchise going
- basic plot inevitability
- all the past films, particular Guardians of Galaxy
then you won’t be too surprised by events in the film. Even so, the story maintains its tension all the way through and many events seem shocking.
The film connects directly in terms of events with Thor: Ragnarok and in terms of its cosmic storyline and character connections is more closely tied to The Guardian’s of the Galaxy films. In terms of a shift in tone, this is a much, much darker film than either of those two. While there’s no shortage of quips and snark, it is a film about mass murder and brutal genocide. It’s not that gory but I’d worry about taking younger kids to see the film – particularly as this is a two-parter and the story won’t be resolved for another year. People die and happy endings are not had – indeed happier endings from previous films are undone.
More broadly, it has the structure of a big, mad fantasy epic. Multiple plot lines, essentially two sets of characters off on quests to stop the big bad and another set fighting something closer to a literal war. There are multiple fight scenes, generally well put together in that you can follow who is thumping who. The battle scenes are frankly incredible – I won’t describe them because of far too many spoilers.
Nearly everybody appears with few exceptions (Hawkeye from the Avengers, Valkerie from Thor) and most get a decent amount of screen time. However, this is not a film in which people get much time for character development. Other Marvel movies have done well in mixing superhero action with character-led stories in which we follow people having genuine feelings other than fight-or-flight responses – this film, not so much. Most characters are trying to stay alive and/or stop everybody else dying.
Thanos though, is different. We’ve had villain-centric scenes before in Marvel films and we’ve had villains with complex motives (Zemo in Civil War). Thanos here is presented as having simple motives but a more than one-dimensional character. The film Thanos is an ideological Malthusian, obsessed with the concept of over-population – who believe it is a mercy to cut the population of intelligent beings in half. He is allowed to argue his position without much pushback from the good guys other than the moral one that genocide is bad. On more than one occasion, the film puts Thanos’s emotions at the centre of a scene, following the plot from his perspective as a quasi-sympathetic character. That’s both novel and disturbing as he is more clearly monstorous than many other Marvel villains (e.g. Killmonger in Black Panther).
But this odd choice arises out of how central Gamora is to the film. Gamora is relevant to the original comic book even though she ends up playing less of a role (Nebula also features) and The Guardian’s films have established her as central to any storyline with Thanos as a villain. She doesn’t get to be the central character of the film but I strongly suspect her role will be substantial in part 2*.
The problems with the Nebula-Gamora-Thanos relationship as being essentially a story of a violent abusive father are legion. They were already present in the Guardian’s films and to some extent they fit better in this much darker film. Zoe Saladana carries a lot of the emotional weight of this film and is another reason why this is more of a Guardian of the Galaxy film with the Avengers crossing into it than vice-versa.
Death and self-sacrafice are recurring themes (and again, another reason why the film isn’t for everybody). There are repeated instances of people forced to choose between giving Thanos what he wants or killing a loved one – to the extent that at first it feel repititious but then feels like something more.
In the end, Marvel could have made a film in which all these popular characters ran arounf a CGI set colliding into things and punching each other while making snarky quips and I’d have watched it and enjoyed it. This film was better than that but not as good as the very best Marvel films. It’s a big silly film about mass murder with many, many distressing elements and a weird cameo by Peter Dinklage which would take a whole other essay to unpack.
*[Yes, there’s a problem with that theory if you’ve seen the film.]