Review: Marvel Infinity War Part 1 (limited spoilers)

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.]


14 thoughts on “Review: Marvel Infinity War Part 1 (limited spoilers)

  1. “Basic plot inevitability” is why I don’t get the hate for spoilers. I basically already know what’s going to happen – I’m honestly not watching a Marvel film for big surprises or experimentation.

    Anyway I’ll probably go see this at some later date when the crowds die down a bit. Or on a longhaul flight some time.

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    1. Wherein I compare spoilers to bubble wrap.

      The people who tell stories work hard to surprise those they tell them to. Otherwise, they’d just say “Here’s the story of this guy who finds out that it was his uncle all along,” and we’d be listening for some other reason than hearing a story. Serious meta reasons, probably, like analyzing the use of semi-colons or water imagery.

      I prefer not to know the major surprises in advance, at least the first time, and strive not to ruin the experience for others. If you want to know all that, there are plenty of people whose lives are made meaningful by telling others all the surprise developments of any new story.

      “New,” by the way, is a relative term. There are tales hundreds of years old that can still be spoiled. I will never understand why it is so onerous to some people I have had conversation with that they should be obliged to put the words “spoiler warning” or others to the same effect ahead of their spoilers. It’s like they want those plot developments to be their surprise, and to steal the effect of relating them from the authors who created them.

      Not seeing a plot twist (or a punchline) coming is a simple pleasure. It’s a cheap thrill, and one that works, like popping bubble wrap. It takes roughly two words to not ruin that. Leave some bubbles for me.

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      1. I think of things like this as more of a rollercoaster. We can see a whole bunch of the ride, if not all of it, laid out before we ever get onto it, but we don’t know how it’ll make us feel until our arse is in the seat and we’re experiencing it.

        But out of a general sense of trying not to be too much of a dick, I don’t post spoilers unless someone asks me to. Plus I’m almost never among the first to see these films anyway so it’s just as well I’m not overly bothered about spoilers 🙂

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      2. Well, I have seen someone break out in tears at the execution of Anne Boleyn in one of the many Tudor films and that particularly spoilers has only been known for more than 500 years.

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      3. When I say I have a pretty good idea where a story is going, I often mean I can see which common story pattern it’s working off, what the likely relations are going to be between detail dropped now and the later revelation. It doesn’t mean I won’t get a kind of satisfaction about how it works out even if I called it note for note at least half the movie in advance (pretty much every key plot twist in CoCo) if the execution is gorgeous or clever or just involves three-dimensional characters I can cheer on . When this is the case I am fairly inured to plot spoilers as the real pleasures don’t come from being surprised by the plot.

        But I also get a genuine enjoyment out of thinking I know and being wrong, when I’m wrong because writers know their craft backwards and forwards and use the known assumptions against me. This is where and when spoilers strike me as bad; when they don’t come from the easiest and most familiar story shapes but with something the writer was taking some pains to keep yhe reader/viewer from figuring out.

        I also take some care not to discuss things late in a plot regardless, because my sense of how much of even the most common story shape is predictable may not match that of another person in the discussion.

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  2. Right, have seen it.

    We enjoyed it thoroughly. There was slam-bangy pew pew, lots of snappy quips, and some genuine emotion. Everything I look for in a Marvel movie. All the characters got to do their thing. Bonus Dinklage isn’t ever a bad thing.

    I definitely would not take anyone under 10 to it, or possibly a very mature 8 or 9. There’s a LOT of brutal violence, both one-on-one and genocidal. Much darker than the others.

    The chuckle bits are worked in with the srs bzness very well — what the GotG say about Thor when they first meet had me snickering.

    I hadn’t seen Dr. Strange and I don’t feel I missed anything; he didn’t impress me much in this and his gestures are really, really daft. The film would have been just as good without him.

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    1. I strongly suspect that Dr. Strange’s cloak wrapping the infinity gauntlet and his giving up of the time stone are going to be a huge part of how the events of this movie get unwound.

      I didn’t like the movie at all, except for the funny banter parts. I thought Thanos was a terrible villain. The best MCU villain by far was the Vulture, because he has recognizable human motivation for what he does. Thanos’s motivation is ludicrously thin, and there’s even less reason for why his followers are fanatically devoted to him.

      Apropos of nothing, every time I saw Ebony Maw in the movie, I kept thinking of Mordin Solus.

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  3. I would definitely suggest people go see this sooner rather than later, because the Spoilers are going to get spoilered and it works pretty well if it’s a surprise. I went 8pm Friday night (aarrgghhh!) to a sell out performance filled with teenagers – my excuse is that I was taking teenagers! – and let’s just say that the Spoilers had *exactly* the desired effects.

    In some ways this felt like a Big Fantasy Doorstop Epic, with the cast of characters splitting up to achieve their quests then reuniting – and that was probably the only way to handle such a ridiculously big cast.

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  4. I just saw it this evening. Some thoughts —

    Loved the Dinklage role — extremely smartass off the filmmakers to cast it that way.

    Liked a lot of the humor.

    Didn’t understand how Thanos beat Thor at the beginning (I’m not counting that as a spoiler, since it was at the beginning). No lightning?

    Big logic holes — which, granted, are pretty much par for the course in superhero movies. But at one point I really wanted to shout “ just cut his arm off!”

    I thought it did a good job of juggling a huge cast and many disconnected pieces of action.

    The carnage was well done, but it also illustrated one of the reasons why I stopped reading comic books lo these many years ago. It’s Bobby Ewing syndrome — just redo anything too unpleasant and pretend it never happened. And if you can do that, then nothing really means anything, at which point I no longer care.

    Avengers 4 had better be great!

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