Marvel president Kevin Feige has been with the franchise since its inception and he’s surely heard that films under his imprimatur have a villain problem. Few resonate once the credits roll, and their motivations are often muddy and vague and generic. To remedy this, Infinity War takes for granted that everyone’s seen Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) in action and there’s no need to give them their own arcs. Instead, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, alongside directors Anthony and Joe Russo, foreground Thanos as the film’s main character. He’s had a scene or two here and there, but the franchise has mostly communicated how ineffectual he is. Infinity War gives whole scenes over to his backstory, emphasizing his relationship with adopted/kidnapped daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), what he’s willing to give up to achieve his goal, and his status as a ‘man’ without a country after his home planet ate itself in a spasm of resource dearth. It’s an effective strategy thanks to an oddly-soulful performance from Brolin, who invests this CGI creation with a focused resignation towards what he’s convinced himself he must do.
What’s made Marvel’s villains not very compelling is the choice to put the focus on the heroes and their interplay with each other. The opposite is true in Infinity War. Having seen all the Marvel films to date, and therefore being invested with all the character work done in those films for the various heroes, Infinity War reduces the many protagonist’s immediate goals to stopping Thanos. There are some exceptions, like Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) inability to transform into the Hulk after a bruising encounter with Thanos, a gamma-ray version of erectile dysfunction. While that instance works, others are shorthanded with quotidian go-to’s, like romances lacking in chemistry or looming parental responsibilities. Even personal favorite Steve Rogers can’t be described as much more than present.
On top of servicing old characters and mostly failing, new characters are also added, further juicing the degree of difficulty. Thanos’ lieutenants work variably well, with two sinking into the woodwork and two popping thanks to their portrayers. Carrie Coon plays sleek assassin Proxima Midnight, and she sells her inclusion beyond the fun in joke of her presence. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is also fun as psychokinetic sadist Ebony Maw, an unctuous high priest for Thanos. All give the opportunity for smaller victories, a necessity in a film this long. Final new addition Peter Dinklage makes an impression, but not a good one. He famously phoned in his narration for video game Destiny, and he’s doing the same thing in Infinity War. Seemingly cast only because he’s a dwarf playing the blacksmith giant Eitri, the gag wears itself out immediately, leaving three of the MCU’s more entertaining characters languishing away from the action with him.
If Infinity War lacks the emotional push that plenty of Marvel films have had, then the side-eyed, quippy dialogue is here to remind the viewer of what they’re watching. The lightness of the MCU has long stood in contrast to the drearier DC superheroes, and even when half of all life is at stake, the characters in Infinity War still have time for gags and ironic asides. The value of this comes from mixing up characters. Chris Pratt’s insecure Star-Lord against the physical perfection of Chris Hemseworth’s Thor. Tom Holland’s playful Peter Parker against Dr. Strange’s stiff professionalism. Again, all this is based on knowing who the characters are before the events of Infinity War and then reacting when a character’s opposite is put in contact with them. If a viewer has done the work, it’s charming, but it’s hard to tell if it’s working without all that prior knowledge.
If the character interplays are being missed, there’s always the action in a superhero film to sustain the uninitiated or the casual. The Russos come from television and with the exception of You, Me, and Dupree, their cinematic careers have been in the TV-adjacent world of Marvel. Like TV directors, they’re functional and able to execute the vision of others. In TV, that’s the showrunner, while in Marvel, it’s Feige. After earlier Marvel entries from directors with perspectives and styles like Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and Ryan Coogler, the Russo’s don’t compete stylistically, despite the presence of passable action on larger and larger scales. This is indeed a superhero film, with magic and punching and inventive consequences. The problem comes up in the distance between Thanos’ growing power and the inability to just have him murder everyone with a single blow. He can throw a moon at his adversaries, but his punches aren’t so hard that a character on the receiving end of his wrath isn’t instantly killed or incapacitated. In facing off against Thanos, Infinity War is most thrilling when the characters are executing a complicated scheme of synchronized powers, but there’s really only one of those. When it’s resorting to just-in-time rescues because the film has too many characters and they each need a cheap hero moment, the strings are readily apparent.
Infinity War, much like fellow Disney blockbuster The Last Jedi, is corrupted by the outside world. The Last Jedi was having an intimate conversation with its fans, often breaking the immersion into the world of the film, but at least that was cultural and germane to the film itself. Infinity War is broken by economic concerns, such that it’s apparent to someone who pays cursory attention to entertainment news whether or not a character is in any real danger. Is Chris Evans, tied to Marvel since 2009, really going to stick around for another decade? Is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther really going anywhere after anchoring a billion dollar phenomenon? Infinity War makes some daring choices, but due to something as acinematic as contract negotiations, it all feels like a feint that robs the film of pathos it’s so obviously going for. There’s some attempt at theme with multiple characters refusing to allow sacrifices even when they might result in thwarting Thanos, a strategy that must be ratified in the upcoming sequel as the superhero’s credo. It’s not enough to shield Infinity War from the feeling of commerce horning its way onto the screen, something that is present with every film regardless of budget but icky when it’s so apparent. I’ve never felt manipulated in a Marvel film until Infinity War. It’s good for what it is and the best that could be hoped for from a compromised demand. That’s an unengaged sentiment I’ve rarely associated with the MCU. C+