Ever since the first shadowy appearance of the Mad Titan Thanos in the post-credit scene to 2012’s The Avengers, the countdown clock to Armageddon has eroded hope with every tick echoing against the shattered bones of the fallen. His singular focus was legendary. Not domination of the world, but to end it. All of it. In an instant, with the help of his coveted Infinity Gauntlet.
In the six years and 12 films that followed, alliances were severed, cities fell from the sky and entire civilizations crumbled despite the best efforts of the Earth’s mightiest heroes. Tony Stark’s “suit of armor around the world” became more of a straight jacket for those left clinging to their sanity. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are in tatters and scattered across the galaxy. Stark is the Jay-Z to Captain America's Dame Dash after the Roc-A-Fella split. But as promised, Thanos has grown weary with failed efforts of his minions to acquire the Infinity gems and finally arrives to put us all out of our misery. Somebody’s gotta die.
Avengers Infinity War is an ambitious, sprawling, epic attempt to tie together many seemingly disparate story lines into a grand showdown of galactic proportions. Only Marvel video games and animation have managed this level of crossover before now and this narrative demands just enough back story for the less familiar to keep up without boring die-hard fans. But the directors Anthony and Joe Russo methodically move our heroes around the chess board and set them on a collision course without giving away their intended paths. At times the back and forth can leave the viewer a tad unbalanced, but what makes it ultimately work is the common thread of love and loyalty that guides each of their character’s steps. Anyone watching can relate to the survival instinct that drives them. For all involved there has been a blood price to pay for each “victory” in the past, so there is ever present tension lurking beneath the surface.
This tension is also what creates the most compelling interactions. The bright spots of Infinity War are the first-time meetings between the heroes like Tony Stark and Dr. Strange or Thor and Star Lord. The level of ego, distrust and jockeying for power between these humans, aliens, gods and demigods is both humorous and efficient in helping to develop their characters with minimal exposition. It also underlines how dubious the title of “hero” really is in this context. When things get desperate the choices made expose their true characters.
From the jump our heroes are thrown into the fight of their lives and Thanos’ crew of notorious thugs, the Black Order, is as formidable as they come. They also seem to remember the butt-whooping their soldiers took last time in New York and have a serious chip on their shoulders about it.
Fans will also enjoy the upgrades, not just in suits and armor, but the visuals. As gorgeous as Wakanda is (and no, this is not Black Panther 1.5), the fight to stop Thanos takes the team to some beautifully rendered planets, moons and other outposts of mysterious origin. This underscores just how vast this universe is, driving home what is at stake.
Thus far the villains in the MCU have all been driven by what they believe is a noble mission: revenge, reclaimed birthright, or bringing order to the planet/universe under their rule. But this is where Thanos, brilliantly played by Josh Brolin, separates himself for better and worse.
The myth of Thanos has preceded him because comic book readers are familiar with his infamous desire to wipe out half of the Universe’s population to impress the Goddess of Death, dispatching his foes with macabre creativity of a Wu-Tang torture sketch. So the anticipation of his arrival on screen has been a literal death watch. His pursuit of the six Infinity Stones defined his existence, because their collective power will allow him to institute a grand culling of unprecedented proportions. The problem for me is that it is simultaneously the most malevolent and least inspiring motivation of any MCU villain thus far the way it has been presented here.
When we first met Thanos on screen he was being lectured on the stubbornness of humans. “They cannot be ruled. To challenge them is to court death…” He responded only with a grin. The last two words lead me to believe that his literal courtship of death, like in the comics, would be what spurred him along. To impress Death and win her hand. But with no relationship between he and Hela established and her presumably dying in Ragnarok (can Death die?) this was not the course taken. Instead we get what amounts to a Genius Bar tech aggressively defragging your computer in order to restore “balance.” What made villains like Black Panther’s Killmonger compelling is that you could understand some part of their motivation. There was history and interpersonal plight that made his actions understandable even if you didn’t agree. Loki was at least entertaining in his mischief. Ultron’s recognition of humanity as a threat to the earth, while malicious, wasn’t altogether inaccurate. In comparison, Thanos is a brilliantly brutal paperweight. He’s powerful, methodical and awe-inspiring but ultimately empty inside.
Nevertheless, this first part of Avengers Infinity War finally answers if this grand experiment called humanity has been worth the effort. Is the sheer will to survive enough to overcome the inevitability of death? Can our heroes defy the wrath of Thanos and his rumored “snap” decision? Will they live to Shawarma again? And what does it mean if they fail? As Dr. Strange as already shown us, only time will tell. But in the words of the late, great Christopher Wallace, You’re nobody…until somebody…kills you.
Avengers: Infinity War (Part 1) is in theaters today!