“Avengers: Infinity War” is a strange film to really consider. More sequel to “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” than its titular predecessors, it’s a significant juggling act of nearly all the principal characters Marvel Studios have built films around for the last ten years. The division of screentime for the glut of characters isn’t always intuitive – one of the five Guardians of the Galaxy getting vastly more screentime and dialogue than multiple of the titular Avengers works actually works quite well in the narrative, but the underserving of characters from “Captain America: Civil War” emphasises how limply that film undercut its own strengths with a “reassuring” promise-of-return-to-status-quo ending.
“Avengers: Infinity War” certainly does not gun for such an ending, but the fact the film (whatever its name was later changed to) is only part one of a two-film story does undercut what meaning this ending can have, as does the dramatic irony stemming from how public, well-known, and economically obvious ultimate continuity of certain characters is. The film’s awkward approach to death is one of its more obvious problems, as deaths played earnestly and for maximum emotional impact (and quite possibly permanence) are rendered in more suspicious light when the film starts to wallow in reality-bending theatrics and death toll catastrophics very reminiscent of the comic book medium its pulling from. It’s a complete film but an incomplete story, and trying to judge the film on its own merits makes things like its approach to death emotionally incoherent.
The film does a surprisingly good job juggling the different tones of the characters from the various sub-franchises its pulling from. Most notably the Guardians of the Galaxy feel completely in line with all their strengths of their own series of films. Tiny musical nods to some of the individual films these characters are from were welcome, but very underplayed – such an ambitiously huge series offers such an enormous musical canvas that audiences can be resigned to not being ever utilised by this point.
Where arguably every preceding Marvel Cinematic Universe film could be viewed comfortably standalone, for all their tie-ins and connections to other films, “Avengers: Infinity War” – for all its near three hour runtime – absolutely wastes no time with introductions and previous films feel essential not just to understanding minor story points and cameos, but the entire conceit of the film and its character interactions. The enormous success of the series has surely earned the filmmakers the right to work this way by now, though its notable that the massively successful “Black Panther” was one of the most standalone of the lot, a fact likely not insignificant to its success.
Iron Man suffers particularly from the sort of developmental whiplash plaguing the characterisations that continue across these films; from the ending of “Iron Man 3” resting absurdly on Tony declaring “I am Iron Man” after an entire film built around what was scripted to be the final line (”I am Tony Stark”, his character development in that film undone by later Avengers films, and the general flip-flopiness of his character seemingly written more from a place of half-remembered character traits than any continuity with the actual development he gets across movies. What’s fascinating is how films that unstick his development get similarly unstuck in future – his meaningful growth as a person in “Iron Man 3” is nowhere to be found in “Captain America: Civil War”, but the affecting dissolution of his romantic relationship as seen in “Captain America: Civil War” was jocularly waved aside in “Spider-Man Homecoming”, and so on. When films function as much (if not more) as advertisement for other films than as works on their own, it’s difficult to make characters grow coherently beyond what traits audiences stick to, or get the opportunity to take seriously long enough to stick to. It’s a credit to Robert Downey Jr.’s fully-realised performance that he makes the character work in spite of all this, and he’s the one principal character of the series where a kind of continual development and undevelopment makes some sort of sense, a weaponised commentary on his character traits and inability to make some changes stick. That’s less fulfilling than if the well-executed development he achieved in some films was actually taken seriously going forward, but it does make his character buoy the series in a way some of the other characters with inconsistent development aren’t able to.
As spectacle and a juggling act of enjoyably-realised characters from a vast array of films, “Avengers: Infinity War” is mostly delightful and works well. As a story in its own right, its incomplete and at times confused, but more assured and ambitious than many of its predecessors. The series’ increasing similarity to the comic books they’re drawing from arguably is bringing it to greater and greater heights, given the apparently unstoppable box office ascent they keep experiencing. Embracing zanier cosmic and magical elements and slowly relaxing the series’ tonal homogeneity has worked well too. But I don’t think borrowing comic book’s tendency to make death and emotional investment more and more meaningless through endless tricks and reversals was as good of a choice. It’s a fun time, and a well-earned celebration of ten years of success, but the film’s ending discomforted me and not in the ways it intended too. Three and a half Infinity Stones, and an absent ant.