Avengers: Infinity War ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

What is most impressive about Avengers: Infinity War isn't how well it balances a cast of dozens, or how exciting its big action set pieces are, or how well it does justice to the characters that have been set up in the stories leading up to this super-team film. In fact, in all of those areas, Infinity War has some shortcomings.

The sheer number of characters here—almost every surviving hero from the previous 18 films—means that very few of them get anything resembling a character arc. Even the much longed for reunion between Captain America and Iron Man that has been in the works since the pair's falling out in Civil War is pushed to the next Avengers film. There's no resolution here because the pair never meet—in fact, Captain America himself has surprisingly little screen time here. Similarly, the romantic relationship between Wanda and Vision is taken for granted here, assumed to have been established between the end of Civil War and the beginning of Infinity War. Hulk's return to earth and reunion with Black Widow are relegated to a brief nod.

That's not to say Infinity War squanders these beloved characters or strips them of the familiar personalities we've come to know and love. The film wisely breaks down its cast into separate small groups: Iron Man meets Doctor Strange, Thor meets the Guardians, Bruce Banner meets Shuri, etc. Because so many of these characters are known to audiences but not to each other, the new interactions they have with each other are rich and rewarding to watch, especially those moments that bring levity—and there are several—to an otherwise heavy film.

No, what is impressive about Infinity War is how fully it commits to the idea of being a comic book crossover. For better or worse, it feels for the first time like an EVENT—ten years away from 2008's Iron Man but what feels like a lifetime, Infinity War makes 2012's The Avengers look positively quaint. It's breathless, an entire movie of third act that makes 2 hours and 40 minutes fly by as its characters race to stop the end of the world. It's a surprisingly tight and simple narrative given how much set up the previous movies have done: Thanos is a bad dude and he wants to remove half of all life from the universe.

But what is most impressive about Infinity War is how audacious it is. In a similar way as Black Panther, it is a film that makes the villain the protagonist. It's Thanos' story more than any of the heroes trying to stop him. He's the one on the fetch quest for the Infinity Stones, and the Avengers are the obstacles in his path. For all the build up—he was introduced six years ago in The Avengers—Thanos pays off handsomely in Infinity War. A Malthusian philosopher with a mean streak, Thanos is introduced in a tense scene aboard the Asgardian refugee vessel that establishes him as immediately formidable. The way we see him casually handle objects we've been trained throughout the past decade to understand as deeply dangerous is something to behold. Even the way the Stones look small in his massive hands is evidence of the great design of Thanos, who comes to life with depth and nuance in a performance from Josh Brolin. And while I don't know that we ever agree or sympathize with Thanos, we understand his logic, in the same way we understand the particular indifferent brand of justice Anton Chigurh delivers in No Country for Old Men. It's scarier because we can't write it off as purely evil.

And Infinity War commits to this idea of Thanos as the protagonist all the way to the end of the film. From that perspective, it's a happy ending. The film's willingness to tell us what Thanos wants to do and then follow through on it is more audacious than I expected them ever to do in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I'm glad they did. Infinity War's ending is shocking, brutal, and exactly what the MCU needed to kick Phase 3 into gear as it hurtles towards what is certain to be the end for a lot of the characters we've known for the past decade. The fact that the Russo Brothers and Marvel are willing to let half their characters remain dead in the minds of fans for an entire year feels substantial. It's a dark and thrilling ending, one that will be compared to The Empire Strikes Back but feels closer to the cliffhanger in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Even though we know—especially if you're paying attention to the release announcements for future Marvel films—that much of this film's ending will be undone by next year's yet unnamed Avengers conclusion, the heroes don't know that.

Infinity War feels like an incomplete movie, so it's hard to fully judge on its own merits, but as part of a larger whole that includes 10 years of viewer investment and a promised conclusion, it's about everything you could ask for.