I’ve felt like Thanos before. OK, maybe not the single-minded megalomania and unbridled fascism (or the rippling fuschia muscles), but I’ve certainly wanted some space in my life. The subway trains are too crowded. Traffic is too intense. Lines for restaurants are too long. The hassles of everyday life can be overwhelming and maybe I’ve fantasized about snapping my fingers and making everyone around me disappear. I’ve just never done anything about it, and thank God for that.
Avengers: Infinity War is about someone who is happy to burn the universe to ashes in order to find a little peace and quiet. It’s about other things, too—particularly bands of wisecracking heroes audiences have come to adore. Still, the core of the movie is the surprisingly layered journey of a corrupt, evil man with an end-goal that most of us can relate to. Marvel has never been particularly interested in its villains before. Most of them have been the garden-variety mustache twirlers with generic “destroy the world” plans. Killmonger in Black Panther and Loki in the Thor films have been noticeable deviations from this trope, but Thanos is even different from those characters thanks to a surprisingly affecting motion-capture performance from Josh Brolin.
Brolin was handed the unenviable task of giving dimension to a character that, on paper, could be totally absurd. A purple Vin Diesel doesn’t necessarily sound on par with iconic comic book villains like The Joker or Lex Luthor, but Brolin buys in completely in every scene—his voice both menacing and eerily vulnerable. He’s a terrible father and an uncaring monster, but he tempers that with something approximating real emotion. It’s an excellent performance with a perfect resolution that leaves just enough ambiguity to make you want to ponder what you just witnessed.
Now, that’s not why anyone will buy a ticket to see this film. That’s been the Marvel way for 10 years now—a keen awareness that the greatest asset they have is their heroes. Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Black Widow, and the rest of the Avengers are why anyone gives a damn about these movies in the first place. While the pre-Marvel era of comic book films (the Tim Burton Batman movies, especially) paid extra attention to the nefarious villains and their warped motivations, the Marvel series doubles down on cultivating affection for its protagonists.
Much of the early hype around Infinity War focused on who would live and who would die in this epic struggle. And boy, is it epic. At two hours and forty minutes, Infinity War moves briskly, but is confident enough to luxuriate in the pleasures of getting all these heroes together in one room to exchange witty banter. They can do that because they earned the audience’s attention and their love. Every introduction, every joke, every heartfelt soliloquy matters, because the audience has been on this unprecedented journey every step of the way. When things get truly grim, it hurts that much more.
Infinity War is a triumph, but that should be said of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe—a project that had no business being as successful as it was. It’s miracle it all fell into place so perfectly, that Marvel had the rights to these characters and had the independence to establish the formula for success before they were subsumed by the Disney corporate machine. Even the lesser films (the first two Thor movies, the forgotten Incredible Hulk, Age of Ultron) are important parts of the greater whole. Infinity War is the no-holds-barred season finale of a prestige TV series played out on a giant screen with a seemingly unlimited budget. All the main characters have evolved significantly—Tony Stark is flirting with the notion of finally settling down, Peter Quill and Gamora are finally being honest about their feelings for each other, Steve Rogers has embraced his personal moral compass in the face of institutional corruption, and Thor is a man without a purpose now that his home is gone. Everything has built up to this and exposition is at a minimum.
Infinity War is nearly three hours of payoff—a succession of fight scenes, tearful goodbyes, and hard choices. The action is brutal in places, the design is otherworldly and haunting. The stakes are real. Most Marvel films are, in some way, about the end of the world. This movie feels like it really is. But this is not a depressing film, at least for those who have seen a superhero movie before. It’s hard to divorce oneself from the reality that when the fourth Avengers movie rolls credits, the good guys and women will have triumphed. A world in which the last scene of Avengers 4 is Thanos drinking a pina colada on an empty beach while a cadre of minions rubs his feet is simply not feasible. That does not mean that this movie isn’t a gut punch at times. It’s just that you won’t leave feeling like you’ve been cold-cocked by an Infinity Gauntlet.
Though, maybe you will. That’s the genius of Marvel. For a portion of the audience, no amount of logic or reason will be able to dislodge them from their sorrow. No one can tell you that it will all be OK. That’s because you care. They made you care. The unforgettable performances of Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana, and the rest of the massive cast of superheroes allowed you to believe, to invest, and to follow them to this cruel endgame. You might feel like Thanos on your daily commute to work, but at no point during Avengers: Infinity War will you wish to thin out this overstuffed movie and I am confident in saying this is the best Marvel film ever—the most complete, the most emotional, and the most thrilling. The magic of Marvel is in making each of these films feel like a homecoming, a high school reunion, and a family holiday gathering all at once. Though they are ultimately shiny products, they exude an authentic joy that is infectious and intoxicating. I hope it never ends.