Avengers: Infinity War functions as a kind of cinematic clothesline, with characters and subplots from the previous eighteen Marvel movies draped across it. The fact that everything hangs together so well without sagging makes for an enormous achievement and a testament to the meticulous attention of the writers and directors. This film strikes a perfect balance of rollicking humor, dramatic heft, and genuine excitement to form a perfect payoff for the Marvel fans who’ve walked the path thus far.
Much of the film’s plot stems from Thanos, the hulking purple villain teased throughout the previous films. A wandering madman, Thanos does some apocalyptic arithmetic and deems the universe overcrowded by half. His genocidal remedy requires the six Infinity Stones—cosmic MacGuffins each representing a different facet of existence: Time, space, reality etc. This sets up a galactic scavenger hunt with the Avengers, who must retrieve the stones and save the day.
As one of the film’s high points, Thanos seamlessly blends motion capture sorcery and a brilliant performance by Josh Brolin. An urbane, charismatic monster who kills and pillages with the casual comfort found only in the most frightening movie villains, the filmmakers flesh out Thanos in full dimensions. His evil is real and level-headed, and it supplies the film with a firm dramatic foundation.
The mannered ruthlessness of Brolin runs counter to the warmth and humor from the sprawling cadre of Avengers. High levels of comfort and confidence radiate from the actors, most of whom have played these roles long enough to wear holes in the spandex. Hemsworth, in particular brings real depth and humanity to a character who, on paper, might come across a little silly. It takes special talent to make an emotional scene between a Norse god and an armored raccoon work, but that’s the kind of skilled players we have onboard here.
If Avengers: Infinity War has any kind of flaw, it’s one of structural necessity. The movie ends with an ellipsis, a la Empire Strikes Back or Two Towers, and some viewers might be frustrated they have to tune in next time. Like a musical piece without resolution, it can’t be fully judged until the next movie hits that note. Still, on its own merit, Infinity War beats the burden of expectation by being better than the movies that spawned it. This movie stands tall as a high watermark for the franchise.