Spider-Man swinging through portals created by Dr. Strange. Captain America racing against Black Panther to fight an army of alien invaders. Thor trading jokes with the Guardians of the Galaxy. These are moments that comic-book and superhero fans never thought they would see on the big screen, even after Avengers hit screens back in 2012. Avengers: Infinity War delivers these moments by the dozen, successfully delivering on the promise of inspired superhero clashes, whether it be in their powers or personalities. Yet, its hard not to feel like the movie is missing a central focus, the inevitable consequence of fitting so many characters into one movie.
Avengers: Infinity War marks the third collaboration between the Russo Brothers and the MCU, following their successful spy-thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier (my personal favorite superhero movie) and Captain America: Civil War (essentially Avengers 2.5). Taking more inspiration from the latter, Infinity War finds heroes both Earth-bound and galactic attempting to stop the space tyrant Thanos from retrieving the six Infinity Stones, which will allow him to finally achieve his goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. If this sentence is confusing to you, I have bad news: you may have a difficult time with this movie. Both a strength and weakness of this film is its unwillingness to reintroduce established themes and characters, something that can be disorienting to newcomers, but refreshing to die-hard fans.
Due to the gargantuan cast of this movie, the Russo brothers make a wise choice in splitting up the heroes into several smaller teams of Avengers, with members both new and old. Iron-Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Mantis and Drax form a sort of attack team to confront Thanos in space. Thor, Groot and Rocket, in the best match-up of this movie both emotionally and in terms of humor, go on a quest to forge a weapon to beat the mad Titan. In perhaps this movie's biggest crime, the rest of the heroes are unceremoniously dumped together to face off against Thanos' faceless alien army in Wakanda. Fans of Captain America, Black Widow, and pretty much the rest of The Winter Soldier cast will be disappointed to find that the Russo brothers didn't give these heroes much to say besides quippy one liners while punching CGI monsters. That's not to undercut their fight scenes - which have some great moments - but in terms of character development or, you know, saying anything meaningful, this team is very lacking.
The true main character, as hyped up in interviews leading up to the movie, is Thanos himself. While cramming the origin story and motivations of a major villain into a movie starring this many other characters might seem like a challenge, the Russo brothers pull it off by essentially making Thanos the protagonist. His journey to balance the universe is the focal point of this movie, with the heroes more or less serving as supporting characters. Josh Brolin brings a lot of emotion into this character, making what could have been a ridiculously cartoonish bad guy plot into a genuinely-moving (and honestly somewhat convincing) journey to make the universe a better place. Without spoiling too much, he has a particularly interesting arc in relation to his daughter Gamora, but the payoff of this feels a little rushed. Those who have not recently watched a Guardians of the Galaxy movie might not remember the shadow Thanos cast over his "favorite daughter", and the relationship comes off as slightly underdeveloped as a result.
Which brings me to the biggest issue of this movie: it fails as a self-contained story. Without the character development established by previous movies and without the promise of a Part 2 (as this movie ends on one hell of a cliffhanger), Infinity War fails to tell one cohesive story from beginning to end. While characters like Thor and Dr. Strange have complete and resonating character arcs, characters like Captain America and Black Widow get the short end of the stick. That's not to say I didn't enjoy this movie - I loved it. But I have to wonder if I would have loved it if I wasn't already a fan, and if that is something that makes the movie suffer as a genuine piece of film making.