(SPOT.ph) It paid off. All of it. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige’s three-phase master plan of a shared cinematic universe kicked off by 2008’s Iron Man and culminating in Avengers: Infinity War is a 10-year investment that pays off for audiences in a way that no other cinematic experience has managed to match or trump. Mining 17 (18 if you include the optional The Incredible Hulk) feature films’ worth of character and story development, Infinity War is the most satisfying and exhilarating chapter in the Marvel saga yet.
Assembling all the featured heroes of the past decade into one movie would’ve been worth the price of admission, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo actually outdo themselves with a film that has more gravitas than their own excellent Captain America: Winter Soldier and more heart than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Infinity War manages to bring ample character development, action, and story into what deceptively feels like the best superhero film ever made. I say deceptively because on its own, the movie would probably be considered a hot mess, but as a climax to years of build up, it's extremely satisfying.
At the very least, it’s the most ambitious superhero film ever. It’s the fruit of 10 years of planning and investment in both the property and the audience. Audiences have grown up with these heroes, brought together at last for a climactic showdown against the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) teased at the end credits of several Marvel movies. The film relies heavily on audiences to have done their homework, referencing past events in throwaway dialogue and jumping straight into situations immediately following the ending of past films.
Inspired loosely by Infinity Gauntlet, the 1991 comic book limited series, Avengers: Infinity War improves greatly on the source material by making some key changes to the antagonist. Instead of merely being a nihilistic, power-hungry tyrant literally in love with Death, Thanos was redefined as a balancing force in the universe with ostensibly noble intentions and questionable methods. Thanos cuts a familiar figure: A strongman who proposes radical, violent, genocidal solutions to societal problems.
Not only is Thanos familiar and relatable, but screenwriting tandem Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Agent Carter) humanize him further by exploring his relationship with his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The investment made towards building the characters in their own feature films pays off by allowing Infinity War to dedicate significant time to building a truly believable and consequently terrifying bad guy.
Even the Black Order from the comics, known in the film as the Children of Thanos, are henchmen who are so powerful they would’ve been major villains in a lesser film. One such character is Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who proves to be a match for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) combined. By showcasing the power of his lieutenants, Thanos’ threat scales upwards. Ebony Maw is so frighteningly powerful and menacing that he makes some main villains from other Marvel films look like rank amateurs.
The plot is fairly straightforward considering all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been building up to it: Thanos is after the Infinity Stones, powerful artifacts that each control an aspect of the universe. Once in possession of all six stones, he becomes master of the universe and his plans to eliminate half of all life—his way of restoring balance—becomes achievable with the snap of his fingers. Eighteen films have laid the groundwork for this story, and the film opens with Thanos already in possession of one Infinity Stone and in the process of taking another. The Russos show us how high the stakes are by killing off one of the most beloved characters in the entire franchise within the first 10 minutes of the film.
Because all the characters are already familiar and beloved to viewers, the real fun starts when they cross each other’s paths in a universe-spanning epic that features fantastic worlds such as a sci-fi version of the Dwarven forge world of Nidavellir from Norse mythology. It’s the grand space opera for a new generation of moviegoers, outdoing even Star Wars in scale and creativity. Alien worlds such as Vormir, Titan, and Knowhere all combine to paint a visual montage of a truly fantastic universe.
The interaction between characters brought together for the first time is a delight, from the alpha male pissing contest between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange to the insecurity of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) when put beside Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It’s a self-aware wink and nod to toxic masculinity currently pervasive in the Marvel universe. There’s the right amount of humor we’ve come to expect from a Marvel film, but also a deep sadness that no other film in the franchise possesses.
We see existing relationships deepen, such as Star-Lord and Gamora or Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany). It’s these relationships, built up over previous films, that become critical points for the central theme of Infinity War about hard decisions requiring the highest sacrifice. Some of the heroes are made to make some truly hard choices. Even Thanos makes a heart-rending decision that completely changes the viewer’s perspective of him. It’s the decisions and sacrifices that we make, as well as the promises we keep, that define us. This point is hammered home at several junctures in the film, that it takes the strongest of wills to make the hardest decisions.
With so many characters to juggle, it was probably inevitable for a few to fall by the wayside and for some story threads to fizzle out. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the first Avenger and Marvel’s newest star respectively, have their roles reduced as they get lost in the midst of the Wakandan defense against Thanos’ alien invasion. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are reunited but their nascent out-of-left-field love affair, hinted at in Age of Ultron, goes nowhere in a short, awkward scene and is never touched upon again. There’s something just a little off in the storytelling when a minor character such as Mantis (Pom Klementieff) gets just as much to do as Captain America.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), conspicuously absent from marketing materials, don’t make appearances but are explained away through bits of dialogue. An Ant-Man sequel comes out in July, so the diminutive hero returns to the big screen and fans won’t have to wait too long to see him again. Where that film is on the Marvel timeline exactly is still a big question, especially after the events of Infinity War.
And the repercussions are massive. Each phase of Feige’s plan has culminated in higher and higher stakes that set up the stage for a truly universe-altering scenario such as Infinity War. Thanos is a villain who makes all other Marvel villains pale in comparison, and only rightly so. We have the earth’s mightiest heroes finally assembled together in one movie and only a being such as Thanos is big enough a threat to make the stakes feel real. The film concludes in an almost unexpected, shocking way that clears the path for a new chapter in the unstoppable Marvel juggernaut.
Unfortunately for director James Cameron, who publicly declared that he hoped audiences would have Avengers fatigue, Infinity War pushes the reset button on superhero saturation by raising the stakes and wiping slates clean. By the end of the film, audiences will want more Avengers, not less. Despite clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, there’s still a lot more story to tell and an unnamed Avengers film is slated for 2019 to do just that.
It’s payoff for the most ambitious plan of any movie studio in history, a return of investment over 10 years in the making. Other Hollywood studios would do well to take notes about Marvel’s patience and long-term visioning. Avengers: Infinity War is not a standalone movie, it is purely a reward for every viewer who has seen previous Marvel films, and it is a richer experience that scales with how deeply invested one is with the franchise (for example, the fate of the Red Skull is revealed but will only resonate with viewers who’ve followed the saga closely). Needless to say, stay for the post-credits stinger to get excited for even more Marvel.
P.S. As a treat for Filipino audiences, the film makes a terrific case for the Philippines being a great place to spend one’s retirement, so keep an eye out for this scene.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 spots
Avengers: Infinity War is out in theaters now.
Photos courtesy of Disney