Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was dedicated to putting everything together for Avengers. Phase 2 was about the aftermath of that movie and setting up the team for a big blowup following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Phase 3 involved the team falling apart in Captain America: Civil War and coming back together in Avengers: Infinity War.
And seeded throughout the whole schmear were the six infinity stones, all of which came together (literally) in the tenth anniversary of the MCU.
The stones had been part of the tapestry of the MCU from the very beginning, albeit retroactively, as it’s obvious that the ARC reactor that Howard Stark tinkered with and that his son Tony Stark finally built in Iron Man in 2008 was inspired by the Tesseract, which was introduced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, with the elder Stark working on it both during World War II and in its aftermath as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. (as we learned in 2010’s Iron Man 2). The Tesseract (a.k.a. the space stone) returned in 2012’s Avengers used alongside Loki’s scepter (a.k.a. the mind stone).
The term “infinity stones” wasn’t actually used in the films until 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, which also gave us a third stone, the Aether (a.k.a. the reality stone). The stones continued to be seen, as they were major parts of the plots of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy (the power stone), 2015’s Age of Ultron (the mind stone again), and 2016’s Doctor Strange (the time stone). They were tied to the origins of Captain America and Iron Man, they revealed Star Lord’s half-alien nature, and they were responsible for the creation of Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and Captain Marvel.
The infinity stones are based on the infinity gems (or soul gems) from the comics, first introduced way back in Marvel Premiere #1 in 1972 by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane, which featured Adam Warlock (previously known only as “Him”). Over time, it was established that there were six infinity gems, and Thanos tried to use them to destroy the universe, though he was stopped by the combined forces of the Avengers, Captain Marvel, Warlock, the Thing, and Spider-Man in a two-part story written and drawn by Jim Starlin in 1977 that was in Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2. The gems have reappeared periodically in the comics, both before and after their use in the MCU.
Thanos’s desire to acquire infinity stones in the MCU was established way back in Avengers, as he was the mastermind behind the Chitauri invasion of Earth, done to reward Loki for bringing him the space stone. Instead, he lost both the space stone and the mind stone, and he attempted to collect the power stone in Guardians, though he was betrayed by Ronan the Accuser there. In the post-credits scene in Age of Ultron, we see Thanos swearing to assemble the stones himself rather than rely on others, and that quest forms the plot of Infinity War.
This movie and its followup were announced as the conclusion to Phase 3 back in 2014, originally billed as Infinity War Parts 1 and 2. Later it was announced that the second movie would have its own title, though that wasn’t revealed as Endgame (which we’ll cover next week) until after Infinity War’s release.
Having previously written and directed Captain America’s adventures, screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony & Joe Russo were tasked with bringing together disparate characters and plots from ten years’ worth of movies to go up against Thanos.
Back from Black Panther are Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Letitia Wright as Shuri, Winston Duke as M’Baku, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier. Back from Spider-Man: Homecoming are Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Tom Holland as Spider-Man, Kerry Condon as F.R.I.D.A.Y., Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jacob Batalon as Ned. Back from Thor: Ragnarok are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. Back from Doctor Strange is Benedict Wong as Wong. Back from Captain America: Civil War are Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany as the Vision, and William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross. Back from Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 are Chris Pratt as Star Lord, Zoë Saldana as Gamora, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Dave Bautista as Drax, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, and Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket. Back from Avengers: Age of Ultron are Josh Brolin as Thanos, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. Back from Guardians of the Galaxy is Benicio del Toro as the Collector. Back from Captain America: The First Avenger is the character of the Red Skull, now played by Ross Marquand.
Introduced in this film are the great Peter Dinklage as Eitri, the king of the dwarfs, who forged Mjolnir in both Norse myth and in the MCU, and who also made Thanos’s gauntlet and who forges Stormbreaker in this film; and Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), and Michael James (Corvus Glaive) as the voices (and motion capture, mostly) of Thanos’s henchfolk.
While this is a single story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it was obviously set up for a sequel, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which we’ll cover next week, and the vast majority of the people in this movie will be back for that one (along with lots more folks). Both Captain Marvel (which takes place in the 1990s) and Ant-Man & The Wasp (which takes place prior to Infinity War) were released in the interim between the two Avengers films, and both of them were designed to set up elements of Endgame, as we’ll see next Friday.
“There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?”
Avengers: Infinity War
Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: April 27, 2018
We open on a distress call from the refugee ship fleeing Asgard, as seen at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. Thanos has attacked the ship with his minions, killing half the Asgardians on board. He wants the Tesseract, which Thor insists they don’t have, as it was destroyed with Asgard—but Loki reveals that he has it, to everyone’s shock.
Then the Hulk attacks. Why he waited until now to do so is left as an exercise for the viewer (though it does give Loki the chance to throw Tony Stark’s line from Avengers to Loki at Thanos: “we have a Hulk”). However, Thanos kicks the big guy’s ass, and he’s pummeled. Heimdall is able to gather up enough dark magic to summon the Bifrost and send the Hulk to Earth (where the time stone and the mind stone both are at present, and so it’s a place Thanos will be hitting at some point). Thanos kills Heimdall for this, and also kills Loki when the trickster—under the guise of working again for Thanos as he did in the past—tries to kill him. Then he blows up the ship.
The Hulk makes it all the way to Earth, specifically to Doctor Stephen Strange’s sanctum sanctorum in Greenwich Village, where his crash-landing through the roof and staircase startles Strange and Wong. As he changes back to Bruce Banner, he says, “Thanos is coming,” to which Strange asks, “Who?”
Stark and Pepper Potts, who are now officially engaged to be married since Spider-Man: Homecoming, are running in Central Park and talking about life, the universe, and everything, including a dream Stark had about her being pregnant with a kid, whom they would name Morgan after Potts’s uncle. (This will be important in the next movie.) Potts also gives him shit about the chestplate he’s wearing, which is storing the Iron Man armor via nanotechnology. Strange then shows up out of nowhere, congratulating them on their engagement, and saying that Stark is needed, and the universe is at stake. Stark is skeptical until Banner walks through the portal.
Back at Strange’s sanctum, Stark is caught up on things, with Wong explaining about the infinity stones, which were formed at the creation of the universe. Strange wears the time stone on his person and the mystics of Earth have sworn to protect it, as we saw in Doctor Strange.
Banner says that Thanos is the one who sent Loki and the Chitauri to New York, and also that they really need to find the Vision, since the mind stone is in his forehead. But Stark has to explain the plot of Civil War to Banner, saying that the Avengers have broken up (“like a band?” Banner asks, confused) and that Steve Rogers and Stark had a hard falling out. Banner’s reply is that Thanos is coming no matter what, and fallings out are irrelevant. They need to act, now.
Stark whips out the cell phone that Rogers FedExed him (yes, he keeps it in his pocket even when he’s out running with his fiancée), but before he can call, a large spaceship descends upon Bleecker Street.
While on a class trip to the Museum of Modern Art, on the school bus taking them across the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, Peter Parker sees the spaceship and asks Ned to create a distraction—easily done, as Ned and everyone else gapes at the giant spaceship over southern Manhattan. (The bus driver—who looks just like Stan Lee—cynically grumbles, “What’s the matter with you kids? You’ve never seen a spaceship before?”) Parker uses the distraction to change into Spider-Man.
Two of Thanos’s minions, Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian, demand the time stone. Stark puts on the Iron Man armor and Wong and Strange prepare their magic—but Banner can’t change into the Hulk. The Hulk, apparently smarting from his defeat at Thanos’s hands, refuses to come out.
Strange is able to magically get all the innocents out of the way, and then the battle is joined, going all the way to Washington Square Park, where Spider-Man shows up to help. Wong sends Obsidian to the Antarctic (prompting Stark to say that Wong’s invited to his wedding), but Maw is able to kidnap Strange to his ship. He can’t actually get at the time stone, as it’s protected by a spell. If Strange is killed, the spell will never be broken. Maw, however, is content with taking Strange with him.
Iron Man and Spider-Man go after the ship. Iron Man insists that Spidey go home, especially since the ship is entering the upper atmosphere, and Parker is having trouble breathing. To that end, Stark summons another Spider-Man suit prototype from Avengers HQ upstate which attaches itself to Spidey so he doesn’t die in the stratosphere.
Both Iron Man and Spider-Man separately sneak on board the ship, Potts calling Stark even as he does. Potts is not happy about Stark going into space…
On Earth, Wong returns to the sanctum to protect it. Banner finds Stark’s phone on the ground and flips it open.
In space, the Guardians of the Galaxy (while listening to “Rubberband Man“) answer the Asgardians’ distress call, but they find only a blown-up ship, a ton of corpses—and Thor! He survived the destruction of the ship and is revived by Mantis. Gamora is devastated to learn that Thanos is now seeking out the infinity stones, and the rest of the Guardians are equally devastated to learn that Thanos got the power stone from Xandar (where it had been left for safekeeping at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy), all but destroying that world, and he now has the space stone as well. Thor and Gamora also bond over their difficult family lives, and Peter Quill acts very threatened by Thor’s manliness, going so far as to talk in a deeper, louder voice to sound more like Thor.
The stones that are left include two on Earth, which Thor figures the Avengers will be able to protect; the soul stone, the location of which has been lost to antiquity; and the reality stone on Knowhere, which Thor knows is there because Sif and Volstagg left it with the Collector at the end of Thor: The Dark World. The Guardians figure they should go to Knowhere, but Thor wishes instead to go to Nidavellir in order to have the dwarves there forge him a new hammer (Mjolnir having been destroyed by Hela in Ragnarok). Thor takes it upon himself to go off in Rocket’s ship, with Rocket and Groot volunteering to join him (mostly because Rocket figures it’s safer to do that than face Thanos), while the rest of the Guardians will stay in Quill’s ship and go to Knowhere.
In Scotland, we look in on Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, who have been surreptitiously pursuing a relationship. Maximoff has been on the run with Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Sam Wilson for the last two years, while the Vision has remained (along with Iron Man and War Machine) as the only legally active Avengers. However, the couple have enjoyed their time together, and they’re talking about making it a more formal and substantial relationship.
They’re distracted first by seeing a news report about the spaceship over New York (“TONY STARK MISSING!” reads the chyron), and then by two more of Thanos’s minions, Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, along with various “space dogs,” attacking them, going after the mind stone. Before long, Rogers, Romanoff, and Wilson come to their aid—Rogers having gotten Banner’s phone call. They drive off Glaive (whom Romanoff has badly wounded) and Midnight, then fly back to Avengers HQ for the first time in two years.
We get Gamora’s full backstory: as a small child, Thanos showed up on her poverty stricken homeworld and wiped out half the population, including Gamora’s mother. He then took her in, giving her a gift of a perfectly balanced two-bladed knife. In the present, as they fly to Knowhere, Gamora reveals that she has a secret, which she can’t tell anyone, not even Quill. If she’s in danger of revealing that secret, Quill has to kill her. Quill very very very reluctantly agrees.
They arrive at Knowhere to find it deserted, save for Thanos, who is torturing the Collector for information on the reality stone, which the Collector insists is not there, that he sold it, not realizing what it was. Thanos knows he’s lying. Gamora attacks her surrogate father, stabbing him to death—which turns out to be an illusion. Thanos already has the reality stone, and used it to create that illusion. Knowhere is, in fact, burning, and Thanos wanted to see if Gamora would really kill him—and if she did, if she’d feel regret and remorse (which she does—Thanos doesn’t reveal the deception until she’s been crying for a minute).
Thanos uses the reality stone to incapacitate Drax and Mantis and then Quill points his gun at the Titan. Gamora begs him to keep his promise to kill her, and Thanos, thinking Quill doesn’t have the balls to do it, taunts him. But when Quill finally does shoot, the weapon only fires bubbles, thanks to the reality stone.
Thanos departs with Gamora, leaving a devastated Quill behind.
On Earth, Rhodes is talking with Secretary Thaddeus Ross via holoconference when Rogers, Romanoff, Wilson, Maximoff, and Vision show up. Ross orders Rhodes to arrest them, an order Rhodes refuses right before he hangs up on the secretary. (“That’s a court martial,” Rhodes says philosophically.) Banner is there also, and his reunion with Romanoff is a bit awkward.
Vision believes that the mind stone should be destroyed, and Maximoff has the power to do it. Maximoff refuses, as it will kill Vision, but Banner’s not so sure. Vision isn’t just the mind stone, he’s a mix of Stark, Banner, Ultron, and his own personality developed over two years—Banner thinks he can extract the stone without killing Vision. But they need really advanced equipment. Rogers says he knows a place.
In Wakanda, King T’Challa and Okoye go to “the white wolf,” Bucky Barnes, and provide him with a new prosthetic arm.
Maw tortures Strange to get the time stone off him, but Strange doesn’t give in. Elsewhere, Stark is livid that Parker stowed away on the ship. They are able to save Strange by distracting Maw long enough to blow a hole in the hull, which blows Maw into space. Spider-Man saves Strange and Iron Man welds the hole shut. The problem is, they don’t know how to fly the ship, and Stark isn’t sure they should. They need to take the fight to Thanos. Strange very reluctantly agrees, but he also makes it clear that if it’s a choice between saving Stark and/or Parker and protecting the stone, Strange will protect the stone and let them die.
Thanos makes it clear to Gamora that he knows her secret: that contrary to her report of failure to him in the past, she did find the soul stone. Gamora insists she didn’t—but then Thanos takes her to where he’s been torturing Nebula. Thanos’s other daughter snuck onto Thanos’s ship to try to kill him at some point between Guardians Volume 2 and this film, and apparently almost succeeded. Her implants record everything she does, and Thanos found a recording of a conversation Nebula and Gamora had where sister revealed to sister that she found the soul stone. Rather than let Nebula be tortured any longer, Gamora reveals that it’s on Vormir. They go there only to find that the soul stone is guarded by the Red Skull, who was sent there by the Tesseract during the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger. He explains that in order to acquire the soul stone you must sacrifice something you love. Gamora thinks that’s Thanos’s downfall, because he doesn’t love anything, but it turns out he does love Gamora, and throwing her over the ledge to her death is enough of a sacrifice.
Back on Thanos’s ship, Nebula frees herself—which is a lot easier with Thanos off ship—and contacts Mantis saying to meet her on Titan.
Rocket, Thor, and Groot head to Nidavellir. Rocket gives Thor a prosthetic eye he had in his pocket so Thor has two eyes again. Rocket is worried that Thor’s morale is bad, but Thor says he’s lived for fifteen hundred years and killed many people, all of whom wanted to kill him. But he survived, so the fates obviously want him to stay alive. When Rocket asks what if he’s wrong, Thor says he doesn’t really have anything left to lose at this point.
They arrive at Nidavellir only to find it all but destroyed, the rings around the neutron star that power the forge frozen closed, and only one survivor: Eitri. Thanos came to Nidavellir and forced Eitri to create a gauntlet to hold the stones. Asgard was supposed to protect them. Thor says that Asgard’s been destroyed. (The timeline doesn’t work here, as Asgard’s destruction was too recent, but the years prior to Hela’s takeover were when Loki was pretending to be Odin and abdicating most of his responsibilities, so there’s that.)
After Eitri forged the gauntlet, Thanos killed all the dwarves save him, but did cut Eitri’s hands off. Thor begs for a new weapon, and Eitri says he can provide him with an axe called Stormbreaker that can channel Thor’s thunder and also access the Bifrost—but the forge needs to be reopened, which Thor winds up doing with his brute strength. He also has to hold the rings open manually, as the mechanism is broken, while the power of the star shoots through him. He survives that, barely, though he lets go before the axe is entirely finished—the blade is done, but not the handle. So Groot grows a bit of branch and cuts it off, giving Stormbreaker a handle as well.
Maw’s ship crash lands on Titan, where the Guardians already are. They have the standard good-guys-fight-until-they-realize-they’re-on-the-same-side scene (“you know Thor???”). Both Stark and Quill try to come up with plans to stop Thanos. Meanwhile, Strange uses the time stone to look at possible futures. He views 14,000,605 of them. There’s only one in which they win. Ouch.
Thanos arrives on Titan and at first just Strange meets him. (“Yeah, you look like a Thanos.”) Thanos explains that Titan was once a paradise, but they were overpopulated, and that was where Thanos got the idea that if you wipe out half the population, what’s left will be a better place for the survivors. (He claims this was true on Gamora’s homeworld.)
Then the Guardians and ad hoc Avengers all attack. They use hit-and-run tactics, never giving Thanos a chance to catch his breath, and eventually—with Mantis freezing his mind—they come very close to getting the gauntlet off his hand. But then Thanos reveals that Gamora is dead, and Quill loses it, pounding Thanos in the face, which breaks Mantis’s concentration, and all hell breaks loose.
When Thanos is about to kill Stark, Strange offers to give him the time stone if he’ll let Stark live. Thanos agrees, takes the stone, and buggers off. Stark doesn’t understand, given what Strange said on the ship, but Strange insists it was the only way. (This will be important in the next movie.)
T’Challa, Okoye, and Barnes greet Rogers, Romanoff, Banner, Wilson, Rhodes, Vision, and Maximoff as they arrive in Wakanda. They take Vision to Shuri, who examines him and says she can extract the stone, but it will take time. She also wants to know why they didn’t program the synapses to work collectively instead of attaching each neuron nonsequentially as they did, and Banner abashedly says that he and Stark didn’t think of that. (“I’m sure you did your best,” Shuri says patronizingly.) With that one exchange, Shuri proves that she’s literally smarter than Stark and Banner put together…
Thanos’s forces try to land on Wakanda, but they crash into the force field that protects it. (“I love this place,” Barnes says with a smile.) The rest of them land outside the field. Leaving Maximoff to protect Vision (and be ready to blow up the mind stone as soon as Shuri gets it out), the rest of them go out to face Thanos’s forces: Rogers, Maximoff, Wilson, Rhodes, Barnes, T’Challa, plus the Dora Milaje, M’Baku and the rest of the Jabari Tribe, and Banner in Stark’s old Hulkbuster armor (last seen trashing Johannesburg in Age of Ultron).
T’Challa, Rogers, and Romanoff go to Midnight. T’Challa says she’s in Wakanda now and to leave, or all they’ll have is dust and blood. Midnight refuses, saying they have blood to spare.
To prove the point, the space dogs attack the force field in droves, many of them dying in the attempt, but still trying to pour through. They also try to go around the other side. Realizing that they need to control their passage, T’Challa orders a segment of the field to be opened. After a call-and-response chant of “Yibambe!” (“Hold fast!”) and a cry of “Wakanda forever!” the battle is joined.
Everyone generally does well, though Banner struggles a bit to operate the armor. Eventually, however, Thanos’s forces start to overwhelm our heroes.
And then Thor shows up, with Groot and Rocket. Stormbreaker wipes out a huge chunk of the space dogs, and Thor bellows, “Bring me Thanos!” Meanwhile Banner just laughs. (“You guys are screwed now!”)
However, Thanos’s forces mange to tunnel under the force field with their giant wheels of death. Seeing that, Maximoff abandons the Vision to join the fight. Given her (very high) power level, Okoye wants to know why she wasn’t part of the fight all along.
That question is answered by Thanos’s forces attacking Shuri, who is now only defended by Wakandan soldiers, who are strong, but not as powerful as Maximoff. Shuri is unable to finish her work, and Vision is forced to defend himself.
Midnight attacks Maximoff when she tries to help Vision, and Midnight says that Vision will die alone, just like Maximoff will. And then Romanoff says, “She’s not alone,” and she and Okoye attack, giving Maximoff time to catch her breath and send Midnight into the path of one of the wheels.
And then Thanos shows up.
While the Avengers try to hold Thanos off, Maximoff very reluctantly destroys the stone in Vision’s head.
But Thanos has the time stone now, and so he is able to reverse time and take the stone before Maximoff blows it up. He now has all six stones in his gauntlet.
Thor attacks, embedding Stormbreaker in Thanos’s chest. Bleeding profusely, Thanos says, “You should’ve gone for the head,” and he snaps his fingers.
Thanos himself disappears, and then people start disintegrating: Barnes, Wilson, T’Challa, Maximoff, Groot, and many Wakandans (though not Okoye or M’Baku). On Titan, Drax, Mantis, Quill, Parker (apologizing to Stark as he falls to dust), and Strange (who tells Stark, “We’re in the endgame now,” and hey, what a dandy title!) all disintegrate as well.
Thanos initially is in the soul stone, speaking to an avatar of Gamora as a child, and then after he leaves Wakanda, he goes to a planet where he can watch the sun rise over what he thinks is a better universe.
Elsewhere, Nick Fury and Maria Hill are driving down a street, and almost crash into a van, the driver of which was dusted. Overhead, a helicopter crashes into a building for similar reasons. Hill disintegrates, and before he also disintegrates, Fury manages to dig out the pager Carol Danvers gave him in 1995 and activate it.
“Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards…”
One of the challenges of writing in a shared universe—something I’ve been doing for twenty-five years now in around forty or so different shared universes—is coordinating everything. It’s not always required in every shared universe, mind you. Sometimes the stories all stand on their own and don’t matter much to each other, which makes the job a bit easier, for the most part.
But some of the most fulfilling writing experiences I’ve had—and also editing experiences, since I’ve worked as an editor for a bunch of shared-universe projects as well—have been ones where I collaborated on a larger storyline with other folks. One such was the Star Trek: A Time to… miniseries, a nine-book series from 2004 that chronicled the period between Star Trek Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis, and also helped set up the post-Nemesis status quo that the novels have continued to chronicle over the past fifteen years. Not only was it tremendous fun to work with the other authors in the series and bounce ideas off each other and expand on things other folks did, but it was obviously tremendous fun for the readers as well, because the books sold extremely well and have stayed in print for the entire fifteen years since publication.
I particularly mention A Time to… because my job writing the ninth book, A Time for War, a Time for Peace, is very similar to the job that Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and the Russo Brothers had in doing Infinity War and Endgame. And while there are quibbles to be had with both movies, they’re both incredibly successful in bringing together this tapestry that multiple filmmakers have woven over the previous decade.
Both Avengers and Civil War did excellent work in balancing several storytelling needs, and Infinity War kicks that up a level. It’s the next Avengers movie, the next Captain America movie (or maybe Nomad, given that he’s given up the shield and the flag costume and has grown a beard…), the next Iron Man movie, the next Spider-Man movie, the next Thor movie, the next Doctor Strange movie, the next Hulk movie, the next Black Panther movie, and the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
What I particularly love is the way the movie’s tone adjusts. The battle in Greenwich Village with Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Wong, Banner, and Spider-Man against Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian feels like an Avengers story—just like Age of Ultron and Civil War, the early part of the film has a straight-up superhero battle, and it’s awesome.
Then “Rubberband Man” starts to play, and we’re watching a Guardians movie. The Russos channel James Gunn (who is an executive producer of this film) beautifully in all the sequences with the Guardians, including the Knowhere sequence, Gamora’s scenes with Thanos, and the stuff on Titan.
The opening bit is very much continuing Thor’s story (more on that in a bit), and the Nidavellir sequences are magnificent, doing, frankly, a much better job of maintaining a balance between comedy and tragedy than Taika Waititi managed in the schizophrenic Ragnarok. The Russos also once again re-create a sequence from the comics beautifully, making it their own, in this case the forging of Stormbreaker. Originally a second hammer given to Beta Ray Bill, who had been deemed worthy by Odin’s enchantment to wield Mjolnir, here it becomes Thor’s new hammer to replace Mjolnir, and the glory of Walt Simonson’s sequence from Thor #339 in 1984 is spectacularly re-created here.
In both the Greenwich Village sequence and especially on Titan, the Russos give us the Inception-on-drugs visuals for Doctor Strange that Scott Derrickson gave him in Strange’s movie, plus we really get Doctor Strange, master of the mystic arts, in this movie. I actually loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance more in this movie than his own because he was really playing Strange, not Stephen Strange working his way to becoming Doctor Strange. (I wish Wong had more to do, as him going back to guard the sanctum felt—lame? But there were already plenty of characters to juggle as it was.) Also the term “sling ring” is never spoken, thank goodness, but we do see the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!
Every time Spider-Man and Iron Man are together, it feels like we’re back in Homecoming again, and it’s delightful. Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr. really do make a superlative team.
And then there are the bits in Wakanda, which continue beautifully from Black Panther—which had only just wrapped when this movie was filmed, so it involved a certain amount of retrofitting. But man, it works, from the Jabari war chant to Shuri completely owning Stark and Banner in science with one sentence to Okoye’s “why is everyone around me so stupid?” expression that Danai Gurira does so well to every single bit with T’Challa’s regal performance. I love that the defense on Earth is left to Wakanda, and I get fucking chills every single damn time I watch the “Yibambe!” sequence. Wakanda forever, goddammit.
The pacing here is stellar. There are multiple threads here, and while they do come together into, basically, two parts—Wakanda and Titan—they’re all juggled expertly, never staying away from any bit long enough to forget about it, keeping us invested in every character no matter how minor. Even the stuff that gets short shrift—the Banner-Romanoff relationship, e.g.—at least is acknowledged. We even get progress, from Rogers’s new non-Captain America look to Stark’s fancy new nano-armor to Spidey’s new suit with the spider arms (based on the “iron spider” suit from the comics), the Guardians can now all understand Groot (as can Thor, apparently, as Grootese is taught in Asgard), and we get actual progress in the Quill-Gamora relationship (they finally kiss on screen, and declare their love for each other). And characters who play a small role in terms of screen time still have important parts—Heimdall pretty much saves everyone’s asses by sending the Hulk to Earth, Wong is a major part of the Greenwich Village fight, Eitri creates Stormbreaker, which is critical to the climax (and also points for casting Peter Dinklage as Eitri and then making him bigger than everyone else in the movie), and Nebula manages to serve both Thanos (unwillingly) and help the Guardians, getting everyone to Titan.
This movie has two of the finest superhero battles ever committed to film. The Greenwich Village fight at the top of the movie is really good (though it hurt my heart to see Washington Square Park trashed), and the fight against Thanos on Titan was brilliant. Everyone uses their powers sensibly and cleverly, and nobody gets close enough to Thanos to given him a chance to engage. They wear him down enough that they almost win, and the only reason they don’t is because Peter Quill is an emotionally stunted thundering dumbass. (Which, y’know, we already knew…)
It also has the Wakanda bits, and here I must shake my head and grumble. This battle involves a large number of trained soldiers. The Black Panther is a king who has led battles before, and under him are Okoye and M’Baku who are kickass fighters and are trained in leading troops into battle. Later Thor shows up, and he’s led troops into battle for literally a millennium and a half. On top of that, you’ve got a veteran S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who’s better at combat than most humans, and then you’ve got four more trained soldiers in Captain America, Bucky, War Machine, and the Falcon.
I mention all this only by way of saying, the military strategy should’ve been much much stronger. If you’re going to lower the shield, don’t do it before you’ve even started running toward it, wait till you get there. Better yet, don’t lower the shield, just weaken it so the bad guys think they’ve weakened it, and then they send more cannon fodder CGI monsters through to die. And in the end, when Thanos shows up, why is it that the various trained soldiers fight him like kung fu extras in a Bruce Lee movie, taking him one at a time instead of, say, doing the hit-and-run thing like they did on Titan? I mean, c’mon, when fucking Star-Lord has better fight strategy than Captain Rogers, Colonel Rhodes, Sergeant Barnes, and Sergeant Wilson, something’s gone horribly wrong.
Furthermore, where is Wakanda’s air force? Where are the battle rhinos? The big-ass force field, perhaps, precludes the notion of using the flying ships, but the lack of W’Kabi and his battle rhinos stands out like a sore thumb. That’s your cavalry flank, man! They wouldn’t have had to worry about the space dogs going around the force field if they had battle rhinos to cover their flank. Plus, y’know, battle rhinos! They’re awesome!
Also, why didn’t anyone on Titan or in Wakanda think of cutting Thanos’s arm off? You’ve got Barnes right there with a prosthetic arm to give you the idea! (Also, I’m living for the day that Rocket finally fulfills his wish and gets his hand on Barnes’s prosthetic arm.) At least Thor failing to cut Thanos’s head off will be a plot point in Endgame…
Speaking of Thor, the moment where he, Rocket, and Groot show up in Wakanda may be the single greatest punch-the-air moment in MCU history. Certainly, when I first saw the movie in a packed Bronx theatre (at a 10:45pm showing on a Monday night, mind you, a time when theatres are normally completely empty), everyone cheered, loudly. The only thing missing was the Mighty Mouse theme. Though close seconds are Rogers stepping out of the shadows in the train station and catching Midnight’s spear and “Wakanda forever!”
Also speaking of Thor, I really hate what they’ve been doing with Asgard. It’s bad enough that they blew up Asgard, redshirted the Warriors Three, are apparently pretending Sif doesn’t exist, and generally trashed Norse mythology for no compellingly good reason, but at the very least, Ragnarok ended on a hopeful note with Thor, Loki, the Hulk, Heimdall, Valkyrie, et al looking for a new home.
And then we open this movie and trash that hopeful ending entirely, killing off Heimdall and Loki (though I still don’t entirely believe that Loki’s dead; I’m fairly certain that was an illusion and the real Loki is hiding somewhere) and wiping out half of the surviving Asgardians. It’s like watching Alien 3 all over again (and that’s not a good thing). Bleah.
One holdover from Ragnarok that does work, though, is the characterization of Banner and the Hulk. While it makes no sense that the Hulk would wait until Loki can get off a one-liner on Thanos before the big guy shows up to fight, the fight itself does a nice job of showing us how dangerous Thanos is. But then the Hulk—who has just spent two years on Sakaar winning almost every fight in the arena (and the one he lost was to Thor, so he probably doesn’t count that)—loses, badly, and he refuses to come out again. As we saw in Ragnarok, this Hulk is a bit more eloquent, but still pretty much a five-year-old, and he’s acting exactly like a five-year-old having a temper tantrum. It’s an interesting next step in the character’s evolution, which has been fun to watch since Avengers (I love the way Mark Ruffalo delivers the resigned, “When do I ever get what I want?” when Stark asks him to Hulk out in Greenwich Village). In addition, the running gag of Banner being gobsmacked by how much has changed since Age of Ultron is delightful.
Of all the things this film accomplishes, the thing that impresses me the most is that it makes me interested in Thanos as a character. I have never liked Thanos, partly because I don’t have the bone in my head that makes me like Jim Starlin’s writing or artwork (it’s just never done anything for me). After watching this movie, I went and reread the two 1977 stories I mentioned above that had one of the big battles against Thanos, and they left me completely flat. Thanos always felt like a second-rate Darkseid to me.
Josh Brolin’s performance and the way he’s written in this movie makes me actually care about him. He gives the character a gravitas and a sense of tragedy. Like all the good MCU villains, you understand his motivations, even if they’re still awful. (And stupid. The post-credits sequence does a nice job of reminding everyone that just blipping out half the population will cause way more problems than it will solve, and you’ll wind up with a lot more than half the population dead thanks to vehicle operators and other folks in charge of various bits of machinery suddenly not doing their jobs anymore. How many wrecked planes, trains, spaceships, etc. are there after the snap?)
It’s funny, you look at the structure of this film, and Thanos is, truly, the protagonist. It’s his quest that we’re seeing here, and the Avengers and the Guardians and the Wakandans are the obstacles in his way.
And in the end, he wins.
I haven’t covered everything that’s wonderful about this movie (developing the Vision-Maximoff relationship, e.g.) or everything that doesn’t quite work about this movie (why can’t Strange just teleport Thanos into the sun, e.g.), but it would be impossible, as this movie has so much going on, and most of it was wonderful to watch.
This is great cinema, a real thrill-ride with high stakes, great character development, and superb performances. Seriously, there’s not a bad acting job anywhere in this movie. I do want to single out Carrie Coon and Tom Vaughn-Lawlor. Most of Thanos’s minions are CGI nobodies, but Coon and especially Vaughn-Lawlor imbue Midnight and Maw with personality and verve, making the conflicts with them far more engaging.
And in the end, Thanos wins. That was ballsy, and sets things nicely up for the next movie, which we’ll cover week when we do Avengers: Endgame.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is doing a crowdfund for a couple new short stories in his original fantasy universes: “The Gorvangin Rampages: A Dragon Precinct Story” and “Ragnarok and a Hard Place: A Tale of Cassie Zukav, Weirdness Magnet.” Check it out!