The year was 1995, and I was nine years old. I had just dropped a dollar and change on a copy of Iron Man #323, and was completely baffled by the inside contents. It opened with Iron Man fighting another superhero called Hawkeye, who had a bunch of specialized trick arrows he shot from his trusty bow. To top that off, both he and Iron Man belonged to an entire team of superheroes called the Avengers, with names just as catchy: Black Widow. The Vision. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Each of them introduced in a passing, trivial way, with no hint of how they all met, what their powers were or even what team members Iron Man and Hawkeye were fighting about in the first place. The reader was dropped right into the middle of an ongoing story, and the comic wasn’t about to stop its momentum to play catch-up for those not in the know. There were fistfights and plot twists and villainous reveals to get to, after all. In spite of being thoroughly confused, I didn’t toss the comic to the other side of the room, frustrated at the amount of characters I didn’t know or at my ignorance of the ongoing plot that I had been unceremoniously dumped right in the middle of. Instead, I was intrigued. Here, in the palm of my nine-year-old hands, I held an entire universe, one that I could visit any time I wanted to just by opening the cover and flipping the pages. When I got to the last page and it was revealed that Iron Man/Tony Stark had previously murdered another Avenger in cold blood and was charging up his repulsor rays to blast the rest of his unsuspecting team-mates, I was hooked. Needless to say, it was all a ruse--turns out Iron Man was under the influence of some supervillain or other--but by that point, it didn’t matter. I had to learn more about this crazy world and the colorful characters that inhabited it. I had to learn their names, their powers, their histories. Most importantly, I had to know what happens next. And I don’t think any superhero movie has quite captured that feeling I had as nine-year-old kid holding a comic book in his hands as successfully as Avengers: Infinity War does.
The original Avengers came the closest before, what with its medium-defying cojones in combining disparate heroes from their own, singular franchises into one colossal team-up, resulting in a final, near-forty minute long set-piece that previously had only been accomplished on the comic book page. Each successive offering from Marvel Studios has built upon and expanded that world to encompass the furthest reaches of the galaxy to the microscopic infinities contained within the subatomic level, allowing for characters to interweave between each other’s movies like old friends getting together for a drink. Captain America: Civil War provided another benchmark for the universe, packing in more superheroes than all the previous movies combined and giving them all something to do, each with an arc all unto themselves… a stunning piece of narrative economy on the part of screenwriters Chistopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo that was as viscerally thrilling as it was emotional and thought-provoking. Now, with Infinity War, the same team turns their eye to the entire universe, bringing the Avengers face-to-face with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man and the entire sovereign nation of Wakanda in as little as two hours and thirty-plus minutes. That’s over twenty heroes to service in a single film, and while Infinity War is undeniably overstuffed and overwrought, it never once feels that the narrative is going to crack under the tremendous strain. The filmmakers achieve this in part by keeping a singular focus, by having all the action revolve around one character. In short, in a movie featuring a literal army of superheroes, they make the protagonist the villain.
Of all the cinematic feats pulled off here, perhaps the most impressive is the characterization of the mad titan Thanos. First introduced in that now-legendary mid-credits scene from The Avengers, the giant CG purple guy has gone on to be the shadowy menace lurking in the background of many a Phase Two and Phase Three films, always sitting on his floating chair, doing very little to warrant the fear he engenders whenever spoken of in hushed tones. To say that dropped the ball in setting up Thanos as a serious threat in his previous appearances is certainly an understatement, but it appears that they were saving it up for a film of his very own. As he is portrayed in Infinity War, Thanos is a remarkable creation--Josh Brolin and the legion of animators bringing his performance to life give us not only Marvel’s most compelling villain to date, but perhaps its most compelling character overall. Thanos was always one of the best villains in the Marvel Comics stable, a petulant demigod in love with the literal embodiment of Death, who was willing to annihilate half of all life in the universe to prove that love. The movie version takes a slightly different tact: here, Thanos is the unwilling hero of his own story, taking a look at the vast overpopulation of the universe and the dwindling resources available and deciding the only course of action is to rebalance the scales by committing mass genocide on a universal scale. What’s most insightful on the part of the filmmakers and Brolin’s performance is that Thanos takes no joy in his actions--he sees them as horrible acts that must be carried out in order to bring true peace back to the universe. He doesn’t carve his way across the galaxies to acquire all six Infinity Gems (as a longtime comic book reader, it’s still hard for me to call them Infinity Stones as opposed to Gems) and become the most powerful being in existence because he’s a tyrant in search of more power. Thanos sees himself as the only figure willing to do the dirty work to achieve what he feels is the only solution to a growing problem--the sacrifice of others (and his own soul, ultimately) to benefit the rest of all sentient life.
That theme of sacrifice has been key throughout all the MCU films released thus far, that question of how far the heroes must go to protect those around them. Skinny Steve Rogers jumping on the dummy grenade to save his fellow trainees. Thor offering his mortal life by standing up to the Destroyer. Tony Stark traveling through the wormhole with a nuclear missile, the ultimate in self-serving ego making the choice to give up his life to save everyone else. It’s been a constant dialogue the films engage with their characters, and here it reaches a culmination of sorts, as the characters who get the most focus in Infinity War are faced with dilemmas that pit the lives of their loved ones over everyone else in the universe. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the movie is the expanded role of Gamora, portrayed once again with fiery seal by Zoe Saldana, whose own complicated relationship with Thanos is perhaps the film’s most interesting pairing. It’s through Gamora that we see Thanos is not just the mad zealot he appears to be on the surface, but rather a complex figure of profound depth and endless contradictions, perhaps best exemplified in the scene where Thanos takes Gamora to the planet Vormir to retrieve the Soul Stone. To do that, however, requires him to give up that which he loves most. Gamora is instantly vindicated, thinking that Thanos’ quest is finally at an end, because he loves nothing and thus has nothing to give up, but it turns out to not be so simple as all that. Thanos truly loves Gamora, and is willing to sacrifice her to acquire the Stone. Time and time again the characters are presented with the opportunity to either stop Thanos or save/avenge their loved ones, and each time our heroes act in the “selfish” manner and choose the latter… but not Thanos. As the “hero” of this story, he’s the only one willing to go the extra mile and put what he thinks of as the needs of the universe against the needs of himself. Considering that Infinity War ends with him accomplishing his ultimate goal and walking away victorious in the end, it will be profoundly interesting to see how this is followed up on in the next Avengers film, as the surviving heroes grapple with the ultimate answer to the debate of what’s more important, sacrifice or salvation.
Aside from all of that, the film is an utter blast from beginning to end, capturing the thrill of the best comics and transplanting them on-screen via the finest in cutting-edge VFX. Like that issue of Iron Man I read as a nine-year-old, the film never stops to explain who all these heroes are as each makes their introduction, having the confidence to merely let them be in this crazy fictional universe of boundless imagination and unlimited possibilities. That was what was great about the Marvel universe as it existed on paper in its four-colored, window-paneled world: wherever you were, something fantastic was happening just around the corner. Visit New York, and you’re likely to catch a glimpse of Spider-Man swinging through the buildings, or Iron Man jetting across the sky. Just down the street in Greenwich Village lived the Sorcerer Supreme in his Sanctum Sanctorum, a portal to the world of magic and mystery housed in a simple brownstone. A living, breathing world that was just as vivid and defined and--quite frankly--real as our own, and now it exists fully in that magic alchemical blend of light and sound that we call motion pictures--its reality made to feel more real than ever by being brought to life by talented actors and film artisans working at the height of their craft. I can’t get over how good the little details are, like the introductory shot of Spider-Man, a rack focus from the hairs standing up on his arm to Tom Holland’s face. Or how Thor continually refers to Rocket Raccoon as “Rabbit.” Or the delightful sparks that fly when Tony Stark and Dr. Strange find themselves in a room together. Or Captain America and Black Panther fighting side-by-side in the fields of Wakanda, each of their movements complementing the other’s.
In the end, Avengers: Infinity War returns me to the state of mind I had reading that copy of Iron Man #323 that I pulled off the spinner rack at the local Waldenbooks all those years ago. And I’m not talking about simple nostalgia here, some misbegotten sugar rush of a feeling born out of a longing for a simpler time, but a feeling far more primal and raw. A feeling that is not merely juvenile, but essential--the sheer power of imagination, one of the greatest tools we have in the human arsenal. Do we accept the limits of our own reality as we currently perceive them, or dare to imagine a better one? Do we become Thanos and see every problem that plagues us as a nail that must be hammered, or do we strive to both do and be something better? I don’t know if the answer will come directly from a genocidal purple titan or an android finding love with a human woman or a smart-ass, talking raccoon, but they just might be the spark that lights the fires of imaginations for generations to come.