Nineteen (Destruction Mix)
Is there really any doubt remaining? In ten years, Marvel Studios have risen from nowhere to become the world's dominant makers of blockbuster entertainment. Once-mighty rival franchises have stuttered, wobbled, and stalled: the Marvel project forges on implacably. Most film series have to operate at full stretch if they produce a movie every year – Marvel are now at the point where they seem comfortably able to release three: having already come up with the year's most successful film so far (Black Panther, still showing in some cinemas, yet mysteriously non-reviewed hereabouts), they now look set to surpass themselves once more, in the form of the Russo brothers' Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel have opted to release this movie under their Avengers marque, but it is really quite a different kind of film from most they have done before. Josh Brolin (an actor due to spend a hefty chunk of the year kicking super-powered butt, one suspects) plays Thanos, a benevolent cosmic titan who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions and make himself unpopular in the service of the greater good. His current idea is to solve most of the universe's problems by the simple expedient of removing fifty percent of its population, entirely fairly and completely at random.
To do so he needs to lay his mighty purple hands on the six Infinity Stones, the embodiment of fundamental cosmic forces, and as the film opens he has acquired one from the planet Xandar and is in the process of retrieving another from the refugees late of the destroyed world Asgard, administering an admonitory smack or four to the Asgardian king Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the process.
From here it's off to Earth, a unique world in that it currently hosts two of the Stones, one being in the amulet of master sorcerer Dr Strange (Cumbersome Bandersnatch) and the other lodged in the head of android superhero Vision (Paul Bettany). The silly little super-people of Earth are currently in disarray, following the falling-out between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) a couple of years ago, but the appearance of Thanos and his followers serves to focus their minds rather wonderfully, and there are various skirmishes in New York and Edinburgh.
While this is going on, Thor has hitched a ride with space-going ne'er-do-wells the Guardians of the Galaxy and is intent on exacting vengeance on our hero. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Earth are gathering to make their final stand in the enigmatic African nation of Wakanda, where Captain America's old friend Bucky has had his old codename of Winter Soldier retired (which makes sense, as there's no winter in Africa) and taken the new one White Wolf (which doesn't make sense, as there are no wolves in Africa, either. At least not white ones). Can Thanos get the rest of the stones and save the universe, or will these insect-like pests conspire to drag him down?
(Well, it's kind of true. One of the startling things about Infinity War is that you can view the film in this way and it still makes a lot of sense; it does seem to be a deliberate choice.)
As I say, this is billed as an Avengers movie but really works as a summation of everything they have been doing for the last ten years and in the previous eighteen movies (well, almost: there are a couple of characters, one of them fairly prominent, who they simply couldn't squeeze in, even to a movie as big as this). So, as you may have surmised, there are lengthy sequences based around characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, while Iron Man spends most of the movie engaged in a snark-off with Dr Strange and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Even by Marvel's standards, this is a blockbuster on an immense scale, bringing together dozens of characters and half a dozen separate storylines.
So the question is, how can they possibly make it work? At least one of the previous really big Marvel films, Age of Ultron, felt like it was in danger of buckling under its own momentousness. Well, I'm not quite sure how they've pulled the trick, but Infinity War really does work – provided you've been following along, at least. I can think of no surer way of creating total bafflement than to stick someone uninitiated in front of this film. For the true believer, however, this is a kind of pop opera, spectacular entertainment on an unprecedented scale.
One of the smarter moves of the script is to establish right from the start, in the most emphatic manner imaginable, not just the power of Thanos, but also the movie's willingness to take a scythe to the ranks of the established characters from these films. It really does seem like no-one is completely safe, no-one has script immunity, and Thanos is a potentially deadly menace to virtually everyone else. (The Avengers and their allies spend most of the movie frantically trying to come up with a way to foil Thanos without having to confront him directly.) This results in a genuinely tense experience: there were various gasps, wails, and cries of 'Oh no!' in the screening I attended when one character took a sword to the gut near the end. It's a scene that makes it clear this movie starts with its intensity and scale already cranked up to 10, and it stays there for most of the following two-and-a-half hours.
The danger, of course, is that audiences will not find themselves swept along by a thrilling adventure, but battered into submission by sheer bombast instead. They manage to avoid this by making a film which is surprisingly light-footed as it shifts between its various plotlines; it also does an exceedingly fine job of capturing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby alchemy – almost without fail, an absurdly grandiose moment of cosmic spectacle will be neatly followed by a knowing one-liner, somehow offsetting it without undermining it.
Still, you may be thinking, with so many continuing characters, surely someone has to lose out in terms of simple screen time? Well, yes, up to a point this is true – but no-one feels especially ill-served (except for the people who don't appear at all, anyway), and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That said, the only character to get much in the way of genuine development is Thanos himself, most of this coming by way of his relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). One of the themes of the film is the question of what sacrifices people are prepared to make for the greater good, and Thanos is not exempt from this.
Is this the best movie that Marvel Studios has made to date? Much as I enjoyed Infinity War, I think not: it's a tremendous ride, not quite like anything I've seen before, but the sheer scale of the thing robs it of some of the humanity and emotion that characterise the best films in this series. Perhaps it's trying to go just a bit too big – there's at least one unexpected cameo from a returning character which just feels odd rather than a pleasant surprise. The knowledge that there's another Avengers film out in twelve months will inevitably colour people's response to the climax of this one, too, well-handled though it is.
It's difficult to see quite where Marvel can go from here, but the fact that they will be recovering the rights to many other of their most popular characters in the not-too-distant future suggests they will not be short of possibilities. It seems unlikely they can top Infinity War, but then ten years ago even the idea of a film like this one would most likely have been dismissed as absurd. And yet here it is, and it is supremely entertaining stuff. Where this studio is concerned, all bets have been off for some time.