Well, this is it. After some eighteen movies spread across ten years, Marvel Studios has reached it’s pre-planned landmark movie. After this, we can take something of a rest!
Taking inspiration from their own original comics, running from the nineteen sixties right through to present day, Marvel Studios has released movies based around multiple characters and exploring their background and personalities, all to bring them together in a set of prepared cross-overs. The first of those was the original Avengers movie, back in 2012, uniting Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America with other characters, including Nick Fury, director of a secret security force. They defeated the villainous Loki and an alien invasion, and made Shawarma bars more popular (in the now traditional mid credits bonus scene) Further sequels were to come (although not for the Hulk, unfairly perhaps) leading to a second team up in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) which added new characters like Scarlet Witch and the mysterious Vision to the team. These two are to play a key role in the latest outing…
The Captain America films continued the development of several side characters, culminating in Civil War in 2016, in a plot that divided the Avengers team and pitted Iron Man and Captain America against each other. The latest incarnation of Spiderman, played by a crowd-pleasing young Tom Holland, appeared briefly, stealing the show. And a more cosmic side has been explored with the unexpectedly fun two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, starring Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, leading some of the less familiar Marvel characters in a fun and hip cosmic odyssey.
It was during those films that the planned villain for Infinity Wars, Thanos, was quietly introduced. At first seeming somewhat, well… comical, the hulking, light purple skinned figure initially did little but sit in a chair and bargain with other villains, attempting to locate the mysterious Infinity Gems, that are to constitute his ultimate weapon. Slowly, we learned more about him though, particularly from Zoe Saldana’s character of Gamorra, and her complicated past as an unwilling foster daughter, pitted against her unbalanced ‘sibling’ Nebula (Karen Gillan, sporting a blue, bald headed look) The much sought after Gems continued to appear as macguffins and Easter eggs in recent films, their significance being awkwardly addressed briefly in Age of Ultron. The last one to appear was in 2016’s Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the most fantastical of Marvel’s cast, and a future Avenger. The stylized ‘Sorcerer supreme’ battled uncanny threats and laid claim to the Time Gem, which granted time bending powers, requiring it be closely guarded.
As the movie begins, it picks up from where the ending of 2017’s Thor Ragnarok left off, as Thor leads a single ship filled with the surviving members of his homeland, Asgard, straight into an ambush with Thanos and his own sinister Black Order, whose brutal assault on the ship cruelly leaves the survival of several supporting characters from that film up in the air (no deaths have been confirmed, Korg fans!) Thor (Liam Helmsworth) his semi-reformed brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and their friend Heimdall (Idris Elba) attempt to resist, with no success. Heimdall is able to spirit the recently found Incredible Hulk back towards Earth, after an unsuccessful assault, one that costs Heimdall dear. Loki, seeming true to form, bluffs Thanos before offering up the one stone in his possession, recently stolen from Asgard. His dissimulating attempt to bargain results in one of the first shocks of the film, and Thor is soon sent flying off into space amid wreckage. Having secured two of the fabled Infinity Gems (ancient tools of great power, as hinted at in Guardians of the Galaxy) and battered aside the two strongest members of the Avengers team with ease, Thanos has already established himself as a formidable physical threat. The rest of the film will explore more his motivations and character, adding much needed depth to the character who will be driving the majority of the plot.
Played by Josh Brolin (also appearing in Deadpool 2) Thanos gets given an intensity and gravitas that helps offset his slightly preposterous hulking, dull purple-skinned physical appearance. With some of his more fantastical backstory omitted, viewers are still left with the basics about his belief that the universe can only accommodate so many lives and resources, and his determined and frightful quest to find a way to balance those scales. Determining to find ultimate power, Thanos’ endgame is to mercifully end life on an unprecedented scale, which he feels will be more benevolent than the available alternatives – a random purging of half the people in existence, removing them instantly as if by magic. Believing he is not only the only one willing to do the hard things, but arguably seeing himself as a hero, his lack of doubt and hesitation makes him a significant adversary on more than the physical level. And his acquisition of new powers as the story progresses makes him somewhat more frightening to encounter each time. There is also a hint of sardonic humour, and a softer side becoming visible when he confronts his step daughter…
On Earth, the Incredible Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (played by Mark Ruffalo), is teleported off Thor’s doomed ship and into the home of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in order to warn him of Thanos’ pending arrival. Small moments of comedy pepper the rising tension as he works to convince them of the threat, and they attract the attention of Iron Man/Tony Stark (the always charismatic Robert Downey Junior still in the saddle at age 53) who was busy preparing for his wedding to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Just after Stephen Strange had revealed he possesses the time gem that Thanos will be searching for, a huge ring shaped space craft descends over New York, drawing the heroes into a battle with two members of the Black Order, sent to steal the two gems known to be on Earth. Newcomer actor Tom Holland swings his way into the battle as Spiderman, still in a somewhat cute mentor and mentee relationship with Stark – and still gushing and quipping like a fanboy. The villains boast the hulking Cull Obsidian and the supercilious Ebony Maw – the latter deployed to counter Dr. Strange with his own ‘magic’ style powers, hovering awkwardly in mid air and riding around on torn up street pavings. Spiderman – nee Peter Parker – ably tosses himself into the situation, barely batting a masked eyebrow when being told a ‘wizard is trying to steal that necklace’. He just seems to be enjoying the absurdity for a moment.
But alas, they are thwarted by Maw when he escapes with a captive Strange, despite giving Cull Obsidian the slip in an entertaining, a slightly gross, trick using a portal. Iron Man boosts for the sky in his suit, in pursuit of the big, Ferris wheel like ship, vainly trying to dissuade Peter Parker from following him into the stratosphere. Both are now set to take a road trip together in a bid to rescue their new magic friend, on a cosmic joyride…
Which is already the territory for the Guardians of the Galaxy, fresh from their own films and entering into a cross-over now. The number of character and plot elements been juggled in the air has already grown considerably by the first twenty or so minutes of the film, but each character gets a good introductory scene, although Thor and Hulk both feel more thrown in right at the start. The Guardians are introduced as an ensemble, rocking out to ‘Rubberband Man’ by the Spinners – another of the pop hits favoured by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) an Earth-born kid who grew up in space, now leading his wacky crew of Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot – who are shocked when a body slams into their windscreen in outer space, only to open his eyes. After brining him aboard, the characters are now paired with Thor for the next part of the story, who’s alien and statuesque physiology lets him quickly recover and wow the other Guardians – to Peter’s amusing jealousy and insecurity. “You’re one sandwich away from fat,” as Rocket (a wisecracking racoon-like being, voiced from Bradley Cooper) cuttingly informs him. Quill’s jealousy also extends protectively to his ‘unspoken thing’ girlfriend Gamora, who is very worried to hear about the actions of Thanos – the man who stole her to raise as a stepdaughter.
The final plot thread is set into motion on Earth, where Vision – an artificial being created from another of the Infinity Gems, back in 2015’s Age of Ultron, is enjoying a tryst in Scotland with fellow Avengers member Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Vision, played by Paul Bettany, has developed a very convincing human appearance over his usual cherry red face, complete with blond hair – that mostly conceals the gem hidden inside his head. It is this one that the other two servants of Thanos – Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive (subtlety not being a Thanos characteristic) are coming to get, in a fight sweeping from the streets of Edinburgh to the rooftops, and then into a glass roofed train station. Salvation comes from the remaining Avengers coming to the rescue, led by Chris Evan’s Captain America, who takes them into hiding. Their trail will eventually lead to Wakanda from the recent Black Panther film, after stopping for a quick cameo with James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is now walking with an exoskeletal frame after his accident in Civil War. Their plot moves the slowest, being entirely earth bound, as they seek the help of Black Panther and his county’s advanced technology to remove the gem from Vision without killing him – then hopefully, to destroy it.
Meanwhile, it falls to the titular Guardians of the Galaxy to actually pursue Thanos, attempting to beat him to the next Infinity stone. Visiting the museum of the quirky Collector (Benecio del Torro) they have a dramatic confrontation. Gamora has become afraid of falling back into the clutches of Thanos, and gets Starlord to promise to kill her should that happen. The discussion allows Chris Pratt to show a bit more complexity and anguish, as well as emotional development, for the often posturing and somewhat immature character of the two prior Guardian movies. Raised without a mother and with an unreliable father figure, Peter Quill’s development has been somewhat arrested, to say the least. But his two prior cinematic appearances have progressed him along his emotional journey. When it actually comes to making such a decision though, Thanos’ new powers mercurially subvert any action he takes, leaving him dislocated and frustrated. Special effects bring the bizarre manipulations of reality Thanos is now capable off to vivid life, leaving the Guardians temporarily in a surreal state of torment and imprisonment, until he escapes, releasing them – and Gamora is also gone. The gang are left to pick up the pieces, and decide to travel to Thanos homeworld, the devastated planet Titan (no relation to Saturn’s moon) where they can lie in wait to ambush.
Meanwhile, Iron Man, Spiderman and Dr. Strange are already on the way there, seizing Ebony Maw’s ship from him – but alas, not particularly managing to master the art of piloting it. The three make an engaging, oddball trio, with the clash of egos between Stark and Strange, with Peter Parker’s own innocent/snarky side interjecting (‘oh, we’re using our made up names now? Well I’m Spiderman…’) and him generally seeming to enjoy the ride. Strange essentially takes charge of long term strategy, but is keeping his plans close to the chest, and revealing little. Iron Man favours a more direct approach, but they will have to wait for an opportunity to present itself. Elsewhere, Thor and the other two members of the Guardians travel to Nidavellir, a massive Foundry planet surrounded by metal rings, which is also built around a miniature neutron star. Here, mythologised ‘dwarves’ constructed powerful weapons for Thor’s Asgardian people and other customers. But the workshops have already been trashed by Thanos, who killed much of the population, apparently leaving only Eitri – played, in an unexpected cameo, by Peter Dinklage himself (of Game of Thrones fame) – who also turns out to tower over Thor and the others, despite being stocky in other proportions; an unusual, and perhaps arbitrary subversion of the concept of dwarfs, in terms of Norse mythology. Eitri agrees to craft a new weapon for Thor that might help him to defeat Thanos in one to one combat, but to complete the forging process will require a trial of godlike endurance and physical strength. And the photogenic and bicep bulging Chris Hemsworth, as Thor, seems happy enough to oblige. Suspension of disbelief will aid the audience here if they wish to experience the full mythic spectacle of a demigod single-handedly setting a planet-sized engine in motion and surviving an immense furnace, but it can feel like tone and realism are stretched a little.
Gamora travels with Thanos, as we learn of the softer side of the antagonist, growing up on a famine stricken planet Titan, and failing to save it’s people – leading to his obsession with culling populations, including Gamora’s own people. Having cut her world’s population in half and taken a naïve child to raise as both a ruthless warrior, and oddly, a beloved daughter, Thanos emphasises how the survivors of Gamora’s home went on to reach prosperity and an end to starvation. A vision of future peace seemingly drives Thanos, and allows him to see himself as a genuinely heroic figure in his eyes – a perspective that has yet to be truly shaken yet, but may be disrupted in next year’s sequel. His quest to obtain the penultimate Infinity stone takes him to the barren planet Vormir, a location Gamora has kept secret from him, and from her cybernetically altered ‘sister’ Nebula (Karen Gillan – Doctor Who, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who was also ‘adopted’ by Thanos, and is now imprisoned for attempting to kill him. Her own tortuous treatment builds on audience sympathy from her from the previous Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and persuades Gamora to give up her secret to spare her life. Events at Vormir lead to a surprise cameo from one of the very first films in the Marvel ‘cinematic universe’, of a gatekeeper figure bound by the power of the Infinity Gems, and guarding access to the Soul Gem – perhaps the most mysterious of the stones. Acquiring it will test Thanos’ resolve, but again – perceiving himself as a hero – he decides he is willing to make the sacrifices. And he is rewarded for it – distorting the usual narrative structure of these usual movies. Although the audience can seen things coming, the execution of the plot here nevertheless becomes a bit harrowing.
As the heroes on Earth prepare for a massive battle against Thanos’ army, within the protected borders of Wakanda, the remaining Guardians (minus Rocket and Groot) arrive at Titan, shortly after Iron Man’s team has crashlanded there. The Avengers introduce themselves as Earth’s mightiest heroes (“like Kevin Bacon?” asks Mantis – Pom Klementieff – who’s perspective of Earth culture remains endearingly limited) The two Peters – Parker and Quill – spend a moment discussing the merits of the movie Footloose, before the two groups get to compare notes on Thanos, and maybe get round to creating a viable plan. That is, if Quill and Tony Stark can avoid butting heads as alpha male tendencies come to the fore. Benedict Cumberbatch gets to put on his exasperated airs as Dr. Strange – although his use of the Time Gem to assess possible futures leaves him looking a lot grimmer. Soon Thanos arrives for the gem in question, resulting in a wild set piece battle as every hero employs their eclectic assortment of powers against him, in a crowd pleasing, but maybe too rapidly edited, battle. It seems like they can actually prevail, as they pin Thanos into a weakened state.
More popcorn busting battles ensure in Wakanda, with Captain America leading the charge, and Mark Ruffalo getting to join the fight, no longer transformed as the Incredible Hulk – who is apparently skulking. His reticence will likely be explored in the sequel film, whether from resentment as losing his fanclub, or being treated like a tool by his alter ego personality. The Wakanda army makes a suitably impressive horde, although apparently reluctant to bring in heavy firepower, or aircraft. The battle fills time, and is mostly a way to show off more characters, whether in combat or banter. Here, unlike has usually been the case in the plot, they do get to generally be victorious, innovating and prevailing in tactics and daring. Provided the audience can keep up with the unrelenting pace and the undercurrent of insincere danger quite often, entertainment levels should remain high.
Then it all comes apart, as Peter Quill’s already strained emotional state leads to the unravelling of his and Iron Man’s plan, and a failure to contain their foe, as he reveals a crueller cut. Although frustrating, the situation is somewhat understandable, as Quill/Starlord, never the most in touch with his emotions, has seen Thanos not only succeed so far, but also be rewarded. To have him now claim to understand sacrifice and to feel it more than he himself does infuriates him, as the universe is suddenly cast in an unfair light. It is left to Thor and his mighty new axe weapon to try to stop Thanos as he arrives at Wakanda, threatening to undo the successes there. His pursuit of Vision and Scarlet Witch appears unstoppable, and only at the last instant can Thor seem to bring him down…
Which is where the film concludes by twisting the knife, as the now godlike Thanos undoes all their efforts with a literal snap of his fingers. Younger fans might be mildly traumatised as heroes fall and fade before their eyes, leaving the future of the Marvel world in severe doubt. Of course, with godlike powers so literally on display, godlike fixes are necessarily plausible and implied, and savvy fans will note which actors are still comfortably expecting sequels and which are nearing the end of their contracts. But the sheer number of ‘disposals’ is still rather shocking, and some will catch in the throat, especially where last lines are considered. A translation of Groot’s (Vin Diesel, from the Fast and the Furious films) last words can be found online, for one extra bit of pathos.
And so the film comes to a sombre end, with Thanos leaving to sit peacefully on a hillside as a sun rises over a field, apparently content, and now victorious over nature itself, not even apparently taking any of the heroes’ struggles against him personally. He even honours a few with his perception of mercy, allowing a few to survive. How they face that uncomfortable situation, and find some nigh impossible way to put things right, will have to await next summer in the second instalment of these films. A post credits scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson (as Colonel Nick Fury) serves as a tease to the upcoming Captain Marvel movie starring Brie Larrson, set up as an apparent ace in the hole, and the Antman sequel will also soon be out. Those experiencing Marvel fatigue at the moment are well within their right to postpone cinema visits until next year though, and online streaming and rapid DVD releases can still fill many a narrative gap. The film is slick, enjoyable, if maybe a bit drawn out. For those not invested in seeing all these characters and their heroics it may be a long haul, but the movie never feels too pompous or dour. Newcomers are obviously not recommended to start here, but nor need they see every movie before this. The two Avengers films and the two Guardians films I would say are strongly recommended as lead-ins though, along with Spiderman Homecoming, particularly concerning elements of the climax. Younger viewers seeing this with friends are likely to have a blast, the younger still may be thrown for a loop at the ending, and need a little consolation.
For those that survived the 1980s and it’s own emotionally whiplashed big children’s movies (Optimus Prime, anyone?) they will likely be able to come out unscathed, waiting for the suspenseful resolution to come – and more bets are off this time, as certain actors are not guaranteed to have to return, or to renew their contracts, after this two-part blockbuster has concluded. It may be no accident that the survivors mostly include earlier debuted characters. In the meantime, watch this space, and my nearly inevitable follow up review, barring somebody snapping their fing…