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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently proven to be an unprecedented blockbuster experiment in many ways over the last decade, but the long-teased arrival of Thanos has unquestionably been one of its most ambitious and risky maneuvers. Not only have fans waited for him through six years and 12 movies since his first on-screen appearance in Joss Whedon's The Avengers, but it has been repeatedly said by filmmakers that the ultra-villain's spotlight moment would be the adventure that every previous Marvel Studios film has been leading towards (a total of 18 features over 10 years). That's an unreasonable amount of pressure and hype to put on any single project -- and it's only multiplied by the insane popularity of the franchise.
The real crazy thing, though, is that they actually succeeded. Thanos' time to shine has finally come in the form of Joe and Anthony Russo's The Avengers: Infinity War, and it's every bit the epic that it needs to be. It's a heart-stopping experience built on huge stakes, fantastic character interactions, pulse-pounding battles, and devastating surprises, but most importantly it marks the arrival of one of the most terrifying and fascinating villains in modern blockbuster filmmaking. The Mad Titan is in every way the overpowering foe for which audiences have been waiting, and his quest for the Infinity Stones to achieve the abilities of a god proves stunning fodder for big screen storytelling.
Like the previous two Avengers titles, Avengers: Infinity War is a massive comic book-inspired crossover event -- this time letting the eponymous team finally meet the Guardians of the Galaxy -- but the way the film balances its 20-plus hero roster is by making Thanos the real protagonist. From scene one the movie is very much his journey, as he travels to Earth and around the cosmos in hopes of completing his life-long goal, and within that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely unlock the most important thing in the depiction of any villain: clear and understandable motives. Much more than just being a power-hungry, egotistical megalomaniac, Thanos' ultimate intention is to bring peace, harmony and balance to the universe; he just happens to think that the necessary step towards achieving that goal is by culling half of all living entities in existence. And while that concept is clearly horrific and unconscionable, he strongly makes his case, and there is no questioning his drive to succeed in his aims.
This extraordinary faith makes him terrifying, and the fear grows exponentially as the narrative continues -- but it's not just the writing that makes Thanos spectacular. It takes a mix of stunning gravitas and jaw-dropping, life-like visual effects to make the giant purple alien work, and Avengers: Infinity War absolutely crushes in both arenas. Despite being totally unrecognizable, Josh Brolin delivers a performance of endless intensity, whether his deep, booming voice be waxing philosophical, or belting harsh roars in the heat of battle. The physicality is outstanding, the character brought to life with ever-evolving and more stunning motion capture technology, and even in the moment it's incredible to see how he can dominate a scene.
It says something about the power of Thanos that I'm only now getting to the discussion of Marvel's insanely popular heroes, but that should suggest nothing in regards to quality. Quite the contrary, the reality is that much like how the Russos and Markus & McFeely proved genius handling many of these characters in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, they put a special show here as well. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wong (Benedict Wong), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and M'Baku (Winston Duke) all are brought in as new players joining those the writers and directors previously worked with, and amidst all the captivating and seriously consequential drama there's a remarkable reservoir of classic Marvel fun.
The Avengers: Infinity War filmmakers have a palpable blast pairing/grouping comparative and contrasting personalities, and while the story necessitates fracturing the ensemble to serve the narrative, they make some excellent choices. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets to continue his mentor-esque relationship with Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and they both get to be stunned and surprised by the magical displays put on by Doctor Strange and Wong. The relationship between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) grows deeper, but thanks to the Infinity Stone lodged in the latter's head, their fate together is in serious peril. And following the leadership of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) move the disassembled Avengers to Wakanda where they can get support from Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his people when facing down an invasion. Add in Thor on a wonderful cosmic side mission with Rocket and Groot, and you have every section of the blockbuster pulsing with energy and fantastic dynamics.
If it seems like all of that is a lot for one movie to take on, you're absolutely right -- and you admittedly do feel it in the pacing. There are certain stretches that take you away from certain characters for a long enough time that you begin to recognize the length of their absence, even as you're watching key sequences that are vital to the plot. This is an issue that will probably lessen with subsequent viewings -- as every movie moves differently when you have a full understanding of the narrative flow and all the beats -- but it is certainly a part of the first-time experience watching it, and speaks to the insane scale of everything that the film is bringing together.
In totality, elements of everything already discussed above have been featured in past Marvel Studios features, but what makes Avengers: Infinity War an entirely different monster are the phenomenal stakes established by both the story in the movie and the entire run-up to it. As immensely entertaining and dramatic as previous Marvel Cinematic Universe titles have successfully been, knowledge of sequels and future projects have long let audiences feel secure that everything turns out positively in the end... but that's not the case here. It's been said from the beginning that this film is the end of the line for many popular characters, and without getting into specifics, it absolutely delivers. Every clawing battle makes you feel like you have to prepare for tragedy, and there are multiple sequences where you feel your heart sink so deep in your chest that it's practically hitting spine. When the credits start rolling you really just want to sit in breathless silence. "Heavy" is the true watchword for this blockbuster, as you'll be carrying the weight of it with you hours after you've left the theater.
Avengers: Infinity War was a project literally conceived to have all the pressure in the world riding on it, but really in the end it's not exactly challenging to see why it works. It's arguably the best writing and directing teams that Marvel Studios has hired orchestrating one of the greatest ensembles (in terms of both talented actors and beloved characters) ever put together in the history of cinema. It's a unique, exceptional achievement that somehow leaves you both fully satisfied and desperate for more, and ranks among the best adventures we've seen yet from this stellar franchise.