Avengers: Infinity War might not even be a “good” movie, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s awesome in the true sense of the word. This film has achieved something more lasting with its unapologetic complexity: Marvel Studios has, for now, eclipsed Star Wars and Shakespeare. Like it or not, we are experiencing a new form of shared mythology. And if you don’t understand what exactly is going on, that’s just part of the fun.
No spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War. I repeat, this is a non-spoiler review.
If older comic books from the Seventies and Eighties were confusing, an asterisk could save you. For example, in Doctor Strange #74, published in 1974, there’s an asterisk after a convoluted sentence about the Orb of Agamotto, which lets you know that “Dr. Strange ‘died’ in issue 4 and ‘returned’ in issue 5.” But, not all asterisks in comics had this much content. Sometimes they would just supply a quick cross-reference like “See issue 47,” assuming, of course, you had cataloged all your comic books meticulously.
Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t have any helpful on screen asterisks. Because if it did, the movie screen would be covered with them for the full two hours and 40 minutes the movie was running. This isn’t an insult to Infinity War; it’s visually the easiest way to describe just how much is going on here. Is Infinity War greater than the sum of its infinite parts? Yes, but only because the endlessly complicated storytelling isn’t a problem, per se. This is just what our new shared mythology looks like.
If you’ve only just recently gotten into Marvel movies and were somehow completely isolated from everything that had happened with comic book movies in the past decade, you might not like Infinity War. The last three big films from Marvel Studios — Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther — all have one thing in common. They are all “regular” movies in the sense that they have a beginning, middle, and end. They also all have clearly defined protagonists, antagonists, stakes, rules, and a sense of thematic cohesiveness. In short, your mom could watch them and generally get an idea of why you liked them. Infinity War isn’t like that. If Black Panther is like taking a ride in an awesome sports car and stopping at the drive-in a few times for burgers and fries, then Infinity War is like taking the engine of that car apart and inviting all the people who designed the car over to your house to debate about the car, all while you’ve been transformed into a tiny mouse who can no longer understand English.
Look, I’m being unfair. Infinity War wasn’t actually hard for me to follow, but that’s only because I’ve been writing about science fiction and comic book movies for nearly a decade, and understanding this minutia is my job. But, connecting all the invisible asterisks to their points of narrative origin isn’t the game Infinity War is actually playing. It seems like the screenplay — written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — takes the same attitude Shakespeare took when writing the opening scenes of Julius Caesar. They just assume you understand all the players and circumstances.
And why not? At this point, it’s been 10 years and 19 movies. Marvel Studios doesn’t have to explain what’s going on here. This is the middle of the fucking Iliad and the screenwriters, directors, and producers are all collectively the epic poet Homer. With The Iliad, Homer isn’t going to explain who Achilles is midway through, just like this movie isn’t going to give you a full recap as to why Iron Man and Captain America aren’t speaking.
More than any other film in this franchise, Infinity War feels like contemporary mythology. Sure, it helps that there are actual gods and god-killers in the story, and some, like Thor and Loki, borrowed from mythology and literature of antiquity, but that’s not the real triumph of Infinity War. Instead, what is startling about the film has nothing to do with the multiple plot twists and shocking events continued within. No. Infinity War’s most startling feature is the confidence of not caring in the slightest if it doesn’t feel like a regular movie.
Infinity War is a film without a beginning and an end, leaving us with nothing but a ridiculously entertaining middle. Save for one brief early scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gestures at nominally average ideas like keeping dinner dates and getting married, there’s not a single character in Infinity War who isn’t a superhero or supervillain. And yet, against all odds, literally dozens of characters are all briefly rendered as real people, and each of their extraordinary skills is somehow convincingly made essential to the story.
Saying Infinity War is “overstuffed” is an insane understatement. But if it’s a thought in your mind after you see it, you probably didn’t get what they were going for because that’s sort of the point. Do you think the sun is too bright? How are your feelings about the wetness of water?
In its worst moments, the number of heroes hanging out in Infinity War doesn’t feel excessive but instead, a little contrived. In its best moments, it feels like sublime 21st-century mythology doing what these kinds of films have been threatening to do for years: making you feel like you’re really experiencing a cinematic comic book. But, this time, you’re not starting with the first issue, and there are no asterisks to help you.
With Infinity War, you’re aggressively dropped into the middle of a series, which, if you know anything about comic books, is where things start to get interesting.
Avengers: Infinity War is out in theaters everywhere on April 27.