Here’s the problem with Avengers: Infinity War: too much superpower. Thor gets zapped by the energy of an entire star and yet seems no worse off than the average parent of twin toddlers. Spider-Man, previously limited to what he could do with the filaments shooting out his palms, now has a nifty Iron Man–style suit and can effectively do anything. Groot skewers half a squadron of warriors with his wispy branches. Even Bruce Banner has an Iron Man suit, size XXXXXXXXXL. As if Hulk wasn’t powerful enough? This is superpower inflation, indeed superpower hyperinflation. Avengers: Infinity War marks the Weimar stage of superhero movies.
I had hoped for better from screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, who wrote the first two Captain America films, both of which are among the best superhero movies of all time, and the directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Infinity War isn’t as sloppy as Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it’s no better (in fact, slightly worse) than the middling Marvel effort Captain America: Civil War.
Throwing lots of beloved people into the same movie doesn’t necessarily make it better or even bigger; we learned this lesson before, in the 1970s era of what the marketers called the All-Star Cast, which soon began to strike audiences as a gimmick and gave way to the effects-driven spectacle. Infinity War, whose cast includes ten Oscar nominees by my count (I may have missed a few), is an effects-driven all-star movie, but the way everyone gets poured rather than integrated into the story reminds me of those tag-team pro wrestling extravaganzas when every character Vince McMahon could dream up simply rushed into the ring, the initial jolt of excitement quickly turning into a desperate jumble.
We begin with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (and his brother, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, previously dead but now alive) being menaced by Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who even resembles a wrestling villain with his huge-muscled body. (Why do they bother with these bulky baddies? The Joker was plenty scary at normal size, and large triceps hardly matter in a world that contains guns, much less one that contains the super-snazzy weapons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Thanos is the master villain behind the previous Loki-led attack on Earth. He has a couple of the Infinity Stones you remember from previous movies, and when he gets all six he’ll be able to control the universe. All he wants to do is kill about half the people in it, for the neo-Malthusian motive of staving off overpopulation and preserving resources.
Tag! Here comes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Tag! Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets into the ring. Tag! It’s Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Then there’s Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt’s) gang from Guardians of the Galaxy. Vision (Paul Bettany), who has one of the Infinity Stones embedded in his forehead and can’t part with it without losing his life, is hiding out in Scotland with his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and soon joins forces with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
I looked at my watch only a few times. But my default feeling throughout was numbness bordering on fatigue.
As Thanos edges closer to ultimate power, the heroes joke around as merrily as lacrosse players on the bus to Chapel Hill. It’s bro-mageddon. Marvel fans seem to love this, but the joshing and the action nullify each other. You can’t show debris flying catastrophically through the streets of Manhattan, expecting us to be chilled by the evocation of 9/11, but also want us to giggle as Stark tells the alien invaders, “I’m sorry, Earth is closed today.” Banter keeps dissolving the dread like a bar of soap in a bubble bath. We’re meant to think there’s a grave schism between Stark and Rogers, but when this gets explained to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he says, “Broke up? Like a band?” Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies don’t make this mistake: The badinage is separate from the carnage. Nobody teases Bane by telling him he looks like a scrotum.
The Avengers movies are also increasingly plagued by fuzzy boundaries. If anything can be undone, nothing is final. If nothing is final, nothing matters. “No resurrections this time,” Thanos says, promising that a character who has been killed will stay dead. Yet if it’s convenient for the screenwriters, we’ll get the equivalent of “Aha, but I had my fingers crossed!” in the next installment. The time-travel element mastered by Doctor Strange renders nearly all actions reversible, and though there are more somber notes than usual in Infinity War, they aren’t emotionally rich because you know they won’t stick.
I won’t say I hated Avengers: Infinity War (as I did both Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the second Thor flick). It’s competent, professional. I looked at my watch only a few times. But my default feeling throughout was numbness bordering on fatigue. The film is only mildly funny, limiting its appeal as a comedy, and only mildly exciting, rendering it ineffective as an adventure. The typically rumbustious climactic battle was like watching a dump truck emptying characters everywhere as Spider-Man protests, “Sorry, I can’t remember everybody’s names.” You and me both, buddy.