Over the past decade, perhaps the greatest collective strength of the eighteen (yes, eighteen) movies in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe has been their relative independence. From the very first Iron Man through to the most recent Black Panther, each film has (mostly) achieved an impressive balance of telling its own, distinct story while also servicing the ultimate end-game. Each new entry had enough in-jokes and easter eggs to satisfy the super-fans, but never so many that a newcomer couldn't enjoy the experience from an entirely cold start.
The same cannot be said for Avengers: Infinity War, but then again, for directors Anthony and Joe Russo, that was never the intention. This isn't just the nineteenth film in the MCU, it's the culmination of the entire franchise; a sprawling, non-stop action movie purpose built, this time, for the fans. It's relentless, entertaining and more than a touch surprising. Unfortunately it's also starved of substance and likely to leave many feeling shortchanged. Ultimately, it all comes down to scale.
Perhaps for the first time, this cinematic universe is truly universal in its scope. It moves from one galaxy to the next with bewildering speed, including planets so ancient and remote many of the characters have either never heard of them or dismissed their existence as the stuff of legend. And of those characters, where to even begin? In January of this year Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, casually dropped mention of an extraordinary seventy-six separate Marvel characters set to appear in Infinity War. Even if he was being slightly hyperbolic (one quickly loses count, so the number might actually be bang on), his comments nonetheless captures the magnitude of this gargantuan blockbuster.
But like the pop culture references in the recent Ready Player One, many of these inclusions offer little substance beyond an excitable Pavlovian response triggered by recognition ("Heeey, it's Black Widow! Ooo it's…whatshisface!"). Even with the film's indulgent 156 minute run time, the decision to pack so many characters into a single film inherently means Infinity War must choose between cameo and character, with the former largely winning out. That means that many of the incredible cast members are saddled with just a handful of lines each, with perhaps the fewest coming from Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther (despite the fact that a significant section of the film taking place in his kingdom of Wakanda). Again though, the Russos have knowingly committed to the 'as read' nature of this film, opting instead to devote the lion's share of screen time and dialogue to the only real newcomer: the villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Thanos first appeared during the end credits of the original Avengers movie back in 2012. Since then he's been a constant (if fleeting) reference point for the coming storm that is Infinity War. He is nothing if not formidable – a softly-spoken juggernaut whose vision for a harmonious universe involves the mass genocide of precisely half its inhabitants. To achieve that he requires the fabled 'infinity stones', several of which are unfortunately located on earth in the hands (or foreheads) of various Avengers. He is a worthy antagonist for such an enormous project, and what really separates him from all the other Marvel villains is his capability; an indomitable strength that renders void the efforts of every other hero he encounters. Teamwork has always been the name of the game in the MCU, but even the combined efforts of the entire super-powered lineupseems destined to fall short.
Of course Infinity War is actually just part one of two films, with the second instalment scheduled to drop in May 2019. Its ending, hence, leaves a lot to be resolved, and it's difficult not to assume much of that will centre upon some extensive Dr. Strange time reversal. There's a serious chance the series could be veering toward shark-jumping territory, so fingers crossed the Marvel boffins have something far grander and more unexpected planned. Until then, brush up on your backstories and strap in for one helluva ride.