#6 in my Ranking of The MCU Phases 1-3.
With so many characters, the Russo brothers made an intelligent choice to center the emotional core of the film within a new character and the only one large enough within the narrative space to justify it: the antagonist. Outside of him, the movie’s essentially the biggest episode of a serial ever. It does that quite well, but it ends up squeezing out Thanos a bit. He’s good and enough to anchor a movie around, but everything else around him is pure spectacle and little else.
I say little else because all of our heroes get their moments. Thor talking about everything he’s lost. Vision and Scarlet Witch’s little romance taking shape. Peter Quill’s grief at the loss of a loved one. It’s all there, but it almost all depends on things outside this movie to work. Not that anyone would ever come into this movie without having at least some knowledge of the myriad of franchises that precedes it, but I think it deadens the impact of the moments since the emotional workload isn’t held within this movie itself. This isn’t like the final moments of a three-part movie like The Lord of the Rings, this is the culmination of more than twenty films, each with their own adventures and main characters, that end up tying together here.
So what you do have is a well-produced series of epic fights and events in the vein of a man on a mission type story, peppered with small character moments, revolving around the character of Thanos.
Thanos is the biggest threat the Avengers have faced (other than Dormmamu who was going to wipe out the entire universe in Doctor Strange, I guess), and he’s one of the better antagonists. I don’t think he’s miles better than Hela, Loki, or Vulture, but he’s definitely in that league. He’s a titan driven by an ideal, and he’s pure psychopath. Some people put forward the idea that Thanos could use the power of the Infinity Stones to double the universe’s resources, but that misses the point of the character. He’s a Malthusian through and through. He sees intelligent life as a cancer, infecting the universe, and that’s what must be wiped out. He’s so psychotic that to even dream of reasoning with him is asinine. He’s committed, and he demonstrate that commitment to his vision by sacrificing his beloved adopted daughter to gain one of the stones (the Soul Stone).
Meanwhile, our heroes take on several different related goals. There’s the attempt to remove and destroy the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead. There’s Thor trying to replace Mjolnir. There’s Iron Man leading Dr. Strange and Spider-Man (joined by most of the Guardians of the Galaxy) to fight Thanos before he gains full strength on the titan’s destroyed home planet. The story is structured around these different tasks, each told with the Marvel brand of quippy humor, seasoned with just enough emotion borrowed from the franchise’s history, and built to all crescendo at the same time.
That crescendo, which really takes up the last hour or so of the film, is something to admire. There are so many pieces moving and so many parts flying in so many different locations that the fact that it’s easy to understand who is involved in what and why on a consistent basis is kind of remarkable. The Russo Brothers have evolved a lot in terms of action cinematography since The Winter Soldier. They still have a preference for shallow depth of field, handheld camera, and close up photography, but they edit it a bit less frantically and pull back more than enough to firmly establish geography.
One thing they haven’t really grown on, though, is visuals in general. It’s an interesting contrast to watch so many of these movies in a row. Just a few movies back was Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. In it, everything with brightly colored with array of beautiful things. When Thor shows up in the Guardian’s ship, the same location that was so easily bathed in color in the previous movie has been dialed back to almost complete darkness. The movie as a whole isn’t dark (the fight in Wakanda is very brightly lit), but it’s fascinating to see some of the same locations and costumes that had been so colorful drained of it all in this. I think it’s an incorrect visual choice for the franchise, especially as it embraces its cosmic side. It needs to be crazier visually instead of dark and “grounded”.
Still, I find Thanos a good villain, the ride overall fun and engaging, and just wish that it didn’t rely so much on the previous movies and looked brighter and more colorful. For a movie that I could not see as being anything other than an expensive mess, that’s quite an accomplishment.