There will never be another movie like Avengers: Infinity War. Not because it’s a feat of filmmaking (though it is impressive), but because no other studio may ever have the patience to spend 10 years and billions of dollars building up to one release. Given Hollywood's instant-gratification calculus, it's likely that no other studio—and perhaps not even Marvel itself—will want to gamble that audiences will want to consume movies the way they do comic books: slowly, over years, following dozens of characters until they converge in one massive crossover event. No, there may never be another Infinity War because, really, who's got time for that?
Obviously, movie franchises span years. Star Wars has been going on for more than four decades, but that longevity wasn't pre-ordained. People kept lining up to see Skywalker movies, so Lucasfilm kept making them, first as prequels and now as ongoing sagas and one-offs. There’s an entire galaxy far, far away now, but it didn’t come from a pre-existing canon; it wasn’t born in decades of pulp like the Avengers were. (And sometimes it shows.) Cinemas have been welcoming James Bond films for more than 50 years, but despite the presence of some ongoing baddies like SPECTRE, 007 himself gets rebooted and replaced every few years. Warner Bros./DC is trying to replicate the Marvel model with the Justice League, but is so far behind the avenging pack—and offers such disparity between its films—it may never fully catch up, no matter how devout Zack Snyder stans are.
This inherent complexity, this need to unite multiple threads and multiple people, is Infinity War’s greatest gift and biggest curse. On one hand, fans will appreciate the resolution of plot points they’ve been following since 2008’s Iron Man or 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. On the other hand, those who missed a couple movies, or just frankly can’t remember the finer points of Thor: The Dark World, might feel a bit lost. That’s OK. If you can’t remember why Bucky Barnes is in Wakanda—or, frankly, why a guy who looks like a rock bassist is hiding out in a secluded African nation—his reunion with Steve Rogers may not be as sweet, but you’ll still be able to follow the action. (On the other other hand: if you understand none of the proper nouns in that last sentence, Infinity War may not be the movie for you.)
This has always been the issue with Marvel films: they pack a punch, but occasionally it’s too much. From the first Avengers onward, each single movie has been obliged to carry a narrative and expository burden that can threaten to eclipse the film's discrete purpose. Sometimes it makes for a great film—see Captain America: Civil War—sometimes it makes for a movie that collapses under its own weight, as was the case with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But with Infinity War, the scale is balanced. And that’s its greatest marvel. With no fewer than 25 prominent superheroes, many of whom have their own franchises, Infinity War bordered on overstuffed from its very conception. How could all of those plots and interests meet and find denouement? It’s a testament to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script and Joe and Anthony Russo’s direction that for the most part they do, jumping off from the recent events of Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok (and, to a lesser degree, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and quickly looping in the plots of every Captain America, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy movie that came before them. At times it can feel like a Marvel trivia lightning round, with issues from previous films being introduced just to be knocked down and resolved, but it's also gratifying for hardcore fans while still remaining sensical for casual viewers—and manages to wind up with nary a massive plot hole in sight.
But what is the plot? To reveal too much would ruin everything, but it’s no secret to say that Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) quest to gather the six Infinity Stones and rule the galaxy—as hinted at in post-credits scenes and expositional dialogue from the MCU's many installments—ends here. His goal, if you haven’t watched the trailer, is the bring "balance" to the universe, which for him essentially means wiping out half its population. (Not a fan of overcrowding, this one.) To attempt to stop him, various pockets of Avengers and Guardians are dispatched throughout time and space—Wakanda to Knowhere, New York to Nidavellir, the origin of Thor’s mighty hammer. And surely as attempts are made to stop him, those attempts are thwarted.
It all culminates in an ending that is unlike anything previously seen in a Marvel movie—but certainly witnessed in a Marvel comic. It’s likely to shock, and even upset, a few people. Yes, some heroes die. (“That was like going to a funeral,” said one person leaving the screening I attended.) But as comic book fans know, in comics, death is not permanent. There’s another Infinity War coming next year, and it seems likely that much of its roster will be resurrected from the ashes of the film that came before it.
When Marvel honcho Kevin Feige first started talking about creating a multi-phase cinematic universe of superhero films, it seemed wildly ambitious, if not foolhardy. If more than one or two of the films underperformed, fans easily could have lost interest and derailed the whole enterprise. The fact that the MCU has yet to meet such a fate is astounding. That doesn’t mean it won’t, but keeping a fickle moviegoing public interested in anything for a full decade deserves notice—if for no other reason than it’ll probably never happen again. Too many things command the audience’s attention now.
About halfway through Infinity War, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) puts Peter Parker (Tom Holland) on notice. The New Guy is still learning the ways of being an Avenger and talks a little too much about other movies for Tony’s taste. (Though his use of an old trick from the Aliens franchise to defeat one of Thanos’ minions is pretty solid.) “Not one more pop-culture reference out of you for the entire ride,” Stark tells Spidey. Watching the latest Avengers movie, with its constant references to MCU movies past, can feel a bit like that. But if you bought a ticket to Infinity War, then you’ve already bought in; you’ve come to hear every reference this movie wants to throw at you. Ten years in, Marvel has managed to keep everyone along for the ride.