It may very well be the case that Avengers: Infinity War is both the most review-proof movie ever made, and the most review-proof movie that is capable of existing. I don't mean "review-proof" in the sense that it typically means, that it would still make pots and pots of money even if the reviews were bad, though this is self-evidently true (it also doesn't matter, since Infinity War has received very good reviews). I mean that there is, in an important sense, nothing at all here to be reviewed. There was a little mini-meme going out around the internet where a few brave, foolhardy souls tried to earnestly describe this as an "experimental film", which falls apart pretty fast if you've seen any actual experimental films, though there's actually a nugget of something in there: this is, undoubtedly, doing something really damn weird.

I think what it's doing weird is this: Infinity War is, by design, not a complete movie. In some important way, it doesn't "exist". Instead, it's something like chemicals held in suspension, only able to cause a reaction once they've been catalysed with something that is found only inside the brain of the individual viewer. It's easy (and completely accurate) to say that one needs to have seen all 18 of the previous films in the 10-year history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for this to be comprehensible as a narrative object, but that can't be the whole of it. The same was true of 2016's Captain America: Civil War (when there were only 12 previous films), but that still felt, ultimately, like a movie, in a way that Infinity War does not. Infinity War is a set of instructions that are only actualised as a movie when it is watched. It is Schrödinger's Movie. And I don't know, maybe that is enough to call it an "experiment".

It is, at any rate, not an experiment I found very interesting or enjoyable, but that couldn't possibly matter less. Every viewer will see their own Infinity War, and it will be more or less satisfying based on their attachment to this enormous list of characters, developed over 18 films from 2008's Iron Man to February's Black Panther; for the film offers no emotions of its own but the one the viewer comes in with. This is not a criticism or a complain, but merely a description of how the film is designed to function. One could only make such a film on the shoulders of a hugely popular and well-liked franchise, as the MCU has been. Anyway, I've never been more than a middling fan of these films, and often less, so of course I didn't have a good time; Infinity War cannot comprehend that I would even bother seeing it.

Anyway, if you have somehow, somehow been able to remain ignorant of this massive, review-obliterating blockbuster, Infinity War is the crossover to connect every sub-franchise of the MCU, as the Old Avengers, the New Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and presently-unaffiliated bystanders T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), king and guardian "Black Panther" of Wakanda, and Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), New York-based sorcerer. They have all gathered to stop the mad Thanos (Josh Brolin and whole bunch of purple CGI), last son of the ruined planet Titan, and the shadowy, dictatorial figure who has been hinting around at the edges of these movies for six years now, but only previously had much at all of an actual presence in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. This happens largely absence of any narrative structure, as the film moves between what almost function as wholly independent mini-movies that borrow the aesthetics, tone, and even the musical scores from the franchise's various sub-series.

"Absence of any narrative structure", did I say? Nay, that is the structure. Infinity War is the film that finally achieves something that's been hiding in wait ever since the MCU was announced: it is the movie version of a giant comic book crossover event. And indeed it's based on one, the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet arc. So it's a success: you get a Guardians movie and a Thor movie and a Doctor Strange movie and an Iron Man movie and by then it's next month so they're publishing the next issue of Guardians...

The problem is that comic book crossovers fucking suck. I haven't read The Infinity Gauntlet; maybe it is the great exception that proves the rule. But Marvel's House of M? Civil War? Secret War? They suck, one and all. Over at the competitor's place, DC? Crisis on Infinite Earths sucks, Infinite Crisis sucks more, Flashpoint sucks so bad that it killed off any interest I had in ever reading a superhero comic for the rest of my life. Crossover are wearying, over-plotted, convoluted to no good end, and despite being uniformly billed as huge game-changing events, they always feel weirdly inconsequential. Every one of these is true of Infinity War, especially its faux-game changing; it would be easier to take its quote-unquote "developments" much more seriously if we didn't know that half of the cast has sequels with set release dates. Or if the film hadn't gone so needlessly far out of its way to undo everything that happened in the actual game-changer Thor: Ragnarok (seriously, he even gets his fucking eye back?), proving once and for all that nothing that happens in any of these films is ever going to "count".

Civil War is, I think the best example of how to make this kind of burly thing work, not least because it shares most of Infinity War's creative team. It gathered together a huge number of people, and gave them all meaningful reasons to be there (except Ant-Man, who is anyway one of the very small number of established characters who didn't show up this time), and told a story that was meaningfully based in their personalities. It jettisons everything about its own shitty crossover event that didn't work, telling a mostly brand-new story with the same gimmick. It feels like a movie, something that is never altogether true of Infinity War.

Anyway, the film has its share of pleasures. Undoubtedly, it's weak in a lot of ways and doesn't do much with most of its characters, and it's hilariously obvious that Black Panther's monstrous success caught Marvel by surprise, given that Black Panther has about 90 seconds of screentime - though he still justifies his position in the narrative far more than Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Chris Evans, putting not one ounce of effort into hiding his boredom with this franchise), who is in here for no other apparent reason than that you can't make an Avengers picture without Cap. But it's a much better Doctor Strange movie than Doctor Strange was, and it's a generally solid third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, even if it has a conspicuously shitty idea of what to do with Gamora. Anyway, that series' Dave Bautista is once again the standout MVP, just like he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and the only thing that even makes it a close race is Peter Dinklage as a character we'll never see again, with the film's very best laugh line.

Plus, the ending, for all that I knew it was coming from, like, two years ago, does at least one thing to seem more consequential and serious than will actually be the case: the lack of music makes the final scenes considerably more mournful and elegiac than they might have been, and even with my total lack of emotional commitment to the franchise didn't keep me from being moved.

On the flip side: the action is customarily flatfooted (though the first setpiece, in New York, has some fun concepts underlaying it), and after the colorful space extravagance of Guardians 2 and Ragnarok, the production design is dismayingly drab - one prong of the slackly-assembled climax takes place on a Yellow Dust Planet. And about that climax: I get that the goal was to mimic a crossover series in its structure, but it begs for cross-cutting. I have very little doubt that one could put together a tighter, more exciting second half for this movie solely by recutting what already exists, neither adding nor removing a single frame, but only rearranging things to have more momentum between and across scenes.

Anyway, none of this matters. I had one experience watching the movie, and the numbers argue that you had or will have a better one, and in neither case are we going to get anything other than a movie that fulfills our expectations in the most grossly deterministic way. I hope yours are higher than mine, because you will probably be satisfied where I was not.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)