Once upon a time, the high-water mark for movie production bravado was spending the better part of a decade setting up four separate superhero film franchises—a historically fickle genre, success-wise—all so they could be combined into a fifth uber-franchise bigger than anything previously attempted. But once that proved it could work, the bar raised by an order of magnitude, and in April 2018, we finally saw what the new face of insane storytelling ambition looked like. Keep in mind that by then, Marvel movies had collectively earned $14.83 billion in global box office. That is so much money that if Marvel were its own country (I hear Sokovia can be gotten cheaply) it would rank 124 out of 191 world economies, sandwiched somewhere between Albania and Brunei. Studio heads make fairly generous deals with infernal spirits for a fraction of this kind of winning streak. So what does Marvel do for its next trick? It shatters the entire thing with a story that has been teased out and alluded to for more than a full decade, incorporating at least 19 major named characters, and hitting us with the one of the most impactful, most talked-about cliffhanger endings in living memory. The movie, of course, is Avengers: Infinity War. And no, you are not prepared for it. No one is.
The story—Odin’s beard, where to begin?—involves the arrival of the mad titan Thanos, a supremely powerful day interstellar warlord with a plan to collect all of the galaxy’s so-called Infinity Stones so he can harness their power and shape reality to his whim. And since Thanos is an insane, evil nihilist, his whim is to randomly reduce all life in the universe by half with just a snap of his fingers. Because when you are 1,200 pounds of purple muscle, that’s what feels like a proper use of limitless power. Standing in Thanos’ way is the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroic roster: Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, War Machine, the Falcon, and the Winter Soldier. There is also Star-Lord, Gamora, Nebula, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket, Groot and Mantis, along with Thor, Loki and the entire nation of Asgard. And there is Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, the Black Panther and the entire nation of Wakanda. Nick Fury shows up just long enough to send the most important pager message of his life. And all of them can only begin to contend with the kind of power Thanos has arrayed against them. Everything our heroes have encountered before from Thanos’ corner has been mere minions and lackeys. Now, they’re up against a guy who is a most sinister embodiment of the notion that if you want to do something right, you have to do it yourself. And he does. By the powers, he does.
This movie goes by at a nearly breathless pace, for even within its fairly long runtime, it juggles four competing storylines without making any of them feel particularly shortchanged. That the movie manages to give us a deep dive into Thanos and what drives him is a feat of such narrative agility that if the directors, the Russo Brothers, ever decide to give up making movies, they might consider overseeing Serengeti-scale cat migrations.
Throughout Avengers: Infinity War, we are given fleeting glimpses of damned near everything that ever made us fall in love with Marvel characters in the first place. And while we do get the periodic flash of lightness and humor that lends Marvel its distinctive tone, this is easily the darkest, and bleakest, Marvel movie to date. Every one of Thanos’ establishing actions requires the abject humiliation of our heroes and the wanton destruction of innocent life. Every effort by our heroes to prevent the unthinkable is met with a level of opposition previously impossible to imagine. Thanos runs a clinic in everyone in his way, outfighting, outwitting and just plain outlasting every effort to stop him.
Some Marvel films have deftly examined what it means for a hero to face the prospect of defeat and its dire consequences. Avengers: Infinity War is a doctoral thesis in it, and sets us up for the hardest conclusion of all: that the only reason why heroes matter is because they aren’t guaranteed to succeed. That on a long enough timeline, the chances of the bad guys winning are 100%. And in a universe like the MCU, when a bad guy finally gets his way, there really is no context for how to proceed after that.
The moment of truth here isn’t the movie’s final moments, when, in theaters across the world, fans audibly gasped and tears wet the faces of young and old fans alike. Deep in our hearts, we knew something bad was going to happen. We just didn’t know what. Or how. Or to whom. No, the moment of truth is what happens after, which is…nothing. Previous Marvel movies treat us to a garish first-credits sequence that relives all of the heroic drama and triumph of what we just finished seeing, a fun victory lap before we get a little encore. But not Avengers: Infinity War. This one just fades to black and makes us sit there amid music so low-key that first-time watchers would be forgiven for thinking there was no music at all. Those who do notice it will recognize the MCU version of a funeral dirge. It makes us sit there and hope against hope for something more to go on. And after those long, awful minutes, it still gives us precious little relief. Yes, this is a comic movie. Yes, these things rarely stick. But it sure as hell sticks until you get to know what happens next. It sticks like hell. It hurts like hell. It leaves you with hole you don’t know how to fill. And those who were there when it happened will never, ever forget it.