SPOILER ALERT: Major spoilers await!
Super Smash Bros: Infinity War is a surprisingly coherent spectacle of imagination run amok.
Even a superhero-fatigued Disney hater like me couldn't find a lot to get mad about in the Biggest Crossover Event In History™. Despite (or thanks to) its usual disservices to some of the core tenants of visual storytelling, Infinity War screams through its 140-minute runtime with a plethora of fun and wildly imaginative set pieces. Chock full of your favorite assets from the Marvel Brand Portfolio, the Russo Brothers take their knack for directing large ensembles to the most unreasonable level imaginable, and manage to deliver a movie that's fun and functions shockingly well.
I've had a real hard time with Marvel's approach to storytelling over the last few years. They've become factory-assembled empowerment fantasies that rely too heavily on the previous installments for things like empathy and character development, and where nothing of consequence ever really happens to anyone. I still look back fondly on the first few MCU movies as proof that they once had character-building chops to go along with the spectacle, and as frustrating as their reliance on dramatic shorthand is, they've certainly got a knack for it. To my surprise, the sheer ridiculousness of IW's scope actually makes their unorthodox approach to storytelling kinda work. There's no way they can give all these characters proper arcs, so they double down on the shorthand and pack it with all the pure crowd-pleasing elements: More zingers, more action, bigger concepts, and bigger stakes. It's a dizzying amount of frosting on an already sugary cake, and maybe it's just because of the sheer number of characters in the film, but the excessiveness of the film didn't bother me. More importantly, it didn't bore me.
More surprisingly, even though I don’t care much for all the details or characters of the MCU, I was still able to follow along and enjoy myself thanks to the charisma of the cast, and the streamlined narrative they're all a part of. Structurally, the film is refreshingly simple, and every single character is working toward the same goal: The most powerful being in the universe needs some magic rocks to become even more powerful, and the good guys have to stop him. It was nice to see such a massive 19-movie buildup culminate with a simple “who gets there first” story, with all of the many good guys factioned off in unexpected and amusing ways to help keep things moving. Thor and Rocket Racoon’s adventure was a particularly fun one, featuring Peter Dinklage playing a giant dwarf (because of course) who can craft a weapon capable of beating Thanos, but only if Thor holds open a giant lens allowing a star's energy to power the gigantic space forge that can craft it. The ridiculousness extends to the fight scenes, and in one exceptionally good one, Thanos reaches up with the gauntlet, summons a bunch of fucking space rocks from fucking space, and rains them down on our heroes. This film is absolutely bonkers. The Russos make wonderful use of everyone's different abilities, leading to some very imaginative sequences that are unabashedly awesome.
For the first time in years, the good guys actually face not just a moderately fleshed-out villain with his own goals, but a credible threat. Thanos is the real star of the show here, and after being told that he's someone to fear for so many years, it's nice to see them come out the gate with him posing an immediate threat by wailing on the Hulk and strangling Loki to death in Scene 1. Josh Brolin, in conjunction with the gargantuan number of CG artists working on the film, did a great job making Thanos properly intimidating. While they make a solid attempt to flesh him out, they still fall into their usual shorthand trappings. The biggest example of this: Why does Thanos care about Gamora? There's nothing in the film to convince me that he cares other than he says he does a few times. Even in the flashback scene, we're not given anything other than "she approached him once and they talked." In the context of juggling 40 heroes that we already know, this kind of shorthand is more acceptable. But Thanos is still brand new for anyone who didn't do their MCU homework, and for who is clearly the *main* character of the movie, and for what is this main character's apparent emotional center, it left me wanting more.
These films take place in a universe where literally anything is possible, and nothing is permanent. There are no stakes because our heroes always find a way out of whatever mess they're in, even (and especially) death, and this is what ultimately undoes the breathtaking and much-ballyhooed ending. It's a quiet, somber, totally deflating ending that turns all of the new Avengers and half of all life in the universe into dust. While it's surprising to see the brand assets you least expect getting Thanos'd, that's ultimately its biggest failing. Everyone already knows there's gonna be one more film, and by snapping away all of the new brand assets a minute after showing the audience how a time stone can cleanly un-kill them, you undo all the power of that moment almost in realtime. I'm not foolish enough to actually worry about any of these characters because they've conditioned us to just sit back and watch them crack jokes and succeed without facing any real danger, but then again, I'm also more than twice the age of their target audience.
I do wonder if any of this shit really matters, because at the end of the day, I still had a genuinely fun time while watching it, and for the first time in a while, I find myself looking forward to seeing what they do for the next installment. It seems pretty obvious that some sort of magic bullshit will return everything to status quo for everyone still contractually obligated to the series, and ensure that the portfolio of brand assets remains solvent for the next 5-7 years. But all cynicism aside, I can't really hate on what this is too much, even though I still bemoan everything it represents. I had a blast watching it, and was too impressed with its coherence and imagination for anything to truly bother me until after the credits rolled and I started thinking about it. It's a movie that requires you to turn off your brain, but only to the outside world, because when you're watching, it's hard not to engage with the one(s) they put you in.