Avengers: Infinity War doesn't just bring the many threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, it manages to make up for some of the studio's biggest mistakes on the way. The epic team-up culmination of the MCU is great on its own merits, make no mistake, but just as Thanos enters the fray with Earth's Mightiest Heroes fractured after Captain America: Civil War and strewn across the cosmos, neither is Infinity War entering a totally balanced arena. Much of that is how its narrative is informed by eighteen other movies - the film uses assumed familiarity with the previous entries to great effect - but there are franchise concerns too that are a little more complex.
Nobody would deny Marvel's success over the past ten years, nor that it has only continued to become more staggering in recent times: last year, movies in the MCU made $2.6 billion worldwide, while just two months ago Black Panther smashed records in every direction, and the reviews from fans and critics alike typically match. Yet throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe there's been a growing number of consistent issues. The movies are notoriously formulaic, and even with the hiring of directors like Taika Waititi or Scott Derrickson, entries usually feel like the filmmaker in a restrictive playpen rather than them truly making something unique.
For Infinity War, these problems risked overspilling. While before the overall quality of the Marvel machine has won out anyway, there was the underlying justification that each movie was part of a bigger story and thus many slip-ups were forgiven in deference of the franchise. That doesn't hold for the culmination; what's this all been worth if the payoff is poor (see the depreciation in opinion of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when it became clear the trilogy it started wasn't up to much)? Thankfully, the Russos beyond mere justification and actually tackles those previous issues head-on.
Is Avengers: Infinity War a "perfect" or "flawless" movie? No, of course not; having such an unprecedentedly large cast and telling a universe-spanning story means it's operating on an immense scale, and so creaks and smaller elements struggle. But what's exciting is that these are problems with this specific film, not franchise-endemic concerns continuing. If there is a Marvel formula still operating, it's proven to be no longer a problem.
Marvel's Villain Problem
The most oft-cited issue with Marvel is their villain problem. Namely, despite almost unanimously being at the core of a movie's plot, the villain and their scheme always come as an afterthought. Characters like Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy or Malekith in Thor: The Dark World are commonly cited as being almost comedically forgettable, but even the serviceable Ego in Guardians Vol. 2 or Kaecillius in Doctor Strange don't quite land as impressively as they should.
The key problem is a lack of active development in these characters, mainly because Marvel movies have traditionally been so heavily hero focused; the priority is making sure the protagonist and their arc is well rounded, so anything outside of that bubble is a secondary concern. This is also why many villains tend to simply be dark mirrors of the hero, and often their true nature is revealed in a twist; both save time and power the main element. This has been baked into the formula since the first Iron Man, where Jeff Bridges proved so instinctively menacing that a lot of his scenes were cut. Of course, not everyone has quite the same menace as Bridges, nor as easy an arc as Iron Monger, and so it was applied without full thought as to why.
Recently, things have admittedly improved. Michael Keaton's Vulture and Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger stand out in particular for the real-world grounding to their relatable motives; they definitely needed to be stopped, yet it was hard not to agree with at least where both were coming from. They also benefitted from effective twists - incredibly shocking in Spider-Man: Homecoming's case - that challenged and forced the audience to question everything about them. Essentially, Marvel, understanding that its character work was top notch, applied the method of hero deconstruction to their foes.
Thanos Is Marvel's Best Villain Because They Treat Him Like A Hero
Yet if either of those felt like notable exceptions working against the trope - that there was so little competition was key to the "best villain claims" - Thanos indicates the methodology has changed. He's the big CGI foe with an extreme goal and despite three prior appearances next to no established personality; each of these should ruin him. Yet, he's the best thing in the film.
Thanos curbs all of the cited problems by not just being a fleshed-out antagonist but the focus of Avengers: Infinity War. He is the main character - to the point the text at the end promises his return, not the recently-decimated Avengers - and so the movie gets more time and freedom to go deeper into his psyche than any prior. The Russos paint a driven being whose greatest strength is a conviction in his horrific goals, and torturously sacrifices everything to get it; while the fact he wins come Infinity War's ending definitely solidifies his stature, the emotion on show as he gives up "everything" to get there is what makes Thanos great. The competent realization of Thanos, with CGI so refined you can see his stubble, and John Brolin playing it entirely straight, is a staggering bonus.
Does this mean the heroes suffer as a result? Sure, but we know them by this point. Avengers: Infinity War applies the shorthand that benefited Jeff Bridges to the heroes, knowing that Captain America can turn up without introduction and get straight to it (what exposition of previous movies there is played as personality-building). The villain is given the protagonist treatment, and no foe can ever be the same.
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