WARNING: This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War, the massive Marvel extravaganza that's been years in the making, may be toppling box office records and delighting the shared universe's hardcore fans, but it's one of Marvel's weaker efforts, and it's pretty easily the weakest of the Avengers films.
There's a secret that any longtime comic book fan will tell you: "event comics" - the stories where dozens of costumed heroes unite to thwart some sort of ostensibly unstoppable villain bent on universal destruction - are almost always lousy. For every classic, like Crisis On Infinite Earths or Secret Wars, there are dozens that end up as companywide disappointments because they're overstuffed indulgences with nothing to say. It seemed inevitable we'd get to the cinematic version of that underwhelming spectacle, and it has arrived in the guise of Thanos' gigantic purple jawline.
Comic fans' imaginations went into overdrive when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury showed up after the credits to tell Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative in 2008's Iron Man. That film - and that scene - is still one of the high water marks of the superhero film genre, as it showcased a fully realized comic book world with a wink and nod sense of humor and a mesmerizing lead performance from a perfectly cast Robert Downey, Jr. It became the template for Captain America: The First Avenger, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor, which all set the stage for the first Avengers film to varying degrees.
What The First Two Avengers Films Got Right
It's easy to forget now, but there was a widespread, genuine concern that Avengers was a fool's errand, that there was simply no way to successfully interweave the worlds and narratives of so many different films and characters. Of course, writer/director Joss Whedon emphatically proved those naysayers wrong, delivering one of the most viscerally satisfying popcorn movies of all time. The Avengers even somehow managed to smuggle in some lovely characters moments - Bruce Banner's secret to controlling the Hulk, how Tony's uneasy relationship with Steve Rogers was so deeply shaped by his complicated relationship with his father, the shawarma - and enjoyed a record-breaking box office run that shocked many by besting Christopher Nolan's final Batman epic, The Dark Knight Rises. Yet rather than sitting back and treating Avengers as a crowning achievement, Marvel decided escalation would now be the name of the game, making bigger, more ambitious crossover films going forward.
Marvel's "Phase Two" was a little more uneven quality wise - though it still featured two unqualified gems in Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier - with the inescapable feeling that a shift had taken place, that the primary driver for a lot of Marvel movies' existence was to promote future Marvel movies. This actually ended up being something of a sticking point for Whedon during production of his Avengers sequel, the lumpier, weirder Age of Ultron. Whedon infamously expressed frustration with the necessity of balancing so many different franchise balls in the air, having to service both the previous and future MCU films to a certain degree. That burgeoning shared universe obligation didn't prevent Avengers: Age of Ultron from, in many ways, becoming a more fascinating film than the first one; it showcased Hawkeye's surprisingly wholesome family life, a bewitching version of the stalwart Marvel android Vision, and a deeply messed up, controversial romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.
Age of Ultron also featured a deliciously disturbing bad guy turn from James Spader as the unhinged titular robot, a hubristic mistake of Tony Stark's own making that he spends the rest of the movie trying to atone for. Say what you will about Age of Ultron, but it's definitely the only $250 million Hollywood blockbuster where the climax is two artificial lifeforms discussing the tragic beauty of humanity's mortality. Whedon's frustration and exhaustion led him to leave the MCU behind after Age of Ultron - though he still gets a little wistful over the fact he never got to play with Star-Lord and friends.
Marvel's "Phase Three" showcased some genuinely dazzling films like the cultural and box office juggernaut that is Black Panther, as well as Thor: Ragnarok, which achieved the seeming impossible by making a Thor film deliriously fun. And yet Infinity War - the culmination of both "Phase Three" and the greater Thanos threat seeded all the way back in the mid-credits scene of the first Avengers - could not possibly have less in common with those films; it also happens to lack the straightforward pleasures of the original Avengers and the eccentric verve of Age of Ultron.