Avengers: Infinity War works precisely because it is nothing like The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The story is singularly focused, tightly structured. The villain is compelling. And the whole endeavor looks and feels cinematic.
Joss Whedon’s first two Avengers installments are well-regarded, though I’m not sure why. Short of putting everyone in the same geographic space, they accomplish very little. Some may draw a parallel to Chris Columbus’s yeoman effort on the first two Harry Potters, but Columbus achieved far more with less to build on. He introduced characters, developed relationships, even provided proper villains and compelling standalone stories (Chamber of Secrets especially is overlooked). Whedon failed to do any of that. He made two meandering episodic movies, with no discernable stakes nor lasting consequences.*
*underlined by the laughably low casualty count when revealed in Captain America: Civil War.
But even putting aside their failure as building blocks, Avengers 1 and 2 don’t stand on their own. The cinematography is unimaginative, even cheap (e.g. lighting is basic, images and shots dull). Worse, they lack cohesion in basic story, structure, and tone. The heroes spend most the time bickering, the villains unremarkable – yes, even Loki, with their armies of expendable minions more distraction than genuine threat. Everyone is a caricature, uniform vessels for the trademark Whedon quippiness, and the deaths meant to inspire feeling (Coulson, Pietro) instead fall flat. There are some fun set pieces but not much more.
Infinity War, under the steady guidance of the Russo brothers, wisely centers its movie on the villain instead. Making Thanos (Josh Brolin) three-dimensional makes him feel less disposable and more compelling. The movie purposefully separates its dozen (or more) heroes into digestible teams of three or four, thus providing the crossover promised by the Avengers banner without completely losing track of characters in a giant crowd. Further, by providing each mini-team with its own external mission, it veers away from the construction of artificial within-group conflict. Thanos is coming; there are bigger things at stake.
The villain-heavy approach is not without its risks. The devotion of less time to individual heroes is compounded by the enormous cast. This inevitably leaves many shortchanged. Yet while some are reduced to their essentials here, Infinity War does not suffer too much from the failed world-building of Avengers 1 and 2. There is a built-in sense of familiarity with characters, personalities, actions, and relationships, the corresponding hinting of intrinsic depth* – thanks to the slew of other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the franchise’s reasonable if not ideal substitute for in-movie character development.
*Unlike, say, the manner in which Black Panther and his father were shoehorned into Civil War.
Naturally then, Infinity War never feels like a standalone installment – for good and bad. Our heroes pick up where their own franchises left off, and even Thanos is continuing a mission he began in countless other mid- and post-credit sequences. The annoying strands are carried on too, to varying effects. The weird mentor relationship between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland) works better here in smaller doses, though sunk costs pushes the painfully boring romance between Scarlet Witch (Mary Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) to the forefront.* Infinity War is essentially a stopgap, if a very good one, as underlined by the the gripping cliffhanger on which the movie ends.
*Just fucking kill him! He’s not even human and you’d literally save billions.
Still, focusing on Thanos makes the movie matter in a way that Avengers 1 and 2 simply didn’t. We learn his backstory, understand his rationale, even empathize with him. Every scene serves the plot (for Thanos: finding the stones; for the heroes: stopping Thanos). Unlike Avengers, we don’t wade through 45 minutes of heroes acting like pissy children then have to pretend some fucking rando agent’s death will motivate them, and unlike Ultron, there’s no lull with a fucking party sequence at Avengers tower where everyone sits around spouting quips for no discernable reason. No, Infinity War has a sense of urgency.
Moreover, even in building to a memorable siege of Wakanda, the movie does not hinge its existence on that fight. Thanks to a steady diet of previous action – on the Asgardian ship, on Earth, on Maw’s spaceship, on Titan – Wakanda feels necessary when it happens but hardly inevitable prior. Moreover, it does not suggest the effective end of the movie – as say, with the Chitauri coming through the wormhole or Ultron’s army swarming Sokovia leading directly to denouement. When Thanos’ army invades, we know he looms, with the stones as his true objective. It underlines the movie’s scale.
Infinity War is flawed. It dispenses with almost all sense of subtlety (e.g. Gamore on Vormir, Dr. Strange on Titan). It forces characters to make stupid decisions in service of the plot (e.g., Quill, Wanda). It does not stand without 20 other movies – the 18 before, and given the ending and post-credit scenes, at least two that will come after. But Infinity War is not internally and fundamentally flawed in the manner of Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a good, solid, entertaining blockbuster, with a proper villain and proper stakes, with a worthy scale and even a sense of consequence. Well, sort of. After all, the Marvel drum beats on.