When you view Avengers: Infinity War as the culmination of an epic that’s been building for a decade, it’s a grimly powerful march towards an inevitable conclusion, and a movie with remarkably little fat considering its outsized running time. If you view it as a stand-alone film, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. And if you view it as the third in an Avengers trilogy, it reveals notable problems with the Marvel movies that should be familiar to anybody who’s ever read one of those epic superhero crossovers that Marvel and DC are always publishing.
Infinity War was released on home media in August, including in 4K, which, obviously, is what we’re talking about right now. On the same day the first two Avengers movies, The Avengers and Age of Ultron, were also both released on 4K for the first time. (It’s the first time Disney has released 4K versions of older Marvel movies, and hopefully not the last.) They’re not sold as a bundle, but releasing all three movies on 4K on the same day is another clear sign that, for better or worse, these movies are effectively one series within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. As entertaining as they might be individually (or as installments of an epic that currently consists of 20 films), when viewed as a single three-part series, the Avengers movies don’t hold together. There’s simply too much crucial action happening outside these three for them to make sense as an isolated trilogy.
This is exactly what happens when your favorite comic book series has to tie-in to a line-wide crossover series. You’ll be enjoying the adventures of your favorite character or group, and suddenly here’s an issue (or two, or sometimes even three) where the regular story takes a back seat and you have to read comics you wouldn’t otherwise care about to understand what’s happening. It’s frustrating there, and if you were expecting the Avengers movies to be a self-contained series, it’d probably be frustrating here, too.
It’s not a problem between the first two Avengers films, which were both written and directed by Joss Whedon. Yeah, characters you might not recognize will pop up in Age of Ultron, but only in minor roles. That movie’s main plot is directly inspired by what happens in the first one. Whedon’s presence unites them as a cohesive artistic tandem, with the same voice and visual language. It’s a relatively seamless transition.
Infinity War, though, with new writers and new directors, has no time for back story. It has too many characters and too much plot to churn through. If you haven’t seen any number of other Marvel movies, from Captain America: Civil War (which is pretty much an Avengers movie in all but name) to Guardians of the Galaxy to Spider-Man: Homecoming, you’ll be missing out on crucial context and background. It’ll feel like picking up that crossover tie-in comic without having read half of the issues of that came before it.
For the hardcore Marvel fan, that’s not a problem. They probably catch every Marvel movie as soon as they can, and presumably are the same people who’d be looking to buy the expensive new 4K versions of the older Avengers movies. For the more casual fan, though, who might be interested in the Avengers movies but don’t care enough to watch every individual character’s films, this third Avengers movie will simply make no sense. There are too many gaps, too many assumptions about what the viewer knows and remembers.
It would be impractical to include all the necessary back story in Infinity War, though. It’s already long enough as it is, and would never fly in theaters today if it was padded out with a movie version of those old comic book editor’s notes that used to refer readers to related stories from other issues. (Comic books themselves generally haven’t used those little inset boxes in years, anyways.) And if you are a regular Marvel viewer who’s up to date on the entire universe, Infinity War’s lack of stalling is greatly welcomed. It digs its knives right into the meat of the story, and doesn’t pull them out until that final shot on Titan. It might make it too oddly paced and single-minded to fully satisfy as a standalone film, but this was the best approach directors Anthony and Joe Russo could’ve taken from the larger view of the whole Marvel franchise.
Infinity War probably isn’t the best standalone Avengers film. That designation remains with the first one. As one part of a larger story, though, and the point to which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building, it’s easily a more powerful movie than Whedon’s two jaunts. It’s a long, slow, unavoidable tragedy, but one that doesn’t lack the humor or humanity that Marvel has become known for. The first scene with the Guardians of the Galaxy might feel off—those movies have a very distinct tone, and the Russo Brothers don’t entirely capture it (which is a bad sign for any Guardians sequels that might be made without James Gunn)—and the aside with Peter Dinklage as an axe-creating giant could probably be shortened or excised entirely, but overall Infinity War gives the audience exactly what it needs, in a way that’s new for superhero movies. We’re used to heroes always overcoming the odds by the end of any single film, but Infinity War fills the role of The Empire Strikes Back, only amplified by a ridiculous degree. Not only do our heroes fail to beat the bad guy or save the day, but they suffer an undeniable, universe-altering loss. It ends with Thanos enjoying a complete and total victory, and the ranks of Avengers and other assorted heroes drastically thinned. Comic fans familiar with the original Infinity Gauntlet miniseries hoped for this ending, but it was hard to expect a major studio blockbuster to actually go through with it. Infinity War deserves respect for committing to its grim vision.
Still, though: these three movies can’t be watched as a trilogy, no matter how much Hollywood convention makes you want to view them through that lens. There’s no benefit to watching all three in a row. At the very least you’ll need to screen a handful of other movies in-between, including 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and this year’s Black Panther. If you’re interested in seeing why Infinity War is one of the biggest movies of the year, and haven’t watched at least ten or so different Marvel movies beforehand, its appeal will be entirely lost on you.
If you have seen Infinity War already, and just want to know how the 4K release stacks up, well, it’s good. It’s a beautiful, vibrant version of the movie you saw in the theater, reproduced in the comfort of your own home. I watched all three movies on a 65” Vizio M65-d0 4K TV, and another hour or so of Infinity War on a 55” Samsung Q7F QLED 4K TV, both through the same Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player; the size of the TVs and the clarity of the 4K resolution brought the comic book dynamism of all three movies to life more vividly than I had seen at home before.
Weirdly enough, none of the three releases support Dolby Vision, the current state-of-the-art high dynamic range video option. That’s despite Black Panther supporting it earlier this year and the digital streaming version of Infinity War supporting it. Instead all three discs stick to HDR10, which still offers a dazzling color palette full of depth and range. It’s the kind of decision that will rankle the most passionate AV aficionados, but won’t mean much to most of us.
If you already own the Blu-ray editions of the first two movies, the 4K reissues offer that beautiful HDR color upgrade and visibly clearer and more detailed images. They won’t look quite as impressive as Infinity War, as they weren’t shot on cameras capable of true 4K resolution, but they’re an undeniable improvement from the previous Blu-ray releases. The lack of Dolby Vision support will surely disappoint many, but the movies are still more beautiful than before in HDR10. Hopefully it won’t be long before the other central movies in the ongoing Marvel epic are rereleased in 4K, filling in those gaps between the three Avengers movies.
All movies viewed on a Vizio M65-d0 4K TV and a Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-rayplayer with a Vizio SB4051-D5 SmartCast 5.1 Channel Sound Bar System.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections, and also writes about theme parks, music, wrestling, 4K video, and a bunch of other stuff, too. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.