Warning: This review contains VERY mild spoilers (necessary plot points only) for Avengers: Infinity War.
At the height of the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America shares the screen with Groot, Black Widow, Thor, Rocket, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, M'Baku, the Hulk, Okoye, and Bucky Barnes. Fast forward five minutes, and you'll find Iron Man teaming up with Dr. Strange, Peter Quill (I just can't call him Star-Lord with a straight face), Drax, Mantis, and Spider-Man. It's a little absurd — insane, even. A movie with roughly 25 main and supporting characters kind of defies the basic laws of cinema. You shouldn't be able to care about that many people at once. And yet, Avengers: Infinity War more than pulls it off.
The third film in Marvel's biggest, many-spoked franchise delivers what has been promoted as (in a much-memed phrase) the biggest crossover event in history, but keeps it lean and meaningful – a surprising feat in a movie with a two and a half hour run time.
Here's the basic plot: Thanos (Josh Brolin), the same big bad who tried to invade Earth in the first Avengers movie and the main antagonist in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, is on the hunt for six elemental gems known as Infinity Stones. Each stone — Space, Reality, Power, Soul, Mind, and Time — has individual powers, some of which are being harnessed for good. (Vision, for example, has the Mind stone embedded in his forehead; Dr. Strange can bend the time-space continuum thanks to the Time stone worn around his neck.) But together, these stones can be used to catastrophic effect.
Thanos' motivation is more complex than simple universe-domination, and this giant purple alien villain is more nuanced than you'd expect. You see, he's concerned about overpopulation, and the scarcity of resources plaguing almost every planet in the universe. His solution? Decimate half of the entire population — at random, to be fair — a goal that could be achieved with the snap of his bloated fingers once all six stones are in his possession.
Naturally, this is cause for alarm, which is where the Avengers come in. If you'll recall from Captain America: Civil War however (basically an Avengers movie masquerading as a stand-alone film), the band has broken up, "like the Beatles," as Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) so charmingly puts it. Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthonie Mackie) have gone one way, while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has technically retired (but not really). Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen) are off on a romantic getaway, Banner has been off with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) dealing with Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is still doing his homework, and saving the New York City part-time. And we know what T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) has been up to.
The crossover conceit gets put into motion early on, when a Thanos attack forces Banner and Stark to seek help from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and things just get wilder from there.
Director-siblings Anthony and Joe Russo do a deft balancing act, not just with their myriad of characters but also with tone. For a movie that is merging a handful of well-established worlds, Infinity War achieves astounding tonal consistency. Maybe that's because it leans heavily on a select few fan-favorite universes — whichmakes it feel like the core Avengers are being dropped into Black Panther, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy, rather than the other way around. It's also a film that has the benefit of past experience, and uses that to its advantage. The diversity that made Black Panther such a monumental success isn't tamped down, or tokenized (everyone knows that Wakanda is where it's at). And taking cues from Thor: Ragnarok, Iron Man 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther, Infinity War is far more self-aware than its predecessors, embracing its goofiest aspects with infectious zest. Yeah, Iron Man and Spider-Man trying to keep a "Squidward"-looking, Thanos-spawned alien from stealing Dr. Strange's stone sounds absurd. But they know it too. "He came to steal a necklace from a wizard," Stark explains to Parker as he whizzes past. (A surprise guest appearance later in the film, which we won't spoil here, is equally as harebrained and fantastic.)
What keeps this all from devolving into utter chaos (and it sometimes does, during most major, pyrotechnic battles): the stakes feel real. In the vein of Erik Killmonger (Black Panther baddie Michael B. Jordan), Thanos is a compelling villain, whose concerns are valid even as his methods for dealing with them may not be. He's not one-dimensionally evil — he has weaknesses and frailties. And though we get a limited amount of time with each of our heroes, the 18 films (!) that have come before mean that further character development isn't an urgent priority.
We know these characters; we get what drives them; who they love; what they fear. The fun is in seeing them interact with each other, measuring up powers, and sometimes falling short.
Alan Silvestri's score matches the darker mood this time around. Fans beware: there are some major shockers. The film isn't afraid to deliver surprising gut-punches, stress-filled feints, and significant tensions, and true drama between lovers. And the ending...oh, the ending. Let's just say that you'll be feeling it the next day.
Infinity War most definitely feels like the first half of a two-part extravaganza, a story which won't get true closer until May 2019, when Avengers 4 finally makes it to theaters. But when you're working on this kind of epic scale, the payoff will be worth the wait.
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