“Avengers: Infinity War” might be the biggest, showiest intergalactic pinball game ever created.
Roaring through 160 minutes of action, humor, character development, epic evil and moving nobility, it is darker and edgier, yet lighter and more stirring than anything offered in another superhero franchise.
After racking up fan adoration over 10 years and 18 films, Marvel Studios culminates the banquet by serving up bittersweet ambrosia for dessert. The second course of the two-part finale, currently untitled, will arrive next year.
The creative focus and consistency of the Marvel brand runs parallel to Pixar’s impeccable work, always aiming high and rarely missing the target. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is populated by a popular ensemble cast that is equally capable of humor and deep pathos. It is visually striking, with individual frames worth mounting on museum walls (here with dark tones well suited to the story’s shadowy themes). It holds to linear logic in a way that makes competing blockbusters seem even more scatterbrained than usual. Quality permeates the work.
“Infinity War” doesn’t reinvent the wheel for superhero films. It makes the genre bigger and spins it faster. As in earlier Avengers films, a supergroup of protectors join to preserve human and extraterrestrial life from extinction. They battle the purple-faced cosmic death lord Thanos (a computer-created giant voiced by Josh Brolin), who has been making menacing sideline appearances at the edges of the series for years.
A brutal idealist, Thanos is at times an almost sympathetic antihero. He is bent on righting a universe he perceives as unbalanced by eradicating half its populace. As if to atone for the massacres, he will sometimes adopt an orphaned “little one” as a stepchild, training her to join in his murderous mission. He even sheds a tear on occasion before destroying a new planet.
The film is essentially a large-scale reunion of three dozen beloved Marvel characters ranging from Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange. Some are in the fight to preserve human life, others for personal revenge and one young newcomer because he thinks that being an Avenger would be totally cool. The polished script finds the humor in that absurd ambition, as well as the collateral consequences.
“Infinity War” was directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) with collaborative assists from, among others, James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”). A master class in how to keep multiple plot lines with a prodigious number of moving parts in play, it’s a major storytelling achievement.
Action on this scale is tricky to stage so that it provides emotional impact. As Thanos collects six powerful crystals known as Infinity Stones that will give him limitless power, he faces off against the heroes like a bulldozer overrunning lightweight boxers. Our quite heroic champions look vulnerable as they never have before.
The film demonstrates how Marvel, following the overall architecture overseen by studio head Kevin Feige, ties together moments, personalities and themes from earlier films in ways beyond reheated nostalgia. Captain America’s first enemy, the Red Skull, acquires a deeper meaning than in his original feature. Recall the painful sequence in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) used her hypnotic powers to push the team into their deepest nightmares? Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) had a vision of the Avengers collapsing, complete with dead and dying team members. It’s imagery that “Infinity War” reveals as precisely diagramed foreshadowing. For years the brand has been preparing us for a farewell to some of its first superheroes and the rise of a future generation. It’s an idea driven home by a finale to end all cliffhangers and a post-credits epilogue that is well worth waiting for.
While the film builds a moving sense that the end is nigh, it’s also decidedly fun and entertaining. The nose-to-nose battle of arrogant egos between Downey and Cumberbatch are a riot, and the machismo marathon by Chris Hemsworth’s smug Thor and Chris Pratt’s overmatched Star Lord is classic buffoonery. The scenes with the crude and rude Guardians, reportedly written by Gunn, contains the filthiest, funniest gag about a glass eye I have ever seen.
Perhaps the greatest mission here is for Disney-owned Marvel Studios to wrest control of the fantasy fan universe from its Disney-owned rival Lucasfilm, whose rebooted “Star Wars” juggernaut has outperformed Marvel to date. With the skyscraping popular success of “Black Panther” and ticket presales for “Infinity War” surpassing the seven previous Marvel films combined, this may be the year that the Avengers crush the Rebel Alliance.