There’s an old joke among comics fans: No one in superhero stories ever stays dead except for Bruce Wayne’s parents. So if there’s a body count in “Avengers: Infinity War” — and relax, this review aims to be as spoiler-free as possible, lest Disney unleash the hounds — it might be a little premature to start carving headstones.
After all, this entire movie revolves around an all-powerful deus ex MacGuffin known as the Infinity Gauntlet, which Thanos (Josh Brolin) seeks to possess. A most Malthusian supervillain, Thanos intends to wipe out half of the beings in existence so that the other half may know peace, prosperity and plenty. Sure, Ebenezer Scrooge might talk about decreasing the surplus population, but here’s a guy with an action plan to Make the Universe Great Again.
Thanos and the individual Infinity Stones that bedazzle the gauntlet have been woven throughout almost all of the preceding Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so there’s an inescapable “It’s all been leading to this” portent about “Infinity War.” On the plus side, mashing up the entire MCU means we get to witness, for instance, the first meeting between New Yorkers Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to say nothing of the interactions between, oh, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the royal house of Wakanda.
On the down side, there are some 25 or so major characters we’ve gotten to know over the course of 18 MCU titles. This sort of mammoth crossover is a staple of comic books over the years, and in that medium, creators have splash pages and double spreads to spatially accommodate so many superheroes.
The solution that “Infinity War” devises to get them all into one movie is that it doesn’t; there’s a sequel coming, for which this film is in some ways a two-hour-plus trailer. The story ends with a very jarring cliffhanger, which fans may compare to “The Empire Strikes Back” while detractors cite the Part 1 of any recent bifurcated YA franchise finale.
There will, I suspect, be more admirers of “Infinity War,” because it’s almost an archetypal example of fan service. Yes, the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Captain America: Civil War”) scatters its many characters to various corners of the far-flung universe, leading to occasional whiplash-inducing “Meanwhile, in Scotland” cross-cutting, but the simplicity of the plotting (“Stop Thanos”) allows room for the character interaction and adrenaline-packed combat for which these films are famous.
But for all the delicious banter between Stark and Peter Parker (Tom Holland), or sweet nothings exchanged by Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Vision (Paul Bettany), there are still a few missed opportunities for meaningful dialogue moments — looking at you, awkward reunion between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) — that we can only hope will be seized in the as-yet-untitled “Avengers 4.”
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo move their many playing pieces around with as much grace as possible, and they offer up jolts of pleasure throughout. The violence is ratcheted higher than usual — parents, please note we get both torture and genocide this time around — but the wisecracks still work; on this outing, the audience needs them more than usual, and the experienced cast knows how to throw them around as a way to keep their characters sane in the face of Armageddon.
The gargantuan ensemble does consistently fine work; the stand-outs include Holland, whose gee-whiz demeanor provides a welcome respite from the grim mood here, and new-to-the-MCU Carrie Coon, as one of Thanos’ fearsome lieutenants; when her character faces off with two of the series’ most ferocious female combatants, it still feels like a fair fight.
If there’s one disappointment here, it’s Thanos as a villain, and that’s not in any way Brolin’s fault. (To be honest, part of the problem is a crude joke that Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord makes about Thanos’ face early on, which I couldn’t stop thinking about for the rest of the movie.) The character is more fearsome by his actions — he takes down a seemingly insurmountable foe with shocking ease — than in his dialogue, and his intent to wipe out trillions of living creatures gets subsumed by his chill demeanor. It’s like how Earth gets wiped out because of a bureaucratic error in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” only that bit of banal destruction was meant to be a joke.
Ultimately, Thanos is just a bland sociopath who will stop at nothing to complete his collection, which is a bold choice for a movie aimed at comic-book fans. It also doesn’t help that “Avengers: Infinity War” can’t seem to make up its mind about how powerful Thanos is. Even when his gauntlet is only half-full, it would appear that he could flick aside the worst that the Avengers aim his way, but then there’d be no movie.
And in a way, there isn’t, or at least there won’t be a whole one until the sequel comes out. Anything we say now is still contingent on how the Russos and the writers wrap everything up next time. (And if they’re taking suggestions for how to reach their denouement, let me point out that Howard the Duck is still alive and well somewhere in the MCU.)
If you’re a viewer who binges TV dramas because you can’t wait a week to find out what happens, the implied “to be continued” at the end of “Infinity War” may drive you batty. But if you’ve been solidly along for the Marvel ride up to this point, you’ll enjoy this leg of the journey even if it hasn’t yet reached the terminal.