What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos.
No other production house plays it safer. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and company have mastered their banal stretch-the-tale-out template to such a degree that it’s guaranteed few will question why the previously elusive Infinity Stones—which have been teased in just about every prior movie installment, as well as in some of Marvel’s TV offshoots—are collected with ridiculous ease by purple people-squashing supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin). It happens because it needs to, and let’s be fair: If a pro forma narrative was a real deal breaker, we’d be denying ourselves the pleasures of many a space and soap opera. But it would be nice if there was more “there” there.
This is a calculatedly sudsy film, evidenced by the first scene on an Asgardian starship where Thanos crosses paths with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and all-seeing, all-hearing gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba). Spoiler: Not everyone makes it out alive, and MCU fanatics should prepare themselves for plenty more bereavement, though death is hardly a definite in Marvel’s world, particularly since some of these folks have sequels and other brand extensions on the horizon.
Soon after, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) interrupts Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and inamorata Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as they’re talking nuptials and offspring. No time for petty human concerns, dude. There’s a genocidal giant on the way and he’s got some Stones on him. Not all of them, though, as Dr. Strange has an Infinity gem around his neck, while another is in the head of android Vision (Paul Bettany), who’s off canoodling with Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in Scotland. And yet another, the Soul Stone, is on a distant planet where it’s guarded by…but that would be too revealing.
Once Thanos collects all the Stones and places them in his Infinity Gauntlet, the universe is his to remake, merely by snapping his fingers. At one point, Strange—in the company of Stark, Peter “Spider-Man” Parker (Tom Holland), and a few Guardians of the Galaxy like Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt)—travels forward in time to see all possible outcomes of the impending battle. Of the many thousands of timelines, our heroes win in a whopping total of one. If you doubt that’s the denouement we’ll witness in the eventual grand finale (see you in 2019 Untitled Avengers Film!), I’ve got some DC Films stock to sell you.
Wait, what?!? Infinity War is just another two-hours-plus tease without a conclusive ending? Yes and no. Without giving away specifics, the ending is the best part, comparable in its giddy, cliffhanging breathlessness to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which went for the gut because a happy resolution was assured in Deathly Hallows: Part 2. It’s fashionable, of course, to praise modern blockbusters for going “dark,” as if that by itself is genuine evidence of challenging an audience. So let’s just say that Infinity War’s climactic swivel toward the downbeat is a breath of fresh air after the featherweight interminability of what comes before.
Characters are introduced with perfunctory fanfare, be they stalwarts such as Captain America (Chris Evans) and T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), or a newcomer like Thanos henchwoman Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon). Plot points and lame quips are spouted in ersatz Howard Hawksian patois, sometimes, as on the ravaged alien planet Titan, in front of too-evident green screen. Rapidity of dialogue and drama is mistaken for actual rhythm, of which directors Anthony and Joe Russo have one mode: pedal-to-the-metal pandemonium. In this revved-up context, not even Thanos’s fervent paternal feelings for Gamora (Zoe Saldana) pack much emotional punch.
Infinity War is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe.