Is it possible to have too much of a good Marvel thing? Avengers: Infinity War tests that theory to the max. Don’t get me wrong: This movie is an epic event, built to celebrate the end of a decade in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced 19 films. One problem is that No. 18, Black Panther, casts a long shadow – it’s arguably the best in the series, an unqualified triumph and could perhaps be the first realistic Marvel contender for a Best Picture Oscar. The MCU’s first black-superhero film is also tightly focused in how it tackles ethnic and gender issues, crushes racial stereotypes and celebrates women in a genre often criticized for exclusionism.
By contrast, Infinity War is all over the place, straining to give everyone a seat at the table. There are 30 lead roles, each actor getting his or her pass at the camera – clocking in at over two hours and 29 minutes, you’ll have Avengers coming out of your ears. As Tony Stark/Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. gobbles up the most screen time and seems vastly amused to hear Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) use the word “hitherto” in a sentence. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, a riot) tries to work himself into a rage so he can hulk out and bulk up like a jolly green human battering ram. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets to mix it up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, led by a jealous Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) – who’s told that, in contrast to the muscular Norse god, he’s “one sandwich away from being fat.” And there’s a definite thrill in watching Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) do battle alongside King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Okeye (Danai Gurira), the head of his female army, in the fields of Wakanda.
If I haven’t called your favorite Avengers name yet, that means this movie is not giving them the attention they deserve. Colonel James Parker/War Machine (Don Cheadle ), Sam Wilson/Falcon( Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (a ready-to-play Scarlett Johansson) are mostly along for the ride. It could have used way more of Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier – who the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo brothers handled with genuine complexity in two Captain America films, The Winter Soldier and Civil War. As for Ant-Man, he barely merits a namecheck, much less an appearance.
In an attempt to cram everything in, the Russos – working from a busy script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – let themselves get sidetracked. The unifying plot thread revolves around Thanos, an intergalactic tyrant with a purple face and a chin the Star Lord insists looks like a nutsack. (He’s not wrong.) Hailing from an extinct alien planet destroyed by overpopulation, the villain stands 12-feet tall and shouts from his own rooftop that he must destroy half the world to save the other half. Thunderously voiced by a dynamite Josh Brolin in a motion-capture performance that radiates ferocity and unexpected feeling, Thanos is the menace that bonds the bickering factions of Avengers so they can once again act as one to bring him down. As the cosmic bad guy goes on a rampage through space to collect the six Infinity Stones that will give him supreme power, the filmmakers keep throwing superheroes at him to stop his genocidal plan.
Long story short: The Avengers and friends spend a lot of time getting their asses kicked. To say how, exactly, would qualify as spoilers.) But the fight scenes that swing randomly from exciting to chaotic, are technical wonders. To take the chill off the FX, the film offers a love story. Not the Scotland-based one between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), which is given too little screen time to resonate. But the one between Thanos and his two adopted daughters, the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the blue-skinned Nebula (Karen Gillan), who both want to kill Big Daddy for turning them into soldiers as children. It’s another factor that enables Brolin to build a character worthy of pity and terror. Thanos is a Marvel villain for the ages thanks to the actor, who gives this Mad Titan a tragic dimension and damn near steals the movie.
Internet buzz has long indicated that a few Avengers bite the dust in Infinity War – and it should be pointed out that the script plays fast and loose with the permanency of death. There are reasons for this. A second chapter, filmed at the same time and set for release next year, will surely wrap up the mystery over whose In Memoriams will stick. But the temporary tragedies of the plot work against the film’s narrative momentum and remove its sting. How long can you fake out audiences without pissing them off? Avengers: Infinity War leaves viewers up in the air, feeling exhilarated and cheated at the same time, aching for a closure that never comes … at least not yet. The Russo brothers have clearly never learned the concept that less is more. They’ve used the premise of an Avengers reunion to put on a fireworks explosion of action and laughs (those roguish Guardians!) that won’t quit.
But – there’s always a but – Infinity War is still only half a movie, with loose ends dangling and a nagging sense of opportunities missed. Of course, no Marvel junkie would think of missing the film and the chance to decode its subtext. And almost everyone agrees that the ending works like gangbusters. Why? Because Thanos keeps us riveted and eager for what’s next. Bring it on.