In general, comic-book villains want to destroy the world. Where’s the fun in that? All you’re left with is nothingness. That’s why Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple behemoth at the center of this sprawling Marvel event, is so much scarier. Having watched countless overpopulated planets struggle for resources, he aims to SAVE the universe. His solution? Intergalactic, randomly selective genocide, delivered via the power of the Infinity Stones he’s on a mission to assemble. Brolin, via motion-capture technology, brings a chilling weight to Thanos’ measured philosophizing and casual indifference to individual life.
So it’s all hands on deck as “Avengers: Infinity War” goes for the mother of all crossover episodes — and pulls it off. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Captain America: Civil War”) manage the tricky feat of balancing action with humor as the far-flung Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and his Wakandan army and various solo acts come together to stop a foe with the increasing power to destroy everything.
Now, for anyone just tuning into the Marvel universe, this may not be the best place to start: It’s like picking up a long-running soap right when everyone’s favorite couple is finally gonna do it. You’ll need some context to properly appreciate the reunions, the awkward first-time meetings, the snark and the sheer incongruity of seeing wildly different characters interact. With a cast as talented and genial as this one, nearly every matchup is a winner.
“Infinity War” wastes little time on exposition; we’re thrown, right off, into one of Thanos’ merciless massacres in search of the remaining stones. Stakes are laid down almost immediately with a shocking death. Mortality is front and center in “Infinity War,” and if the brief appearance of Peter Dinklage as a lonely, metal-welding giant doesn’t tip you off, we’re deep in “Game of Thrones” territory here: No one is safe.
You could be forgiven for not being able to keep up with what planet each band of heroes is on, or why. Even for an intergalactic adventure, this one does a lot of space-and-time-hopping. It doesn’t even really pretend to have a plot, beyond: “Keep Thanos from getting stones.” But plot is not really what we’re here for, is it?
No, we’ve come to see what happens when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is plunked down amidst the Guardians (his banter with Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon could anchor its own spinoff film), or when Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) crosses paths with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange. (Hint: It recalls his first bristly meeting with Thor in “The Avengers,” which went heavy on the cape insults.) Teen Groot (Vin Diesel) hurls his signature “I am Groot” at Captain America (Chris Evans), who’s so unfailingly polite he responds in kind. Long-lost allies are reunited; key players are lost. And poor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is dealing with erect-Hulk dysfunction: He can’t seem to turn into the big green guy no matter how angry he gets. The other green character, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, has a heart-wrenching problem of her own. Spider-Man (Tom Holland), meanwhile, is just having trouble remembering everyone’s names.
In the one real climactic battle, set in Wakanda (the appearance of which drew the film’s biggest cheers), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) joins forces with Cap and company to fight a horde of toothy alien animals. Even in the midst of such large-scale, CGI-enhanced brawling, the Russos focus on moments of connection, such as Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) joining up to take on a Thanos henchwoman.
Usually, by the conclusion of a Marvel movie, I expect a numb butt and a little fatigue along with my adrenaline hangover. Here, I was left reeling from its devastating cliffhanger.
All the past decade’s Marvel movies have been heading toward this showdown. Turns out the payoff was worth the wait.
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