In Avengers: Infinity War, the longest, priciest, and most-crowded crowd-pleaser ever to roll off the Marvel Studios assembly line, Earth’s mightiest heroes face their most daunting challenge yet: an intergalactic nihilist whose dearest dream is to cleave the entire population of the universe in half. The good news is that the universe has expanded significantly in the 10 years since Samuel L. Jackson popped into the end credits of Iron Man to tease the very idea of a franchise-uniting, all-hands-on-deck extravaganza. The Avengers have backup this time—a cavalry of reality-bending mystics, quipping space bandits, technologically advanced African warriors, and friendly neighborhood Spider-Men, all ported over from their own respective vehicles. For the Avengers, strength comes in numbers. But can the same really be said for a movie trying to juggle this many characters, even over the course of a roomy 156 minutes?
There’s never been a film quite like Infinity War, a supersized superhero spectacular that assumes an offhand familiarity with 18 prior blockbusters, give or take an Ant-Man. (Joss Whedon’s original Avengers, which only had to toggle among six headliners, looks self-contained by comparison—more of a test balloon for the shared-universe concept than a true jamboree.) Comic-book readers, of course, won’t bat an eye at the Tolstoy-scaled cast list and planets-spanning storytelling, even if they haven’t read the 1991 limited series on which the film is loosely based. Infinity War is the closest a movie has come to a true comic-book crossover event, those massive arcs that unfold across multiple titles, forcing cash-strapped readers to shell out for books they don’t normally buy just to get the full scope of the narrative. The dirty secret of these heavily hyped ensemble sagas is that they’re usually pretty underwhelming, and Infinity War inherits plenty of the problems endemic to crossovers: the privileging of quantity over quality, of spectacle over story, and of the shock value of major changes to the status quo over just about everything else.
The plot, which really puts the universe into “shared universe,” is at once incredibly busy and very, very simple. Thanos, the bulky space dictator with the head like a craggy eggplant and a rumble of baritone now supplied by Josh Brolin, is getting dangerously close to his life goal: the acquisition of all six Infinity Stones, the glowing-gem MacGuffins scattered across the known cosmos, like the Horcruxes of Harry Potter. If he successfully completes his scavenger hunt, he can commit interplanetary genocide with “the snap of his fingers.” And so Infinity War plays out like a worlds-spanning game of keep-away, dividing its enormous roster into offense and defense parties. This means we get Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sparring with his magical counterpoint, the equally prickly and arrogant Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hitching a ride with the Guardians Of The Galaxy; and many of the rest convening in Wakanda, setting of this year’s first MCU smash, the vastly superior and much more manageable Black Panther.
To both its strength and its detriment, Infinity War never slows down. It just keeps barreling from one meeting of the minds or melee smackdown to the next, recreating the sensation of flipping through multiple issues in one sitting. Marvel has entrusted this enormous logistical undertaking to its most reliable multitaskers, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the dream team who gracefully handled the franchise duties of the last two Captain America movies, The Winter Soldier and the similarly jam-packed Civil War. It’s not so much the scale of this massive third collaboration that breaks the foursome’s winning streak as the expository, A-to-B demands of the plot: Often, it feels as though we’re watching game pieces being moved across a very large board. The Russos’ battle scenes, nearly countless in number, are busy and occasionally fun, but almost entirely lacking in the hand-to-hand practical action that highlighted their Captain America movies. Here, we get a lot of CGI figures darting across the screen, tossing multicolored bursts of energy at each other. It’s numbing, mostly.
Perhaps that makes Infinity War more faithfully comic-book-like than its predecessors; those who wished these caped-and-suited characters would spend less time gabbing and more time brawling may get a fix from the movie’s almost unbroken sound and fury. But personalities have always been the driving force of the MCU, and Infinity War still works best when putting egos front and center—and, by extension, letting its enormous cast of movie stars play off of each other. (Not since the disaster epics of the 1970s, perhaps, have this many big names been crammed onto one marquee.) There are stray traces of human-sized drama and comedy sprinkled across the splash-panel canvas: a peek of the short-lived domestic bliss Vision (Paul Bettany) and The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) share in hiding, or the sudden performance anxiety that afflicts the Hulk, who Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for once finds himself begging to emerge. But Infinity War also marginalizes some of its most appealing attractions, from on-the-lam super soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to multidimensional super-spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to newly minted superstar Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), each granted somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-dozen lines each.
If there’s a main character in this decentralized bonanza, it’s probably Thanos himself, whose megalomaniacal ambitions count as a kind of warped hero’s journey, with its own misguided moral imperative. That’s a potentially provocative choice, and the movie does its best to invest the mass-murdering heavy with a certain tragic quality—he really does see his plan to thin half the herd as a righteous burden, the solution to overpopulation that only he has the will to enact. But in everything from appearance to backstory, he’s still a rather silly character, especially compared to the truly tragic, company-best villain Michael B. Jordan played earlier this year. In general, Infinity War’s proximity to Black Panther does the former no favors; if that bona fide phenomenon bent the MCU formula in exciting ways, this more on-model tentpole shows its limitations, plus the secret downside of the shared-universe strategy. Wasn’t it more fun seeing Thor blunder through his own buddy comedy, seeing Tom Holland’s endearingly sincere Peter Parker swing into a starring role, seeing the Guardians dance to their own beat instead of marching to a war drum? The sheer volume of characters is the selling point here, but six years after The Avengers had a blast making the band, they all seem a little less special elbowing for a joke, a scene, the spotlight.
Maybe it comes down to stakes. They’ve never been higher than they are in Infinity War, which rests half of all life in the hands of this superhero supergroup. But that’s almost too huge of a dilemma to even dramatically register; one ends up feeling nostalgic for the more relatable and comparably intimate conflict of, say, Civil War, which underpinned its globe-trotting, hero-on-hero fireworks with personal stakes. It’s only in its final stretch that Infinity War’s outsize ambition really pays off, with a daringly downbeat blockbuster climax to rival Rogue One’s—an agonizing cliffhanger that could have capped plenty of Marvel crossover events in the ’90s. Fans will lose their minds, then immediately clear their calendars for next summer’s concluding chapter. But is one tour-de-force finale enough to salvage an Avengers movie plotted within an inch of its life, and so choked with characters that it can barely breathe? By the end of this exhausting thing, it’s hard not to see some cold sense in Thanos’ restore-the-balance philosophy. Less can be more, after all.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Avengers: Infinity War’s Spoiler Space.