"Avengers: Infinity War" Is A Supersized Success

Megalomaniacal billionaire, Norse god, magical wizard, gigantic green man-shaped wrecking ball, African king, ageless World War II super soldier, space cowboy, omnipotent android, reformed Russian special agent, talking raccoon, and more take on a malevolent purple alien in a fight over the last tick of the intergalactic doomsday clock. This is “Avengers: Infinity War,” reading absurdly but playing credibly, living up to its decade-long build-up, a pipe dream actualized.

Anthony and Joe Russo’s film – the nineteenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – will be hard-pressed to win converts, its flurry of clockwork-precise moving parts fated to spin newbies’ heads. But anyone even casually invested in the series will find that the enormously poised “Infinity War” delivers and delivers and delivers, confidently and steadily winding its way to an eerily hushed conclusion that shrewdly sets up next year’s follow-up.

Top billing is dutifully ceded to Robert Downey Jr., the actor whose “Iron Man” began this ever-expanding saga on May 2, 2008. In the wake of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” (effectively the Russo brothers’ practice run for this go-round), Stark and Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) aren’t on speaking terms. This is indicative of how fractured the Avengers have really become, at once to keep the fabled Infinity Stones separated – out of the massive hands of the aforementioned Thanos (Josh Brolin) – and because of sweeping personality clashes.

After an ominous opening sequence in which the villain chillingly lays claim to the conflict’s moral high ground, Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) crash lands in New York City and quickly joins forces with Stark, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to fend off a threat from two of Thanos’ lackeys in pursuit of the Time Stone. Meanwhile, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), possessor of the Mind Stone, are attacked in Scotland, only just saved by War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

That’s not to mention nearly half of the film’s players, each fastidiously given screen time that feels prudent rather than perfunctory. To wit, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa aka Black Panther doesn’t get nearly the burn that the success of his recent solo film might suggest (“Infinity War” was near the finish line when “Black Panther” took over the box office in February). But the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely put the right amount of faith in audiences to fill in the blanks. Neither T’Challa nor Captain America get a lot to do here, but their presence is massive, their importance to the narrative effortlessly inferred.

This is a true rarity in a blockbuster series: character baggage that feels like a luxury instead of a burden.

Arguably the most compelling corner of the film is its crossover between the MCU’s brightest spot to date, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, and Vin Diesel’s Groot), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Considering Thanos’ connection to the Guardians (Gamora is his adopted daughter), swaths of “Infinity War” function like “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.5,” and the movie is all the better for it. The visuals and screenplay have been tailored to the Guardians pic’s pops of color and unflinching irreverence in the face of certain death and destruction.

The result is so much more narratively and visually engaging than either of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” films that it renders them obsolete; growing pains of a franchise that hadn’t cracked the code of giving twenty-plus characters their due in the same picture.

“Infinity War” cracks it, largely due to Josh Brolin’s spectacular motion-capture performance as the Mad Titan. Thanos ends up, incredibly, the heart and soul of the film, his genocidal intentions brilliantly juxtaposed with his desire for peace and sustenance in a galaxy desperately short on both. Even scarier in a villain than insanity: lucidity. His assuredness is terrifying, putting the fear of God into anyone that crosses his path. Moreover, his genuine love for Gamora, movingly realized in a flashback, gives him as much depth as all other MCU villains combined.

The character and his movie – and it’s very much Thanos’ movie – lay waste to last year’s culmination of the DC Extended Universe, “Justice League,” and its similarly computer-generated baddie. On the surface, Brolin and the effects wizards behind Thanos haven’t created the most convincing CGI character to date, but he’s so fully realized that he starts to appear more photorealistic with each passing minute.

The whole of “Infinity War” proves nothing but absolutely ignominy for the folks involved in Warner Bros.’ DCEU, Patty Jenkins’ rock-solid “Wonder Woman” excepted. The Russos’ juggling of seemingly incongruent characters and worlds feels miraculous, where “Justice League” couldn’t find a lick of intrigue in some of the most ubiquitous superheroes in history. Dave Bautista’s Drax alone gets more laughs here than the entirety of “Justice League,” a film famously “punched up” in an ill-fated attempt avoid the humorlessness of its predecessor “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.”

But to read about “Avengers: Infinity War” is a far cry from experiencing it. Its unwavering rhythm, pleasurably chaotic setpieces, and killer villain beg to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. (It is, not coincidentally, the first feature film shot entirely with IMAX cameras.) While the phrase “for the fans” has taken on a connotation of turgid triviality, “Infinity War” actually is for the fans, mounting a two-part culmination of what was a risky, borderline nutty undertaking when it began.

Instead, its deliberate pacing and memorable performances allow its dozens of characters to draw fresh breath from both past and present. If not the crowning jewel of the MCU, it’s a huge victory for all involved – an impossibly coherent, soulful take on an entire galaxy’s worth of superheroes.

That’ll do, Russo brothers.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 27, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Holland, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Tom Hiddleston, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references)