The last “Thor” movie was funnier. The “Iron Man” series has more cleverness and brio. The recent “Spider-Man” reboot zinged with the pains and pleasures of adolescence, and both “Guardians of the Galaxy” installments were emotionally moving as well as goofy. The “Captain America” films have something approximating a soul. And “Black Panther”? Just the sheer pop joy of a character and an underserved audience discovering each other.
Put them all together, and what do you get? Superhero slurry. There’s a reason the best recipes don’t call for every ingredient in the pantry.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is what Marvel superhero movies of the past decade have all been leading to, along with what seems like a planet-size chunk of our popular culture. With great expectations comes great responsibility, to coin a paraphrase, and if you’re a deep and diehard fan — if the term “Marvel Cinematic Universe” quickens your blood — then this movie will seem like a long-promised reward. As fan service goes, “Infinity War” delivers.
But that sentence alone represents the curious and problematic crossroads at which mainstream multiplex entertainment stands. At what point does “fan service” get in the way of making a better movie?
Again, if you’re already invested — and millions are — “Infinity War” will be a satisfying experience. (Or half an experience, since the movie screeches to a halt after 146 minutes and leaves audiences teetering on an extremely dark cliff, where they will remain teetering until the as-yet-untitled second half is released a year from now.)
All the players are here. From the recently divorced Avengers, we have Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and more. From the “Guardians of the Galaxy” contingent come wiseacre Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt); the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana); the empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff); the musclebound Drax (Dave Bautista); the sardonic raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, the sentient tree still voiced by Vin Diesel and now a surly adolescent shrub who can’t be separated from his video games.
There are more — good God, are there more — most notably part-time Avenger King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), teenage Avenger-wannabe Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and general free agent Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose mystic CGI skills and sarcasm are two of the film’s more welcome elements. Each of these characters brings a sidekick or side drama in his or her wake — it’s nice to see Letitia Wright as the Wakandan scientist-princess Shuri and Danai Gurira as head of T’Challa’s royal guard so soon after their characters’ big-screen debut — and the script by franchise stalwarts Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the “Captain America” trilogy) works hard to make room for all of them. At times, “Avengers: Infinity War” feels more like “Avengers: Personnel Management.”
At least there are some decent laughs before things turn serious, and the deft timing that has always been one of the sneakier pleasures of this multi-chapter behemoth is in evidence as heroes collide in attitude and physique. The actuality of Tony Stark’s witty arrogance meeting, say, Peter Quill’s slacker hubris is almost as enjoyable as the idea of it, and only more screen time would let it play out the way even a non-fan might wish. More than ever, Hemsworth’s Thor looks to be the series’ best value, but only because the disconnect between the character’s beefed-up bulk and the actor’s terrific comic slyness is so much fun.
All of these heroes and demi-heroes are brought together by a primal threat to the universe — what else? — represented by Thanos (Josh Brolin), a big mauve meanie who has heretofore been stomping through the “Guardians” franchise and now wants to take on the whole crew. To succeed, he has to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, a plot device that underscores the basic gotta-have-em-all glibness of the genre. One of the stones is in Dr. Strange’s possession. Another is lodged in the forehead of the calm Zen cyborg named Vision (Paul Bettany), one of the few poetic touches in a work of pounding Marvel-ized prose.
The rush-hour subway crush of “Avengers: Infinity War” has several unexpected consequences. First, it makes for a film that seems to consist solely of highly digitized fight sequences interspersed with quips and gasps. Picking up where Joss Whedon, director of the first two “Avengers” films, left off, sibling filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo have so many pairings and sparrings to work through that the movie is essentially a mixed martial arts extravaganza with a severely overcrowded undercard.
Second, all the macho chest-bumping forces female characters like Black Widow and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) into the background. Third, the field has to be winnowed from the very start, and it’s tough to see certain much-liked characters killed off, some forever and others for whatever passes for “forever” in a corporate comic book franchise. It’s possible that the youngest fans — those who haven’t yet wised up to the ways of marketing and manipulation — will be deeply shaken by the film’s culling of the herd, whether permanent or not.
Lastly (and this is truly curious), all those good guys mooshing up against each other unintentionally highlights the character similarities that are avoided when they’re kept in separate cinematic pens, and it ends up making the villain the central figure of “Infinity Wars.” Thanos has a motive with which it’s possible to empathize in our darker moments: Appalled by the overpopulation and environmental destruction of his home planet, he wants control over reality so he can halve the number of beings in the universe with a snap of his fingers. He has paternal feelings for his adopted daughter Gamora that create valid dramatic conflict. And Brolin gives a real performance under all the digital Claymation.
Sympathy for the devil? When so many angels are swarming the outfield, it’s hard not to be drawn to the one character who sticks out like a purple thumb. When the final — no, really! — installment of the “Avengers” saga comes out a year from now, most moviegoers will return to see which of their favorite heroes lives, dies, and/or comes back. But some of us will be there because Thanos has the one quality that they lack at this point. He’s interesting.
★ ★ ½
Avengers: Infinity War
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chadwick Boseman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen. At multiplexes in Boston and suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 149 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references)