As Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” and here’s the proof. At nearly two hours and 40 minutes (the longest Marvel flick to date), the more-is-more “Avengers: Infinity War” features so many of the studio’s comic-book characters doing so much spectacular superhero-ing that it’s a five-star feast for fans. And isn’t that everyone by now?
The disassembled Avengers, who famously fractured into opposing camps the last time we saw most of them in “Captain America: Civil War,” are the charmingly snarky Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), amusingly noble Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the wised-up straight arrow formerly known as Captain America (Chris Evans), a frustrated Bruce Banner whose inner Hulk has gone into hiding (Mark Ruffalo), the newly blond Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the all-but-human android Vision (Paul Bettany) and his desperately determined significant other Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is missing in action, but gets a passing mention.
They are joined in various worlds-collide combinations by fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe headliners Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Pom Klementieff as Mantis). That means the only Marvel Studios name-in-a-title no-show is Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, if you’re keeping score, but even he gets a shoutout.
While that list already is longer than an Oscars acceptance speech, it doesn’t even count significant secondary characters Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the Winter Soldier/White Wolf (Sebastian Stan), Wakandan General Okoye (Danai Gurira), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and, of course, Stan Lee.
All of them and more are up against alien warlord uber-villain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who is gathering a gauntlet’s worth of powerful Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of the universe’s population. Taking Malthusian philosophy to a mass-murder extreme, he envisions this plan as an effective way to create a universal utopia. He also raised Galaxy Guardian Gamora and her mostly mecha half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who are both out to kill him, resulting in some complicated family dynamics.
Making Thanos an interestingly conflicted and almost tragic monster is the key to the movie’s success. Even purple-skinned, giganticized, and aliened-up with CGI special effects, Brolin still manages to convey genuine emotion that’s nearly sufficient to make the character sympathetic.
Both the gold-standard “Marvel’s The Avengers” and its only slightly less successful followup “Avengers: Age of Ultron” were directed by Joss Whedon, making him a tough act to follow. But “Avengers: Infinity War” directors Anthony and Joe Russo, whose “Captain America: Civil War” already gave them a chance to juggle a cast that included most of the team’s members plus Black Panther and Spider-Man, have succeeded beyond even the most jaded fanboy’s dreams.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who previously scripted all three Captain America films and “Thor: The Dark World,” blend huge action scenes, life-and-death predicaments, a haunting childhood flashback and some genuinely funny dialog in storylines that take place on our world, outer space, other planets and mystical realms. Whatever your jam may be—fantasy, SF, action, horror, comedy or melodrama—it’s guaranteed to be somewhere in this packed conglomeration.
A lot of the fun comes from awkward first-time encounters (such as seeing the smugly superior Doctor Strange call the similarly snide Tony Stark a douchebag), watching old favorites in unexpected settings (a newly powered-up Spidey in space!), and listening to anything that the delightfully deadpan Drax has to say. (Favorite Drax moment: His straight-faced claim that standing very still—which he has a hilariously hard time doing—renders him invisible. Or maybe when he admiringly describes one-eyed Thor as looking “like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”) A great in-joke for funnybook fans comes when Doctor Strange, noting the almost father/son mentor/pupil relationship between Iron Man and Spider-Man, asks, “What is he, your ward?”
Also, don’t worry about the fact that two Marvel mainstays start out here in a diminished capacity. At the end of their previous individual solo outings, Captain America gave up that identity as well as his iconic shield, and Thor was left bereft of an eye, his Asgard homeland, most of his hair and even his hammer. The way the film rolls with those complications is intriguing, resulting in one supremely satisfying re-set that deservedly gets the movie’s biggest cheer.
Not that this generously overstuffed movie needed any more cast members, but it’s kind of a shame that such a gargantuan the-gang’s-almost-all-here gathering doesn’t include at least token appearances by TV’s Inhumans or any of Marvel’s Netflix characters (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Punisher), and that it couldn’t include those contracted to other studios (the Fantastic Four, Deadpool, the X-Men). And whither Ghost Rider, Blade and Man-Thing? (Yes, Virginia, there really is a Marvel character called “Man-Thing” who once had his very own movie.)
See? You really can’t have too much of a good thing.
In fact, the movie’s only significant flaw is that it stops too soon. No spoilers, but the ending is a spookily poignant cliffhanger that leaves the fate of a jaw-dropping number of heroes, as well as plenty of others, in serious doubt. Why Marvel got rid of the “Part 1” that originally was supposed to be in this film’s title is a mystery, because the next installment of the franchise obviously will be a continuation of the same story. And it goes without saying that sticking around for a tantalizing end-credits scene is highly recommended.
In addition to making a mountain of money, Marvel’s superhero flicks have had such an impact on the entertainment industry and pop culture in general that it’s hard to believe the studio has existed for only 10 years. Since 2008’s “Iron Man,” the studio has made a total of 19 films, each of them to date debuting at number one.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is not only the biggest by far, it’s also one of the best.