This is not a spoiler: “Avengers: Infinity War” contains the most dramatic cliffhanger of any major blockbuster since “The Empire Strikes Back,” and everything leading up to it is a marathon. After 18 movies and 10 years of Marvel superheroes battling through overlapping plots, sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo unite nearly every single character for a series of epic showdowns and one giant, universe-shattering threat. It’s a lot more cohesive than “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and the sprawling, busy ensemble often feels like every Marvel movie engaged in overlapping conversation, like a slow-zoom from the Robert Altman playbook laced with CGI. As a virtuoso juggling act, “Infinity War” has no real parallel in popular culture; as a movie, it’s an impressive montage of greatest hits until the gut punch of a finale.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a busy place since “Iron Man” first launched his suit in 2008, as the stream of faces in the opening logo alone make clear. The Avengers and their ilk have preempted so many threats that “Infinity War,” the first of two “Avengers” movies released a year apart to bring the current arc to a close, confronts visible pressure to up the ante more than ever before. “This is it!” shouts one hero, briefed on the threat at hand. About that threat, it’s “the fate of the universe,” and in case you were wondering, someone later asserts, “We’re in the end game now.”
And they really are. Alien warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin, a hulkish monstrosity buried under wrinkly purple CGI) has been gathering the reality-governing Infinity Stones over the course of several movies, plugging them into his shiny gold glove and gaining more powerful as he continues along a grim genocidal quest. He’s closer than ever before, and “Infinity War” charts the galaxy-spanning efforts of nearly every Marvel hero to stop him from unleashing a terrible holocaust, even as they seem to be moving in too many directions at once. Fortunately, this is more feature than bug. With so many heroes crowding the plot, Thanos uses the chaos to his advantage, and always seems to be one step ahead of his frantic foes.
The resulting spectacle channels the best and worst attributes of Marvel’s movies. It’s a fascinating hodgepodge of circumstances designed to move the story forward with dramatic results while resolving it at the same time. “Avengers: Infinity War” is jumbled but never messy, speeding forward in fits and starts but plenty of calculation. In our cluttered information age, when online fan theories threaten to ruin every plot twist, “Infinity War” shows a marked determination to speed ahead of audience expectations; it’s so fast-paced that no single viewer could possibly anticipate the next move, even as individual sequences reek of familiarity.
The ubiquitous end-of-days vibe is a common trope in corporate-mandated storytelling. From “Star Wars” to “The Matrix,” sprawling franchises require that every narrative strand coalesce into a big finale with a threat centered around potential extinction. (The D.C. universe has its own variation on apocalyptic menace of “Infinity War” with the multi-part “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which will almost certainly find its way to movie form one day.) However familiar, “Infinity War” does well by this tradition by consolidating so many endearing characters into one fast-paced package.
Even the simplest plot details involve a crowd of characters. As the movie begins, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been cast off his ship by Thanos, whose path of destruction attracts the Guardians of the Galaxy. Aboard the Guardians’ ship, Thor bonds with Rocket (Bradley Cooper), while news of Thanos’ scheme affects his estranged adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) as he contemplates facing off with the monster despite the misgivings of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) meets Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and learns about Thanos’ developing powers just as a few of his minions land at the center of the city for a big battle. Queens teen Spider-Man (Tom Holland) spots the mess and joins the action, while a helpless Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) stands nearby and fails to conjure his inner Hulk.
Somewhere in the middle of all this mania, Tony, aka Iron Man, brings Banner up to speed on the plot of “Captain America: Civil War,” in which Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans) disagree about the future of the Avengers and split off into factions. “You broke up?” Banner asks. “Like a band?” (His incredulousness at the busy MCU provides a recurring punchline. Later: “There’s an Ant Man and a Spider-Man?”) Yes, the Avengers broke up, and anyone expecting a cozy reunion shouldn’t get carried away. The title of “Avengers: Infinity War” is a misnomer; we’ll see what happens in the 2019 release, but this entry’s less invested in tidying up loose ends than setting all of them ablaze in Thanos’ mad sprint to find the final stone.
Other scene-stealers come and go. Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) does her part to defend her lover, cyborg Vision (Paul Bethany), who derives his intelligence in part from the Infinity Stone affixed to his forehead. Just as she’s gearing up for a showdown with two shadowy goons in an alleyway, here comes Captain America, joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, underutilized as usual). Somehow, they all find their way to Wakanda, where Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his kingdom of warriors are prepared for a “Braveheart”-like showdown with more Thanos baddies from another world.
“Avengers: Infinity War” careens through an astonishing number of locations, from New York City to space to Scotland to the distant cosmic marketplace known as Knowhere. The scale is almost as menacing as Thanos himself, but the Russos manage to streamline the plot by ensuring that individual scenes have their own internal arcs. Characters constantly ram into each other, firing lasers and guns and webbing and stone; sometimes, they philosophize about their stakes, share affectionate banter, or argue about plans. The movie often resembles a big screen variation on the binge-viewing experience, as it leap-frogs from one new set piece to the next. (Alan Silvestri’s horns are always there to sweeten the transition with a soothing “bum bum BUM.”)
They’re all essentially fighting for one big goal — stop Thanos before it’s too late — and he’s such a complex villain that the movie rarely loses focus. Brolin gives the monstrous entity an air of eerie melancholy; he’s not a chuckling lunatic so much as an intellectually corrupt tyrant, and it’s not off-base to interpret his steady rise to power as a kind of Trumpian metaphor. He’s been there all along, the obvious loser in every story, and all of sudden he’s more powerful than anyone anticipated. Superheroes have always epitomized the anxieties of their age, with its uncertainty over who has the upper hand, “Infinity War” is the apotheosis of this trend.
Still, much of the movie feels like a routine. It takes a full hour to funnel through various Marvel regulars, and then the battles just keep coming, with one fresh hook to avoid redundancy: Some familiar faces actually bite the dust. As the body count rises to jarring effect, a few of these morbid twists arrive from unexpected directions that show the mark of expert storytellers working with a vast canvas of possibilities. At worst, it’s a sadistic and sometimes lazy form of trickery designed to keep viewers off-balance. (Thank god for snarky Quill, who moans, “Why does somebody always have to die in this scenario?”)
The actors do what they can with tidbits of exchanges at their disposal as the movie flips through the channels. Downey gives Stark a renewed gravitas, which he’s earned after 10 years of playboy posturing, while Hemsworth and Pratt deliver the movie’s comedic highlight by flexing their masculinity at each other in a white dude stare-off for the ages. Black Panther’s team gets far less screen time than one would expect in the wake of his standalone hit, but this character’s cultural weight already feels too good for the rest of this enterprise.
As it turns out, the most complex arc belongs to Saldana’s green-skinned Gamora, who faces off with Thanos in a bleak scenario that generates more emotion than many Marvel movies combined. But the core of the movie is Brolin’s Thanos. This polished visual achievement echoes the sophistication of his dark goals, particularly in scenes in which the space surrounding him emanate a reddish hue, as if he’s carrying the Gates of Hell on his back.
“Infinity War” moves so fast and runs so long (over two and a half hours) it seems intent on exhausting even the most committed of viewers. But while the movie forces audiences to submit to so many cataclysmic events, the directors manage to direct the cascading mayhem to a unique kind of cliffhanger. As it turns out, Thanos’ refusal to give up reflects Marvel’s own multi-year ambition, with the movie concluding on such a jarring note it demands people remain interested in the years of movies scheduled to open over the next decade.
Hopefully, they’re worth the effort, because Marvel has developed an unprecedented degree of confidence about its ability to hold audiences’ attention. Consider the post-credits scene. Viewers must sit through an overwhelming list of locations, drivers, executive assistants, and accounting departments for a few brief minutes of additional material. This time, the epilogue suggests that no matter how dire the scenario circumstances of the next chapter, the show must go on.
“Avengers: Infinity War” opens April 27, 2018.