Avengers Infinity War isn’t really anything you could call a movie—it’s more of a fulfillment center. All of the most well-loved Marvel comic-book characters are here, and something huge is going to happen. That something huge is set in motion in the first scene, which isn’t really a beginning, but more of a middle or an end with a new piece of yarn attached. You need to have seen and internalized every one of the previous 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to fully get it, but the gist is this: The ambitious evildoer Thanos (Josh Brolin, in the form of a giant dude with a pronounced, corrugated chin, like the cow catcher on an old railway engine) seeks to acquire all six of the most powerful tokens in the universe, little glowing rocks that will give him the ability to do anything to anybody anywhere. They’re called the Infinity Stones, and each controls a very important thing in the grand scheme of things: Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Soul, Time and the Missing Sock. OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.
Thanos has a big glove with a little setting for each gem; his goal is to collect ’em all. As the movie opens, he demands that skinny Norse mischief maker Loki (played by the always awesome Tom Hiddleston) hand over the stone currently in his possession. (Loki has been hoarding one or the other of the things for years.) Loki holds out until Thanos comes desperately close to killing Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who, as you know if you’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok, now has only one eye. Long story short—this part of it, at least—Loki gives in and Thanos gets another stone for his jeweled glove. Though if you’re thinking that glove sounds like something Diana Ross would wear in Mahogany, you’re bound to be disappointed: It’s a big, jointed gauntletty thing, more like something you’d wear for intergalactic gardening than for swanning around looking fabulous.
Anyway, for Thanos to get all the stones in his glove would be a very bad thing, and the Avengers, who have broken up but not really, must fight him to make sure that doesn’t happen. The list of Avengers who show up in Avengers: Infinity War, includes, but is not limited to, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). A few are missing because they had to stay home with the kids, but basically, it’s all of them. Faves from Guardians of the Galaxy pop up too: Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Everybody in Avengers: Infinity War has at least a little something to do, and some have more to do than others. Thankfully, Saldana is one of the latter: Her Gamora, with that radiant green face, gets some of the movie’s best faux-Shakespearian moments. Saldana makes them seem almost not faux.
Sorry to be so vague about everything, but Marvel Studios has released an impassioned entreaty to critics: “19 films, 10 years of Marvel Studios, and thousands of hours of work by thousands of people have all lead [sic] up to this moment. Out of respect to them, and to everyone else who is still out there, patiently waiting to see what’s in store for our Heroes, we ask that you help us keep the secrets of our universe for the rest of this universe.” The studio has a point: Movies are personal things, and the joy of them unfolds in the watching. And so I will be compliantly unspecific in telling you, in what I hope is only a vaguely descriptive way, that the movie features lots of Avengers-vs.-Thanos clashes, complete with elaborate, if belabored, CGI effects. The most ambitious of these is a Henry V-style battle set in Wakanda, the home territory of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), where part of the story partially takes place.
Yet overall, Avengers: Infinity War—directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and written by a team of about 26 writers (or so it seems)—is so different from Black Panther that it may as well inhabit a whole other universe. You didn’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Marvel to respond to the story, and to the characters, of Black Panther. Its visual beauty came largely from faces, from costumes, from human movement. In making the film, director Ryan Coogler clearly had to obey all sorts of Marvel Universe-movie dictums, but he still managed to tell a story with some semblance of grace.
There’s no pacing in Avengers: Infinity War. It’s all sensation and no pulse. Everything is big, all of the time. Tucked amid the story’s numerous operatic sacrifices—barely a moment goes by when a character doesn’t almost die, or actually die, or temporarily die—there are jokes folded in, lots of them: Muttered gags having to do with Ben and Jerry’s flavors, jaunty references to the fact that two Marvel heroes are actually insects, knowing asides uttered by wisecracking raccoons. The Marvel Universe is not all serious infinity stones and stuff. It also wants us to laugh—but it will decide when it’s OK to poke fun, not you. It’s impossible to just relax into the zaniness of a Marvel movie—they’re never gloriously, inclusively, intergalactically loopy, like, say, a Sun Ra performance. Even when you’re supposed to be having fun, you’re really following a very strict set of rules.
That said, there’s potential poetry buried deep in Avengers: Infinity War. But it’s not a sturdy enough crocus to push through the movie’s ironclad surface. There is at least one truly poignant idea here: Thanos’ goal of destroying half the universe is much worse than pulverizing the whole thing, because those who remain will remember the world as it was—and they’ll be left to mourn those who are gone. The movie’s climax scratches at something close to melancholic grandeur, featuring a visual effect that’s Biblical in both its force and its delicacy. But it’s way too little too late. Avengers: Infinity War knows what a big deal it is. Just about all the Avengers together, in one two-hour-and-forty-minute movie, battling the most power-mad villain there ever was: Wow! Better not blow this one. And so the movie treats audience expectations like a set of ice-cube trays to be filled, and in the end, you have to admit it’s very thorough. That’s not the nicest thing you can say about it; it’s the most damning.