First, a bit of prophecy spoken by an evil mastermind in 2004's The Incredibles: 'And when everyone’s super… no one will be.' Welcome to that endgame achieved: Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War – an overstuffed sausage of summer entertainment – is the Ocean's Thirteen of spandexed heroism, if you can imagine a version of that movie with two times as many Brad Pitts and no poker dealers. Combining the casts of The Avengers, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy may have sounded like genius alchemy to studio scientists who think of filmgoing as one-stop shopping. But in practice, it results in a stream of in-fighting for alpha-dog dominance, everyone trying to make what amounts to a cameo stick. 'There's an ant man and a spider-man?' asks Mark Ruffalo's exasperated Bruce Banner – and that's before you've made him Hulk-angry.
Aptly titled, the nearly three-hour Infinity War pours on the action – some of it grandly operatic, some of it breezy and fun – but mainly, it's about a big purple goon on a bling quest. Genocidal Thanos (Josh Brolin, ready to grumble) hopes to collect six Infinity Stones for his Pandora bracelet and thereby enact a purge of 'half of humanity'. Helpfully, the script does this for him: depopulated New York City streets and the near-abstract grasslands of fictional Wakanda are perfect settings for battles with zero collateral damage – and zero human emotional stakes. In their place, we get showdowns over tactics: Asgardian bro (Chris Hemsworth) versus Star-Lordian bro (Chris Pratt); arrogant billionaire (Robert Downey Jr.) versus arrogant dark-arts beardo (Benedict Cumberbatch). When Peter Dinklage shows up as a lumbering giant with a smeltery, it feels like the movie has suddenly been whisked away by Terry Gilliam (if only).
It's hard to give sibling co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo (makers of the thornier Captain America films) any credit – or blame, really – for steering a product that's been so corporately fine-tuned. They toggle dutifully between million-dollar quips and Wrestlemania smackdowns, and when they find room for a vista of galactic stillness, it's not out of any inspired vision so much as the need for air. You'll cheer the arrival of your favourite characters (my biggest whoo-hoo came with Black Panther's ever-furious warrior woman Okoye, played by Danai Gurira). Yet the final moments of Infinity War are disquieting: suddenly, a film that, mathematically speaking, has only been about addition learns how to divide. Inevitably, some of these Avengers are going to be swept into the dustbin, and many of them are. No spoilers here, but all it takes is a peek at forthcoming sequels to know that death is temporary. Only franchise-building is infinite.
By Joshua Rothkopf