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‘Avengers: Infinity War’ fights the good fight

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Ever since “Iron Man” hit screens back in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building to something. Something big. For the past decade, we’ve watched as nearly a score of movies have been made in the service of telling a massive interconnected metanarrative. It is storytelling where the big picture is made up of other big pictures.

And we’re coming to a crossroads.

That’s what “Avengers: Infinity War” is – a crossroads. It’s the beginning of, well … not THE end, but AN end. What we’re seeing now is the start of a transition, where various batons are being handed off – both in terms of the heroes we’ve grown to love and the actors who play them. It is a tremendous balancing act of a film, an effort to somehow bring together literally dozens of characters and deploy them in the service of a single story, all while maintaining narrative coherence and remembering that every character is someone’s favorite.

It is an effort that is successful to an almost surprising degree. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have already demonstrated their ability to keep a lot of superhero plates spinning, but they take their talent to a whole new level here, somehow finding a moment for every character to shine. You might think 156 minutes is a lot – and it is – but in a movie like this, time is still of the essence.

Here’s a bare bones breakdown of the story. A godlike being named Thanos (Josh Brolin, “Only the Brave”) is searching the universe on a quest to track down the powerful Infinity Stones that have been Macguffining their respective ways around the MCU for 10 years. His goal is to place them in his gauntlet and grant himself the power to instantly eliminate half the people in the universe in a sort of squint-and-you’ll-see-it conservation effort.

Standing between him and his goal are almost every hero you’ve encountered in a Marvel movie, and so Thanos sends out his sinister and crazy powerful henchmen to take care of business. In the name of minimizing spoilers, I’m avoiding specifics, but it’s probably safe to say that our heroes break up into assorted mix-and-match pairings.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Current War”) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland, “The Current War”) wind up as a collective. Thor (Chris Hemsworth, “12 Strong”) winds up palling around with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, “Thor: Ragnarok”) for a while, and then the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, “I Kill Giants”), Drax (Dave Bautista, “Blade Runner 2049”), Mantis (Pom Klementieff, “Ingrid Goes West”), Rocket (Bradley Cooper, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) and a petulant teenaged Groot (Vin Diesel, “The Fate of the Furious”).

Meanwhile, you’ve got Captain America (Chris Evans, “Gifted”) and his team of fugitives – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, “Isle of Dogs”), Falcon (Anthony Mackie, “Detroit”), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, “Kodachrome”) and the Vision (Paul Bettany, TV’s “Manhunt: Unabomber”) – who are doing their thing as well. Cap and his crew need help, so they reconnect with War Machine (Don Cheadle, TV’s “House of Lies”) and reach out to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”) and his kingdom of Wakanda (where Cap’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan, “I, Tonya”) happens to be hiding out).

It’s up to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – first in their separate missions and ultimately as one singular fighting force - to do everything in their power to prevent the Mad Titan from procuring all of the stones and laying waste to half the population of the cosmos with a simple snap of his fingers.

Where to begin?

If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure it was going to work. Yes, we’ve seen again and again that Marvel knows what it’s doing, but this latest adventure was something different. We’ve seen crossover events in the MCU in the past, but this was the crossover of all crossovers, the payoff (or at least the first half of the payoff) to a narrative arc that’s been a decade in the making.

A huge problem with comic books in general and comic book movies in particular is the development of meaningful stakes. In a realm where people die and are resurrected on a regular basis, how can there be any real risk? How can we really be afraid to lose people if we’re pretty sure they’re going to make a triumphant return in the next installment?

Well – MILD SPOILER – we’re going to find out.

Don’t get me wrong: I was always going to like “Avengers: Infinity War.” So were so many millions of other likeminded fans. We were always going to see it, and we did, to the tune of the largest unadjusted opening weekend in box office history - $250 million domestically and nearly $650 million globally. I just wasn’t sure if it was going to be, you know, good – the MCU has raised the bar in significant ways over the past couple of movies.

It is, though. Good, I mean.

A climactic event such as this one has so many moving parts, so many different threads that need to be woven together if there’s to be any hope of basic comprehensibility. Doing so in a visually interesting and viscerally exciting manner adds yet another layer of difficulty to an already-daunting task. But the action sequences are generally excellent (there’s one particular battle - I won’t tell you who’s involved - that takes place on Thanos’s home planet Titan and it is quite possibly the fight that is the truest to comic book sensibilities of any big dust-up we’ve seen in the MCU; you’ll know it when you see it). The vast and varied scales of both the conflicts themselves and the landscapes in which they take place are engaging and impressive.

Again, the Russos do a phenomenal job giving everyone a piece of the action, but the sheer numbers mean that some degree of depth in terms of interpersonal dynamics has to be sacrificed. The fact that there’s still real emotional resonance here is a tribute to the work of the filmmakers.

Don’t worry – “Infinity War” has got jokes. The premise sounds dour – and it is – but the sense of humor that is the true foundation of the MCU is still present (your mileage may vary, but for my money, the best joke in the entire movie comes from Drax of all people). That quick-witted cleverness goes a long way toward keeping the story grounded even as it expands into cosmic complexity.

There are plenty of strong performances throughout. Making an impression in a film like this – one where overstuffed with bold colors and characters – isn’t easy, but the ensemble makes it happen. There aren’t any stumbles, but there are a handful of legitimate highlights that stand out a bit from the crowd. Hemsworth is steering Thor into a full-blown renaissance. The Downey/Cumberbatch dynamic is delightful. Evans is awesome in relatively limited duty. The Guardians are all strong, with Pratt leading a bunch that is sneaky-strong across the board. And Brolin somehow manages to endow Thanos, who kind of looks like a giant anthropomorphized purple thumb, with genuine emotion; finding believable motivations for the actions of an insane space god couldn’t have been easy, yet here we are.

“Avengers: Infinity War” isn’t the best we’ve seen from the MCU. It has its problems. And some of the storytelling choices don’t really click. But considering what these folks set out to do, it’s a remarkable achievement. Pulling something like this off at such an epic scale should have been close to impossible, but for the most part, it worked.

And lest we forget, the battle has only just begun.

[5 out of 5]

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