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After 10 years of lean, threadbare, Lilliputian tales, Marvel Studios has, thank heavens, finally decided to go big.
The scale of "Avengers: Infinity War," of course, isn't a departure for Marvel. It's an apotheosis. But is it possible to supersize what is already colossal? "Infinity War," which brings together more than 30 significant characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and enough spandex to clothe a small nation, is a little like launching an invasion after the war was already won. Despite assured dominance, Marvel has gone nuclear.
"Infinity" is an interesting word for the Marvel machine, which sets much of its development pipeline a decade in advance. Never-ending is indeed how the superhero era of blockbusterdom sometimes feels, both to its fans and its critics. Even Steven Spielberg, who once said superheroes will eventually go the way of the western, recently signed on to produce a DC Comics film.
But the title refers to the six "infinity stones" scattered around the universe, each conveying a power of sorcery, like the time-warping one held by Doctor Strange. They are dearly sought by Thanos, the indestructible Titan warlord, who rules over much of space but would like all of it. With all the McGuffins — er, stones — he can, with the snap of his fingers, wipe away half of the universe's beings: a rapture to cull an overgrown herd, he envisions.
And it's, in part, the lure of finality that has made "Infinity War," directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (veterans of two "Captain America" movies), one of the year's most salivated-over movies. The preamble has been one long tease — we have seen fleeting glimpses of Thanos (Josh Brolin) since Barack Obama's first term — leading up to a battle royal that could mean the demise of some of Marvel's most famous faces.
It can be hard to know who or what to root for. Arguably the best quality — and most vital asset — of the Marvel canon is its star-making (or at least star-expanding) power. On the one hand, Chris Pratt's performance as Star-Lord in "The Guardians of the Galaxy" has been terrific and turned him into a household name. On the other hand, we've hardly seen Robert Downey Jr. outside of the Iron Man suit in the last decade.
It took 18 months to shoot both parts of "Infinity War" back-to-back (the sequel is due out next summer), putting a stranglehold on some of our best movie stars, like Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Mackie. Faint cries can be heard on the street of: "Let our Ruffalo go!"
And it's really the simple pleasure of seeing so many good actors together that makes "Infinity War" — an "Ocean's Eleven" in hyper drive — work. The screenplay, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, spreads the heroes around in improvised groups that create some funny dynamics. The Guardians, who inject most of the life to "Infinity War," swoon for Hemsworth's one-eyed Thor. "He's like a pirate had a baby with an angel," says Dave Bautista's Drax. Many don't know each other, or the parameters of their shared "cinematic universe." ''There's an Ant-Man AND a Spider-Man?" remarks Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk.
The level playing field is a chance to rebalance the Marvel pecking order, most recently upended by Chadwick Boseman and "Black Panther." Neither Chris Evans' Captain "Cap" America nor Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, for example, make much of an impact on "Infinity War." But Zoe Saldana, as the green-skinned Gamora, strides to the fore, as does Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch. "Infinity War" rarely, surprisingly feels as overstuffed as such a superhero smorgasbord ought to, a testament to the filmmakers' adept plate-spinning skills.
That may be because "Infinity War" doesn't really belong to the superheroes. This is Brolin's film. Already an actor who can appear chiseled from granite, his Thanos is an imposing boulder of a villain, with weary eyes and lined creases running down his massive chin. He and his adoptive daughter, Gamora, are the only characters with much of a story in "Infinity War." He's the immovable object around which the gaggle of superheroes orbits.
There may be some hint of overpopulation anxiety in Thanos' ambition and in the Russos' frighteningly overcrowded film. Its saviors repeatedly contemplate sacrifice. Previous "Avengers" chapters and the Russos' "Captain America: Civil War" expended some effort considering the Avengers' place in society and whether they should be controlled by the state. But this movie, a sensory onslaught, has little room for political subtext.
Still, I doubt such gestures of allegory are anyone's favorite part of the Marvel movies. Most come for the action, the quips and the characters, and I suspect "Infinity War" will deliver for most — particularly thanks to the Guardians. In such a bruisingly long showdown, the action sequences — never the strongpoint of the Russos, who cut their teeth on comic ensemble like "Arrested Development" and "Community" — grow monotonous, and the interludes amid the rubble more infrequent. But if "Infinity War" is a lavish reunion tour propelled by star power, the Russos are sure to plays the hits.
The movie's ending — just one of the spoilers that divulging here would bring Thanos' fist down upon me — will be the major talking point. But for me, its power only lasts as long as a commercial break with an easy-to-see-through "to be continued." Who lives and who dies? It's hard to fret too much with an eternity of sequels and spinoffs lined up.
"Avengers: Infinity War," a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references."
Running time: 149 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.