Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ sacrifices substance for the good of the MCU

Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) prepare for a battle in “Avengers: Infinity War” (Disney/Youtube).

Comic book fans will love “Avengers: Infinity War.” That’s worth mentioning immediately, because the film is essentially a six-issue story distilled down to 156 minutes. There are huge set pieces, funny moments and character interactions that will make audiences giddy. It’s a lot to juggle at once, and dizzying for a Marvel agnostic. At least eight of the previous Marvel movies are essential studying material.

If you’re a longtime fan, this magnum opus of a blockbuster — directed by the Russo Brothers — will have plenty to offer. On its own, though, the movie makes very little sense.

Maybe that’s unfair. “Infinity War,” which throws the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy together to fight a war in deep space, was never meant to be watched in a vacuum. It’s not really a movie at all; more of a very long, very expensive attempt at satisfying every wallet-owning moviegoer on the planet. Past entries in the universe have been entertaining on their own. Logic suggests that throwing them all together should obliterate the fun quotient, right?

Sort of. The stakes are certainly high. Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally steps out of his mid-credit purgatory to collect six Infinity Stones, which will allow him to eliminate half of all living things in the universe with a snap of his fingers. The opening scene sets the stage with a pair of important character deaths: this guy is not messing around. “No resurrections this time,” he says with a smirk, and for once, a Marvel villain sounds genuinely threatening.

“Infinity War” splits its time between Earth and space, and the action is appropriately otherworldly. The climax of “Captain America: Civil War” sent a dozen superheroes to fight out their differences in open combat. In contrast, Thanos casually disintegrates a planet’s crust by clenching his fist. Disney can rest assured that their budget — which estimates place around $400 million — was put to adequate use, even if the muted color palette saps some visual grandeur out of the universe.

The last MCU film was “Black Panther,” a rousing flick that infused a normally tired structure (the superhero origin story) with relevance and originality. “Infinity War” borrows that film’s setting and hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for a climactic battle sequence. But it leaves behind its pathos and visual beauty, and therein lies the problem. “Infinity War” swallows the stars and settings of the MCU and positions them (with great care) as minor players in an opera-sized conflict. In the process, it strips them of what made them interesting. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) get maybe six lines.

Pacing is a consistent problem as well. Very little occurs in the movie’s first hour that feels consequential. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) meets Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians run into Thor (Chris Hemsworth), but these encounters only serve to rearrange these characters into their appropriate spaces for upcoming plot points. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely offer enough sharp dialogue to keep things moving but can’t save the first half from abundant exposition. It’s hard to escape the feeling that we’ve seen this before.

Such is the feeling that has plagued the MCU since the original “Avengers.” “Infinity War” just barely manages to escape it, and only in the final minutes. The ending — which rocks the boat enough to warrant an untitled part 2 next May — is a genuine shock. It’s a shame that it wears off fast, given a look at the slate of Marvel movies already planned for the next few years.

For a brief moment, “Infinity War” challenges convention and takes some big swings. But in the context of Disney’s plans for the Marvel brand, those swings seem amazingly hollow. Big changes are really just disguised resets for the formula. That’s not to say the movie won’t satisfy fans deep into their fandom. Plenty of people will have fun; the fun is just empty.

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