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Over the course of 18 films and 10 years, Kevin Feige and his army of Marvel men and women have laid a pretty nifty foundation upon which the Marvel Cinematic Universe rests. What started with humble beginnings with 2008’s Iron Man has  since blown up into a cultural and financial supernova with no less than 30 recognizable characters and all that comes to a head with the Russo Brother’s astonishingly ambitious though perfunctorily flawed Avengers: Infinity War. 

With nine separate franchises and a litany of sequels and cross-over events that came before it, Avengers: Infinity Wars demands homework. Technically it works as a standalone venture, in that the film does a laudable job of quick catch-up,  establishing the extensive internet of various relationship with economy to spare, but if you bring a friend who’s a few flicks shy of the full deck, expect to do a lot of explaining in the dark. And as the Marvel Universe continues to get weirder – sentient trees, acrimonious wizards, nano tech – those explanations become lengthier and more difficult and Infinity Wars continues down its recent trajectory of strange. If however you’re the type who goes to the theater for bright lights, loud sounds and the diabetic taste of theater concessions, this will surely satisfy on all levels, regardless of whether you know what happened to Thor’s eye or why Groot is a teenager now.

Even more-so than with previous efforts, Infinity War benefits those who come prepared, the rich network of characters and relationships a well-lain cornerstone that the Russos repeatedly return to. Because the cast is, in essence, the franchise’s infinity stones. It is them who bring the power, the energy, the oomph to the screen, not the expensive spectacle  and extensive action. Marvel head honcho and guru producer Kevin Feige figured out long ago that these crossover event movies thrive when stuffed with as many supers and their corresponding larger-than-life personalities as possible and with each new film he and his crew have attempted to broaden the canvas and find room for even more characters. 

The mantra up to this point has been that so long as you can find the time and purpose for every character on the screen – which the Russos do with commendable aplomb – then we may as well have them join in on what Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark once famously called “the party”. Here The Avengers can be magical; its cast of assertive, snarky, charismatic leading men and women lending personality in spades to their well-worn characters. There’s a history to these characters that is celebrated, one that gives weight to the existential threats posed within.  

Infinity War lets Downey, the trio of Chrises (Pratt, Evans, and Hemsworth), Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Chadwick Boseman and the young Tom Holland play musical chairs, mixing and matching who is paired up with who, winding up in various unexpected team ups along the path towards defeating the Mad Titan Thanos (a half-decent Josh Brolin). Verbally sparring, spitting shade and generally testing each others’ limits, it can be a blast to witness the girthy stable of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes try each other on for size. I never knew I needed a Drax-Thor bromance and now can’t imagine an MCU shy of one. Thankfully, Infinity War knows when to tamper down the laugh lines for justifiable gravitas and when it does, it wastes no time ramping up the tension.

One of the Infinity War’s weightiest demands was that it needed to get the villain right – lest this all be an exercise in monotonous universe-crushing – and in many ways, Brolin’s Thanos, a bossy, chinny, purple gym-rat, fulfills the imposing promise of final stage villainy. Gifted a not-entirely-fluff backstory and an unexpected driving principle, Thanos isn’t the swollen roid-rage ballchinian sworn to tear the galaxy down to its very fabric that many fairly anticipated. Nevertheless, his malevolent impulses keep him as a character at arm’s length, never truly relatable in his journey to capture all the Infinity Stones and one that we’re mostly meant to hiss at. He gets the job done but when push comes to shove, he’s not going to be anyone’s favorite villain any time soon.

An ongoing issue with Marvel’s film catalog is that it can often be a challenge to diagnose genre and style within these films. Captain America: Winter Solider went for a conspiratorial thriller vibe. Ant-Man was ostensibly – emphasis on ostensibly – a heist film. Iron Man 3 borrowed some much needed mood from Shane Black’s Christmas obsession. But by and large these movies play like generic superhero movies. They are Blockbusters with a capital b, characterized by a high-gloss sheen and dizzying amount of large-scale action set pieces and Infinity War fails to be an exception to that rule. This is a film with bottomless pockets but all the money in the world can’t buy style and – unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy (who it’s worth mentioning, steal every scene they are in) – Infinity Wars just doesn’t have a lot of style to call its own.

Now tied as the second most expensive movie ever made with a $300 million production budget, there’s no denying the epic scale that characterizes just about every element of this movie. From the massive battles to the tastefully rendered outer space vistas to the amount of costly actors jammed into the fringes of each and every shot, Infinity War has a scale to it that few films of this or any variety can rival. The cast alone makes up a good percentage of Hollywood. And that’s something to shake a stick at. Despite its various shortcomings, the superhero blockbuster delivers mightily on its promise to draw together no less than a dozen storylines in impressive, epic fashion and it does so in engaging, rarely dull manner. An emotional, jarring finale threatens to leave viewers shaken though I for one couldn’t help but feel that it was a cheat for a cinematic universe that has proven terrified of absolutes. 

CONCLUSION: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ draws together its ridiculously large ensemble to tell an epically-sized story with purpose and vision, sparring no shortage of the zippy one-liners and computer animated wizardry that Marvel is known for. The third Avengers flick likely won’t win over new converts but should satisfy fans craving a bloody showdown with Thanos, even if the movie ultimately fails to be self-contained. 

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