Marvel's superhero movies, particularly the epic team-ups like Avengers: Infinity War, embody a relatively new, critic-proof model of cinema. They're made for fans, whether die-hard or casual, who've been following the series as one would binge a streaming TV show, only over a longer time span.
I could use up this entire review space simply introducing the characters who appear in Infinity War, from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to Captain America (Chris Evans) to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the inhabitants of Wakanda (as seen in Black Panther) to the main cast of both Guardians of the Galaxy films. The gang is all here this time, and if you don't already know them like old friends, the script won't enlighten you.
I won't criticize the movie for not welcoming Marvel neophytes, because that's become an axiom of the franchise (and of most blockbuster franchises). But I can offer the perspective of a non-comics fan who happens to have seen most of the Marvel flicks.
For a movie with a ridiculously unwieldy cast, Infinity War is surprisingly comprehensible and fun. Unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, which whipped by in a busy blur, this installment manages to build a decent sense of stakes. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War) weave the plot threads deftly enough to keep us oriented — and even, sometimes, to make a non-fan care.
When you strip away the reams of backstory, the plot here is pretty simple. The threat is a giant alien named Thanos (Josh Brolin plus CGI), who sports a "nut-sack for a chin," in the words of snark-meister Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), and can drop-kick any of the Avengers with ease.
An intergalactic Malthusian, Thanos is very concerned about starvation and poverty and has a simple solution: random extermination of half the universe's population. To accomplish this modest goal, he needs four more super-special Infinity Stones, two of which are in the Avengers' possession. Intrigue and mayhem ensue on several fronts, ranging from Manhattan to Wakanda to a place called Knowhere that I choose to call "Planet Terry Gilliam."
The Avengers have two major handicaps in this battle: First, they're borderline-implausibly reluctant to sacrifice one another, even when trillions of lives depend on it; and second, they cannot stop quipping.
While most of us might refrain from colorful bickering and pop-culture references when facing a genocidal monster, this levity is the movie's saving grace. Whenever things get too soap-operatic, Rocket Raccoon offers a rodent's perspective in the voice of your curmudgeonly uncle (it's actually Bradley Cooper), or Spider-Man (Tom Holland) supplies the teen fanboy angle.
Infinity War owes some of its power to the goodwill generated by Black Panther earlier this year. When Thanos sends his alien army to Wakanda, which that film established as a verdant stronghold of good, it's hard not to feel dismayed and outraged. From overhead, yes, the final battle looks like a video game, but the Russos cut back and forth nimbly enough to keep us invested in the fate of individual combatants without leaving us dizzy and disoriented.
That is a feat, and one might ask why this grandiose action-figure meet-up was even necessary. But the sheer capaciousness of the fictional universe is kind of fascinating. From Norse mythology to Black Power to spaceships to vaudeville patter to the Greatest Generation to trippy talking raccoons, Infinity War is America's oft-contradictory culture refracted through comic books. It's a big tent, and the show isn't bad.