As a movie, "Avengers: Infinity War" is not good. It's a narrative mess, with far too many characters cannibalizing each other's screen time, draining any possibility for dramatic thrust.
As a grand experiment in ensemble blockbuster filmmaking, it's not really notable either. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already produced two films involving giant team-ups of superhero all-stars, and both felt more fresh and innovative.
But as a dumb, fun, fantasy spectacle, "Avengers: Infinity War" is … also not good!
And that's the main problem.
There is the usual peppering of wry jokes usually found in a Marvel movie (often ones that wink at how big the universe is -- like when one character quips, "We have a Spider-Man and an Ant-Man?").
The problem is that this movie is not just weighed down by its characters, but by its truly downer of a tone. Between that requisite peppering of winking meta-jokes and friendly banter among heroes, this particular entry in the MCU has a striking interest in such lighthearted fare as genocide, characters tortured with the belief that they must kill someone they love, and an unusually believable threat of major character deaths.
I don't mean that these things are hinted at once or twice. All three are major elements of the plot, reoccurring many times from the film's somber cold open to its sudden and thoroughly unsatisfying end. (Because don't let the two-and-a-half-hour running time fool you: This is exactly one half of a movie.)
By the way, when I speak of two previous more successful team-up movies in the MCU, I'm not speaking of the two previous "Avengers" films. I'm talking about the first "Avengers" film and "Civil War." The former captured magic in a bottle, benefiting from Joss Whedon's snappy dialogue and a big ensemble cast. (Though, compared with "Infinity War," "The Avengers" seems like a small one-person play.)
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo directed the last good MCU ensemble film, "Civil War," but they have taken several steps back here, rather than forward. I thought their history doing great television like "Arrested Development" and "Community" would serve them well as Marvel directors, since the movies function like episodes of a larger series in many ways.
But especially coming off the heels of "Black Panther," it's clear that the best Marvel movies (like most movies, probably) are still the ones that are led by directors at the helm who want to bring something special and singular to each entry, as Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi and James Gunn all have in this series.
The Russos have rushed past many of the good things about the MCU and have dialed up everything that has ever been wrong with it.
It's understandable that they struggled to find a focused narrative with so many characters, but I am less forgiving of their decision to drop the visual pizazz found in the last few Marvel movies to return to the bland, dark-blue tinge in most of the lighting. And if you were rejoicing that we had finally moved past the obsession with shiny magic rocks -- sorry, friends, this movie's got six of 'em.
There's a bigger, spiritual problem to this movie, though, too. It's just so soulless. I shuddered at the nonchalance at which the movie scrapes at the surface of the most recent really good Marvel films: The possibility-filled ending of "Thor: Ragnarok" is thrown out in about 5 seconds and a line of dialogue here.
Even more disappointingly, many of the provocative notions raised in "Black Panther," especially about how Wakanda would and would not interact with the outside world, and all of that film's timely cultural observations, are overlooked and undermined here. After breaking ground and standing out as truly great, differentiated characters in "Black Panther," citizens of Wakanda are just as sidelined and ineffectual as every other character in the film. What a letdown.
I do think the animation and performance-capture performance from Josh Brolin as Thanos is quite good. I liked the way he looked and moved.
But I didn't believe anything underneath it. There isn't anything underneath or inside the hollow, vapid, glorified YouTube compilation fan video that is "Avengers: Infinity War." For a movie about the potential end of half of the universe, this couldn't be more dull, because none of it means a darn thing.
And yet … I kind of can't stay mad at it. For all its faults, this is still miles ahead of "Justice League." It doesn't mark the end of the MCU's ability to deliver great superhero movies, it merely marks its lowest point. The end-credits stinger got me as excited as any of these silly things ever have. I'll be there in my seat when the next one comes out. This is still a good franchise.
But this is one lousy entry.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Seemingly every person listed on IMDb.com
Running time: 2 hours, 29 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references