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Marvel’s big bad is here and the Avengers are everywhere else

Avengers: Infinity War (L-R) Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr.,
Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Wong.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

The universe is a mess. That’s not exactly how Disney/Marvel would like for critics to start off reviews of their latest franchise tentpole “Avengers: Infinity War,” but it’s true.

Moments ago, at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok,” we watched Thor and the last of his Asgardian people flee their hella-ravaged realm with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and a surprisingly heroic Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in tow, in search of a new homeland with Thor finally both ready and willing to be the ruler of this new world.

A heartbeat after that, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” showed us a Wakanda on the verge of opening up to the rest of the world for the first time, addressing the United Nations on the subject of initiating meaningful initiatives around the globe, while Shuri (Letitia Wright) marveled at the psychically healed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) prancing about minus his weaponized arm, like a happy stranger in paradise.

But, in the opening scenes of Anthony and Joe Russo’s new “Avengers” installment, we quickly realize that not everything is quite so picture-prefect. For over a dozen films now, we’ve been hearing that Thanos (Josh Brolin) is coming, but no one—outside legions of faithful comic book readers—knew what that meant, and who knew how that might translate into the cinematic universe. Okay, so he wants to collect the six Infinity Stones, the multi-colored MacGuffins needed to complete his Infinity Gauntlet, which would give him supreme power over life and death on an infinite scale. This is exactly the kind of threat the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have been waiting for, right?

The thing is, Thanos arrives on the scene with one of the stones already—with no illustration of what it took to claim it, other than a tossed off aside about the destruction of some world without heroes mighty enough to cause Thanos to break a sweat—and that fancy gauntlet, which probably needs to be pretty damned special in order to contain such awesome power, but again, we don’t see what it took to craft it.

Instead, we get the more mundane soft-core soap opera shenanigans of Vision and Scarlet Witch arranging secret rendezvouses around the globe, post-Civil War. And a glimpse of Captain America (Chris Evans) roaming around like a nomad with Falcon and Black Widow, doing whatever disavowed superheroes do on their own time, while Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) pursues his on-again, off-again romantic banter with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow).

When Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) crash lands in the sanctum of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), “Infinity War” properly begins, and the scattered forces of avenging do-gooders start to rise up to defend various battlefronts in a war that no one can truly step far enough away from to understand the full picture. Events take place across the planet and the multiverse, and by events, I mean action set-pieces that involve epic fights between super-powered beings flinging quips, magic and planet-sized chunks at each other like they’re competing in an old-school Battle of the Network Stars. The stakes are supposed to be high (is universe-high a proper elevation from the decidedly terrestrial sky-high label?), but every action sequence unfolds with an underlying sense of resignation. Everyone knows this is part one of a two-part story.

That sounds cynical, I know, but it’s the truth. I never felt that way while watching “Black Panther” or either of the Russo Brothers “Captain America” movies, which factor into my top-five all-time Marvel movies (alongside “Ant-Man” and “Thor: Ragnarok”). Those films subverted the staid genre constraints of what we’ve come to expect from comic book narratives, treating audiences to smart re-examinations of socio-political dramas, espionage thrillers, comic capers, and cosmic camp, respectively. They set the bar pretty high.

This first part of the “Avengers: Infinity War” saga lowers that standard, and I would go so far as to say that might be a necessary goal. Almost 20 movies in, maybe someone should have realized that it wasn’t going to be possible to continue topping the previous installments. The only way Disney/Marvel could have accomplished that task would be with assistance from their own version of the Infinity Gauntlet, which would have allowed them to snap their fingers and create the exact kind of film experience that every individual member of the audience wanted.

For me, that would have been a cinematic “Infinity Saga” that mimicked the Netflix streaming model, with at least three movies capable of delving into the story elements this film barely had enough time to mention in breathless asides and featuring the full host of fun and eccentric characters introduced during the cinematic run. I crave action and narrative specificity. The infinite exists in those small details, and I hope the Russo Brothers and the Marvel brain trust remember that as they hone part two of this “War” or they will lose this loyal foot soldier.

Rating: PG-13

Grade: B-