"AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR" — 3 stars — Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen; PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references); in general release
Marvel's "Avengers: Infinity War" feels like the ultimate illustration of what makes comic book movies so much fun, but also what often keeps them from being truly great.
Anthony and Joe Russo's movie has been teased ever since 2012's "The Avengers." Back then, Joss Whedon had the unenviable task of balancing a half-dozen major heroes, many of whom had already been given films of their own. This time around, the cast has multiplied exponentially.
To keep this juggernaut in check, "Infinity War" wisely keeps its focus on one thread: A megalomaniacal alien named Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) is trying to collect six super-powered Infinity Stones; if he succeeds, it's game over for at least half the known universe.
The core plot is well-known to fans of the comics, but luckily, the Russo brothers make the stakes of the story clear without a lot of awkward exposition. The film opens as Thanos attacks demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his ship full of refugees in search of one of the stones. Let's just say things go badly — and then they get worse.
Once this opening sets a pervasively dark tone for the film, Thanos turns his attention to the other stones on his list. He sends minions to New York City to get the Time Stone from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and another group heads to Scotland to secure the Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany).
From there, the story spins out into the cosmos, roping most of your familiar Marvel heroes (including the Guardians of the Galaxy) into the action as Thanos sets out to find the mysterious Soul Stone. From front to back, the Russos make it clear that they are pulling out all the stops, and in its best moments, "Infinity War" embodies what makes comic book movies — particularly of the Marvel variety — so much fun.
At the same time, "Infinity War" has some weaknesses, and not just because CGI alien Thanos really does look a little too much like Ronald McDonald's purple buddy, as Guardian of the Galaxy Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) suggests.
The juxtaposition of Marvel's trademark humor against the darkened tone provides a little breathing room but also makes the film feel uneven at times. The expansive cast isn't nearly as confusing as it could be, since, as mentioned before, "Infinity War" keeps the focus on the Thanos quest. But without a clear protagonist, sometimes the storytelling feels more like listening to a Beatles greatest hits album rather than "Sgt. Pepper."
That isn't to say "Infinity War" is all chaos and brainless action. It mines a consistent — if muddled — theme of self-sacrifice, and our previous familiarity with these characters makes even their conservative screen time rations feel rewarding.
Heavy spoilers won't be revealed, of course, but just like the online rumor mills have speculated, death is another big theme in "Infinity War," and knowing a character could die raises the emotional stakes considerably. At the same time, mortality is a tricky thing in a world that mixes up superpowers and demigods and everyday people — especially when that world has a release schedule of its upcoming films.
Given the almost unprecedented circumstances surrounding this massive crossover film, "Infinity War" may be the best anyone could reasonably hope for. In a way, it almost feels more appropriate to reserve judgment until next year's installment, which may or may not finish the story. But for now, the Russo brothers have put out an immensely entertaining spectacle, with a cliffhanger ending that will leave both casual and hard-core fans going crazy waiting for the follow-up. "Avengers: Infinity War" isn't a perfect film, but it's probably exactly what it wants to be.
"Avengers: Infinity War" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references; running time: 149 minutes.