2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Batista, Benedict Wong, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Chadwick Boseman, Karen Gillan, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Josh Brolin | directed by Anthony and Joe Russo | 2hrs 29 mins |

Studio Pitch: An epic superhero team up movie that brings together 10 years of Marvel characters in a battle against the most powerful villain in the universe

Before The Avengers came out in 2012 I remember wondering how they were going to juggle the universes of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America in one movie. Those where the simple days.

10 years after it’s humble beginnings, Avengers: Infinity War takes on the monumental task of pulling characters from 18 films across the galaxy into one gargantuan adventure. The technological genius of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., always carrying the films), the magical mythology of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Shakespearian God mythos of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the space pirate adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Vibranium-powered world of Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) Wakanda all come together to fight Thanos (Josh Brolin), previously only seen in end-credit tags. It seems like it might be a recipe for disaster top-heavy on fan service and stretching thin on characters, but in something of a minor miracle Infinity War pulls all of it off. The film tops anything the franchise has done before in scope and effectiveness.

The list of accomplishments Marvel has pulled off with their Cinematic Universe can’t be understated. With a clear eye for storytelling, depth of knowledge for these characters, perfectly casting them and brining in a variety of directors to helm each episode all the while interweaving them into an overall serial is an ambitious film project. Somewhere around Guardians of the Galaxy their consistent quality started getting dull. Each new entry was too safe, started getting too cookie-cutter and the formula started becoming more apparent.  As objectively good as each movie was by itself, it was hard to argue that as part of the series things were getting a bit stale and “Marvel fatigue” set in for me in the last few entries. That’s all to say that Avengers: Infinity War is a mind-reader that addresses all of my issues and doubts about this series, paying off things set up several films ago and doing it with emotion and gravity that gives the whole universe more weight. The villain is badder, the stakes are higher, the tone is darker. The biggest knock against Infinity War is that it’s only half a movie. Not only is it open-ended enough to make a sequel necessary but it functions like a big, long third act that pays off several previous films, namely Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok which this picks up immediately after. If it’s fair to critique it’s sameness within a series, it’s fair to praise it as a sequel within that series.

Some of this is by sheer momentum, the Russo Brothers (Captain America: Civil War), keep things moving at a quick pace, shooting back and forth across the globe and the galaxy, weaving it’s multiple plotlines together smoothly without feeling overstuffed. Most of it is attention to character. Each character gets their hero moment or comic riff (Dave Batista’s Drax steals the show) without feeling forced. Last November, Justice League provided a textbook example of how not to make this kind of team-up movie and Infinity War answers with the polar opposite approach to storytelling. It’s the difference between fan service and paying off well set-up characters. It’s dark but not for darkness sake. There isn’t a wasted moment or useless action scene here. Every brawl and chase moves the story or characters forward. Every problem brings in another member of the cast to solve it. The Russo brothers continue with their slightly grittier approach to the fight scenes vs. Joss Whedon’s more cartoonish take in the first two Avengers movies. When the group duke it out in Central Park or on the roof tops of a Scotland town it looks authentic.

Infinity War isn’t a great movie because it’s dark and it isn’t a great movie because it kills off major characters as is fashionably edgy. It’s a great movie because Thanos is a great villain. With all of the Avengers set up in their own films, the Russo brothers very cleverly double Infinity War as a backdoor origin story film for Thanos. As he goes on his quest to become a universe-wide God, we see Thanos committing acts of brutality and kindness in flashbacks and we see him sacrificing for his obsession. He is the quintessentially well-written villain who doesn’t believe he is the villain. Instead of a hulking beast bent on random destruction, he has a motive and a plan. As he starts collecting infinity stones the large blue titan develops his own infinite bag of tricks that can single-handedly matches tit-for-tat the infinite bag of tricks has been built for Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Thor. It also adds depth that the Infinity Stones themselves, unlike mystery energy cubes in past comic book films, aren’t McGuffins. They do very specific things and have a specific impact in the story as they are acquired. Thanos becomes a terrifying figure the more he viscously outwits or out muscles each avenger. That grimness elevates the entire movie. Those cheesy Marvel jokes where superheroes do mundane things, now they’re really hitting because they’re against a backdrop of real danger and higher stakes. The Russo brothers keep the balance working. This movie is tense and thrilling and funny and even dramatic on a level that other Marvel films didn’t touch. It raises the bar for what this franchise can be.

It isn’t a stand-alone adventure, operating like an extended third act without a traditional structure to every other Marvel film, but even inside that it has an incredibly well built story addressing the needs of the characters, zinging out one-liners and the introduction of an all powerful villain. Avengers: Infinity War is The Empire Strikes Back or Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince of the Marvel Universe. It’s third act takes a dower apocalyptic turn, one ballsy for a huge summer film that boldly pulling the rug out from under an audience that the franchise itself made complacent. I’m reminded of director Frank Darabont who once said that every generation needs it’s Night of the Living Dead. The comic book movie generation just got theirs.