“Avengers: Infinity War” is a lot of movie. You can hate it and still say that much with confidence. Its various, overlapping fan bases won’t hold what they don’t like against it, I bet. “A lot,” though, doesn’t mean it’s much fun or even very good.
No hate here, honestly. The film has its momentary diversions, a few good throwaway jokes amid a tremendous amount of PG-13 maiming and destruction. The nervy fatalism of its climax might actually count for something if you didn’t know in your bones that the “Avengers” movie coming out a year from now will very likely undo what and who we’re left with, at the end of these two hours and 40 minutes. But let’s not speak of it any further, at least for a few paragraphs.
The 19th Marvel Cinematic Universe installment is strange that way: a little bit brave, a little bit cowardly. Its modest payoffs derive from the odd couples and foursomes and gang activities that come from smushing one clump of the Marvel roster into another. Such as? Chris Pratt’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” Star-Lord, for example, confronting Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark for the first time. Or Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, rolling through Wakanda. Or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, last seen without his hammer, in the same movie as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange (a standout here), or Dave Bautista’s Drax (another standout). This isn’t a movie. It’s a marketing convergence seminar.
The seminar contains a plot! Titan warlord Thanos, played by a motion-captured Josh Brolin, has popped up in three previous Marvel outings. In “Infinity War,” Thanos is after all six of the precious magical infinity stones. These will grant him complete control of the universe and, presumably, a percentage of the merchandising. He travels hither and yon to obtain them, ruthlessly. His plan is one of ecoterrorism with a side order of the Rapture: Kill off 50 percent of the intergalactic population and enjoy an early retirement.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely go a pretty fair distance toward making this superadversary a Titan of some twisted, conflicted feeling. Zoe Saldana, for once, gets some decent screen time in “Infinity War” as her “Guardians” character, Gamora, re-enters the orbit of adoptive father Thanos, with revenge on her mind.
So many more must content themselves with pinballing around the margins. We could mention Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, here looking and acting more like Captain America’s vaguely distracted liberal arts professor nephew). Or T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Or the latest Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War”) shoot the frenzied battle scenes every which way, hand-held camera one second, impersonally smooth the next. Any given moment is dominated by the usual blinding streams of pricey digital Death Light.
The better Marvel movies have found ways to interlace wisecracks with obligatory, semi-infinite warmongering, as in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” or the more recent semi-sendup, “Thor: Ragnarok.” Here, the mixture sticks in the craw: It’s funny to see and hear Pratt imitating Hemsworth’s voice (though Peter Dinklage seems to be doing the same thing, later in the picture). But smack up against the rough stuff in “Infinity War,” the scenes of mass genocide and close-ups of anguished, recently stabbed major players, the mood swings are a little bit psycho. The Russos don’t have the finesse to pull them off. They’re more suited to straight-ahead manipulations, such as the rousing moment when Thor acquires a much-needed replacement weapon.
l’ll be oblique, but the ending is all anyone’s going to be talking about. Time and the second week of the “Infinity War” box office reports will tell whether the cliffhanger is profitably controversial, or simply a thing designed to frustrate audiences into easing their frustration a year from now, by seeing the next “Avengers” movie. Judging from some of the crazed groans and yelps heard at Tuesday’s screening, well ….
This we know. Nobody’s interested in the narrative. It’s a story about an all-powerful thug collecting a half-dozen magic stones — a 160-minute game of rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, scissors, paper. The ridiculous size of the ensemble is the selling point of this film, though after a while, your mind starts to wander back to “Black Panther,” which was so satisfying, and fleet of foot, and full of interesting characters. When “Infinity War” relocates to Wakanda, you lean forward a little, only to settle back in your seat again after a few tons of rampant destruction puts a serious dent in the place.
The stealth question lurking underneath “Infinity War” is a simple one. After “Black Panther,” does anyone care about that louche, narcissistic playboy Tony Stark as much as they used to? Ten years ago this month, the Marvel universe was launched with the fresh, lively, relatively easygoing “Iron Man.” It seems more like 100.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Avengers: Infinity War" -- 2 stars
When: Now playing
Where: Wide release
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes