Ten years into its chokehold on blockbuster culture, Marvel Studios is finally reaching the ostensible end of a rainbow with “Avengers: Infinity War.” The “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of our current universe of cinematic universes, the too-big to-fail film has practically already made its billion.
It is the exact smorgasbord that’s been promised for years now, but nothing more. Overdetermined to not slip into a clusterfuck, the film’s ingredients never congeal into any attitudes of their own. While die-hards will surely revel in the thrill of the Flintstones meeting the Jetsons, the superficial organizational achievement of this leviathan crossover is no substitute for dramatic heft or imaginatively orchestrated action.
The plot is at once overly detailed and fundamentally simple in its video game logic. The giant purple people eater Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally gets off his ass to command a suicide squad of resuscitated “Warcraft” concept art and scavenger-hunt for six Infinity Stones sprinkled across the Marvel map. If all are obtained, Thanos will “bring balance to the universe” or whatever by wiping out half of all life with a snap of his sausage fingers. All 30 or so of the good-looking heroes that audiences have met over the years must work together to stop him.
Considering the narrative indigestion that any movie will contract with this large of an ensemble, it’s a relief that the film possesses the good sense to get the story rolling almost immediately. There’s simply no room for anything but the ceaselessly accelerating plot in “Infinity War,” beginning and ending within a larger epic’s home stretch. But what gets lost in the sauce are the lovely interpersonal melodramas and team-building exercises that characterized previous Marvel crossovers.
The dirty little secret about what makes Marvel’s best movies tick is that the flashy center-staged moral pedestals who can shoot CGI light shows out of their hands are largely tormented by internal conflicts. The drama arises from playing the protagonists against a colorful supporting bench and exploring their evolving camaraderie.
With “Infinity War,” the usual titular leads take on supporting roles to make way for spotlighting the poorly characterized big-bad. While that allows for a pissing contest between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), there’s very little interplay of substance to be found.
Though everything, or half of everything, is ostensibly at stake in “Infinity War,” the film only really embraces its capacity as a downer in its clumsy final minutes. Aside from being an offensively obvious and inevitably reversible play at pathos, the backloaded tragedy also exposes how few events of significance happen in the film.
Of course, there is fun to be had. Dave Bautista’s Drax remains a delightfully blunt muscleman, and Paul Bettany’s Vision unabashedly taps into comic book weirdness. The fact of the matter is that everyone is going to love somebody in this. Each hero gets their own GIF-able moment.
Joe and Anthony Russo, the directing brothers who last worked on the equally inconsequential “Captain America: Civil War,” are steady hands — but this is the kind of aesthetically prolific bonanza that demands an actual opinion of its mythos. Their faculty for spinning countless plates is an empty gesture, a purposefully perfunctory achievement that carefully avoids any sort of challenge to its characters’ ideologies.
The film treats mass violence glibly until it’s no longer convenient for its brand, dealing out death as if it’s the ultimate obstacle for these characters and something to be inevitably overcome when the sequel arrives next summer.
These people are no longer flesh and blood, but ambivalent gods playing fisticuffs in a self-sustaining sandbox. What is there to be surprised by? “Infinity War” more or less plays like a nearly three-hour post-credits teaser, merely pointing toward what comes next. It’s an event that delegitimizes itself and deifies whatever follows — and whatever follows will do the same.
“Avengers: Infinity War” opens Thursday at UA Berkeley 7.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].