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Avengers: Infinity War shouldn’t work. There are too many characters, definitely. Characters who have any number of personal plots and objectives running between them, moving from location to location, some not even on Earth. Characters whose films have differing emotional tones. It’s got too many ingredients, you might say. But that doesn’t stop Infinity War from working anyway. Because Infinity War is no regular movie.

The key word is payoff. Infinity War is the payoff of a lot of hard work and a smart strategy that took years to execute. Roughly a decade since Iron Man, the first proper Marvel Studios film, Marvel have wisely invested time and effort in building up its universe. They keep a tight rein on quality control that’s resulted in an impressive batting average for a new-ish studio with 19 films under its belt. They’ve built themselves a reputation, a relationship of reliability with fans of the comics and general moviegoers alike, so that when a monolith of an undertaking such as Infinity War finally arrives, with 30+ speaking characters and a running time rounding out to almost 160 minutes, anticipation and expectations reach a fever pitch.

The plot in a nutshell is that after sending various lieutenants to do his bidding in prior films (Loki, Ronan, etc.), Thanos finally gets to gathering the fabled Infinity Stones himself. Tied as he is to many of the MCU’s characters, this means everyone gets involved as Thanos heads for Earth, where two of the stones reside. All the good guys try to stop him from collecting all the stones, which would effectively make him unstoppable. Bits and pieces of this idea have been seeded before, but now take full bloom in its own film, so that not much setup is needed. It hits the ground running.

There are other ways that this is no conventional movie. As a sequel, it’s a new episode in the saga of the Avengers, and not even a complete tale (its second half will be released in a year’s time). So it’s not self-contained. But we already know all this going in. It’s been no secret; it’s been the plan all along. And they prepared us with all the prior “episodes” (read: movies). So that when, say, the Guardians of the Galaxy show up, we don’t really need to be introduced to them again. We remember what the characters are personally going through. In fact, the film hardly makes any concessions to non-fans, so confident is it in knowing what it is, and knowing that its audience will be there for it. This is the culmination of a story that’s been teased since the end credits tag of the first Avengers, when Thanos made his first appearance. It follows directly from Thor: Ragnarok, and features the continuation of a disrupted status quo following Captain America: Civil War. There’s a recap of the history of the Infinity Stones (previously seen in the first Guardians of the Galaxy), but that’s about it.

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..L to R: Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

What Infinity War does well is barrel through at full speed, with the occasional brief pause to give us a chance to catch our breath. It takes great pains to shed some light and explain the backstory of central villain Thanos, and his relationship with adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). You can feel the film straining to give Thanos’ motivation much weight, but as a villain he falls just shy of the excellent Killmonger from Black Panther (from just a few weeks ago!). It would’ve been nice if his motivation was paralleled with the plight of Earth, which has the resources to feed its people but is just mismanaged by its leaders, and too susceptible to corporate interference. Played by Josh Brolin, Thanos’ purpose is clear, but why he chose such a specific plan, seemingly without considering other options, remains elusive. Despite this, Brolin brings a gravitas and pathos to the character, which helps considering he gets the most screen time in the film.

One of the surprises of the film is actually who gets the screen time. With so many characters, not everyone gets equal share (though all get some choice moments). Considering Ragnarok and Dr. Strange are recent releases for the studio, it’s interesting to see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) have such prominent placement, even if it seems to undo some of Ragnarok’s consequences. Another surprise are some deep cuts into comics lore for the fans, from new characters, returning characters, even weaponry and costumes.

The strongest thing Infinity War has going for it is this palpable tension, of a project straining just enough, keeping it all together from blowing apart in a dozen directions. There is a sense of raised stakes; certainly raised emotions are fully on display, and there’s a good escalation of a feeling of crisis. There are some pretty great fight sequences, particularly one with Strange going up against Thanos that is almost entirely visual. Other fights feature a breathless sense of urgency, some clever combinations of powers, a rat-tat-tat of cool moves in rapid succession. In this, the IMAX presentation really does pay off, lending the proceedings a further sense of epic epicness (this is, after all, the first mainstream film to be shot entirely with IMAX cameras).

It’s true there are too many characters. The Black Order, Thanos’ generals, while visually impressive, don’t really get much in the way of characterization. Only Ebony Maw gets to have an actual personality. But they remain credible threats in what they’re able to do against our storied, familiar heroes. What saves us from being lost among the good guys is having seen their previous exploits, so there’s a history there. Still, so much happens that we’re even denied certain reunion scenes we’ve been waiting a while for.

The main theme seems to be about will: Thanos VS everyone else. What are our heroes willing to do to stop the greatest peril the universe has faced? More than once, characters are put in the position to make a sacrifice, to take a life, to be held hostage. It’s a great angle: challenges made not to power, to strength. It’s a question of will you be able to do what needs to be done, even if it exacts a terrible cost? What is too steep a price to pay?

Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)..Photo: Chuck Zlotnick..©Marvel Studios 2018

It really shouldn’t work. But it does. And it works because they put in the time, and they put in the work. The Russo brothers as directors, screenwriters Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely… they know these characters, and by now so do we. So when a major threat appears, and makes a grand first impression, we as the audience know Things Are Serious. If anything, Infinity War actually overplays its hand in a mostly silent climax. Comics readers will be ahead of the curve, not because of specific plot points but because of comics tropes excellently deployed in the service of drama.

We have a year to wait until we find out what happens next. In between there’s Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel (a period piece set in the ‘90s). Marvel’s momentum shows no signs of slowing down, and why should it? They’ve earned it. They know what they’re doing. And with Infinity War, they’ve brought the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to a crescendo.

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