World-shaking events are kid stuff in “Avengers: Infinity War.” The whole universe is under attack from an infinitely villainous villain named Thanos. Universe-shaking battles succeed one another with stupefying regularity—and I mean stupefying-- and the Avengers and their allies take turns rising to the challenge. But moments that touch the heart are few and far between in this almost-culmination of a decade of Marvel Comics movies. The finale may well bring the adventure to a fittingly grand close. It’s scheduled to be released in May, 2019. What’s on the screen now, though, is table-setting for events to come, a groaning board of superheroes, a superabundance of undifferentiated superpowers and an ending that’s a lot more exciting than anything that comes before it.
Marvel has rounded up a remarkable collection of characters for this picture, starting with Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, Spider- Man—a new Spider-Man played by Tom Holland—and all the rest.
But this diversity, plus battle after battle, creates narrative sprawl on an epic scale. The film is unified only by the villain’s determination to acquire all six Infinity Stones, or glowing keys to the cosmic kingdom.
When the story begins, the Avengers are in disarray. Iron Man, for one, has been on the outs with Captain America, but the threat from Thanos is so great that Tony Stark decides to enlist the help of Steve Rogers, and calls him on his little flip phone.
Flip is one of the movie’s two modes, the other being full-bore mayhem. “Infinity War” is often very funny, in a self-deprecating vein, and not just thanks to Robert Downey Jr., who can get a laugh with a conjunction, or Chris Pratt, who can charm with a raised eyebrow. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce sweats and strains, to no avail at first, as he tries to transform into the Hulk. (It’s the flip side of anger management.) Spidey, the new boy on the block, swings his way into Thanos’s donut-shaped space ship, with an inner ring that rotates like the magnet in a gigantic MRI, and says it smells like a new car. “I’m Doctor Steven Strange,” announces Doctor Strange, who makes a theatrical entrance worthy of a stage magician, in a ring of fire in New York’s Central Park. (His grandiosity is witty for a while, then wears thin.)
Of all the developments in “Infinity War,” one is genuinely stunning, eerily moving and so crucial to the climax that it can’t be revealed, at least not by me. I’ll say only that it calls into question everything that may happen next time around, which is exactly what a climactic development should do. As for everything that happens this time around, it’s a function—or malfunction—of the sequel’s two-part structure. The problem is penultimateness—too much set-up and too little payoff. The solution comes, presumably, same time next year.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. Back on KCRW same time next week with more reviews.