About two hours into the New York premiere of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a shocked Kevin Smith jumped forward and screamed “Nooooo!” And it wasn’t because he’d suddenly seen me three seats away and remembered my review of his last movie.
It was because the Jersey guy is the ultimate comic-book geek. And this new Marvel movie is made to delight – and surprise – people just like him.
That group may not necessarily include you. It certainly never defined me. I liked comics well enough when they were 12 cents apiece but it’s been a long time since I ran into the candy store every week to get the latest issue. (How long? It was back when there were still candy stores.)
I’ve enjoyed a number of the recent superhero movies – I thought “Deadpool” was hilarious, and “The Dark Knight” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” both made my annual Top Tens – but the Avengers movies, and their offshoots, sometimes felt a bit like overkill. Just how many movies about those stupid “infinity stones” could there be?
Well, at least two more, and they were worth waiting for.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is the first installment in a two-part epic, and it does a terrific job of knitting together all the characters and subplots Marvel has been threading through their movies for years.
It seems the alien supervillain Thanos has nearly completed his collection of the stones – fragments of the “big bang” itself, and gems that will give him ultimate power. He has decided to use this power to immediately reduce this crowded universe’s teeming population by half, thereby improving quality of life for those that will survive.
It’s a unique approach to conservation our favorite superheroes can’t quite endorse. So the Avengers – Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and the rest of the gang – team up with the flakier (and definitely more fun) Guardians of the Galaxy to stop the titanic Thanos once and for all, after the usual two hours of corny quips and bombastic action sequences.
Except “Infinity War” is a little different – and quite a bit more enjoyable – than some of the recent Avengers’ adventures.
For one, in a very welcome change for audiences old enough to remember 9/11, this film is mostly set on other planets, so we’re not asked to be entertained by scenes of ruthless villains destroying urban American landmarks. For another, the Guardians play a major role and add offhanded humor to a franchise where jokes can often feel forced, the product of some fourth-draft rewrite.
The biggest step forward for this film, though, is that for once in the Marvel Universe – the most painstakingly produced, carefully calculated, this-is-how-we-do-things product since the old James Bond series – it feels like all bets are off. No spoilers here, but Kevin Smith wasn’t the only fan to be startled by some of the twists this story took – or to be shocked by the painful reminder that while they may be superheroes, a few of these characters are also dangerously mortal.
It’s a bit of a trick, admittedly. A Marvel movie is no more likely to permanently kill off a money-making hero than “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was to let Spock really die; I expect nearly everyone in this film will show up in next year’s sequel. (It’s not like the exciting “Rogue One,” the no-rules “Star Wars” spin-off where literally anyone could expire at any time.) But at least “Infinity War” has the illusion that anything could happen, and that raises the stakes in a way previous movies couldn’t.
Of course, it still has some of the same problems that have bedeviled Marvel movies for years. The backstory has gotten so complicated – with various inter-hero feuds and love affairs – casual fans may feel left behind. And there are even more characters crammed in than usual, with nearly two dozen heroes jockeying for screentime. (If IMDB is to be believed, there were even more, with several actors – Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas among them – cut from the final film.)
The scenes themselves can be overstuffed too, with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who handled the two “Captain America” films, filling the screen with so much action it can be a challenge to tell what’s going on, or even to care. More is not always more; hundreds of anonymous combatants clashing on a fantastic battlefield are not necessarily more dramatic than two characters we’re invested in fighting in a nearly empty room. (Something the “Star Wars” movies knew from the start.)
But the actors — particularly the ones who haven’t been plugging away on the job for a decade, like the smug Robert Downey Jr. – are all fun to watch, particularly the entire “Guardians” crew. Chris Pratt, predictably, gets the biggest laughs. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a nicely elegant superiority to Doctor Strange; Mark Ruffalo finds a new vulnerability in the Hulk. And Thanos, mostly thanks to Josh Brolin, is a complex and intriguingly contradictory villain.
And there are plenty of extraordinary settings and sequences including Thanos’ torture chamber, Thor’s devastated spaceship, and a full-scale assault on peaceful Wakanda. The best moments, though, may be the lightest: the reborn Groot, by now grown to awkward adolescence, sullenly shuffling through all of this, never taking his eyes off a handheld video game.
“Avengers: Infinity War” may not make you, like Kevin Smith, jump from your seat in shock or even joy, particularly if you’re not a superhero aficionado. But if you are – and particularly if you’re a Marvel fan who’s patiently sat through some so-so adventures over the last decade — it’s going to make you feel that devotion has finally been rewarded. And leave you waiting, eagerly, for next year’s climactic conclusion.