'Avengers: Infinity War' Review: This Is One Half Of A Larger Story, For Better And Worse

The best thing about Avengers: Infinity War is, in many ways, the best thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole: an incredibly charming and almost overqualified ensemble cast. Though a few of the actors in the nearly 20 films of the MCU haven't worked out so well, many of the performers are key to making the heroes of this fantastical series fresh and exciting. Whenever the sometimes-unwieldy, epic-length Infinity War works, it's largely thanks to the actors, not the action sequences or the effects or anything else. The cast makes this movie, not the other way around.

For those unfamiliar with the larger story arcs of the MCU, the setup is simple enough: a cruelly single-minded alien named Thanos wants to wipe out half of humanity by acquiring and utilizing six all-powerful Infinity Stones. Only a grab bag of superheroes — most of whom are meeting each other for the first time in this new film — can stop him. Most of the original Avengers (including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk) are all present, along with newer good guys like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Black Panther.

For roughly the first half of Infinity War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are at their best simply letting Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth (so many Chrises), Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, and the rest bounce off one another with their inherent charisma. The variety of ways in which the heroes pair off is unexpected and mostly enjoyable (and not worth spoiling here). Whatever problems this movie has lie separate from almost all of the performances. All except the big one: Josh Brolin as Thanos.

Brolin, to be fair, is fine as the literal Big Bad. For the first time, an MCU movie attempts to flesh out this character hell-bent on galactic genocide; unfortunately, Brolin's firm motion-capture performance can't hide the feeling that even now, Thanos is a dull, one-dimensional baddie. He exists to be hissed at by the audience — there's a specific scene that tries to humanize him even as he does something unforgivable on a person-to-titan scale that fails to have it both ways. Thanos' cruelty is ill-formed on the big screen, as has been the case with too many MCU villains.

Thus, while the massive fight sequences in the latter half of Infinity War may approach a suitably epic scale, they suffer from the same problems that plague a lot of these films. The dynamic and exciting heroes are facing an endless slew of basically shapeless aliens straight out of a video game. The stakes are high enough, but the threat of Thanos, even after all the buildup, never feels that threatening. But that speaks to the other unavoidable problem: whatever it ends up being called, there will be another Avengers movie next May, as Marvel follows in the footsteps of the Harry Potter franchise and splits one story into two films, with a cliffhanger that concludes this one.

The end of this movie — which won't be spoiled here — aims for a pretty big surprise, but there's a nagging sense that all (or almost all) will be well early into this film's second part next spring. So whatever gasp-inducing moments there may be in the closing minutes feel like they're just waiting to be undone, as if the first Guardians of the Galaxy ended right after Groot sacrificed itself for the group and the second part starting fresh with a new Groot coming back to life.

But even still, Infinity War has its moments, even as the film jumps from city to city, and planet to planet. (Thor's journey takes him the farthest through the cosmos, but there's a lot of action split up throughout the universe for Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Gamora, and others.) Whether it's to the credit of the Russos, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, or the cast, it's a welcome surprise that most of the distinctive personalities in this film remain consistent with how they appeared in their own stories.

For example, James Gunn is only credited as an executive producer, but Star-Lord, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, and Groot all sound like his version of the Guardians, just as Black Panther and Spider-Man feel similar to how they did in their respective films. (Tom Holland, who's not in nearly enough of this movie, is this film's stealth MVP.) The character work is solid enough to almost make up for the fact that the action never equals the thrilling airport battle in Captain America: Civil War. The final series of setpieces have a few moments that are fairly remarkable, both designed to garner applause and basically deserving of receiving such a reaction.

Yet it is a little hard to talk about Avengers: Infinity War in full, if only because we've only seen the first half of this story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began 10 years ago — this film's studio logo nods to that anniversary, too — and was built on the notion of an interconnected world full of heroes with shocking new powers. But a number of those films felt like stand-alone pictures, especially the recent run culminating with Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. Infinity War, by design, feels like one half of a completed puzzle, with the other pieces strewn about waiting to be put together. Maybe once it's whole, the puzzle will be wholly satisfying. For now, Infinity War suggests that Marvel is able to wrangle together a massive, charming cast, but not quite create a story that deserves their presence.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10