What happens when Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man meets Benedict Cumerbatch's Dr. Strange in “Avengers: Infinity War?” How about when Thor meets Drax, or The Hulk meets Black Panther, or – well, you get the idea. Fans' heads will explode, of course, but even casual moviegoers will be dazzled while watching 10 years of Marvel movies converge into one all-embracing, story-crossing, running-time-exploding blockbuster.
As for the universe, it may not survive the cataclysm – but more on that later.
It would have been easy for “Infinity Wars” to follow the blueprints laid down by Joss Whedon's kick-off “Marvel's The Avengers” or his follow-up “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” both driven by big action and banter. There's plenty of both here, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“Captain America: Civil War”) have delivered something with much greater impact. With its ensemble-upon-ensemble cast, planet-hopping storyline and frenetic battle sequences, “Infinity War” is hugely entertaining, even at two-and-a-half-hours. What's surprising is that its larger, darker themes of morality and mankind – the usual comic-book stuff – demand to be taken with some seriousness. The movie also strikes a few strong emotional chords and ends with a cliffhanger to rival that of “The Empire Strikes Back.” (The bold screenplay is by Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.)
Most of the meet-and-greets here deliver on their promise. You'd expect the science-minded Iron Man to clash with the cosmic Dr. Strange, though who would have forseen Chris Hemsworth's Thor warming up to Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon (whom he mistakes for a rabbit)? The Hulk, as you may recall from “Thor: Ragnarok,” has been out of the loop and didn't even know The Avengers had broken up. (“Like the Beatles?” he says.)
Only one thing could bring all these good guys together: A bad guy. That would be Thanos (Josh Brolin), a subliminal presence in past Marvel movies who comes into sharp focus here. He's a stone-faced figure, about 12 feet tall, who needs six “infinity stones” to acquire the god-like power to kill half the universe (a simple and dispassionate solution to overpopulation). Like many comic-book villains, Thanos has read too much Nietzsche and favors flowery talk, but Brolin brings him to life in a motion-capture performance that may go down in the Marvel movie history books. In his bulk, baldness and amoral vision, he isn't too far removed from Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”
If you've seen the internet rumors on who lives and who dies, well, those will not be confirmed or denied in this review. There are a few jaw-dropping developments, and the movie ends on a daringly solemn note. All of which makes “Infinity War” a superhero-space-opera that will knock you off your feet and quite possibly bring a lump to your throat.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this review stated the incorrect name of the director of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Joss Whedon directed the film.