'Avengers: Infinity War': a Rousing Marvel Mash-up, or a Truly Epic Tease?

Before a recent screening of "Avengers: Infinity War," my fellow audience members and I were asked not to reveal the secrets of what we were about to see. (I've done my best, but depending on what you consider a secret, you may wish to read no further.) This familiar studio entreaty against spoilers has by now hardened into ritual, like some of the other built-in features of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: amusing jokes, dynamic action, state-of-the-art effects, a happy ending, a post-credits teaser.

OK, not all the endings have been happy. (In the case of "Iron Man 2," I was mainly happy that it ended.) Serialized blockbuster entertainment, even the Disney/Marvel industrial-strength variety, must occasionally embrace the possibility of tragedy. In recent years, even with the addition of a trippy delight such as "Doctor Strange" or an upbeat romp such as "Thor: Ragnarok," there has been no mistaking the grave, purposeful darkening of the story's trajectory.

Two years and six pictures ago, "Captain America: Civil War" tore the Avengers asunder and brought the franchise to a grim, unsettling crisis point. And "Avengers: Infinity War," the most ambitious, eventful and exhausting convocation of Marvel comic-book superheroes yet, has no interest in reversing this downward spiral. Quite the contrary. As one character succinctly puts it on the field of battle: "You guys are so screwed now."

Or are they? Honestly, by the time the movie reaches its jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, crazily momentous yet weirdly arbitrary semi-conclusion, it's hard to say. Maybe I've said too much already. Would it be better if, rather than describing what happens on-screen, I simply described the reactions of the other people in the theater? Is it safe to mention the gasps of shock and the screams of "No!" that rippled through the crowd as we neared the two-and-a-half-hour mark? Or should I take a page from Vin Diesel and translate all my plot summary into Groot?

Perhaps it's best simply to proceed with caution, as the Russo brothers have clearly done. (The screenwriters are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with whom the directors worked on the two previous "Captain America" movies.) Caution goes without saying when you're safeguarding a franchise, and various sub-franchises, that have grossed more than $14 billion worldwide. And it was surely necessary in plotting a story that would bring together more than two dozen principal characters in semi-coherent fashion.

Whatever else it may be -- a culmination, an obligation, a staggering feat of crowd control, a truly epic tease -- "Avengers: Infinity War" is a brisk, propulsive, occasionally rousing and borderline-gutsy continuation of a saga that finally and sensibly seems to be drawing to a close. (Or not: Stay tuned for next year's "Avengers" sequel, right after "Ant-Man and the Wasp" and "Captain Marvel.") It is also a carefully engineered and ultimately unsuccessful bid for something that has rarely, if ever, rattled the Marvel cosmos: catharsis.

After 10 years and 18 movies, catharsis isn't too much to expect or to strive for. Picking up the tattered threads of "Civil War" and weaving them together with several more recent ones, the directors Joe and Anthony Russo spend the better part of three hours assembling the world's most apocalyptic cat's cradle. Given how many life-threatening, city-leveling cataclysms these characters have managed to survive already, it was arguably necessary for the filmmakers to get ruthless and cut some of those threads.

To wit: The stakes are high, the end is nigh and people die. By people, I mean actual, beloved MCU principals, not just the usual innocent off-screen bystanders; this time, the collateral damage feels personal. At one point my screening companion muttered, "What is this, 'Game of Thrones'?" -- and that was before a key constituent of Westeros turned up in a crucial in-joke of a role, playing some sort of master weapons forger for the gods.

The villain behind all this mayhem is Thanos (Josh Brolin), a genocidal megalomaniac who likes to visit different planets and wipe out half the native population. As "Infinity War" opens, Thanos is already setting his sights on Earth, which holds two much coveted, enormously powerful Infinity Stones (they have names like the Space Stone, the Time Stone, the Reality Stone and so on). If he acquires all six stones, he'll be able to bend all existence to his will, with catastrophic results.

But Thanos and his minions, who include the hard-to-beat wizard Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), meet with a passionate but clumsy resistance movement consisting of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and other scattered heroes. And a lot of those heroes, many of them meeting for the first time, proceed to drive each other crazy before joining forces, their group tensions supplying the script with its dramatic momentum and comic energy.

As divide-and-conquer narrative strategies go, the crossovers here are fairly intuitive. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), stripped of his hammer and separated from his scheming brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), crosses intergalactic paths with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), briefly setting a Battle of the Chrises in motion. (Thor also makes a crack comic duo with Rocket Raccoon, voiced with his usual endearing surliness by Bradley Cooper.) Meanwhile, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), his animosity toward Captain America (Chris Evans) temporarily shelved, instead matches insults and intellects with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), all while trying to keep his eager young prot�g�, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), out of trouble.

Much of the movie, in other words, maintains a cheeky, faintly tiresome bro-vs.-bro attitude even in the face of looming disaster. There are a few welcome exceptions, including Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), suffering a severe case of Hulk performance anxiety that keeps the big green dude mostly under wraps. There's also Vision (Paul Bettany), the sensitive levitator with a Mind Stone embedded in his synthetic skull, rendering him vulnerable to Thanos and in need of protection by his love, the telekinetically gifted Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Happily, Scarlet Witch is not the only woman on hand to keep "Avengers: Infinity War" from devolving into "Avengers: Junk-Measuring Contest." Picking up where "Black Panther" left off, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) steps aside so the formidable women of Wakanda can assert their supremacy, none more effortlessly than the general Okoye (Danai Gurira). And in the most emotionally loaded subplot, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Thanos' estranged daughter, sets out on a brave, lonely mission to end her father's reign of terror.

Speaking of which: Once you get past the impression that he's swallowed a giant purple boulder, Brolin makes Thanos a suitably authoritative, melancholy villain -- someone who really does seem deluded enough to fancy himself a merciful deity rather than a mass murderer for the ages.

I barely have room to mention Black Widow, Nebula, M'Baku, Shuri, the White Wolf, Falcon, War Machine, Drax, Mantis and Pepper Potts, which is fine because the movie barely has room for them, either. While this might trouble the Letitia Wright devotees and Sebastian Stan fans in the audience, overall you emerge from "Avengers: Infinity War" feeling that the execution has been neatly scaled to the ambition of the enterprise, and that the characters' individual scenes have been reasonably apportioned.

That sense of scale defines the production from top to bottom: Every line, every gag, every punch and every zap arrives on cue. The extended scenes of comic banter, no less than the wittily executed action sequences, are master classes in multitasking. The interlocking subplots are juggled with skill and economy. Themes of love, friendship and sacrifice pop up with metronomic consistency. Not even the threat of universal annihilation, it seems, will keep this assembly line from chugging ahead with its signature polished, mechanized efficiency.

My initial fear was that "Avengers: Infinity War" would be a hopeless, planet-hopping traffic jam of a movie, a black hole of enervating cinematic chaos. The reality may be even more depressing: It works just fine, and that's all it was ever meant to do. Few of the characters leave us wanting more because there doesn't, at this late phase, appear to be anything more.

The final twists pack a nice jolt, but I couldn't take them seriously: They remind me of nothing so much as a silly narrative stunt from "Days of Our Lives" circa 2003 -- which makes sense, considering the MCU has become Hollywood's most endlessly renewable big-screen soap opera. Perhaps time and future episodes will still surprise us, but forgive me for pointing out the lazy cynicism of that argument, which is rooted in the same commercial logic that has made a blockbuster franchise feel dangerously close to a Ponzi scheme.

Sometimes, of course, the scheme does pay off, if rarely as often as it should. Marvel-wise, 2018 will go down as the year that gave us "Black Panther," an exhilarating, empire-rejuvenating reminder that, with a little faith and a lot of smarts, Hollywood really can build bolder, better, more original blockbusters. And it will also go down as the year of "Avengers: Infinity War," a movie with a cliffhanger, a body count and some pretty great one-liners where its Soul Stone should be.

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'Avengers: Infinity War'

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release

justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang ___

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