This review contains discussion of plot points that may be seen as mild spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War.”

So here it is: the “most ambitious crossover event in history,” the grandest episode to date in cinema’s most expensive soap opera — and, coming in the wake of “Ready Player One,” the second most exhausting game of spot-the-reference you’re likely to sit through at the movie theater this year.

Surfing a wave of hype and hubris, “Avengers: Infinity War” pitches the combined denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — about two dozen, at the last count — against a genocidal alien named Thanos. He comes from a planet called Titan, wants to wipe out half the universe, and also has a very big chin, but he’s not nearly as formidable as the Marvel Studios machine itself.

Avengers: Infinity War
Run Time 150 mins.
Language ENGLISH

Look on their works, ye Mighty, and despair! The cast list for “Infinity War” is a source of wonder in itself: so many big-name actors, so little screen time. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is practically a walk-on part; Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther doesn’t fare much better. A-list talent is expendable when the entire cosmos is at stake.

“Infinity War” picks up from where the last five or six Marvel movies left off. After surviving the destruction of his homeworld, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets intercepted by Thanos (Josh Brolin), an intergalactic warlord who advocates an extreme form of population control. He has been hopping from planet to planet, wiping out half of the people living there in the name of restoring balance. Now he wants to collect six powerful “Infinity Stones” that will let him get the job done by simply clicking his fingers, allowing him to take a well-earned vacation.

Back on Earth, the original Avengers team has split up due to philosophical differences, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is considering trading in his Iron Man suit for a quiet family life. That plan gets quickly quashed when some of Thanos’ minions show up in New York, intent on pilfering an Infinity Stone wielded by master magician Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Cue some entertaining banter and a marginally coherent action sequence: the standard Marvel MO.

Soon enough, the superheroes have enlisted additional support from a host of familiar faces, including Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Fans of this year’s “Black Panther” can also look forward to a climactic battle on the plains of Wakanda, which was presumably chosen because it was the only place large enough to accommodate everyone.

Marvel movies have been getting better over the years, but 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” suggested there is only so far you can go with cross-pollination and branding synergy before it all gets a bit unwieldy.

Although it’s even more ambitious in scale, “Infinity War” hangs together a little better. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo handle the multiple characters with the same assurance they brought to “Captain America: Civil War” in 2016, and they don’t have to busy themselves with laying the groundwork for future installments, like “Ultron” did.

The dramatic stakes are rather higher this time, too. One well-loved character doesn’t even survive the opening sequence, and the film’s overpopulated ranks have been considerably thinned by the time the end credits roll.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is bold, bombastic, and likely to bum a lot of people out. There have been more satisfying Marvel movies, but all of them can’t help but seem a little puny in comparison.

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