Ever since Thanos first reared his purple head at the end of the first Avengers movie, we’ve been waiting to find out what he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, the six glowing trinkets that have been scattered throughout the Marvel universe like so many Fruity Pebbles. The answer arrives in Avengers: Infinity War, and if it’s not pretty, at least it’s precise. Where other super villains want to amass unlimited riches or destroy the universe, Thanos wants to cut it in half. His goal, he explains while tossing formidably powerful heroes around like dried-up twigs, is to restore “balance” by wiping out 50 percent of every creature that draws whatever it is they breathe, preserving the sustainability of a cosmos whose finite resources are taxed to the limit. The only way to save life is with death.
The Marvel movies have spent the better part of a decade building Thanos up to be the ultimate big bad. But as Infinity War flits from one group of heroes to the next, ping-ponging around the galaxy in a strained quest to give its more than three-dozen regulars something of import to do, you may start to wonder if the movie’s mauve madman has a point about overpopulation. Sitting through its 2 hours and 30 minutes is like gorging on tapas: You wind up both overstuffed and unsatisfied.
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Infinity War squeezes in nearly every character of note from the past 10 years and 18 movies. (Ant-Man and Hawkeye are notable exceptions, their absence relegated to a throwaway line of dialogue.) If you’re still high on Black Panther and desperate for another hit of your Wakandan faves, you’re in luck, but the price of the movie’s one-from-every-column approach is that it can feel like you’re watching an inartful supercut cobbled together from several movies. The significance of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t just that it united Marvel’s heroes under the same banner, but that it found a way for their individual cinematic universes to co-exist. It’s not just the disparity in the characters’ powers—any foe tough enough to give Thor a run for his money could crush Hawkeye or Black Widow into a thin paste—but the incompatibility in their styles: the Iron Man movies’ cocksure strut, the Hulk’s tortured soul, Captain America’s primary-color patriotism. The Russos’ Captain America: Civil War, an Avengers movie in all but name, exploited those tensions by setting the factions against each other, but Infinity War needs to get them all on the same page, which is all the more difficult because they’re rarely in the same scene. You can hardly blame Tom Holland’s Spider-Man when he admits he’s having trouble keeping track of his new pals’ names.
Equally tough to keep track of are the Infinity Stones themselves—space, mind, reality, power, soul, and time—each of which gives Thanos control over a specific aspect of the universe. It’s not a question of their whereabouts: He has one when the movie begins and quickly seizes another, and three more have been located in previous movies, leaving only one unaccounted for. But the movie plays fast and loose with how strong they make Thanos at any given moment—sometimes he’s nigh-invincible, at others apparently susceptible to shallow stab wounds—and that goes for his henchmen as well, who have such delightful names as Corvus Glaive and Proxima Midnight. It’s tough to become too invested in the threats our heroes are facing when their gravity seems to shift willy-nilly from moment to moment—and it doesn’t help that when Thanos suggests that life has expanded beyond our environment’s ability to sustain it, he kind of has a point.
Infinity War breaks its cast of dozens—it lists nearly 30 names before the title card, and many more after it—into microclusters and dispatches them to the galaxy’s far reaches, and the movie matches them with canny precision; Tony Stark’s billionaire arrogance pairs with Peter Quill’s dopey brashness like a robust Zinfandel with a juicy hamburger. It’s often left to the actors to carry the weight of their elaborate backstories with them, squeezing it into the cracks between plot: the Hulk and Black Widow’s unconsummated love affair gets a lingering glance and a three-word exchange. It’s hard to imagine a newcomer to the series being anything but bewildered but at this point, that hardly seems to matter. Infinity War is the payoff fans have been waiting for, the reward for slogging through movies inspired and otherwise, for sitting through the lists of hairdressers and key grips to catch every post-credits scene, for poring over blog posts and Wikipedia entries fleshing out details and explaining references; it’s the prize you get when you collect ’em all. If you’ve ever sent away for one of those prizes, you know they’re almost always a disappointment, but the thrill of completing the set is more important than the reward.