This is the most intense, complex, and stirring Marvel Cinematic Universe film yet -- though the sheer number of characters and storylines make it a bit confusing for anyone who's not a hard-core fan. Avengers: Infinity War is also the grimmest MCU movie so far, with consequences unlike any that have come before in this massive franchise. Much of the talk about the film will center on those events (no more details here, to avoid spoilers), but there's more to it than that. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were already responsible for two of the best MCU entries to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. With Avengers: Infinity War, they continue to respect viewers' intelligence while giving their characters deep motivations and presenting knockout action scenes. It's as lean as epics get; none of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time feels wasted. While the many characters and intersecting plots may confuse casual viewers -- the filmmakers assume audiences are familiar with all that's come before -- for fans, it's one mind-blowing moment after another, starting with a jaw-dropping fight in the first minutes. Plus, Infinity War is also one of the funniest MCU movies yet, relying on character-based humor rather than some of the wacky flights of fancy of, say, the also excellent Thor: Ragnarok.
The performances benefit from the strong script, no-nonsense direction, and the growth the actors have experienced in their roles over many years. It's fun to watch two of the MCU's biggest egomaniacs, Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange, bump up against each other -- and then for Pratt's off-kilter Star-Lord to crash into the mix. Relationships are deepened, and it's a huge relief to see the Avengers working together again after the events of Civil War. Thanos, as voiced by Brolin and brilliantly animated by the VFX team, is perhaps the most frightening villain ever in a comic book film (including Heath Ledger's iconic Joker in The Dark Knight) -- largely because he's so thoroughly convinced that he's actually a good guy who's willing to make hard choices and impossible sacrifices in the universe's best interests. Without spoiling anything, the film's dire consequences feel almost Game of Thrones-like, with well-known characters defeated as never before. Some kids will likely be upset by that. But keep in mind that this is a comic book world (so things aren't always what they seem), and -- in the meantime -- appreciate the fact that the overall effect gives Infinity War the highest stakes and biggest wow factor of the MCU so far.