Avengers: Infinity War, located squarely in its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the best possible version it could be, and it’s just…fine. Good, even. But it’s not great. Following the superbly singular visions of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, this massive ensemble endeavour is a lesson in abject necessity. It’s a fun experience, just too hollow to mean anything.

To understand what that means, you have to understand that the source material to Infinity War is a (mostly) mishmash of the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity, two already massive stories in their own right. But now this movie also has to kowtow to 10 years of a cinematic universe with dozens of subplots and character dynamics and wayward winds, pulling everything together in a way that satisfies fans and produces a compelling narrative. It’s a production that has rendered directors Joe and Anthony Russo stewards of an engine far too large to stop or steer.

This is a film that barrels from point A to point B because it has to. It has its fun and finds success but largely in spite of itself. It stuffs in personality and panache like a voracious eater going in for one last plate at the buffet, the reins handed back to the Russo brothers and screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely because they’ve proven capable of handling such large projects, not because Kevin Feige and Marvel particularly value their capabilities as independent storytellers. (But we already know that’s how Marvel works since the Edgar Wright/Ant-Man debacle.)

So to even get to where the Infinity Gauntlet matters, there’s a lot of housekeeping to get through. We’re all caught up with the MCU, which means Asgard is ashes, Wakanda is revealed, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) are at odds. But with the culmination of the MCU’s teasing of the Infinity Stones, Thanos (Josh Brolin), a huge and purple powerhouse of a being, already has one and is intent on collecting the other five to bring balance to the universe via mass genocide.

This review is going to avoid major spoilers (meaning context to anything seen in the trailers and anything unseen), but the stakes are immediately set to super fucking high, and as they should be. This is terrific payoff for so much drip feeding on this world-ending villain. We are given closure to many arcs and thrown into the ones that kickstart this final chapter to many of our longtime heroes.

And then the complications necessarily have to arise because this is a standalone movie and standalone movies have to, well, stand alone. And that’s a problem here because even without building its own self-sufficient narrative, it has to establish a tremendous amount of stuff just to get to where the next movie will pick up. It jumps from spot to spot like a dang lemur, and there’s so much to jump to that once you come back to where you left off with Cap or Spidey (Tom Holland) or Thor (Chris Hemsworth), you’ve forgotten what’s going on. It’s listening to a coked up five-year-old telling you their dream last night.

Avengers: Infinity War

Which is an immense shame because this movie does also make good on the promise of being the most ambitious crossover event in history. Seeing Stark and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) quip at each other is a delight. Thor smashing right into the odd and whimsical space world of the Guardians of the Galaxy is so much dang fun. And obviously anything Peter Parker does is a treasure. This movie really is joyous to behold at times.

It all contrasts nicely, too, with Thanos and his Black Order crew. They do such an incredible job humanizing Thanos’ desire to wipe out half of the universe. Granted, a lot has to do with Brolin’s performance and the animators and effects specialists that turned his work into an actually relatable purple giant, but it works so well. Especially when contrasted with the very human and humblingly small ethos that Cap presents in not trading one life for another.

Thanos is the antithesis of the entire cinematic universe’s morality. And the only reason it works is because this is a Thanos movie, not an Avengers movie. There is an entirely valid argument to be made that he is structured to be the presented as the protagonist rather than Earth’s greatest defenders. This naturally means more involvement from his adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) than we’ve ever seen before, which is a hard swing that may throw off a lot of fans. (It’s a good thing they’re such good actors.)

Avengers: Infinity War

The result is that buffet-style stuffing. Only a few of our treasured crossover interactions are given room to breathe. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has, like, four lines. Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and his tragic past is suddenly put behind him. Even the conflict surrounding the Sokovia Accords is unceremoniously push aside. And then parts like the romance between Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are just…there, fully realized and complete.

The parts that do breathe, however, actually sing a bit. Stark’s fragility—instilled and fomented six(!) years ago with The Avengers and Iron Man 3—is followed through (though his desire to stay with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is all over the place). And Thor’s insecurity in himself as he nearly singlehandedly brings about death of all he holds dear by holding perhaps too tightly is a driving force throughout. Obviously a 149-minute movie couldn’t hold it all, but it is sad to not see more characters get the same consideration.

But when it all smashes together, it’s a visual treat. The tight intimacy of Winter Soldier‘s action will always be missed, but this is the huge, destructive, bloody conflict everyone has been wanting for so long. Seeing our heroes team up the way they do (that bit with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) using Strange’s sigils to jump across a chasm isn’t even the best thing they do) against powerful foes is that exact primordial tickle we’ve been searching for. Seeing Captain America and the Black Panther superhumanly speed headfirst into a galactic battle of armies is so goddamn cheer-worthy.

Avengers: Infinity War

It is, however, exceptionally hollow. Comic books are of course notoriously low-stakes what with death being merely an inconvenience, but this is an all-time high in pandering. Marvel has promised death, and it’s not a surprise to say they follow through. But we also know that much of what we find in peril is also guaranteed sequels in the following years, so unless they’ve gone to the trouble of faking millions of dollars’ worth of pre-production, the next Avengers film can resolve only one way.

And that’s a not insignificant amount cowardice (and, let’s be honest, greed). To stick the landing, we need very real and highly consequential stakes. Granted, this is just to carry through to the actual finale next year where actor contracts are actually up and death suddenly becomes unbelievably handy, but it doesn’t stop this particular entry from feeling like the most obvious and cheap lie every constructed at $350 million.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like watching a spy thriller: we’re just trying to figure out which thread to pull—which lie to unearth. As it stands, Avengers: Infinity War is a lot of meat to chew. It could have been some delectable, tender morsels, but you know what, even an unseasoned steak thrown over a fire can still taste pretty dang good.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Tim Poon

Computer scientist turned journalist. Send tips to tim@workingmirror.com.