The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is stunningly dark. But it’s still wildly entertaining.

Front row, left to right: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). (Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios/Walt Disney)

Rating: 3 stars

What does Thanos want?

That question lies at the heart of “Avengers: Infinity War,” the at-once dark, maddeningly open-ended yet fiercely entertaining new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which pits the titular global do-gooders — still scattered hither and yon after their 2016 falling-out with one another in “Captain America: Civil War” — against a cosmic villain who has been coyly signaling his evil intentions since the very first “Avengers” movie, in 2012. And that’s without ever really appearing on-screen, except in teasing cameos.

Oh sure, everyone knows he wants the Infinity Stones. Or at least everyone who’s been paying attention to the previous 18 MCU movies. Ever since 2008’s “Iron Man,” these interconnected installments have introduced audiences to the six gemlike “singularities”: color-coded stones controlling power, space, time, mind, soul and reality. Taken collectively, these artifacts are the mother of all MacGuffins — plot devices that drive the narrative, but may or may not have much to do with the true message of the story. But what does Thanos want with them? That question is answered, in a film that presents a villain in a more nuanced, complex (and arguably even sympathetic) way than most comic book movies do. That’s especially unexpected, given that he’s a purple alien (voiced by Josh Brolin), created from motion-capture, with skin that looks like a cantaloupe.

Everything that’s happened leading up to ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

What is not unexpected is the film’s death toll. Fanboys and fangirls have already steeled themselves to the eventuality that favorite characters will die here. Opening with a distress call from the Asgardian refugee spaceship that was seen fleeing planetary destruction at the end of last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Infinity War” gets that outcome out of the way early, paving a path forward for a film that, while very funny for much of its 2 ½ -hour running time, ends on an almost stunningly somber note. It should be mentioned that there is already a sequel planned for next year that is likely to act as a corrective — short of bringing people back from the grave. In the manner of the second and third “Matrix” films, and the “Deathly Hallows” segments of the Harry Potter films, you can expect that upcoming movie to be more of a conclusion to a giant, two-part saga — complete with this installment’s cliffhanger ending — than a free-standing sequel.

Death and destruction, of course, is what Thanos has in mind. But unlike many cartoonish villains, his motives, as explained in flashbacks and speeches, are not those of universal domination. Rather, he wants to kill half of the universe’s population — which is threatened by overpopulation and dwindling resources — to save the other half. His coldblooded calculation is not only a perversion of altruism — it’s also an argument for extermination. But, for a superhero movie, the nuance with which the film presents this horrible scenario is refreshing.

As “Infinity War” gets underway, Thanos has already acquired the Power Stone and is seeking the other five — four of which are in the control of characters we know from previous films. The location of the sixth, or Soul Stone, has long been unknown, but it will bring Thanos the power he seeks, not to mention to a moral and emotional crossroads that concern his estranged stepdaughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The choice Thanos ultimately makes — already the subject of much online speculation — will probably strike many viewers as startling for a film of this kind. I heard audible gasps at this point, and other moments, during a recent media screening.

I also heard lots of laughter. One especially good giggle involves Peter Dinklage’s character, who, for reasons that will only be obvious when you see the film, has been kept under wraps.

Is this the year that Marvel’s superheroes finally topple Star Wars?

The entertainment media has made much of so-called Avengers Fatigue, from Marvel exhausting its storytelling capabilities — as well as our attention span. But brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who return as co-directors after “Civil War” and its predecessor, “Winter Soldier,” move the pace briskly and with frequent levity, as heroes from various Marvel franchises keep throwing things — sometimes literally — at Thanos, and as the scene of the action shifts from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” team’s spaceship to Black Panther’s African homeland of Wakanda to, at one point, Scotland. It is there that the synthetic humanoid known as Vision (Paul Bettany) — who wears the Mind Stone like a diadem on his forehead — and girlfriend Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), have gone off the grid.

Needless to say, that cozy love nest won’t stay cozy long.

“Infinity War” is big, blustery and brave, taking viewers to places they may not be used to going. Whether Thanos ends up getting everything he wants is one thing. But audiences should be warned that they probably won’t.

PG13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, strong language and some crude references. 154 minutes.