More than two dozen characters collide in Marvel’s massive but unruly ‘Avengers’ film

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Bigger isn’t always better.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is the product of 10 years of Marvel movies, and it boldly attempts to combine the plots and universes of 17 of the 18 movies that came before it, from “Iron Man” to “Doctor Strange” to “Captain America” to “Guardians of the Galaxy” to “Black Panther.” (Sorry, “Ant-Man” fans, Paul Rudd didn’t make the cut.)

But where Marvel’s previous mash-ups — chiefly the two “Avengers” films and “Captain America: Civil War” — were downright economic in their plotting and in their division of screen time, “Infinity War” quickly turns unruly. It’s like if “We Are the World” had to squeeze in three more verses to give Prince, Van Halen, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Elton John and Madonna time to shine.

While they share a cinematic universe, many of these characters’ worlds have never collided before, so a significant portion of “Infinity War” is taken up by characters getting to know one another. These pleasantries slow down what is already a laborious exercise in plotting, spread out over a running time that stretches two-plus hours.

And where “Infinity War” hums early on — Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange need their own buddy movie, immediately — the plot is exceedingly bloated for long stretches in the film’s middle and during its finale, with simply too much going on for anything to really gel.

Yet with all those Avengers — 10-plus major characters, 15-plus midcard players, and Peter Dinklage thrown in the mix for good measure — “Infinity War” largely belongs to the villain, Thanos, brought to life by Josh Brolin.

Thanos is the biggest, baddest villain in a Marvel movie yet, and “Infinity War” takes its time developing him as a character, exploring his motives and making him a formidable enemy. Many times, superhero movie villains are special-effects placeholders, giving the good guys a generic reason to band together and stage a big fight at the movie’s end. Brolin’s Thanos — teased in several previous Marvel projects — is a full-blooded presence and a terrific foe to the heroes. It’s a credit to Brolin that through Thanos’ CGI rendering — Thanos is a hulking purple figure — the actor behind him is able to shine through.

“Infinity War” also deserves credit for being the first Marvel movie where it feels like something is truly at stake. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo set the ground rules early, establishing that, for once, a Marvel movie is not afraid to dispense with its characters. Previous films in the Marvel Universe tended to treat their big battles like consequence-free play fights and its players like video game characters: even if one dies, there’s always a way to hit a button and get another life. Here there are repercussions, and they’re felt immediately.

As for the meat of the movie, the relative ease with which the previous Marvel films have been able to coast by is much tougher to achieve here, due to the sheer size of the plot.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are tasked with bringing together disparate characters and having them join forces, and to find a reason for Thor to end up in the “Black Panther” world of Wakanda. It’s not seamless, and it often feels like a weird crossover episode ordered up by network executives who want to see their favorite stars together, like having the family from “Roseanne” move next door to the family from “Home Improvement” just for a ratings stunt.

Luckily, most Marvel films share a similar tone, where they acknowledge their silliness while lightly sending themselves up. (It’s a lesson the rival DC films are still trying to learn.) Early in “Infinity War,” Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark explains the complicated plot in a matter of words. “He’s from space,” he says of Thanos, “and he came here to steal a necklace from the wizard.” Those are the basics, laid out as plainly as possible, undercutting the gargantuan heavy lifting it took to bring together some two dozen-odd characters into one film.

That early lightness can’t sustain, however, and “Infinity War” is eventually bogged down by its own size. If there’s a single party to blame, you can point a finger at the “Guardians of the Galaxy” bunch, the court jesters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe who have the toughest time fitting into the worlds of the other characters. Downey Jr.’s Stark and Cumberbatch’s Strange have enough quips between them to go around, adding Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is too much.

And that’s the problem with “Avengers: Infinity War”: It’s too much. Too many characters, too much action, too much everything. It’s a superhero surplus with too many heroes and not enough screen. It’s “Infinity” overload.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

GRADE: C+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references

Running time: 149 minutes

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