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Avengers: Infinity War is wildly fun until it leaves you hanging

Spoiler-free review: Marvel's latest team-up, the best Avengers movie yet, melds hilarious and tragic moments into a streamlined diary of mad titan Thanos.

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I was having infinite fun watching Avengers: Infinity War -- until it ended.

The film is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's biggest superhero soap opera yet. And despite an ending that left me fuming at the screen, and a breakneck pace that shortchanges many characters, it's still the best Avengers movie yet.

One minute it's heart-wrenching, the next it's laugh-out-loud funny. You're watching Spider-Man (Tom Holland) swing through New York to help Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Then you're zipping to outer space as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) forges a new alliance with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Fortunately, giant captions help you keep track of the multiple characters' whereabouts, whether they're battling on behalf of the universe in Wakanda or Scotland.  

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With so many players and planets, there's plenty of potential for things to go awry. But the streamlined story makes the approximately 2.5-hour movie fly by. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have incorporated elements of each of the films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe while keeping one character in focus the entire time.

Diary of mad titan Thanos

That character is Thanos (Josh Brolin), and as long promised, he takes center stage in his quest to collect six Infinity Stones that will let him wipe out half the universe. 

Unlike Marvel villains who often lack character depth (think Helmut Zemo from Captain America: Civil War or Malekith from Thor: The Dark World), Thanos gets plenty of screen time to show what makes him feel triumph and what makes him feel pain. He's still a genocidal maniac, but he suffers desperate consequences for his deadly goals. And I do mean deadly. Some of his actions are violent and grotesque enough that parents should take caution before bringing children elementary school age or younger to the film.

Because of the galactic focus on Thanos, the movie feels much more like a sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than a follow-up to more grounded films like Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Age of Ultron. This makes sense. Early on in 2014's original Guardians of the Galaxy, several characters quickly name Thanos as someone they want to betray or destroy. Those grudges haven't faded, and Gamora's (Zoe Saldana) close but complicated history as Thanos' favorite adopted daughter gets fully explored.

Guardians meet Avengers

As trailers have already revealed, Thor (post-Ragnarok) fits in with the Guardians as tightly as the Infinity Gauntlet on Thanos. If Thor isn't given a fourth movie to headline, I'd be thrilled to watch Chris Hemsworth's God of Thunder instead bicker with Chris Pratt's Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

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That's not to say the earthbound heroes don't have their moments. The love story between Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany's Vision has now fully blossomed as they fight to protect the Mind Stone that makes Vision as alive as a sentient robot-host on HBO's Westworld

You'll cheer as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fight in Wakanda alongside Black Panther T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). And War Machine (Don Cheadle) is so over the Sokovia Accords that broke the Avengers apart in Civil War.

But many other Earth stories feel sidelined. 

After being teased at the end of Black Panther, Bucky Barnes' (Sebastian Stan) return feels glossed over. The Sokovia Accords and most of the beef between the Avengers highlighted in the Russos' Civil War film are rapidly undone to get the Thanos fight started. And based on a few off-the-cuff references to time that conflict with earlier films, I'm now convinced nobody in the Marvel universe truly knows how much time has passed since the first Avengers movie.

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Everything I just described involves having some familiarity with previous Marvel movies, and while this one is a breezy watch, some viewers may be lost right at the start without having seen previous Marvel outings, especially both Guardians movies, Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok. (Our quick catch-up guide can help.)

New characters include Thanos' Black Order, but none rise beyond the level of henchmen helping to obtain the Infinity Stones. Peter Dinklage's mystery character, who I won't spoil, is an absolute treat. And other cameos will happily surprise Marvel movie fans.

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Avengers: Infinity War feels a lot like a sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy.

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Infinity War also outdoes itself in the special-effects department, depicting battles that highlight Wakanda's technological capabilities, Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange's control of their magical powers and the might of Thanos -- often all in one sequence. Other backdrops look so obviously CGI-ed that reports Tom Holland acted in scenes by himself, with other actors added in later, make a lot of sense. 

An abrupt end

We'll be analyzing the numerous plot lines for months, but the way Infinity War ends easily feels too much like a television show's cliffhanger season finale that baits you to come back next year to find out how it all resolves. Unless Avengers 4 has a heck of a subtitle, this movie should have kept its "part 1" label. As a result, audiences might leave the theater feeling cheated, and frankly having a hard time believing the film's stakes. (The movie also only features one post-credits scene, which deepened my conflicted feelings about the ending. We discuss and dissect what that post-credits scene means here).

Until the ending hits, Avengers: Infinity War features all the cool superhero fight scenes you've come to expect, smartass quips between superheroes and super beings like Doctor Strange and Tony Stark, and with chances to see so many Marvel characters mingle among each other for the first time. It's absolutely worth the ride, but get ready to be left hanging.

Want to practice your Spanish. Check out CNET en Español's review of Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters worldwide on April 27.

You'll cheer when the Avengers fight alongside the Black Panther and Wakanda's forces.

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