It's fair to say Marvel has changed the way we watch movies forever - perfecting the model of the shared universe where characters pop in and out of each other's movies and occasionally have a big team-up event. "Avengers: Infinity War" is something Marvel has earned over ten years and eighteen movies - something made purely to reward fans who've kept up with all these characters and movies and who wondered what it might be like to have this character meet that one, team up, fight, and razz each other.

Considering how many characters and backstories there are to work with, writers and directors Anthony and Joe Russo have done a great job balancing all of it. Characters with big personalities are paired together nicely to do different things, and the movie hops around nimbly to at least half a dozen stories playing out.

The overarching narrative is dumb, but it's not really the point, is it? The villain Thanos, who looks like a raisin mainlining Red Bull, is played capably by Josh Brolin in motion capture. He wants to find all these infinity stones so he can destroy half the universe. It reminds of commercials for kids' toys saying, "Collect Them All," and, I guess that's pretty much what this is.

Say what you want about the nakedly commercial aspect of the synergy of these Marvel movies - the thing is, almost all of them have been pretty good, and fans are rewarded here with fun character pairings and pay-offs.

Despite some big laughs, there's a lot at stake for these characters. The movie lets us know right off the top this one is playing for keeps. I don't buy the ending for a minute, but it's a decent set-up for the second half of this adventure that arrives next summer. For fans, the wait may feel like infinity.

EPPLER'S RATING: * * * 

RATING SCALE

* * * * * Incredible - One of the best of the year
* * * * Excellent - Touches greatness with only minor quibbles
* * * Good - Plenty to like, definitely worth seeing
* * Mediocre - You can do better
* Awful  - The worst, an insult to movies