How does Avengers: Infinity War hold up a year after release?

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (the Captain America sequels), and starring, well, everyone, Avengers: Infinity War is the first part of the climax to 11 years of swooshy Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero antics. It's a remarkable achievement, but does the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time work as a stand-alone movie?

As an exercise in cinematic synergy Infinity War is breathtaking - if exhausting. Countless major characters come together, most played by major stars, and each must have their moment in the spotlight, hence its 149-minute runtime. Yet it manages to bring something new to the fun but familiar Marvel formula: jeopardy.

We begin with a barrage of awkward exposition. Evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) is searching for the last few Infinity Stones to complete his all-powerful Gauntlet - the McGuffin of the Avenger series finally coming into focus. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Heimdall (Idris Elba) die fast. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is blasted into space. In truth, it feels more like TV than cinema: a cast of familiar characters taking up where they left off last week.

The next stop is New York as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) fight Thanos' minions. Soon we're hopping around the galaxy collecting superheroes like Pokemon.

As ever, Wakanda looks wonderful, outer space looks cheap, and the world-building is quick and perfunctory. When Wanda/Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) watch the NYC destruction on an empty Edinburgh street, a sign behind them proudly proclaims: "We will deep-fry your kebab." Clearly, we're not in Kansas any more.

Though the constant computer-generated battles quickly lose their lustre, the interplay between the leads remains the series' strongest suit - where else do you get to see terrific actors such as Downey Jnr, Ruffalo and Cumberbatch jostling for the limelight?

Countless major characters come together, most played by major stars, and each must have their moment in Avengers: Infinity War. 
Photo: Marvel Studios

The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeelly, gives them some great lines too. "He's from space," says Stark, introducing Thanos to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). "He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard."

There's a flip, superficial quality to their interactions. It makes sense when it's Stark speaking - arrogance is his default setting - but why do the rest of the characters talk like they know they're in a film?

Spider-Man even references "this really old movie" Aliens: a bad idea seeing as Cameron's 1986 masterpiece has more guts and personality than any of the Marvel movies. Indeed, for all the bells and whistles, this might be the most anonymously made blockbuster of all time.

Robert Downey Jnr as Tony Stark. We expect his character's dialogue to be flip and superficial, but why do the other characters in Avengers: Infinity War talk so knowingly? 
Photo: Marvel Studios

The finale, which sees Thanos killing half of the universe with a snap of his fingers, offers a singular moment of reflection amid the endless sensorial assault. It's the first time in three films that the audience has been asked to feel something, the first suggestion that there might be consequences to all the apocalyptic entertainment.

Try keeping a dry eye as one beloved character pleads, "I don't want to go …" before disappearing in a puff of CG dust. If the Avengers series has, up to this point, been an exercise in spinning plates, this is what it's like to watch them drop.

A key part of the Marvel Comic Universe's MO is that the show is never really over. It's not enough to subdue audiences with too much information, they need to come back for more, like kids after a sugar crash. Sure enough, after a witty post-credits sequence that kills off another beloved character, a title card promises that "Thanos will return".

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.