In the forty-year history of mainstream superhero cinema, no film has shouldered a heavier burden of expectation than Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel Studios’ 19th film is charged with wrangling more characters and storylines than any of its predecessors as it attempts to culminate the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Conventional wisdom suggests the movie cannot work and yet Avengers: Infinity War does on every conceivable level to become an unprecedented achievement in filmmaking.

The word “epic” is used a lot in association with blockbusters, especially those with superheroes. We have rendered the word almost meaningless, just as we have with comparisons to Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back when we discuss sequels. Avengers: Infinity War, however, is the rare film that reminds us just how high the bar really is for such words and comparisons, and then clears it.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Infinity War unites Earth’s Mightiest Heroes with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they try to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from collecting six Infinity Stones with which he intends to destroy half of all life in the universe. The Russos have likened it to a smash and grab heist film, but that undersells it. Infinity War is an Odyssean quest that demands a heavy price from all those in the story, and those who watch it unfold.

Thanos is playing for keeps in a dangerous game that comes with real and lasting stakes. There is no way to come out of this story unchanged as the Russos have delivered much more dire consequences than any previous film in the Marvel Studios canon, or the broader superhero genre. The events of Infinity War don’t just mean something; they mean everything.

Thanos’ line from the second trailer, “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be,” is the most apt description of the amazing tonal feat accomplished by this film. Infinity War runs through the entire emotional spectrum and back multiple times. It has an incredible sense of humor, as all Marvel films do, but also inspires sadness, terror, joy, wonder, and so many more feelings with expert precision. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better-paced film that makes two and a half hours fly by at such speed.

Audiences will flock to see the heroes of Infinity War, but they will find a story that belongs to Thanos as much as and probably more than any other individual character. Brolin gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe its greatest villain with a performance that shines through the digital effects. The Mad Titan is a fascinating, multi-dimensional character that lives up to the six years of hype that began with his first, brief appearance in The Avengers.

Brolin lends an emotional authenticity to Thanos that goes well beyond megalomaniacal mustache twirling. The script helps as well, eschewing some of the purely insane aspects of the character from the comics in favor of a more genuine point of view. You probably will not agree with Thanos’ conclusion to kill half the universe, but his logic and conviction are not easily discounted.

Infinity War may not belong exclusively to the heroes the way other films have, but that is not to say they are shortchanged in this story. All of the introductions between heroes that have never previously met work just as well as fans have been dreaming. As the gravity of the situation sets in, we also see new levels of vulnerability for the characters, proving there is still plenty more to know about them, even the ones we’ve been hanging out with for almost a decade.

The MCU payoffs are not limited to meet cutes, as there are plenty of callbacks for casual and hardcore fans alike. The story overrides the senses during the first viewing, but there is plenty to see for those who wish to make a return trip.

Marvel Studios is at the top of its game in many respects for Avengers: Infinity War, including craftsmanship. Charles Wood continues to show why he is Marvel Studios’ best production designer while cinematographer Trent Opaloch delivers perhaps the most gorgeously-shot Marvel film. The visual effects, supervised by Dan DeLeeuw, are equal parts dazzling and convincing. Thanos alone is going to earn an Oscar® nomination in this category. All of these stunning visuals are even more impressive in Dolby Cinema, with the benefit of high dynamic range to properly showcase each action-packed and emotionally-charged moment.

Composer Alan Silvestri was sorely missed in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but he returns in full force. The Infinity War score is powerful, providing a sturdy backbone to support the tremendous emotional weight of the film. It also brings back iconic themes from the MCU, including Silvestri’s own from The Avengers.

Avengers: Infinity War is the ultimate testament to ten years of extraordinary storytelling. This is a special moment in cinematic history earned in large part by the film’s individual merits, but also by the decade-long investment made by both Marvel Studios and their audience. The Russo Brothers have made the movie that this universe and its audience deserve.

This is an event unlike any other. Blockbuster history is unfolding before our very eyes. Moviegoers across multiple generations are going to remember when and where they saw Avengers: Infinity War for the first time.

For more on Avengers: Infinity War, you can listen to my spoiler-free audio review below.