Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Don Cheadle, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper and Josh Brolin
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Produced by Marvel Studios
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
“I am inevitable.”
That’s the line that stuck with me while watching Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of 22 films across the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, it wasn’t always this way, but over the course of a decade, the adventures of the Avengers have felt like cinematic gravity, a fundamental, inescapable pop culture force that felt unceasing, unending, eternal. As a diehard Marvel fan myself, it’s been an incredible journey to watch and be a part of, both as a writer, a critic, and a lifelong reader of the House of Ideas.
But while the Avengers’ comic book counterparts never rest, their flesh-and-blood avatars cannot say the same - and as a result, some adventures must end… even if we as comic book fans might have trouble accepting it. That inevitability is what drives Endgame to its universe-shaking conclusion - a film that has to pay off the lofty setup from its predecessor Infinity War, give homage to the rest of 10 years of Marvel movie continuity, as well as wrap up the very real-world limitations of its contractual obligations.
The end result of Endgame is a sprawling, ambitious set of directives, and while I can’t say that this film pulls it all off perfectly - indeed, this might be the messiest Marvel movie since Age of Ultron - this combination of fan service, continuity mining and overarching grand spectacle will likely be more than sufficient for a generation of diehard MCU fans.
If Avengers: Infinity War would be considered bombastic and epic, the best word I might use to describe Endgame might be impressionistic, or perhaps even pointillistic - the imagery the Russo Brothers are creating is massive, but it’s largely constructed by broad strokes rather than the razor-sharp cleverness that has come to define best of the Marvel method.
Following Thanos wiping out half the universe with the Infinity Stones, the Avengers quickly discover there is no easy reset button - and as we watch the rest of the world continue to reel from this Leftovers-style Rapturing, we find most of the Avengers have retreated inward in truly heartbreaking fashion. It’s here that the Russos do some of their most effective callbacks from earlier films, sometimes to the point of quoting them verbatim: Iron Man has essentially gone into seclusion, embracing the family life with Pepper Potts; Black Widow acts as point person for a ragtag group of intergalactic Avengers; Captain America has paid homage to his late friend Sam Wilson as the leader of a post-Snap support group; and Hawkeye, his entire family wiped out in an instant, gives into his killer instincts, leaving his comrades horrified by the trail of bodies in his wake.
“Some people move on,” Cap tells us. “But not us.”
It’s bleak, but this kind of character development is also eminently compelling stuff.
But when Ant-Man is freed by happenstance after being trapped in the Quantum Realm at the end of Ant-Man & the Wasp, the team discovers a Hail Mary pass to perhaps heal the world - and this is where Endgame starts to show some exertion in how many balls it has to juggle, as well as how many masters it has to serve. The major transformations of two of the core Avengers’ recent breakouts - Thor and the Hulk - both take place off-camera, and while Mark Ruffalo’s new status quo is side-splitting, Chris Hemsworth’s normally impeccable sense of comedic timing isn’t able to salvage an extended gag that feels like it’s punching down at anyone with PTSD (or who can’t achieve that unattainable Marvel superhero physique).
Perhaps even more disappointing, however, is how Brie Larsen’s much-hyped Captain Marvel is missing in action for almost the entire film - she shows up on occasion when there’s a spaceship to save (or blow up, take your pick), but given how well Marvel has introduced new characters to the Avengers’ ranks (often to their general benefit - looking at you, Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, and Vision, not to mention Black Panther and Spider-Man’s ensemble performances in Captain America: Civil War), this feels like a tremendously missed opportunity.
But the Russos’ swift, almost microscopic bursts of characterization are symptomatic of the film’s middle - Ant-Man’s snappily titled “time heist.” Similar to Infinity War before it, the Russos use this opportunity to split the Avengers into various squads, to give each group time to shine. Or at least in theory - what winds up happening, however, is that we’re treated to what could be considered the Marvel Cinematic Universe clip show, where repurposed footage and new twists in the shadows wind up dominating a significant portion of the movie.
Pay no heed that the rules established about time travel don’t really make a ton of sense, even when they’re imparted by a surprisingly effective guest star - indeed, the guest stars and the winks and nods almost become the point. It’s not even fan service as much as an entire story built on callbacks to previous continuity, which some fans might enjoy but I would argue runs counter to the point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - the great strength of these movies was that even with sequels and spin-offs, the MCU has always explored new territory rather than fixated on its past. Lengthy sequences of Tony Stark having another heart-to-heart about his father or Cap pining over Peggy Carter once more - let alone a lengthy detour back to the 2012 Avengers film or, even more inexplicably, Thor: The Dark World - can’t help but feel a bit like retreading old ground, even with its cavalcade of big-name supporting cast members making guest-star appearances - a rare thing for a studio as forward-thinking as Marvel.
And this comes at the cost of much of its already streamlined characters. Rocket Raccoon and War Machine, for example, come off as mostly nonentities in the film, Thor and Hulk feel largely one-note, Ant-Man is quickly glossed over once his usefulness has been realized, while Nebula serves as the patsy of the film, unwittingly putting the Avengers’ entire plan in peril. But even as heists go, the stakes and difficulty for capturing Infinity Stones feel surprisingly low, with only one exception - Hawkeye and Black Widow’s harrowing struggle to capture the Soul Stone, which feels like as poignant a mirror to Gamora and Thanos’ visit in Infinity War. While that scene is well-choreographed and imbued with a decent amount of emotion - although not as much as the first time we visited Vormir, of course.
For the most part, that’s because the majority of Endgame is a movie seemingly without a villain - while Thanos and his Black Order loomed large over Infinity War, the menacing Josh Brolin and his crew are largely playing catch-up here (through some pretty convenient contrivances, no less), and so the actual conflict is less spread out and more jam-packed in the movie’s final third. It’s here that might be the most critic-proof section of the film - on the one hand, I could argue that the frenetic, universal-scale action feels like such a departure from the down-to-earth stories of the first Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Thor films, but a dozen fans could (justifiably, I might add) respond that this is a double-page crowd shot of a comic book brought to life.
When the fireworks finally go off, we get micro-appearances from just about character you could possibly hope for - that said, I might argue that it comes at the cost of the usually confident and cohesive action choreography that has anchored the MCU, sometimes veering into the territory of an overstuffed Transformers film. But even with the chaotic visuals of juggling over 30 characters, there are moments that will absolutely make fans stand up and cheer - in particular, Captain America gets some moments of fan service that are arguably worth the price of admission alone, as some of the most fist-pumpingly awesome beats in the entire franchise. The fan service doesn’t end there, either, with some quick but satisfying team-ups, some callbacks to major Marvel Comics moments (that Secret Wars moment, anyone?), and in particular, one super-fun moment where the women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe all team up for a smackdown.
That said, there are some big moments that speak to that inevitability, that finality that I mentioned before. As I’ve warned before (and you might have surmised reading the rest of this review), spoilers are a-coming — and over its Lord of the Rings-esque mega-finale, we find ourselves having watched three founding Avengers bow out for good. This is where the limitations of real-world filmmaking collide with the relay race that is long-form comics storytelling — while in comic books, creative teams pass the baton regularly, there comes a limit for long-time actors, when no amount of money will keep them wearing spandex for much longer.
Yet I’d argue that in this regard, the Russos often go for intensity rather than digging into the deeper origins of the characters. It’s hard to deny, for example, a longtime Avenger’s retort to Thanos’s claim of inevitability - these are power chord emotional moments in an already blaring symphony of spectacle and violence, and they are moments that will likely bring a tear to your eye, just because we’ve established such a connection with these characters and these actors over the course of nearly two dozen films.
But while one passing of the torch does feel sentimental, there are other moments that can’t help but feel like a stark removal from the real-world tone of the original Marvel films. The MCU started in a cave, with a box of scraps; with a 4-F weakling in World War II who could never turn away from a situation going south. And so some of these goodbyes don’t just feel bittersweet, but they also ring a bit of cognitive dissonance; both of leaning more towards necessity rather than organic truth to the characters, but also of a comic fan’s selfish, perhaps even childish sensibility of “why can’t these stories last forever?”
But in the real world - even one enhanced by top-class screenwriters and a mountain of CGI - the biggest inevitability is saying goodbye. Avengers: Endgame knows that goodbyes are hard, and so it does its damnedest to ring out this decade-long end of an era with as much fanfare as humanly possible. It’s a love letter to its fandom and to its own history, rather than necessarily a neatly tied bow that adheres to tight narrative structure. In some ways, that messiness is a departure from the usually methodically plotted Marvel machine, but at the same time, this style of production gives Endgame a unique flavor that hasn’t been done before.
There’s a sense of inevitability to this film, but also a sense of the unknown - all roads before have led to Thanos, so where will this ambitious mega-universe go next? And perhaps that’s why there’s such a celebratory tone to this film, even at the cost of some of its narrative finesse. This truly is the end - we’re headed into uncharted waters now, but even with its flaws, Avengers: Endgame ends a superlative run with a smash.