Marvel’s grand Avengers experiment reaches its fun, uneven, sci-fi tearjerker Endgame

Photo: Marvel Studios/Disney
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Note: This review contains minor plot revelations for Avengers: Endgame. It also contains major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Avengers: Endgame’s Spoiler Space.

Newness is probably the last thing anyone should really expect from the 22nd installment in a blockbuster franchise, especially one that serves as the master hub for a good 10 other franchises. But in at least one respect, Avengers: Endgame is unprecedented: It’s the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that decade-deep parade of reliably entertaining but rarely transcendent superhero smashes, to feel as much like an exclamation mark as an ellipses. Finality is, of course, a relative distinction for a story that’s basically designed to never finish, in the serialized tradition of its decades-running source material. (There will be more Marvel movies after this—another arrives in July, in fact.) But all those prior adventures, those team or solo outings for Earth’s mightiest heroes (and the galaxy’s goofiest guardians), kept one eye on next summer, on the next sequel, on the next step. Endgame, true to its title, approaches something like closure, however temporary or qualified.

Which isn’t to say it’s self-contained. Far from it. For one thing, Endgame resolves the agonizing cliffhanger of its predecessor, last summer’s breathless, bloated, intermittently exciting crossover event Avengers: Infinity War. That film was billed as a kind of culmination, built as it historically was on the plots of nearly two-dozen other movies, and on the apparently correct assumption that its audience would have dutifully seen (and retained information from) most of them. But in its inconclusive conclusion, Infinity War was more of an ultimate middle chapter—a very long second act, with an admirably downbeat climax that was really a glorified “To be continued...”. Endgame is the true payoff, at least in terms of how (if not how well) it brings everything to a head. Instead of teasing future showdowns, it looks backwards, to what’s come before it—sometimes cleverly, sometimes quite literally, often with the excessive sentimentality of a Very Special Episode. (That certainly wouldn’t be out of the wheelhouse of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who managed the chaos of seminal sitcoms before graduating to tights-and-Vibranium duty with the exceptional Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

At just over three hours, this is almost certainly the biggest superhero movie ever. It’s to the credit of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, veterans of the genre at this point, that enough of the extended running time is devoted to the fallout of Infinity War’s final minutes: the moment when purple space dictator Thanos (Josh Brolin) successfully acquired all six of the fabled Infinity Stones, then used them to instantly reduce half of all life in the universe to ash. While that movie hit the ground running, beginning almost mid-scene and then never slowing down from there, Endgame takes its time a little, lingering in the dust. After introducing and then cruelly blotting out a glimmer of hope—a scene nearly as bleak, in its own deflating way, as the snap that disintegrated half of the extended Avengers family—the film time-jumps into a new status quo of resignation and despair, catching up with a world trying to move on from the loss of their loved ones, the so-called Vanished.

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Photo: Marvel/Disney

During this elegiac early stretch, Endgame lays out how each of the core Avengers has coped with their failure. That means we get scenes, for example, of reformed assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tirelessly keeping up with the world-protection business, beating back desperation one mission at a time, and of sharpshooting Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) transforming himself into a vigilante, taking out his grief on waves of petty criminals. This is not, of course, Marvel’s big-budget, big-screen answer to The Leftovers, perversely interesting though that might be. (To paraphrase a hit from the other comic-book universe, the night tends to be darkest before the dawn.) Instead, Endgame mirrors the fun of Joss Whedon’s original Avengers by becoming, for a while, a getting-the-band-back-together story. This includes rallying rival contenders for the “strongest Avenger” title, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. The Hulk. Both have undergone their own changes, which the film reserves for a couple of inspired comic reveals.

The middle hour of Endgame is, for the most part, grand fun. Without giving away the convoluted design, let’s say that it involves wrinkles in time—a preposterous sci-fi gimmick that allows Marvel to stage a Back To The Future Part II scavenger hunt through its franchise history, to arrange cameos for familiar faces, to make explicit its characters’ desire to mend their mistakes. (If part one of this two-part Avengers saga occasionally hyper-jumped into the Star Wars space-opera quadrant of the blockbuster cosmos, part two sometimes resembles a particularly nifty episode of cross-universe rival Star Trek, complete with lots of layman quantum physics.) These scenes do, however, underscore how little Endgame sometimes feels like its own movie—how much of it seems to exist just to punctuate the end of an era, to serve as the all-purpose falling action for the multiple interconnected sequels that came before it. The Russos don’t so much evolve the relationships as exploit the audience’s pre-established connection to them. This applies to what should be the meat of the material: the damaged friendship between Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), two weary men taking stock of the toll the “superhero life” has taken on them.

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It’s a more inventive but also a more decentered movie than Infinity War, which cleverly made its antagonist something close to the protagonist, dramatically speaking. Having completed his warped version of a hero’s journey, Thanos looks, sounds, and acts more like a stock Marvel heavy—his tragic dimension seems to have disappeared on the wind, too. The Russos again juggle a cast large enough to fill out a Robert Altman mosaic, and not always gracefully; one could spend a whole review tracking the whereabouts of the sprawling ensemble, explaining how side players like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and newly minted heavy-hitter Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) factor into the film’s knotty narrative architecture. And even more so than its predecessor, Endgame can be an inelegant mishmash of tones, a famous bowl of competing flavors: One minute a panicked father is searching for his daughter’s name on a monument to the dead, the next a sentient pile of rocks is trading trash talk with a teenager on Fortnite. But that’s true to the schizophrenic spirit of Marvel comics, to the way they’d chase a mournfully meditative issue—the kind whose cover features the heroes gathered around a tombstone in their best formal wear—with a full-on plunge into reality-bending theatrics.

What Endgame offers in spades is fan service. This is understandable: It’s been designed as a farewell to this chapter in blockbuster history, and maybe, just maybe, to some of the costumed characters the studio has built its empire upon. Mileage will vary on the latest splash-panel, all-hands-on-deck battle scene, a panorama of colliding CGI figures that rivals even Ready Player One in sheer volume of intellectual property being slammed together like backyard action figures. (Is it delightful, numbing, or a little of both?) Likewise, the film’s tearjerker aspirations; not since Furious 7 has a big Hollywood franchise film ended on a more nakedly maudlin note—and there’s a meta dimension here, too, though of a less literally eulogistic nature, thankfully. An earnest, overstuffed, fitfully funny superhero melodrama, Endgame hits the buttons it wants to hit, and sometimes affectingly. If it never quite achieves the soulfulness of the best comic-book extravaganzas, like last year’s effervescently good Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, it’s because Marvel has told a story about living with failure and death that makes both seem… impermanent. That may be standard comic-book logic, but it’s also business as usual with forever franchises, whose punctuations can always be backspaced.

For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Avengers: Endgame’s Spoiler Space.