No matter what else you or I might think of Avengers: Endgame, the film is an unprecedented culmination of the twenty-one movies that preceded it over the last eleven years. It represents an impressive feat of narrative control built on story threads and character beats, some of which began back in 2008 with Iron Man, and to that end, it’s a film that often feels like it’s closing a book rather than telling its own story. That’s not a knock, as it’s far from the first sequel to require knowledge of previous films to get the most out of it. But it means the movie has more on its plate than simply delivering a beginning, middle, and end of its own — it instead has to offer an ending to nearly everything that has come before. That it accomplishes its goal in exciting, affecting, and mostly satisfying fashion is no small feat.
Endings are almost anathema to the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as their entire conceit to this point has seen them layering in plots, subplots, and post-credits scenes designed to leave viewers hungry for the next chapter. Endgame is something different for many reasons, but chief among them is the relative finality of much of what occurs. “Relative” because these are comic book movies after all, and “finality” because… well, you’ll get no specific spoilers here, but it’s safe to say that not everyone will be returning for Marvel’s Phase Four.
Plot generalities are already familiar to anyone even remotely interested in seeing the film, but as expected it picks up after Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) universe-shattering snap that instantly turned half of all living things into dust. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) were both absent during Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and return to find differing fates for their respective families, and after some reacquainting they enter into a desperate bid at a second chance alongside the remaining Avengers old and new including Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson).
It’s no coincidence that saw all six of the original Avengers — the ones making up the infamous circle shot of heroes from The Avengers‘ (2012) battle of New York — survived Thanos’ apocalypse. Whether they’re “really gone or kinda gone” after this, the film is still a swan song for their specific heroic collective, and that intention is as much to credit (blame?) for the film’s three hour length as the actual plot is seeing as each of them is given closure in one form or another.
Some character paths have been visible well in advance, but others manage to surprise. That’s not to say they’re all equally satisfying — one particular act of sacrifice loses its emotional steam amid the details — but more often than not they work. Directors Anthony Russo & Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely continue to craft a meticulous tale made up of equal parts action, humor, and exposition, and they take the time to give everyone here a turn or two in the spotlight. The script is maybe a bit too obvious in its pairings at times as precise twosomes are put together for emotional closure, but after eleven years viewers might just deserve these particular moments spent with these characters.
The story beats — again, no specifics here — do good work throwing audiences for a loop or two as expectations are met, shattered, or avoided altogether. The first thirty minutes feels deceptively rushed as our heroes move from A to Z in record time through what some might assume would have been the main plot, but the film shifts gears allowing for more character moments and a massive realignment in their plan. The result is a series of set-pieces that entertain on their own, but that grow exponentially in value the more familiar you are with the previous films. It’s a turn that sees the traditionally forward-looking franchise turn backward instead, and it’s a damn delight.
As thrilling as the big picture is throughout this stretch and on to the end, though, it’s also where the bulk of the film’s problems arise. Some are due to casting (Gwyneth Paltrow is an emotion killer), others are due to director flourishes (there’s a groan-worthy vanity shot of the female heroes), and one only suffers if you’ve seen Game Night‘s (2018) ridiculously brilliant game of keep-away, but the biggest problems come via the script.
They write themselves into something of a corner, and the only way out is through a combination of forgetting/ignoring rules and resorting to the most comic-like visual in the history of the MCU. The latter isn’t a negative on its face, but while the desire to go for the visual will undoubtedly please many viewers, others might feel like their narrative wants have been left out in the cold. As for the “rules” issue, let’s say that criticizing a bunch of movies for getting something wrong isn’t the same as explaining why your way is right — especially when you turn around and break your own damn rules.
Superpowers are laughably inconsistent at times and seemingly change at the whim of what “needs” to happen next, and that goes for heroes and villains alike. Yes yes, it’s a comic book movie, but dramatic stakes must be earned as opposed to simply picking a spot and dropping them in, and more than once a dramatic build-up fizzles before it ends as the voice in your head whispers “Nah.”
Still, one of the benefits of a three hour running time is that for every one element that stumbles you can have two others that shine, and the positives outweigh the negatives here. Many in the main cast use a combination of talent, history, and the filmmakers’ sharp ear for banter and heart to deliver some truly affecting moments — affecting in the sense that you may find yourself tearing up one minute and laughing aloud the next. Fresh gags and callbacks combine to make for one of the funniest MCU entries yet. Evans, Downey Jr., Johansson, and Hemsworth all do stellar work with characters they’ve truly made their own, and both Renner and Brolin stand out as well.
It may sound trite to say, but the consistency throughout the MCU — not necessarily in quality, but in faces and themes — has helped to drive home a core idea of family. For many of the heroes here, the Avengers have become their family, and that feeling has, in turn, spread to audiences. The big CG battles they’re fighting may be fictional, but the very human ones including loss, love, betrayal, and fear are as real as they get. Avengers: Endgame may stumble at times, as most of these films have, but it stands tall and steady in the idea that the strongest among us will always be ready to do whatever it takes to protect those we love. Sometimes that requires intergalactic travel, magical powers, and the ultimate sacrifice, but other times it only takes a hug.