***1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language)
Released: April 26, 2019
Runtime: 182 minutes
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen, Gillan, Josh Brolin
Full disclosure: if Disney had suddenly decided that they weren’t going to release Avengers: Endgame, that it would never be seen by the world in any form, that all copies and source materials would be destroyed, utterly lost to history and time – literally snapped out of existence – my life wouldn’t have skipped a single solitary beat.
I don’t say that to troll Marvel diehards (who are legion). It’s simply indicative of how profoundly disinterested I am in the MCU as a whole, with few exceptions. (Yanking the last Skywalker Star Wars movie, however, would be a completely different situation. What a sadistically cruel tragedy that would be.)
With that as context:
I’m really glad we got this endgame. All three hours of it.
Indeed, its virtues are a bit unorthodox within the MCU. Those strengths are so well observed and done, in fact, that they actually expose the franchise’s missed opportunities. (I’ll get to that in a bit.)
There will be no spoilers here. Some would argue that it’s difficult – nay, impossible – to talk about Endgame without getting into some form of spoiler territory. Honestly, I feel just the opposite.
The plot details at this point are incidental. They’re certainly well-considered, structured, and executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, but what happens is secondary to how it should all make us feel. The Result; that’s what’s important, and that could be reached in any number of ways.
Besides, in the broad sense, we know where this thing is going to land, regardless of how the movie gets us there. Disney doesn’t want a riot on their hands, after all.
Nevertheless, this isn’t a movie. It’s a culmination. Avengers: Endgame is, in a very real sense, bigger than itself. It is that very bigness, that scope, that meaning – not the plot details – that gives it its power.
Avengers: Endgame is the cinematic equivalent of a series finale if there ever was one, and like some of the biggest send-offs in television history it employs a high concept. That ambitious hook provides a structure through which we can then look back on what has come before, revisit the vital moments that got us here, and then deliver a wallop of catharsis that’s necessary for closure, that “thing” that everyone needs in order to be at peace with this end that must ultimately come.
There’s a lot going on here, being wrapped up, and even introduced, and yet there’s actually not that much to think about. There’s not a lot to analyze. Well, except for the “civil war” philosophical divide between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, which briefly reaches a peak that Robert Downey, Jr. shines in – and the movie, surprisingly, takes a side on.
That aside, its narrative isn’t particularly complex or dense, nor are its implications. It’s all straight-forward and self-evident. That’s a strength. You either appreciate what the film is giving you or you don’t.
Endgame hits all the notes that fans want it to, and certainly that the franchise has strategically built towards. It doesn’t get too clever for its own good, merely to be able to say “bet you didn’t see that coming.” Mind you, it’s not without its surprises, but even those are in service of the characters and their relationships, and not simply for franchise maintenance. Endgame allows the MCU to move on, and its fans with it.
Its structure is clear, smart, and effective:
- Hour 1: Character Drama
- Hour 2: Nostalgia Trips
- Hour 3: The Actual Endgame
A lot goes down within framework, delivering moments not just rewarding but inventive. Perhaps the most inspired turns are what the Russo’s do with Hulk and Thor, but so, too, is how they imagined what a post-snap world would look like. Indeed, even the very beginning of the whole film took me off guard; I sat there thinking, “Oh wait, this is actually happening, like, right now.” It sort of dawns on you, and it sets the tone for what’s to come.
The whole movie that follows is a long goodbye, but it’s that first hour in particular that I really appreciate. It’s slow and, by MCU standards, it could test patience. It even could’ve easily shaved off a good bit without sacrificing the narrative core, but there’s a purpose to it all. It’s also where the movie shines, filled with the kind of character moments I wanted from this interconnected universe but that it rarely had time for.
It’s not that the saga has been devoid of them but, with few exceptions (like, say, the extended “try to lift Thor’s hammer” scene in Age of Ultron), they’re largely perfunctory and distilled, over-simplified to their cliched essence. Far too often the franchise hasn’t allowed these moments to breathe, to live. Well, they live here.
Emotional beats aren’t checked, they’re measured. Expressed. Contemplated. Processed. Not undercut by some sharp tonal shift or follow-up quip (okay, maybe a couple of quips). In the first hour this is largely done without payoff or being propped up by nostalgia. People actually deal with grief, loss, and the struggle to reconcile it all, and these actors are here for that.
With that groundwork laid, the second and third acts are able to ramp up with an effective emotional shorthand. Even so, the Russos still allow for sequences to have their due – driven by character, not “beats” – rather than rushing through them.
Yes, the third act showdown still becomes a digital VFX onslaught, muddied and chaotic. I’ve never been a fan of how these movies look or how their action is cut, but the Russos imbue this last apocalyptic face-off with big emotional stakes and (for the first time) final narrative ones, eliciting genuine applause and chills.
Also liberating: at last we have a Marvel movie that isn’t bogged down by spending half its time setting up future installments and connecting its labyrinth universe. Too often these blockbuster episodes have been distracted by laying groundwork for things to come while withholding payoff in the here-and-now (sometimes in an afront to basic logic).
That baggage is all gone. Now, finally, this universe is allowed to be focused, to be present, engrossed in its own trajectory without any concerns of what’s happening beyond its frame. No more world building, just world ending.
And yet, self-contained though it may be, Endgame isn’t remotely autonomous. It can’t be, nor should it be judged on those metrics.
To that end, there’s a whole lot of fan service going on. That term is often used as a pejorative, but “fan service” is (as with most tools and devices) a neutral thing. It can be cheap, used to create an emotional connection that a story or characters fail to. Or it can be substantial, not just tacked on, and actually rooted in something. That’s Endgame’s kind of fan service. It doesn’t come easy; it’s earned.
Consequently, this finale is less about the cheers it can trigger (though several are) than the tears it can jerk, creating ample space for a vital, essential denoument of sentiment. It’s not in a rush to appease you with action. It wants to reward you with something more meaningful. These scenes – these moments – are meant to resonate. And they do.
In the grand scheme, I find the cultural event surrounding Avengers: Endgame to be even more fascinating, and exciting, than the movie itself. That’s not a dismissive jab at the film but simply a recognition, and respect, for something so unprecedented.
Opening night in a packed IMAX theater? That was special. In our increasingly bifurcated culture (pop culture especially), these shared communal experiences are harder to come by. Endgame provides a big one, and it’s a testament to what the MCU has done in the face of ever-increasing odds.
A grand Avengers finale may not have been anything I personally needed, but it’s what this unprecedented 22-film, decade-plus series deserved. It’s what this franchise has earned. Avengers: Endgame delivers on the gratification it kept asking its fans to delay for oh so long. It keeps that implicit promise and does so in absolutely spectacular fashion, both on epic and intimate scales.
Avengers: Endgame is equal to the MCU’s singular place in movie history. We’ll never see its like again.