Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus
Directed by Anthony & Joseph Russo
Three weeks have passed since the mad titan Thanos gained the six Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers erasing half of all life in the universe. The Avengers were sent reeling as they watched their friends and loved ones dissolve into dust before their eyes. Having faced the greatest tragedy in human existence, Captain America feels powerless to solve the problem, and this is exacerbated when Tony Stark confronts him. The team manages to locate Thanos on the planet of his refuge but quickly find that only taking down the villain doesn’t solve the more significant existential problem. The greater goal would be to reverse the actions of the Stones, but this will mean they must gather them all. A journey begins that will span the entire scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and signals the final battle of many great heroes.
There is an ongoing conversation about whether the entire MCU franchise, specifically Infinity War meet the requirements for a piece of media to be a film. I come down on the side that says, “No, Infinity War is not a movie.” It makes broad assumptions about the audience’s knowledge of who characters are and of various plot threads carrying over from other films. If anything, these latter productions are incredibly high budget television show episodes that are played first in movie theaters. In the same way, movie serials were a predecessor to the television show; the MCU pictures are a reverse move that brings the structures and storytelling of modern television back into the cinema. I don’t necessarily think that should impact an audience’s evaluation of Endgame, but it does temper my reactions to viewers and critics who are proclaiming that this is a monumental achievement in filmmaking.
Endgame is an emotionally potent experience, but only as powerful as your connection to the previous chapters. I will admit that specific plot beats hit very strongly, but I never lost it and started bawling my eyes out. It’s not a bad thing if you did; we have different levels of engagement with this material. For the majority of the three-hour runtime, I found myself growing engaged and disengaged throughout. When we are getting to see characters’ growth in the wake of Infinity War’s tragedy I was right in there. One of my greatest complaints about the superhero comics medium is the lack of tangible progress towards something new. Getting to see how Bruce Banner and Thor have dramatically changed is very satisfying and has me wondering about the future of these characters. I thought Black Widow’s character development felt organic and has a moving conclusion. Her relationship with Hawkeye, while not as developed as it could have been over the franchise, feels like something that has happened offscreen and therefore very real.
The second act of Endgame is where most of my complaints lie. The decision to reincorporate threads from half a dozen other movies is cute and very much a nod to the fans, but it becomes a real sludge to get through at a certain point. The actions of the Avengers will have little to no effect on anything outside their present-day goal, so it almost feels like we are inside a simulation of the past, rather than being there. This long middle section is fan service and is only really here to stretch out the runtime and give opportunities for the audience to say “I remember that part.” The only character who gets significant development in this section is Thor when he can have a conversation with Freya, his mother, a moment that redirects his mindset. Paralleled is Tony Stark and his talk with Howard Stark who has no idea he’s meeting his future son.
If there had been a way to spend more time exploring the Avengers in the post-Thanos world, I would have been more interested in that, seeing the scope of how much harm or unexpected benefit the snap created. I appreciated Cap’s line about seeing whales swimming in the Hudson as an aside that the sudden absence of life would benefit a lot of wildlife and vegetation that remained. The sequence following Ant-Man as he stumbles through this much bleaker world was also very well done, especially him reuniting with his daughter, much older now than when he left.
The third act is likely where most fans will pull their talking points. The large scale battle against Thanos is the flipside of Infinity War’s finale. Where in that picture Thanos and Iron Man fight on the desolate moon while Cap and the Avengers face off with lackeys in Wakanda, this conflict brings all players to the forefront. The three primary Avengers: Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America get the first blows which is a very classic plot beat from the comics. When the multitude of lost heroes return, you can’t help but feel the emotion of the scene and how it pays off the shocking cliffhanger of the previous film. It’s a pretty satisfying finale that has concrete stakes that affect the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.
With how huge this event takes things I hope the following films pull things back. I know the Spider-Man movies are quite good at telling small stakes stories that focus more on character beats and relationships. In the pipeline for the next pictures are Black Panther 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3, the former of which I didn’t much enjoy the first movie and the latter I view with a bit more warmth. Doctor Strange 2 is also in the works, and I have zero interest in seeing that one. The first Strange bored me to tears, and I think the character plays much better as part of ensemble pieces.
I’m always interested in debuts of more obscure names from the Marvel Universe and this next phase; we’ll have The Eternals and Shang-Chi, both of which are deep cuts and have the potential to be something pleasantly odd. The Eternals will be directed by Chloe Zhao who gave us the spectacular The Rider film from last year, but after seeing the compromises the director of Captain Marvel made, I doubt she will get to stray much from the studio demands. Shang-Chi is directed by Destin Daniel Critton who was the filmmaker behind Short Term 12. That was a reasonably good movie, that should have been a television series. I always have hope when I see names from films I enjoyed attached to these Marvel events, but they more often than not disappoint
Avengers: Endgame is everything a Marvel fan could want really, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I always enjoy it when a superhero movie goes in directions I’m not expecting, and lots of callbacks get tiresome. There is a tremendous emotional pin put in the story arcs of some important characters and its that finality, to the point that there is no end credits sequence, that left me feeling fairly positive overall. It’s not very often that film series like this get an ending, often they become bloated and terrible leading to the studio dropping them. Endgame is genuinely the end, whatever comes next will have to be something very different and new.