As first announced in the line of Avengers: Infinity War dialogue, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ‘in the endgame now’. Except, of course, that it isn’t.
As returning villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) says more than once in the film’s direct sequel, he is inevitable, and so is the destruction that he was able to wreak with the snap of his gauntlet-covered, Infinity Stone-adorned fingers. Except, of course, that surviving Avengers Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) were never going to take the decimation of half of the galactic population (and its superheroes) lightly.
That’s Avengers: Endgame’s starting point. With the Marvel film franchise actually concluding its third phase with the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home, before moving onto its next onslaught of titles – and with news of that movie’s existence pre-dating Infinity War – more MCU features were always coming. As a result, figures like teenager web-slinger Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his fallen brethren were never going to remain just ash in the wind.
While these truths didn’t undercut Infinity War’s grim but sensitive finale, they leave an imprint on Endgame. The 22nd entry in a seemingly endless series, it can engagingly cap off 11 years of episodic big-screen storytelling, paying tribute to the thriving world it has built, weaving threads together and setting the stage for the future, but it can simultaneously feel as safe and calculated as it is.
Once again, the plot is largely straightforward even as it connects a wealth of MCU characters, including fellow post-Thanos remnants Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). After a moving introduction that depicts Thanos’ genocidal act from Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) perspective, the surviving gang regroup 22 days after the events of Infinity War, determined to reverse the catastrophic loss, reclaim 'the vanished' and to do 'whatever it takes' – as stressed not just as a reminder to audiences that this film will have a body count, but uttered in a way familiar to anyone who’s grieving and/or facing their own mortality, reassuring themselves about their personal ordeal.
It’s a credit to four-time MCU directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War) and seasoned franchise scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, (Thor: The Dark World, the three Captain America films, Avengers: Infinity War) that Endgame’s three-hour affair bears the necessary weight and heft, but rarely bows or lags because of it.
This is a quick-moving movie that’s timed to pack much into its running time, to give every character a moment and to revel in nostalgia, a balancing act that works with humour and heart. Indeed, the film’s saggiest section is also its most breezily enjoyable, with the air of indulgence easily justified. For a feature predicated around seeking revenge and righting a gigantic wrong, its big battle is fleetly handled (and for a CGI-heavy effort, the saga’s slick spectacle is reined-in, too, although its product placement certainly isn’t). Wisely, the emotional toll is given preference over the physical conflict.
More than a decade in the making, Endgame should work – after spinning interwoven tales that trained cinema-goers to adore its long-form cinematic storytelling, the MCU has had the time to plan its bigger picture, to earn audience investment and to contemplate the life-and-death stakes. That said, much of the reason that the film hits the intended mark stems from its cast more than its narrative specifics.
The Russo brothers dive into the mourning process, ponder the meaning of sacrifice, play around with temporality (referencing a few time-travel favourites along the way) and pull a few heists, but it’s the years spent with Downey Jr, Evans, Ruffalo, Hemsworth, Johansson and company that pays off. Like most of the franchise’s high-profile players, they’ve brought more to their roles than has been written on the page, and they’re given ample room to do so again here.
Some, such as Downey Jr, reclaim a mode that fits after stretching the snarky charm thin in recent years. Others, like Johansson, show why they’ve always ranked among the series’ quiet achievers. Many proceed on the path that’s consistently served them well, to the benefit of the MCU as a whole.
Less thrilling is what all of this reverence means, existentially. Everyone comes to Marvel films for battles on a literally existential scale, but not necessarily to spend time considering existential matters – and yet one goes with the other, especially in the aftermath of Infinity War, and even more after nearly two-dozen features. Endgame isn’t the first big-name property to posit that death can be cured, or that facing the end should only be the domain of the evil or of heroic martyrs. Many thematic bedfellows prosper in the same space, including the other enormous pop culture phenomenon serving up its own, more definitive ending soon, Game of Thrones.
Still, even as the MCU’s punctuation mark installment (a semi-colon of a flick, not a full-stop) proves rewarding regarding the heroes that viewers have come to love since 2008’s Iron Man, it also feels unmistakably empty in a broader sense. This is a movie that knows how to tick its boxes well, how to treat its protagonists as they deserve and how to earn its reaction – but it’s also one that acts like killing off half the world only really affects caped crusaders, removes any human impact from its climax and lets one character gratuitously admire himself, after all.
Rating: 3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
US, 2019, 181 mins
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