The best of the MCU's crossovers without even thinking about it too hard, Avengers: Endgame is even better than that fairly-faint praise implies, and it earns its place in cinema history (and our hearts) for at last giving some its various childlike empresses their names, and bringing some of their neverending stories to a highly satisfying close.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Spoiler alert: severe
I think I'm in shock about it, and maybe I've just been pummeled into believing it, but there's a real possibility that, despite the fatigue, despite the wheel-spinning, the fourth film to bear the name of Marvel's Avengers is the single best movie Marvel's made, period. It's at least the best Avengers they've made, and while that's a much more trivial claim, I mean it's better by a lot. 2012's first team-up effort remains the perfectly fine thing I pegged it as seven years ago, rather than any actually-great movie, way more important for what it accomplished industrially than what it achieved cinematically. One of those instant classics that was overtaken almost immediately by all that arrived in its wake, everything that seemed special about it then seems much less so now; everything everyone claimed was tricky about it then, like Joss Whedon managing (gasp!) to somehow put multiple characters into a single movie, now seems like what it kind of always was, so easy and banal that it's hard to imagine the mindset of the cavepeople who treated it like a miracle when it happened. I mean, congratulations, you made fire. Of course, its draggy third act battle against evil sky garbage has become such a genre cliche that, in 2019, it's almost easier to blame The Avengers than to praise it. Meanwhile, Age of Ultron is still an overstuffed, watchably-dull bag of plot points—moreso that than it is "a movie," as such—and Infinity War, while still rather good on its own particular merits (and still totally perplexing in how it manages to move through so many minutes so quickly without even taking recourse to basic cross-cutting), has not, even in context with its sequel, become more than what it was intended to be, and what many Marvel movies were intended to be, namely set-up for a payoff.
But Endgame is the pay-off. A 22 film series that runs over 48 hours should probably be more about the journey than the destination, but I can't say I haven't mostly loved the journey, too, nor that I don't dig the destination it's arrived at, which offers a conclusion to a story that began eleven long years ago, with another of the MCU's handful of greatest hits, Iron Man. It is, clearly, almost pointless to "review" a film that everyone who reads this will have already seen; that is, more pointless than usual. (On the other hand, probably the biggest problem with film writing as a form is that it usually must assume you haven't seen the movie, and this weakness has never been more evident than with the pre-release writing on Endgame, which is so shrouded in generalities that it barely qualifies as film writing—more like marketing with a star rating attached.) With this in mind, we'll just do what we always do with superhero movies here, which is indulgently shoot the shit about how it succeeds and fails, based mostly on my own preconceived biases. And naturally it does have failures to go along with its successes. A slab of moving picture this monumental was never going to be flawless. But I'll say something else nice about it first: it's the first Marvel film since Phase 1 where you don't feel like it might be holding something back. I guess that's the beauty of endings.
Endgame picks up where we left off the last time, with half of all sentient life having just been destroyed with a snap of a fledgling God's fingers. That gauntleted deity, Thanos (Josh Brolin), has departed with the six Infinity Stones in hand, and maybe Endgame's most interesting swerve is how it severs its path toward justice so swiftly, with a strike team finding Thanos on his retirement planet, his gauntlet empty and his arm bearing the scorching marks of the Stones' destruction, and so, with our heroes having nothing whatsoever left to do, they simply execute him and go home. This is all in the first thirty, maybe twenty minutes of this 182 minute film—it has the exact same length as El Cid, for trivia's sake—and Endgame takes a page from The Legion of Super-Heroes, of all the awesome things, when it quietly, simply skips FIVE YEARS LATER, and brings us to a world broken by the Avengers' failure.
It becomes very plain that there is no real fixing of this world. Realistically, it's only a little bit less apocalyptic at the end of the film than it is at the beginning. But while it is almost a certitude that none of this will matter (or matter enough) even as soon as the next Marvel film, Spider-Man: Far From Home—even though, if we're being sticklers, it Goddamn should, because it absolutely murders the "world outside your window" conceit of the Marvel Universe, then sets its corpse on fire—it nonetheless matters here, and, you know, that'll do. Endgame slows down to let us soak in the bleakness. It's a world with its population halved, where New York City can't support two baseball teams, where whales are back and interfering with riverine navigation, and where cameoing directors cry on first dates about things that happened half a decade ago. It's so bleak that even Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner's) return is a welcome sight, having, in his grief, refashioned himself more along the lines of a (Green) Arrow, albeit in the process he's also adopted a haircut so ridiculously embarrassing that it's impossible to take his scenes completely seriously, which is a shame because Endgame has several scenes with Hawkeye it wants you to take quite seriously indeed.
Quibbles aside, these vignettes of a despairing world are a fine thing to use some of that infinite runtime for, and it gives Engdame the complexion of a legitimate epic (in the proper sense of the term, not just as an empty compliment), which is rarer in superhero cinema than you might think, and maybe even unique. And it gives us more character-driven storytelling than Marvel movies usually have time for or interest in.
Quality and tonal coherence vary, as they always do. Tony Stark gets the very best of it, Robert Downey Jr. more engaged than he's been in many, many years, railing with ragged emotion expressed through a violent monologue (that only superficially resembles Iron Man's typical quips) at the man who amounts to Endgame's other chief focal point, Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Chris Evans), whom time has proven wrong in every important respect. Likewise, the "Professor Hulk" version of the angry green giant (Mark Ruffalo) is a surprising but natural evolution of that character, maybe one too divorced from the essence of the Tales to Astonish years to be the definitive iteration, but one that indicates that growth and change is at least possible—and, since it hearkens back to the 90s when I first picked up an issue of David's Incredible Hulk, it's very much more akin to my personal Bruce Banner. But then there's Fat Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who wants to have his cake and eat it too, played as what the film thinks is a light but sensitive portrayal of a god's trauma while also being played, sometimes in the very next line, as the kind of drunkard comedy that went out of style in the late 1930s, alongside the kind of fatsuit comedy so indebted to Goldie Hawn's depressive state in the first ten minutes of Death Becomes Her that it's hard to accept there's supposed to be a serious side of it. So maybe it works, but only intermittently. Then, of course, there's always Hawkeye's haircut, which works never.
But it could not be a superhero story if it did not rekindle hope, and that's what happens when Scott "Ant-Man" Lang (Paul Rudd), last seen in the post-credits sequence of Ant-Man and the Wasp, makes his way out of the subatomic quantum realm he's been trapped in for five years (our time) and five hours (his). Inspired by the possibilities this suggests, the Avengers (after some malingering) commit themselves to Scott's "Time Heist," to collect past versions of the Infinity Stones and carry them back to the future, where they can use the power of their own homebrewed Infinity Gauntlet to wish everybody that Thanos culled back out of the cornfield.
This does a whole lot of things I love all at once: it opens up a very fun, almost Silver Agey fetch-quest through time, complicated but disciplined; it banishes the oppressive bleakness of the present for the brighter experience of another save-the-world caper; it offers this capstone to the MCU a chance to explore its legacy in direct ways, by revisiting its past as seen from the future and embracing the sheer sprawl of the world it's created over 22 films; it plays very much the same reflexive game regarding the nature of sequeldom as Back to the Future Part II, except with the added wrinkle of strangers from other sub-franchises catching up on the Marvel films they missed; it even wonders aloud about the nature of change, most expressively through Thanos' daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose present-day and 2014 versions, surprisingly, rise to the level of "protagonist" for several scenes at a time. It also does one thing I can't decide if, frankly, I hate: because it's obvious, now, that the first Ant-Man ended the way it does—without a loss of many years for Scott and his erstwhile daughter, Cassie—because even back in 2015 somebody was planning for Endgame to hit those tragic notes instead, which means that, in this instance, Endgame is directly responsible for making one of its predecessors worse. But hey, at least they hit those notes eventually.
Most implausibly of all, however, Endgame does not bog down in the usual spurious bullshit of time travel (looking at you, CW's The Flash), with only a few gestures thrown in that direction by way of Tony being unwilling to give up the family he's established with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the past five years, that are as easily read as the man's desire to return to and repair his universe rather than someone else's. (There's a rankling logistical problem, where Tony basically invents time travel in a single night, that might've been less noticeable if the five year gap had been filled with him toying around with the idea himself. Who knows? Maybe you can read this the way you want to, too.)
Endgame expresses its philosophy of time travel opaquely, and kind of doesn't care if you understand it, and it very blatantly does this so you don't interrogate it too harshly when it obviously breaks from it—Tilda Swinton, though always a pleasure, basically puts on a mystic arts version of Doc Brown's own chalkboard gobblydegook, incorporating both alternate timelines and time loops—but it's rigorous enough, picking up on a lesser-used paradigm, specifically one that contemplates an Everettian multiverse; it even namedrops David Deutsch. (If nothing else, any movie that explicitly says "Back to the Future is bullshit," which it is, can't help but make me smile. In terms of time travel flicks, Endgame's closest relative isn't any of the films it discusses, but Primer.) Look too closely, and the Everettian system has profound dramatic and even existential problems (I personally suspect it's a physical fact, but that shouldn't constrain fiction), because a quantum multiverse means that anything that can happen does, which arguably means that nothing actually matters—hell, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) straight-up told us there are already a zillion universes where Thanos wins—but it has the dramatic benefit of every person we care about being made out of particles with their own consistent worldlines, which means death is actually real, even if it can, through phenomenal cosmic powers, be reversed.
It also means that the Thanos we get in Endgame isn't even the tortured ecoterrorist of the last film—one of the best reasons for splitting the two up, besides the absurd amount of content, is that Infinity War gets to be Thanos' story, while Endgame doesn't have to pretend to care about him beyond his existence as a very mean purple space warlord—but even if he's reduced to the level of a Mongul ("who?" you say? yeah, pretty much), it's not like Infinity War was a correct adaptation of Starlin's Titan to begin with, so fuck it. The only truly objectionable thing about Endgame's Thanos is how it turns the snap from a neat affectation into, apparently, the Infinity Gauntlet's only user-interface. (It's not my biggest problem with the duology's adaptation, but it really does not "get" the Infinity Gauntlet, and because it needs the heroes to win at some point, needs to have it be both a magical artifact capable of effecting change across the entire universe instantly and be something that can't be properly used in combat. It's arguably a logical improvement over the actual comic, Infinity Gauntlet, but certainly doesn't make it cooler.) Yet Brolin's still better-than-good-enough. So's Thanos' CGI, which is still the most impressive thing Marvel has ever managed in terms of pure effects work. He's an overwhelming physical presence—I just love that big-ass anime sword—and that's exactly what Endgame's last forty-five minutes needs, since Endgame's last forty-five minutes are a battle supreme for control of the Stones between the Avengers and their hangers-on and a time-traveling Thanos and all his armies. It's a little overlong (I mean, it always is) and has so many moving parts you can lose track of why any individual one might be important.
But it earns its length as well as its density, like no Marvel action sequence has done before—in fact, it feels more like a DC ending, that is, motivated and interesting, playing for enormous stakes (the resurrection of half the damn universe!) and with the kind of superheroic iconography and clever tactics that those hired hands, the Russos, have only occasionally managed in their previous films, and then mostly in the Cap/Iron Man dust-up in Civil War. It comes, however, with overstuffed Marvel flair: truly a George Perez comic in motion, from its three-on-one battle between the Avengers' trinity and Thanos to the superlative moment when Dr. Strange arrives with the cavalry—and it is fantastic.
If anything, there's too much iconography: Endgame's instantly-famous/instantly-infamous deployment of Marvel's superheroines in their own cinematic splash page obliterates geography in favor of a pin-up, and that's the best thing about it. For some reason deciding that emblems of female power like Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) need to share a frame with the likes of Mantis (Pom Klementieff, a character whose greatest contribution to the universe remains getting hit in the head with falling debris in GotG vol. 2), Endgame misses its generational opportunity to normalize things that should have always been normal—but, then, maybe that shouldn't be a surprise from a studio that treated the release of their first movie solely headlined by a woman, after releasing twenty movies headlined by men, as a source of pride. Even so, it's pretty cool. (Though it brings me to the worst thing about Endgame: it has shockingly little use for Carol Danvers beyond her power-set, and even not as much use for that as you'd expect, in retrospect rendering Captain Marvel's portentous placement in the Marvel schedule almost pointless. Which is especially weird given that there's no reason for her to not have a serious preexisting grudge against a cosmic marauder like Thanos, whom she really ought to have run into already, given the chronology.)
But ultimately it's the human stakes that matter most in Endgame, providing an unforgettable end for Tony Stark with the same words that closed Iron Man, and for the first time in many years giving Paltrow an emotion to chew on that wasn't expressed through the kind of crypto-sexist nagging that suggested that Pepper didn't know the planet Tony was always off saving was the one she lived on, too. "I am Iron Man" is great, legendary stuff, but "We're going to be okay"—that is actually a little sublime. Endgame is less sublime in its send-off for Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), not so much because her heroic sacrifice comes halfway through the film than because it's a choice between her and Hawkeye, and while they've never gone out of their way to make Widow especially interesting in her own right (a solo movie out in a couple of years? talk about too little too late!), you are also terribly aware during this scene that even Marvel Studios can't have deluded themselves into believing that anybody cares about Hawkeye, or could be emotionally manipulated by his death. Well, it's a fine heroic sacrifice, regardless. As for Cap—well, maybe Cap breaks the time travel mechanics, maybe he doesn't. Maybe it's weird that Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who's been in the same boat, just nobody cared, doesn't go with him. But it's an excellent farewell for Steve Rogers, too. And, for once, a Marvel movie offers a genuine kindness in the midst of its adventure: sure, it's 99% of a death, give or take, but one that, at last, let this soldier go home. The upshot is, Endgame treats its human sacrifices respectfully, even reverently, and it feels complete. It feels final, too, in a way a superhero comic never would, but a superhero movie can. Maybe it even will be. Omnia mutantur and everything.
Endgame tends to hit its high notes with expertise, then, and stumbles a lot more rarely than a movie this long ought to (the only really painful stuff is in the epilogues, which beats the Thor/Guardians of the Galaxy thing so far into the ground you wonder if you're even slightly excited about GotG vol. 3, and offers a scene that pairs Hawkeye with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), which is basically a black hole of disinterest). Otherwise, it's really spectacular, which it was always going to be; but it's intimate and moving, too, which was never to have been expected. And it is satisfying, in very deep ways, which is maybe the best surprise of all.