(As the title above suggests, this review will contain SPOILERS. Proceed at your own discretion.)
There is no more an unenviable task than trying to stick the landing on a finale. This is even more so when that finale happens to be the capstone to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a sprawling 11 year and 22 movie saga that has scooped up billions of dollars and achieved the status of being global cultural currency. And though the task is daunting, directors Anthony and Joe Russo succeed in making Avengers: Endgame a satisfying capstone to the the most audacious film experiment in living memory by unabashedly providing us with the most positive version of fan service and, more importantly, a real ending for the original crew of the Avengers.
Since this is a spoiler-edition review, lets just get the basic details of the plot out of the way first. The events of Endgame pick up twenty days after Infinity War with Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) snap-induced genocide murdering half of all living creatures in the universe. The surviving Avengers, along with a newly recruited The surviving Avengers, along with a newly recruited Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), quickly hatch a plan for revenge and in perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the movie succeed in finding Thanos and his destroyed infinity gauntlet before proceeding to defeat and kill him before the title appears. This leads to a time jump of five years where the Avengers have basically split up into their own different sub-teams, stung by their ultimate failure and still licking their wounds. This mournful period ends when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), last seen trapped in the quantum realm, gets accidentally released and reveals the time-warping qualities of the zone. This in turn inspires the brainiacs of the group to devise a time-traveling device and the remaining Avengers go back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones, reassemble them into their own gauntlet, and snap Thanos’ victims back into existence. Though they face hiccups (which will be discussed shortly) they more or less succeed but only by attracting the attention of an earlier version (and more murderous version) of Thanos, who follows them into the present and sets up a final climactic battle in which (almost) all our superheroes return to triumphant fashion. In the end Thanos is defeated when Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sacrifices himself by using the Infinity Stones to snap Thanos out of existence – the collateral damage of using the stones mortally wounds him. An emotional funeral follows, and the movie concludes with Captain America (Chris Evans) hanging up his shield and retiring. Cue credits.
Looking at the plot it is not surprising that the Russo brothers could not find a way to cut the movie down under three hours. And similarly hopefully you can see why I felt the need to write a spoiler-heavy review. So much of what makes this movie works is plot and character development related and it is precisely the way it surprises us that makes the movie a suitable ending to the MCU saga (or at least an ending to this phase).
The first brilliant masterstroke of the movie is the jump forward to five years after the swift and ultimately empty defeat of Thanos. In a ballsy move for what is arguably the biggest blockbuster in recent memory, we spend an extended amount of time sitting with our heroes as they individually come to terms with their failure and to sit with their defeat. It is rare for any big-budget blockbuster to allow space for self-reflection, mourning, and yet the Russo brothers dare to have their first third of this movie dwell in grief. This period of the movie also helps mitigate what was the greatest criticism of Infinity War, namely that it was stuffed from beginning to end with action and characters, allowed us little space to breathe. It is genuinely interesting to see what failure has done to these characters, whether it is in seeing Tony Stark settle down and start a family or the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) find a newfound level of zen and acceptance. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) tries to assuage her guilt by diving into a workaholic fervor as the new de-facto coordinator of the Avengers while Captain America, ever the boy scout, mitigates his guilt by helping others deal with theirs. And in a near-MVP performance, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) new status as a half-sozzled and emotionally insecure man-child is both startlingly hilarious and somehow more in keeping with the Norse god’s mythology. By having us sit with out heroes as failures, not only are we given a glimpse into their frailty but also it gives our characters an arc of redemption to shoot for.
When the plot kicks into action with Ant-Man’s release from the quantum realm, the Russo’s maintain a focus on character (a task made easier by the fact that half the Avengers remain deceased). And here the Russo’s reveal the dirty little secret of the MCU’s success – the best part of these movies are not the action sequences but are instead the moments in which these god-like heroes get to simply hang out with one another. When the time-travel plot kicks in the movie splits the remaining few Avengers into smaller subgroups; seeing the unlikely pairing of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) or the continued (mis)adventures of Thor and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) among others is a sheer delight.
Their time travel adventures also happens to take the team to some of the most iconic set-pieces in the MCU including Asgard circa Thor: The Dark World, the first planet of Guardians of the Galaxy, and New York during the climactic battle in The Avengers. This move should come of as hokey and ridiculously alienating towards people who have not spent time in the MCU but given that the title of this movie is Endgame, I will grant that the series has earned the right to this audacious victory lap; that is also happens to be so much fun is simply a bonus. As the teams get split up into separate sections it simply affords us an even longer opportunity to hang out with our favorite heroes once more, but it also showcases yet another hallmark of the series: it’s pitch-perfect casting. With the action picking up considerably in this second act and our heroes flung to four different settings, we aren’t given many drawn-out scenes. Instead we are given quick character moments and it is here that the MCU’s strength in casting comes through. All it takes is one earnest smile from Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) or an incredulous look of disdain from Don Cheadle (War Machine) to quickly sell the brief scenes they are put in. Similarly Bradley Cooper and Karen Gillan prove to be perfect personalities to place in unrecognizable form as a racoon and half-android. The comic timing of Chris Hemsworth we have already mentioned, but what makes his performance perfect in this movie is that his public persona so perfectly embodies Thor’s that his evolution in Endgame seems more like a natural progression than a sharp departure. Over and over again Marvel puts these characters into outlandish situations with nothing but the strength of their personality to ground us in the action. And more often than not they succeed.
What also makes this second act so much fun is that it is clear that all those involved have a level of self-awareness over the proceedings. The time-travel aspect, so often the downfall of many a movie, succeeds in part because the movie simultaneously mocks so many of the other time-travel movies that have gone before it (with Back to the Future receiving particular scorn) while being aware enough to know its own time-travel rules don’t necessarily make that much more sense (as with all time-travel movies, if it seems believable enough in the moment, then it counts as a successful use of time-travel. All time-travel movies fall apart on further reflection). Meanwhile the best scene of the whole movie occurs when Thor proceeds to give a retelling of Thor: The Dark World, easily one of the worst entries of the franchise, with all the clarity you might expect from a half-drunk god as the rest of the team looks on with a combination of boredom and disgust. The moment speaks to the confidence with which Endgame is working with: it can take a dump on its worst efforts and still turn that into a moment for great comedy.
However it is also in this second act that we come up against one of the movie’s blunders: namely the death of Black Widow. First off, having Black Widow and Hawkeye, the two least super-powered of the bunch, go after the soul stone alone seems like a bad tactical move but then from a narrative standpoint it also seems lazy to basically replicate the same journey Thanos and Gamora make in Infinity War (with the only twist being that Black Widow and Hawkeye try to desperately to be the one to sacrifice themselves). For one of the major characters of the entire series (and as the only female superhero for an inordinate amount of time in the MCU) it seems too abrupt an end to her arc and as hers is the only death until the final battle, strangely inconsequential. Rumors of a Black Widow prequel movie may indeed give her the full sendoff Johansson deserves, but as it stands her early demise is just a little bit deflating.
The end of the second act also ratchets up the tension as it desperately tries to set up the pieces for a climactic final battle. With the present-day Thanos currently dead, it falls upon a convoluted series of events to make the 2014 version of Thanos aware of the time-travelling heroes plot and another series of convoluted events to set events in motion for this version of Thanos to show up for a third-act battle royale. Again it seems appropriate, where one of the regular criticisms of Marvel movies is that it frequently is frantically setting up future installments, that the end of the second act of the ultimate installment in the franchise suffers a similar problem of needing to frantically get us to the third act.
Just as it is not a secret that the characters are the MCU’s greatest strength so is it true that the third acts most often represent the weakest part of an MCU movie, and so this proves to be true in Endgame. Fortunately though “weakest” is a relative term and the final frenetic action works much more than it doesn’t. While the act begins with Hulk “de-snapping” the universe, and thereby resurrecting all of our fallen superheroes, the movie wisely takes its time in getting the gang together for the final battle with Thanos. His destruction of the Avengers headquarters forces all the Avengers sans Thor, Cap, and Iron Man to be incapacitated which sets the stage for one of the better fight sequences in the MCU. It also has one genuinely fist-pumping surprising moment that even in this spoiler-filled review I can’t bear to spoil. Nonetheless the extended battle between the trio and Thanos helps set the personal stakes of the battle before it devolves into a CGI-fest.
Thanos proves to be too powerful for the OG Avengers, and so it proves to be a moving moment when the resurrected heroes return in the nick of time to provide some much needed backup. However the return of the superheroes is the least well-kept secret in Hollywood, so it was hard to be too surprised by this development. And similarly the third act plays out in predictable ways – after the events of Infinity War there was no way this battle would end in anything but a comprehensive Avengers victory. And so the only particular thrills is in seeing each member of our Avengers get a chance to show off for the cameras while playing keep-away with the Infinity Stones from Thanos. An all-female assault on Thanos’ forces is objectively awesome looking, even as it also feels like an unearned act of self-congratulation seeing as it took Marvel close to a decade to have a woman play anything other than a supporting role in their movies. But beyond that moment, the battle basically plays out as a glorified act of fan-service – it is tailor-made to inspire cheers.
And yet, this final battle is moving because over the course of its previous 22 movies, Marvel has earned the right to flex. Every brief cameo in this movie is laden with meaning because the hard work of character building has already been done. But this final battle is also moving because it is the rare Marvel movie battle that has some actual stakes to it since at the end, someone of great signifiicance finally dies.
Though it is no surprise to anyone who has the slightest attention to Hollywood trade news, the battle against Thanos ends with Iron Man’s ultimate sacrifice as he uses the Infinity Stones to “snap” away Thanos and his forces. Being a mere mortal the collateral damage of using those stones fatally wounds Iron Man and thus serves as the curtain call for Robert Downey Jr. It is hard to overstate just how important Downey Jr. has been to the series and similarly how important the series has been for his career revitalization. So often he has set the tone for the movies, has periodically enlivened every scene he’s appeared, and it is no coincidence that most of the best MCU movies have had a heavy dose of Downey Jr. in them. If there has been a problem in later Marvel movies it has been that his arc as Iron Man seemed to be quickly running out of steam, so it is a relief (though a sad one) that Endgame gets to serve as his final sendoff.
Endgame also serves as the curtain call for Chris Evans as Captain America (again, no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to contract negotiations) and he too gets a deserving sendoff as one of the cornerstones of the franchise. In many ways Evans has always had the harder task, taking a character who was by definition a square boy scout with a strong nationalistic bent who was always “too good” and having to make him interesting. The fact that the MCU’s version of Captain America managed to be one of the most compelling figures in the expansive series is a testament to Evans’ strength of personality. And with both Cap and Iron Man finally hanging up their boots, Endgame represents a definitive conclusion and a changing of the guard.
Endgame had a vital role to play as the capstone of the most audacious play in the history of filmmaking and thus it proves a nearly impossible movie to evaluate on its own as it needed to be a good enough movie on its own merit but also serve as the securing of the MCU’s legacy. It is suitably climactic, raising the stakes to a feverish level that will not be easily topped (and probably shouldn’t for a long time). It gives a proper victory lap to some of the series’ founding members and gives the retiring members of the old guard suitable exits. And while it puts the pieces in place for future installments, Endgame spends very little energy on these things, instead placing all of its narrative weight on providing the series a finale. This is a movie that is clearly a love letter to the characters that have turned the series into a global phenomenon, and it is also clearly an unabashed act of fan service. For once fan service benefits the movie, and Endgame proves to be one of the series’ best.
Runtime: 181 minutes
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurai, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin (and a ridiculous bunch of other people. Go IMDB it yourself).