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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Avengers: Endgame

Apologies for the delay. First few paragraphs are spoiler-free.

I apologize for the lateness of this review. I’ve had an absolute nightmare of a time trying to post to the site all weekend.


I wouldn’t go so far as to call Avengers: Endgame the greatest film ever made. There are other works more deserving of that honor, works with more appeal as stand-alone, iconic masterworks.

But Avengers: Endgame is the single greatest movie ever made from a storytelling perspective. And it’s not remotely a close race.

This is mostly due to its predecessors in the 11+ year history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I’ve dedicated the last several months of my movie-related writing to recapping, almost exclusively. The MCU is an epic achievement, an edifice of human creativity and modern culture that should last decades.

But too often, grand series have disappointing endings. The Hunger Gamesimmediately comes to mind, or the Terminator franchise, or the Indiana Jones films, or the near-total disaster that was the first phase of DC’s superhero universe. Misfires occur even in the most promising of storytelling situations.

This movie, though, is a near-perfect masterclass in what makes an excellent finale, completing arc after arc in a meticulous, targeted manner that I don’t think I’ve seen in an original cinematic multi-movie narrative since the first Avengers team-up. It’s everything you want, and more: a concentrated dose of catharsis and nostalgia that will impact you deeply if you care for Marvel’s characters. Go see it.

I can’t say any more without spoiling the film, so from here on out,

SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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I MEAN IT. DO NOT KEEP READING FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE MOVIE SPOILED. JUST GO WATCH IT AND THEN COME BACK.

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All right, if you’re still here, I assume you’ve seen the movie, so I can blather freely about how utterly excellent the plot of this movie was.

Right off the bat, I hope Rian Johnson was taking notes, because the first 20 minutes of this movie are exactly how you subvert expectations. I expected the Avengers to get their junk together and go after Thanos. As Tony Stark spat at Captain America when he saw him again, that’s kinda their deal.

I didn’t expect them to do it in the first few scenes and win easily. But Thanos had destroyed the Infinity Stones. There was no recovering their friends. So Thor just hacked his head off. Avenging completed.

Then that text: FIVE YEARS LATER.

Adding a time jump to this film was the first masterstroke. The Avengers sure avenged the Earth, all right. But they were too late, and they had to sit with their failure and loss for five years. Even after that much time, they’re all still bereaved. Their interactions, their body language, it all has hopeless existential weight.

Then a mouse saves the universe. (We see the subtext, Disney.)

The rodent steps on a switch, powering on Scott Lang’s quantum tunnel, and he pops back into existence, at first unaware of what happened to the world. His encounter with his now-teenage daughter was the best acting I’ve seen from Paul Rudd in these films — at once a heartbreaking and heartwarming moment.

He reunites with a despondent Cap and Black Widow, who are ready to for any shred of hope. They gather up a now-ragtag team of former Avengers and Guardians, all fundamentally altered by the choices they’ve made. Hawkeye’s a merciless vigilante, Tony’s a family man, Bruce is now half Hulk and a really nice guy. And Thor has completely let himself go, hilariously becoming a far sadder version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

(That’s the secret to so much of Avengers: Endgame early on, by the way. It continually mixes profound sadness and hilarity with incredible deftness.)

Joined by Rocket, War Machine, and Nebula, our heroes hatch a plan to recover the six Infinity Stones from the past, bring them to the present, snap their fingers, and bring everyone back. In this movie, time travel’s slightly different than most Hollywood fare, resting between Back To The Future and Star Trek (2009). Yes, zipping back in time and bringing a Stone to the present creates a new timeline, but meeting past selves doesn’t cause time paradoxes or anything. The past our heroes enter becomes their present. But it’s more a gimmick, and the nuances of it really don’t matter. It does create hilarious and heartwarming moments, like Cap fighting himself and Thor having a last chat with his mom.

That handwavy, breezy affect carries over into other plot elements as well. It’s replete with some truly remarkable conveniences, but they don’t drag down the film. I didn’t mind some quick, lucky victories for our heroes when they were so hopelessly beaten and defeated last movie. I doubt most of the audience will either.

Most of our movie’s middle is dedicated to this “time heist,” as Ant-Man calls it, complicated by Past Thanos’s awareness of the time travelers, deduction of their intentions, and infiltration using Past Nebula. This Thanos isn’t the world-weary, measured brutalist of Infinity War. He’s younger, hungrier, just beginning his quest for the Stones. He’s got far more military forces, and all his Children — most importantly Gamora, who eventually stays in our universe, effectively resetting her character.

I should also note the fantastic Vormir sequence between Hawkeye and Black Widow, as they fight over who should sacrifice themselves to save the other.

After a fantastic trip through Marvel movies past, the heroes return to the present, Tony crafts a gauntlet, and Bruce/Hulk takes on the awesome responsibility of snapping his fingers to bring everyone back. He seems to do so, but then Past Thanos arrives (thanks to Past Nebula) to lay waste to the Earth.

What follows is a Spielbergian climax of epic proportions that equals or betters every epic battle in film history while giving nearly every main character their moment, as they all return to battle Thanos and his legions. It’s indescribably awesome, but the moment that stuck out to me most (and caused every audience member in my theater to whoop and holler in delight) was Captain America using Thor’s hammer to beat Thanos senseless. It’s an incredible testament to Cap’s incorruptible excellence as the moral compass of the Avengers, his purity as a hero, and his worthiness as a self-sacrificing leader.

See, for all of the heroes in these films, the Infinity Saga as a 22-film arc really centers around three of them. First, there’s Steve Rogers, an uncompromisingly good and just man out of time who goes from order-taking soldier to self-possessed leader. He deserves a happy ending, and he gets one — staying in the past to live out his days with Peggy, the love of his life.

Then there’s Thor Odinson, a once-cocky prince who loses everything he ever loved and abjectly fails to prevent genocide. Endgame is the lowest point for tragic Thor, who’s had his fair share of them. Yet after speaking with his mother, he pulls himself together again, and once again goes after Thanos. His tenacity pays off as he overcomes the beatdown life’s given him. He’s not done evolving, either. His upcoming stint with the Guardians will hopefully help him continue growing in wisdom and stature.

Lastly, Tony Stark, arguably the single most important character in these movies. Formerly an arrogant self-made man, he’s been continually reminded since becoming Iron Man that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot singlehandedly save the world or protect everyone. He’s imperfect and heedless of error. Yet by putting aside his need to control the outcome in this movie, he’s able to do what he’s best at — solving a problem — as part of a team. And in the end, he fulfills his greatest desire: with a single snap, Tony saves everyone, at the cost of his own life. Somehow this is in perfect keeping with Tony as a fixer, a man of action. Before, though, he always did so with one eye toward his own preservation. Pepper’s last words to Tony are exactly what he’s been waiting to hear his whole life: “We’re gonna be OK. You can rest now.”

The movie’s direction is flawless, its effects dazzling. But that’s the case with most Marvel films, so it’s no surprise. Yet another effortless-seeming outing from the Russo Brothers, who are by now surely the greatest blockbuster film directors of the modern era.

There’s a few more character moments and filmmaking bits I appreciated that didn’t fit neatly into the review, so I’ll mention them now:

  • Well, now we know Hulk’s greatest weakness, and it’s the same as Po’s from Kung Fu Panda: STAIRS!!!
  • Bringing Loki back in such a humorous way, and allowing him to escape with the time-bending Tesseract, was pitch perfect. I can’t wait to see what Disney does with his upcoming TV show.
  • I was glad to see the final Stan Lee cameo here. It just wouldn’t have been the same without him. All the additional short cameos were wonderful as well. It colors the world in well when everyone returns, even if for a few seconds. I’m specifically thinking of Natalie Portman’s brief non-speaking return.
  • Man, Disney is really close to nailing that de-aging technology. Give them another year and we’ll probably be all the way out of the uncanny valley.
  • Captain Marvel was used perfectly in this film: demonstrating awesome power, carrying herself like someone who knows she has it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Endgame makes Captain Marvel completely unnecessary viewing. Her character is acceptably overpowered yet flat here, maintaining her bland personality and incredible strength, the textbook definition of a Mary Sue. And it didn’t bother me at all, because she wasn’t the protagonist — just a force for good that swoops in to save things and put a dent in Thanos at a crucial moment, like the Eagles in Lord of the Rings.
  • The entire scene where hero after hero and army after army pours through countless portals to assist Captain America at the final battle was incredibly moving. I was so ecstatically happy the entire time. Seeing all the forces of light marshaled against the forces of darkness is a great and good thing, and that scene captured it perfectly.
  • Let’s talk about Doctor Strange’s plan, which is crystal clear now. Tony Stark needed to survive Thanos’ onslaught in Infinity War, even at the cost of the Time Stone, because he was the only one with the genius to solve time travel and craft the Iron Gauntlets that could handle the united Infinity Stones. But the key marker for the single timeline in which the Avengers succeeded, notably, had nothing to do with Tony. It was Thanos’ decision to remove the Power Stone from the Gauntlet and hit Captain Marvel squarely in the face with it. Right then, Strange looked directly at Tony and signaled “one.”
  • In the comics, Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson have both been Captain America after Steve Rogers. However, Bucky had the honor before Sam. Personally, I would have preferred that he received the shield and the mantle at the end of this movie, but stalwart Sam is also deserving. I guess we’ll see more of those two in (once again) their own upcoming TV show!
  • These end credits, with the signatures and scenes for each major actor, were suitably grand. A fitting end to this decade-plus project, and one that my theater greeted with a standing ovation.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe now stands at a crossroads. Spider-Man: Far From Home is up next, but things will still feel a little diminished with Tony and Steve gone — as they should. I hope Marvel takes their time and takes it slow building their foundation for the next big phase of movies, and continues this world for as long as they can. For now, though, what a ride it’s been. And what an end.

RATING: 10/10

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