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Film Review – Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (2019; Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, and some of the other twenty films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as well. Although, honestly, if you’re interested enough in this movie to be reading this, you’ll have seen it by now, perhaps more than once. If you haven’t and you’re still reading anyway, you should be prepared to be “spoiled”, whatever that’s supposed to mean at this particular point in our current chaotic cultural discourse. And really, really honestly? Every day we subsist on this beautiful, disgusting carbon ball we call our home planet is one big spoiler, 24 hours cycles of draining disappointment in perpetual limbo between a glowing past we can never recapture and a shining future we may never reach. Life doesn’t provide spoiler alerts, so you should be glad that this obscure little blog has deigned to bother with one.

In reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first big, ambitious Avengers Assemble tentpole blockbuster in 2012, I referred to Joss Whedon’s inevitably successful film as being so huge and unwieldy and grounded in multiple precursor films, corporate cross-promotional synergy, and latent authoritarian undercurrent as to be effectively post-criticism. But what comes after a post-criticism blockbuster, and at least three more of them, for that matter (Avengers: Age of Ultron, defacto team-up flick Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War)? Avengers: Endgame is the answer, at least until Marvel Studios and Disney come up with another one (which they assuredly will).

The MCU has lumbered on relentlessly for just over a decade now in a loose, frequently-branching narrative and thematic continuity, but what’s held it together and focused audiences’ interest and investment more than anything along the way has been its characters. Their arcs of triumphs and errors, quirks and flaws, tragedies and growth, consistency and inconsistency, and above all their connection to each other and to some amorphous but hard-won planet-safeguarding sense of duty have made the cinematic Avengers endearing and even indelible to millions worldwide, who do not merely follow these heroes’ adventures and dramas because multi-billion-dollar media-producing conglomerates that are marching towards industry monopoly status insist that they do but because they want to (to whatever extent we can untangle those intertwined impulses and tell them apart in any way).

Are the Marvel movies massively overblown affairs, inconsistent in quality from one to the next and even in and of themselves, sometimes barely managing to function as recognizable movies in their own right and not half-sequels, half-trailers for future installments? Are they silly, tonally wild, often superficial, full of questionable political implications and gender and racial representations, movies crafted not for children exactly but for adults with a children’s perspective (and not in that good flower-chain glory-of-innocence way that hippies reified in the 1960s)? Sure they are. They’re friggin’ superhero comic books. Superhero comic books brought to the big screen in vivid modern CG magnificence with budgets and grosses and cultural penetration that the late Marvel Comics co-founder Stan Lee must have had to pinch himself 14 times a day to spur himself into believing were true, yes. But superhero comic books they are nonetheless, transposing to cinema screens the longer-term audience commitment, communal interpretive efforts, and economically canny delayed gratification of the serial narrative form, and doing so simultaneously with steely-eyed profit-driven cynicism and overflowing, fan-servicing passion.

But again, the characters, flaws and all, are what has sustained the MCU through numerous side-trips and genre tangents and the sometimes contradictory ideas of artistically diverse (although mostly white male, until rather recently) filmmakers. The core Phase One Avengers have been the human (though not always strictly human) face of this ambitious serialized movie-making experiment since the early days of this Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is rooted in the popular engagement with their journeys while also providing something like an end to their multi-movies arcs (in some cases, at least; others are left surprisingly open-ended).

There’s Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the square-jawed, duty-bound all-American supersoldier whose moral rectitude has often set him at odds with the fellow members of the super-team that he ostensibly leads, to say nothing of the country he pledged long ago to serve (and only rarely lives up to his high moral standards) or the planet he risks everything to protect (same). There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the golden-maned space Viking thunder god whose self-regard in his considerable powers is often comically arrogant (although he is a god, after all) but who has been tested and humbled by tragic losses and failures (a pretty important one of which closed Inifinity War) and humanized by his contact with earthlings. There’s Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist with an angry all-smashing green monster lurking inside him that he intermittently learns to control and even less frequently learns to live with morally and psychologically. There are trained warrior-assassins Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), mere mortals compared to the others despite their formidable skills of targeted violence; Natasha is haunted and driven by guilt at the bad things she’s done, and Clint puts them behind him by immersing himself in the love of his family, something which very few of his fellow Avengers have (outside, of course, of each other). And there’s the elder statesman, the character whose 2008 origin film kicked off this whole strange and lucrative trip: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), ludicrously rich playboy tech genius gone from amoral arms dealer to world-policing powersuit designer and user, smugly superior and freewheeling and pompous but wounded and insecure and seeking out a role as a father figure to compensate for the father that he lost (Howard Stark, played again here by John Slattery) and that he maybe only barely had in his life in the first place.

These Phase One-vintage superheroes, along with Stark’s sidekick James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), make up most of the surviving cohort of Avengers and connected characters following the apocalyptic events of Endgame‘s direct precursor, Infinity War. As it surely must be safe to discuss now, given the passage of a year and the moment’s dissemination and meme-ification across popular culture, that movie ended with mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapping the fingers of a golden gauntlet studded with the six universe-equilibrium-depending Infinity Stones (powerful objects strewn like foreshadowed breadcrumb MacGuffins through numerous MCU films over the years) and wiping out half of the life in the universe, a perverse non-judgemental genocide in the (psychotically deluded) name of totalizing habitat balance.

It would take another lengthy paragraph to name all of the Marvel characters erased in what is known as the Decimation (half of life gone, get it?) or the Dusting (for the eerie but bloodless turn-to-dust effect used to depict these deaths). But the important ones for the purpose of this movie at least are: Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whom Tony Stark was mentoring and whose loss he felt like that of a son; Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), magic-wielding sorceror and former protector of the Time Stone, who looked into the future and foresaw a single outcome in which the Avengers triumph over Thanos (though he reveals it to no one before being dusted); King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whom I mention only because he is ill-served by both halves of this Thanos saga, doing little but provide an army of Wakandans to counter the Titan’s hordes for the climactic CG battle both times.

Endgame delves into (very few of) the consequences of these vanishings and others, as well as revealing additional key ones. Rocket (a talking, gun-toting raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the only remaining Guardian of the Galaxy, along with Thanos’ abused adopted daughter and honorary semi-Guardian Nebula (Karen Gillan); both fall in with the post-Snap Avengers, with nothing else to usefully occupy them. Barton’s whole family is disintegrated in the film’s opening scene, setting him on a path of murderous “revenge” against immoral criminals and thugs who did not disappear like his blameless wife and children. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), as revealed in the post-credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp, lost his “family” too, the Pyms/van Dynes (Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, and Michelle Pfeiffer), which vitally stranded him in the microscopic Quantum Realm for five years, though it seemed only a few hours to him.

Time travel chicanery, as basically everyone who was paying attention to these movies at all in recent years had guessed, figures centrally in the remaining Avengers’ plan to undo the cataclysmic effects of Thanos’ Snap Heard ‘Round the Universe. Going back in time becomes the only path to defeating Thanos when – with the help of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) who was summoned to Earth by Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) pager in the post-credits scene of Infinity War and arrived at Avengers HQ in the post-credits scene of her own film – the team tracks down the Titan on his idyllic galactic retirement farm and discovers him weakened from a recent decision to destroy the Infinity Stones to remove the temptation of using them again. Although Thor makes good on his promise to dispatch Thanos, it’s a pyrrhic victory, and the team grinds away five years in their various outlets of survivor’s guilt: Cap goes to therapy groups, Natasha obsessively keeps the Avengers going, Hawkeye goes ninja-esque Ronin and slays gangsters, Banner toils in the lab to bring a certain equilibrium to him and the green guy, Thor becomes an overweight alcoholic (a sort of Big Thorbowski, complete with Taika Waititi’s hilariously polite CG rock-man Korg as his video-game-playing slacker buddy) in the last bastion of Asgardian refugees, and Stark has a daughter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

But then, by pure chance, Scott Lang is zapped back from the Quantum Realm, and he seeks out the dwindling Avengers (whom he aided in Civil War) with an idea to use the Realm’s flexible sense of time to pull off what he calls a “Time Heist” of the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get to them, which they can then use to bring back the lost. The deflating encounter with a weakened Thanos and a half-hearted Marvel crib-notes version of The Leftovers occupies the film’s first act; veteran MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have a lot to do and mostly do it well in Endgame, but they put much less thought into the widespread consequences of Thanos’ Snap than does this 18-minute YouTube video on the subject from Alternate History Hub (which makes Thanos’ reasoning for the Snap seem even more flawed, especially if half of the livestock and plant life in the universe is catastrophically gone, too, as MCU producer Kevin Feige confirmed but which neither this movie nor the last one suggests).

But in Endgame‘s middle section, the film ramps up its entertainment quotient with delightful dual genre exercises. First, the scattered band must be gotten back together, then they must pull off Infinity Stone heists in four (actually five, before they’re done) points in the past. The Time Heist scenes operate as alternately clever, perfunctory, and agonizingly self-referential callbacks to moments in MCU history (complete with copious cameos): the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy, the elevator scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the aftermath of the Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers, one of Infinity War‘s most emotional scenes, and Thor: The Dark World (between being comically saddled with an obesity suit and being forced to not only return to but also recap to the plot of The Dark World in dialogue, it might seem that Hemsworth is being punished for dismissing that movie as “meh” in an interview). Rogers and Stark even make an unplanned stop in 1970, where they each encounter an important figure from their pasts that inform their late-film decisions.

Unfortunately, these stone-snatching incursions in time draw the attention of powerful, pre-Snap Thanos (I won’t, and likely couldn’t, explain how but it involves the digital entanglement of the past and present-day incarnations of Nebula), who manages to draw his considerable forces against the Avengers for an epic battle in the ruins of their bombed-out HQ that also involves (biggest spoiler here, which isn’t really a spoiler at all because half of them have sequels in the pipe!) all of the once-Dusted superheroes returning in force. Even so, only with heroic sacrifice will they be able to carry the day, in that one in 400 million chance alluded to by Dr. Strange.

This is a lot of plot synopsis and critique (and you may note I’ve sidestepped some of the bigger spoilers), but then Avengers: Endgame is a lot of movie, likely the most prominent and highest-grossing 3-plus-hour movie since The Lord of the Rings (its multiple-endings denouement will remind many of LOTR‘s capper The Return of the King as well, albeit more streamlined). It’s a bit of a mess because what else could it possibly be, with so many loose ends to tie up along with the pesky necessity of crafting an entertaining and involving movie as well. But it’s probably less of a mess than Infinity War, and as a narrative it’s less constrained and undercut by factors internal and external in nature than its predecessor.

Narratively and emotionally, it is, I suppose, satisfying, and baffled reports are already filtering in of manly sobbing being heard in opening weekend screenings. One could wish that the final battle was a touch more geographically and visually clear (the Russo Brothers, directing their fourth MCU joint, have unleashed some of the best and most spatially coherent fight sequences in the franchise but generally in more confined quarters), but it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed at the sheer scale of it, its cathartic hoot-and-holler moments (one of which was teased in Age of Ultron but was purloined from The Force Awakens and only barely makes sense), not to mention the impressive number of characters who play a meaningful role or at least get a notable beat somewhere in it (and whose entrances, as they were in Infinity War, are cheer-worthy, although an all-female charge at one point lays the studio’s late-coming pop-feminist marketing pose on a little thick).

As Endgame is a movie whose plot relies heavily on time travel, it’s already easy to predict the Online Champions of Rationality rubbing their hands, placing their conically-shaped Quantum Physics Expert hats on their heads, and switching on their webcams to record comprehensive rants about every picayune LOGICAL INCONSISTENCY on display here (“Everything WRONG with Avengers: Endgame in 582 Minutes!”). Endgame crafts its own time travel rules that are deliberately and explicitly stated to work differently than they do in any time-travel movie that you’ve seen. Rhodey (who wisecracks with unrelenting and uncharacteristic frequency here; you can tell that the writers miss being able to give these lines to the Guardians and Peter Parker, as they did last time) provides a list of movies depicting time travel (he even namedrops Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time, which is very, very silly and thus memorable), and Banner flatly tells him (and the audience) that the version of time travel they are attempting doesn’t work like that.

Endgame establishes time travel ground rules in a chat between Banner and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who wields the Time Stone before Strange does: basically, changes made by a time traveller in the past create alternate realities, but do not change their own present or future once they return to it, and the alternate streams of time can be closed off if what is done in the past (say, an Infinity Stone is taken) is later undone (the Stone is put back where it was found, which would seem to be a lot harder than taking it but not to this movie). Some loose strands are left tantalizingly dangling during the Time Heist (we’ve got a potential start point for the Tom Hiddleston-fronted Loki series on Disney’s forthcoming streaming site, for one), but the rules are mostly followed, at least until time travel is used sentimentally to give one exiting Phase One vet a happy ending, at which point they’re all out the window.

Bending entirely hypothetical time travel rules to suit your movie’s moment-to-moment needs is one thing, and one whose cleverly cynical cheekiness I can appreciate. But the bending of several character arcs is quite another. While I say that Endgame is emotionally satisfying, not all of the characters’ arcs sit quite right. Hemsworth’s Thor has been swung wildly and cartoonishly to and fro in Infinity War and Endgame, and if he continues in the MCU with the franchise strand that the ending suggests (word was that the actor was done with the character altogether, but perhaps not, considering the more comic angle that’s been taken to Thor since Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok), that may continue. As good as Ruffalo has been as Banner/Hulk (most of the best jokes in this film are his, including a bit about how the Big Green Guy hates taking the stairs), his arc since the end of Age of Ultron is erratic at best, confused at worse; if he isn’t finished with the role, Ruffalo could really use a solo movie to sort it out, but Universal has the Hulk title movie rights and won’t play ball with Marvel Studios. The Guardians, so integrated and important in Infinity War, are afterthoughts in Endgame, and Rocket’s grief at the loss of his surrogate family, especially after his Yondu-inspired emotional growth (see good video essays on this element of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 here and here), is badly underplayed. Sideline characters Hawkeye and Nebula are given more complete arcs than many of the more primary players here, which might not have been expected. There is at least a neat symmetry to the conclusions of the arcs of Captain America and Iron Man, the dual hearts of the MCU: selfish Tony Stark learns quite finally to be selfless, and selfless Steve Rogers learns quite finally to be selfish.

I wonder, too, at the unseen planning/brainstorming decision about who is sent where and when on the Time Heist; most of the combos make sense because the film needs them to, but the team after the Soul Stone on Vormir would be able to accomplish their goal only in very certain combinations, any of which would involve tragedy and none of which would have played out in the specific way this one needed to. Which begs the question: does anyone know what cost the acquisition of that Stone extracts? Nebula at least is aware of what Thanos gave up to get it, but she doesn’t inform her allies of that, so does she otherwise subtly manipulate the assignments to ensure a proper combination before they set off, signing a death warrant in the process? Moral quandaries do abound, if so.

The larger quandary: is Avengers: Endgame a good movie, after all of this? One feels it is, even if one’s higher faculties take to the barricades in defiance of that conclusion as often as not. Points of resistance are numerous: that vaunted “fan service” which runs through so many contemporary nostalgic geek-culture franchises that have grown into mass culture events; growing ennui with superhero movie climaxes involving epic but increasingly empty CGI battle scenes and powerful but dull villains (Thanos here is more of a megalomaniacal stock villain than in Infinity War – he is a different Thanos, it should be noted – but also more seemingly poweful than the gauntleted version in that film, somehow); and the constant inability to settle on a tone, which makes Endgame surprisingly funny but also serves to dilute its sadder moments, which are driven forcibly to tearjerker territory by a shameless button-pushing score from Alan Silvestri.

But Endgame, like basically the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it, engages, absorbs, and compels investment from its audience; I loved at least as much of it as gave me pause, and probably more. Few are strong enough to resist its powers completely (unless they kept themselves out of its clutches from the get-go, and I will say that I envy them as the living envy the dead), and most are happy to submit, feeling (not without reason) that they are receiving something in return. Call it what you will: emotional satisfaction, fulfillment, closure; call it brainwashing or mass manipulation or insidious marketing persuasion, if that is your wont. There was a #ThankYouAvengers hashtag trending on Twitter throughout the movie’s opening weekend, a mass expression of gratitude for a decade of entertainment, escapism, and occasional emotional and intellectual transcendence from a series of hegemonic corporate products.

But let’s pause before we shake our heads and bemoan our culture’s decadent decline (Thanks, Kevin Feige!). These movies operate on reproduceable narrative and thematic formulas, have come late and not nearly strongly enough to progressive politics and minority representation, and their huge box office success has been the spearpoint of Disney’s imperialist conquest of contemporary Hollywood, the effects of which are not yet fully apparent but portend great ill. But people who go to movies care about this serialized story, these characters, and the journey they have been on with them, and Avengers: Endgame works diligently, intelligently, and with real emotion to do right by those people (while, of course, gladly taking as much of their money as they are willing to part with in the process). We of a critical bent may seek to deny or diminish this investment to signal our independence of mind and our resistance to imperatives of monopolistic corporate domination, but we do so at our peril.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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