[mild spoilers until paragraph 5, major spoilers after until paragraph 7]
Synopsis: Post-snap, our intrepid heroes embark on a perilous journey to save the world and ensure that Black Panther 2 can arrive on schedule. And if all that makes no sense to you, may I refer you to the Wikipedia article for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
1. I have seen quite a few movies. Not as many as some, but I’ve seen my fair share. And in many ways, Avengers: Endgame (hereby simply referred to as Endgame) possesses that rarest of filmic traits – uniqueness. As odd as it may seem, considering its status as the studio-tentpole-franchise-blockbuster to end all studio-tentpole-franchise-blockbusters, Endgame is (refreshingly) idiosyncratic, making a number of moves that other studio-blah-blah-you-know would (or could) never even dream of. A large reason for this distinctiveness comes in part from being the culmination of the experiment in long-form serialised storytelling that the MCU has engaged in for over a decade. Something like Endgame cannot exist without an overwhelming surplus of history and audience goodwill, which is a luxury that most other big franchises do not have*. Yet, credit must be given where credit is due, and I do not want to paint a picture of Endgame being nothing more than just the natural evolution of Phases 1-3 of the MCU. It is one thing for Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel Studios braintrust to make a film that grapples with the history of the 21 other films that came before it, but it is another, far more daring maneuver to draw a definitive line in the sand in that history and finally deliver on what the machinery of blockbuster franchises seems to always promise but never deliver on – the sense of an ending.
2. So after all that highfalutin talk, one question remains. Is Endgame a good movie? To which the answer is – yeah. Mostly. The usual problems remain, because this is entry #22 and are we really so naive as to expect this one to resolve anything that the others didn’t? List them with me. An overreliance on weightless CGI action. Action that is sometimes muddily shot and choppily edited. An overly muted colour palette. A score that’s just … there**. Occasional tonal disjoints, exceptionally obvious this time due to the usual quips feeling a little out of sync with the generally morose tone of the first hour. And yet, when Endgame works, it really fucking works, perhaps even more so than any MCU movie since The Avengers. This is the fourth entry in the MCU for the directing team of the Russo brothers, which not only means that they have honed (and arguably contributed the most to, aside from Joss Whedon) the house style to its zenith, but are also so deeply entrenched in the history of this franchise that it cannot help but spill over in every single frame of this behemoth.
[For more on the issues consistently plaguing the MCU (even with its overall high quality), I strongly recommend Patrick Willems’ series on ‘The Limitations of The Marvel Cinematic Universe’.]
3. And said spillover is nothing if not apt for this film, which in both text and subtext is about grappling with the weight of the 21 films that came before it, thanks to the simultaneously delightful and frustrating mechanic of time travel. Some of it is subtle, coming in the repetition of iconic shots or moments that gain new meaning, or having a character literally come face-to-face with their growth across the span of several films. Some of it is, well, less subtle, as key scenes from previous stellar entries in the MCU (and Thor: The Dark World for some inexplicable reason) are revisited, reframed, and remixed to largely enjoyable effect***. While all of Endgame is essentially a three hour victory lap, this is the section of the movie that feels the most self-congratulatory, though arguably it is very warranted. Look, the film seems to say as it breezily zips back and forth between beloved moments and characters. Look at how much we have done and how much we will continue to do. Look upon the sheer breadth (if maybe not depth) of storytelling we have managed to achieve and, well, the only suitable reaction is in the company name.
4. But I get ahead of myself. Let’s talk structure before we move on. Endgame is very much the inverse of Infinity War in terms of plot structure. The latter film was largely a series of episodic vignettes (very) loosely coalesced around Thanos’s hero’s-journey narrative arc, and was so plotless that even my mother, who complained that the first Iron Man was ‘too confusing’, perfectly understood what was going on. Guy wants thing. Other guys want to stop guy from getting thing. Guy gets thing. The end. Endgame, however, is a lot more tight and intricate in its plotting, with three clear and discernible acts, bookended by a fairly lengthy prologue and epilogue. Act 1 is a mashup of Marvel’s version of The Leftovers plus the ‘getting-the-band-together’ scenes in every heist movie. Act 2 is the aforementioned ‘time heist’, and Act 3 is the big, loud, crowd-pleasing finale. There are a lot of moving parts, particularly in Act 2, which relies on the audience being at least somewhat aware of relatively minor characters who appeared in only one or two films, and it speaks volumes of the confidence the MCU has in its viewer and its brand that Endgame only provides a minimum of exposition**** in this section, assuming that you, the viewer, knows exactly who [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] are. If not, why else would you be watching this movie?
5. Which brings us to the question of fanservice, which I have scientifically calculated makes up 78% of the movie. Not that this is a bad thing, mind, especially considering that most of it is earned thanks to the buildup over the past decade. Right about now also seems to be a good time to throw out the major spoiler tag, so let’s go ahead and do so.
MAJOR SPOILERS. READ AHEAD AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Of course, the most obvious example of earned fanservice (and the one I think all seasoned Marvelogists saw coming since Age Of Ultron) is Cap wielding Mjolnir, which drew many appreciative oohs and gasps in the screening I was in. Aside from that, there is also the grand entrance of all the dusted heroes, which as triumphant ‘the cavalry arrives’ scenes go, is one of the better ones I’ve seen.***** As a man of culture, however, I was a lot more partial to smaller moments, like the reverse shot revealing Star-Lord’s terrible singing of ‘Come And Get Your Love’, or (in a moment where I actually squeaked with joy), the restaging of the setup of The Winter Soldier‘s elevator fight scene, complete with killer punchline. Once again, the only reason why these moments have any weight comes from the great success the MCU has had in setting them up to begin with. Cap wielding Mjolnir has no resonance without the drunken party scene in Age Of Ultron (still one of the MCU’s greatest scenes). Instant-kill mode works as a superb payoff to a joke set up in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The warm, lived-in chemistry between Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson is what makes their scene on Vormir so affecting. And of course, there are the final scenes, starring those two actors and those two characters.
6. As perfectly cast as every major role in the MCU is (shoutout to Taika Waititi for finally unlocking Chris Hemsworth’s true potential as affable yet self-serious goofball), it is no secret that the two biggest casting coups are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, the twin pillars of this entire enterprise. The narrative is well-known, but bears repeating anyway. RDJ, the one-time wunderkind rising out from the gutter to find a new lease of life in a role that was so perfect for him, the lines between character and actor often seemed blurry. And Chris Evans, who went from generic-hot-douche in Fantastic Four and Scott Pilgrim to the modern day Gregory Peck and a stinging rebuke to everyone (yes, especially you, Mr. Snyder) who believed that there was no way to believably and interestingly portray a superhero whose key traits were an unyielding sense of goodness and decency. This movie (and this franchise) belongs to them, and their reward is that rarest of gifts in the age of studio-tentpole-you-know-the-drill. An honest to god ending.
7. Which brings us, finally, to finality. The reason why I keep bringing up the studio-tentpole-franchise-blockbuster model in talking about this movie is because of how the MCU is so emblematic of the current state of affairs in the movie landscape. Every franchise – Star Wars, the DCEU, the Wizarding World, that weird thing Universal tried to do with classic movie monsters – is playing catch-up to the template that the MCU has established since 2012******. A cohesive, coherent long-form storyline that takes place over 22 (very, very) profitable movies starring over a hundred characters and intellectual properties is the kind of thing that makes movie executives pants stiffen. At a point in Endgame, Tony Stark figures out that the only way to make everything work out is through a Möbius strip model. It is a throwaway line, a piece of expository gobbledegook, but one that is very illuminating. A single-sided infinite loop, after all, is precisely the model for these massive movie franchises, forever twisting and circling in the same spot to simultaneously maintain the status quo while giving the illusion of progress. As I write this, the new Star Wars trailer ends with the laugh of Emperor Palpatine, and the movie stars both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who are respectively playing a deceased character and deceased in real life. Is there ever an endpoint to this? Can there ever be an endpoint beyond the eventual heat death of the universe? The answer is obvious – as long as the movies remain profitable, as long as the public’s appetite for nostalgic, recognisable properties reconfigured into reasonably-ok entertainment remains healthy, then of course these franchises will continue shambling along. Which is why the decision by the MCU, the apex predator in this move ecology, to actually bring an end to the stories of so many of their most beloved characters, including their twin titans, is both a brave and a promising one.
BACK TO MILD SPOILERS
8. It is this sense of an ending, a follow-through to the promise of the film’s title, that gives Endgame its affecting power. One of my favourite film critics regularly states that ‘the ending is the conceit’ of a movie, and in this regard, Endgame‘s ending serves not just as its own conceit, but also for the 21 movies that preceded it. As the ending of a single film, it would probably be excessively maudlin, sentimental, and melodramatic. As the ending of 22 films, it … is actually still maudlin, sentimental, and melodramatic, but goddammit, it just feels right. One of the cleverest things about Endgame is how it delivers two separate types of endings – the tragic and the comic (in the Shakespearean sense), which are both extremely effective in their own ways. The MCU will continue, and new versions of the characters will appear (with the torch very explicitly passed in one specific case), but the story of these specific beloved incarnations is finished. Kevin Feige, Joss Whedon, The Russo Brothers, and the many talented people above and below the line have thus succeeded in doing the one thing that no other franchise has dared to do until now. They finished things.
Fine, they finished a very specific chapter. But it was a chapter that could have (and in less steady hands, would have) kept going until it eventually ran out of audience goodwill, and to end it on their own successful terms is a strategic, and more importantly, narratively satisfying move that finally provides this series with the one thing it had been lacking all along. Closure. And it is that closure that elevates Endgame, and by extension the rest of Phases 1-3 of the MCU, to a single, coherent, and meaningful story.
With all that said, the Far From Home trailer looks pretty good, eh?
* Star Wars is the exception, but it has so far only managed to terribly bungle its rich narrative history.
** The exception to the rule, as always, is Alan Silvestri’s superb Avengers Theme.
*** This really might be the first time that the MCU has fully realised the batshit anything-goes insanity that only the best superhero comics could achieve.
**** A special mention to Paul Rudd (with a huge assist from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) for good-naturedly accepting the role of ‘clueless person who has to have many things explained to him, and by extension, the audience.’ A clever trick as well, to have Rudd’s Scott Lang explicitly compare numerous plot points to other movies, which not only serves as narrative shorthand but also provides enough winking encouragement at the audience not to take the whole time travel logic so seriously.
***** We all know what the best one of all time is, right?
****** My theory is that The Avengers is the real beginning of the MCU as a single coherent entity as opposed to Iron Man. Everything else from 2008 to 2012 could potentially be classified under ‘a group of films with some cute pieces of connective tissue’, but from The Avengers and beyond, there was no other way to describe the whole shebang other than ‘universe’.