In 2008, a film not-yet under control by Disney was released. Distributed by Paramount, Iron Man set in motion 11 years worth of tentpole comic-book mania showing little signs of abating. Last year, directors Anthony and Joe Russo in combination with screenwriters and long-time collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provided what was touted as the greatest cross-over event in film history with Infinity War. The same team returns with Avengers: Endgame to provide a culmination of a decade worth of this cinematic universe, in the process, mostly succeeding with a film that tackles grief with the nimbleness of their spandex donning heroes leading to a rousing triumph worthy of said heroes’ greatest exploits.
Endgame, for the most part, takes place directly after the events of Infinity War. 50% of the universe has been snapped away and those remaining: Tony Stark, Black Widow, Thor, Ant-Man, Captain Marvel and America, Rocket, Hulk, Hawkeye, War Machine, and Nebula are left to pick up the pieces of what’s left. The film is essentially split into three parts: the first hour covers grief, the second hour the team’s plan to reverse Thanos’ snap (which has some major logical flaws), and the third which encompasses an all-out battle. And that’s about all that can be said without spoiling the plot.
Much consternation has arisen from Endgame‘s runtime of 181 minutes, never mind that Infinity War clocked in at 156 minutes (10 of which were credits). Still, the film is well paced. Editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt do wonders sculpting a manageable narrative with an unruly, and at points, inevitable story.
Every Avengers film presumes the audience has seen the other properties of Marvel’s universe, and is aware of the myriad of Easter eggs and inside dialogical references presented within them. Said assumptions throws in doubts of this pop-culture phenomenon’s long-term impact: How many will return to watch 20+ films to create some logical foregrounding?
Nevertheless, Infinity War and Endgame were made to be seen and re-seen. Both films presuppose that all will return for another binge watch of this universe’s previous properties before consuming the next installment of this overreaching and sometimes enervating franchise (and right now, the Russo brothers are correct to assume so).
No doubt viewers not totally invested in the last 10 years (or even the last five) will be lost at points. While Infinity War took opportunities to backtrack with exposition to aid audiences, even the moments of exposition in this 3-hour epic requires exposition. Such are the limitations of combining a decade worth of narratives, especially as a few surprise characters from previous Marvel films materialize.
Much like Infinity War, one of the stumbling blocks for Endgame stems from the large cast. For a film thirsting to attain Thanos’ balance, Infinity War demonstrated a character imbalance, as variants of heroes dutifully soldiered in-and-out, accompanied only by brief one-liners.
Endgame, with a somewhat dwindled cast due to Infinity War‘s conclusion, also suffers from such imbalances as Captain Marvel certainly doesn’t enjoy enough screen time to be more than a blunt weapon. Many of the past characters who also appear are relegated to those quick one-liners. While one wouldn’t expect large niches for these periphery personalities, one can question the need to include them. They arrive with enough rapidity to leave viewers dizzy and exhausted.
In fact, the gluttony of characters affect the film’s villain as well. Thanos (Josh Brolin), our “favorite” genocidal megalomaniac with the subtlety in his voice of a kettle drum, returns from that sunny Last Samurai porch we last saw him. Greatly reduced and flattened in the Russos’ sequel, his inchoate motives retain little of the philosophical and logical ends observed in Infinity War. Much of this flattening arrives as a by-product of Thanos’ limited screen time. However, when the finger-snapping baddie does emerge the peril he packs lacks the previous punch of Infinity War.
While Endgame does miss utilizing a nuanced villain, especially during the second hour as the team enacts their plan under a whiff of assurance, the film doesn’t suffer from a dearth of quips. The comedy in Endgame is less a throw every joke against the wall to see what sticks exercise. Much of this result arises from the somber tone of the first hour. However, said tact forces each joke to count in ways not present in previous Marvel films. Thor and Rocket still provide a potent comedy duo, while Stark and Scott Lang also produce their dependable laughs. Downey Jr also gives his best performance since Iron Man 3.
While Marvel has never struggled to provide romps, the cinematic universe has always wrestled with supplying actionable stakes. No death is truly final, no character gone for very long (even Red Skull returned in Infinity War). When true loss is measured, it’s done with the wink of a quack and the usefulness of an alchemist (both aware of their rouses to enact a hollow awe). The ending of Infinity War provided no sustenance to fill the outgrown appetite its previous entities stirred.
In fact, portions of Endgame arrived with an air of inevitability (especially with the release of some Disney+ titles and near-confirmation of future Marvel sequels).
However, one of Endgame‘s triumphs encompasses the film’s true villains: grief and inevitability. During the majority of the film, the team: Black Widow, Hawkeye, Captain America, Ant-Man, Rocket, and Thor all cope with heartache in varying ways. Conversely, the Hulk and Tony Stark’s existences might have improved post-snap. Even as the team take the necessary steps to reverse Thanos’ actions, they’re often consumed by memories and ruminations of lost loved ones. And when the film does conclude, for once, the loss that occurs delivers a tear-jerker of a finale whose roots spring to produce a permanent reckoning whose inevitability makes it that much harder to take.
Much like Thanos in Infinity War, Endgame succeeds in the parameters the film assigns itself. Nevertheless, the difficulty lies in treating Endgame as a standalone project. Obviously one can’t subtract the film from the larger Marvel universe, but more so than any other franchise, this film requires a loose definition of cinematic installment. Instead, the movie falls under the category of a series finale (though Spider-Man: Far From Home has been touted as the conclusion of phase 3) before the inevitable spin-off.
For these reasons, cinematographer Trent Opaloch and composer Alan Silvestri are the actual heroes of Endgame. More so than Infinity War, the balance of styles between the Marvel entities strike an idyllic bargain here. The amount of callbacks and needle drops, in combination with varying lighting and musical queues (as the score shifts from introspective synths, to the bravado of horns, to the rising tenor brought with strings) requires nimble ears and open eyes. Like a hip-hop track mixing multiple samples, each beat of a previous Marvel film “subtly” drops into Endgame. For the most part, our eyes and ears aren’t enliven to those drastic fills (though there are a couple of stylistic reaches). Such an accomplishment is a staggering cinematic achievement.
Nevertheless, as a standalone film, Endgame is over wrought. The mission to reverse Thanos’ snap proceeds with the steady and inevitable tick of a grandfather clock. The saving grace of the film only arrives with the large-scale nearly hour long ending battle sequence, which really is the most ambitious cross-over event in cinematic history. With heroes and villains thrown together in a mixing pool of hand-to-hand combat and extraterrestrial weaponry, the rousing moments the conflict enacts are accomplished with expert skill (especially in the editing department). If you’re a Marvel fan, there’s no way you’re leaving that battle disappointed.
And the film’s final minutes, another instance of these heroes exercising their grief for those who have fallen, will certainly leave every single Marvel fan holding in their tears. Endgame truly is a culmination of this cinematic universe and its 11-year history, featuring some wonderful comedy, intimate and large-scale framing, and amazing fight sequences (especially with regards to Captain America, who hasn’t looked this good in a fight since Civil War).
However, when judging the film within the context of the series, Endgame might finally provide the nadir of the comic-book blockbuster. While the demise of this universe has been predicted many times over, when one surveys the time required to arrive at this point, the amount of layering, and the limitations accompanying the basing of a 3-hour film on the bones of boilerplate origin stories, the likelihood of such mega events continuing on for much longer seems as bleak as Doctor Strange’s odds to Tony Stark during Infinity War. Whether Endgame is a novelty item for this generation or a truly impactful story remains to be seen. For now, the cast, crew, and creators of the past decade may rest easy on a sun-drench porch with the knowledge that they’ve accomplished their ultimate goal. For better or for worse.