Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffallo, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin, Gwyneth Paltrow
“Part of the journey is the end,” says Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) into a recording for his wife as he floats through space in a powerless ship with food and water supplies depleted and oxygen not far behind. While Avengers: Endgame by no means marks the closing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Disney is not walking away from that cash cow any time soon – there is a sense in which it marks the end of something. Endgame is not a movie. This cinematic event is the culmination of the boldest experiment in big screen, long-form narrative the cinema has ever seen. That claim may sound hyperbolic, but we are talking about twenty-two interwoven films released over an eleven year period. Episodes in an ongoing narrative featuring upwards of ninety recurring characters, which have grossed a combined US$20.9 billion dollars and counting. As such, any attempt to critique Endgame in isolation, as a singular text, is almost as pointless as it is futile. The success or failure of this film is determined entirely by its ability to pay off that eleven year journey that invested fans have been on. In that regard, Anthony and Joe Russo’s film is an unqualified success.
Franchise films have ended in defeat before, but never in a defeat so resounding as that in Avengers: Infinity War. The despotic Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in his plan to collect the six infinity stones and use their power to wipe out half of all life in the universe. It felt like an incredibly bold finish to a blockbuster event, even though no-one really believed that was the end of the story (when future films involving characters who have supposedly died had already been announced, it is a bit of a hint). So coming into Avengers: Endgame, it was a question of how, not if, our surviving heroes can somehow undo the events of the last film.
We pick up the story five years later, with the world is still struggling to come to terms with what has happened. The first act is intentionally slow, taking time to feel the impact of Thanos’ action, to consider what the world would be like and how those left behind would react. We watch our heroes confronted by their greatest failure, navigating grief in their own ways. Some cling desperately to past structures, trying to retain some sense of control and order. Some go grass roots in their endeavour to continue to be of service. Some, who have lost everything, let themselves go or turn to violent anarchy. Others, who have been more fortunate, retire to make the most of this new world, this second chance.
Endgame manages to do well a number of the things that Infinity War struggled with, namely character development. While to the outsider, the MCU might appear to be generic, special-effects laden spectacle, to those who have followed the franchise devotedly over the last decade the primary appeal lies in narrative and, most importantly, character. These films are fantastical melodramas, super-powered soap operas. Infinity War, while big on spectacle, felt overburdened with characters. This, combined with the interesting decision to structurally make Thanos the protagonist of the film, meant this plethora of beloved characters were reduced to chess pieces, moving around the board, but largely without any accompanying psychological journey. Having half of them taken off the board frees up Endgame to spend a bit more time with them.
After this dour setup, the filmmakers shift the tone. When Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reemerges from the quantum realm, where he had been trapped since ‘the snap,’ he tracks down Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) with an idea. He believes that if they can figure a way to harness it, they can use the quantum realm to go back in time to gather the infinity stones with a view to using them to bring everyone back. With the planning and execution of this “time heist,” the second act becomes a more classic adventure romp. While there is something inherently undramatic about the narrative device of undoing the past through time travel as it effectively nullifies stakes, the opportunity to revisit familiar moments from past films, seeing them from a different angle, brings some fun and humour into the mix. It is particularly enjoyable to see the mundane moments that come immediately after the moments of triumph we have previously witnessed. But even these scenes serve as more than just fan service, with specific characters sent to specific moments which serve their growth, development, and in some situations, their closure as characters.
Endgame doesn’t feel its three-hour-and-one-minute runtime, with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo having done a solid job of keeping the plates spinning. That said, there are a couple of moments when narrative dilemmas are cheated with easy, deus-ex-machina fixes which are underwhelming. There is also one long standing character who is done a disservice, with his entire, quite emotional arc undermined for the sake of a series of cheap gags. If this proves to be their last appearance in the MCU, it is a shame.
Avengers: Endgame provides satisfying catharsis for those fans who have been on the journey with these characters. The question is, though, where this film leaves the MCU? Marvel has been the biggest show in town for the last decade, and Endgame looks odds on to topple the seemingly unsurpassable Avatar and become the highest grossing film in history. Endgame does feel like an endpoint. It is the only film in the MCU that does not feature a post-credit sting, looking forward to what is coming next. Does this film provide a convenient getting off point for fans who might have been sucked into this world but don’t want to have to keep coming back? The fact that MCU 23, Spider-Man: Far From Home hits cinema’s just over a month after the release of Endgame suggests Marvel are fully aware of this possibility and are not ready to release their stranglehold on the box office anytime soon.
Review by Duncan McLean
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