“We’re in the Endgame now….”
I mean, that’s for sure! And we’re in it for a looong time, because this movie is nearly three hours in length.
Fair warning: not only are there heaps of Spoilers ahead, but also this is a quite a long and rambly post…there’s just so much to pull apart in this film for the die-hard comic book superhero movie fan that I am. I’m not even going to get into some of the nerdier speculations and minutia…I’ll save that for another post.
I remember watching all those Hobbit movies a few years ago and being bewildered that they were so long. Why so many movies which all have to be so lengthy? That was not my thought here. In Avengers: Endgame, the length makes perfect sense. Because for this final farewell to such a huge chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there aren’t that that many characters whose stories are definitively finishing, but the ones that do are pretty major ones), we aren’t keen to rush things. Lord of the Rings kind of did the same thing with its lingering conclusion, but the difference is that here that the slow bits are all in the middle, rather than at the end.
And I am grateful for those slow bits. If Endgame’s predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War had a fault, it was just that there was no real time for development of its 32 main characters aside from Thanos himself, and maybe Gamora. Here, with less characters involved (most of the movie focuses on 10 heroes), there’s a lot more room to get into these guys, and especially seeing them deal with the fallout of the previous adventure.
And this is something we wanted to see. The movie starts with a brief and somewhat jarring sequence of the heroes confronting Thanos to try to undo his deed, only to discover that the Infinity Stones are destroyed and there is no hope of achieving this. Thanos himself doesn’t care and seems unperturbed even as he is being executed for his crimes. Then the movie abruptly jumps ahead five years and gets onto the business of showing how our heroes are coping in a world where they’ve lost such an important battle.
The idea of half the world suddenly disappearing in a snap sounds like the plot of one of those failed serialized science fiction TV shows that came out in the wake of Lost, but only lasted 1 or 2 seasons and never had a chance to fully reveal its backstory. In Endgame, in the relatively brief space of about 45 minutes, we get to see it all through the eyes of the surviving heroes. Clint Barton, for example, has basically lost his mind and is making it his business to murder the criminals who survived where his family didn’t. Thor has turned to drink, frivolity and self-pity to drown out his sorrows. Steve Rogers is trying to do good by helping ordinary people to move on in the wake of the disaster, while finding himself unable to do the same. Natasha Romanoff continues to try to make the Avengers relevant by offering whatever protection they can. Bruce Banner is actually doing better than he ever has before as he’s finally integrated the two sides of his personality. And Tony Stark is genuinely getting on in with his life, raising a daughter and living as a happily married man.
Into all this comes…Ant-Man! Or actually, into it all comes a rat, who accidentally treads on a piece of equipment sitting in a storage garage being looked after by Community’s Senor Chang, which releases Ant-Man from the post-credit scene of his last movie and leads to the saving of the universe. It might seem silly that it all hinged on a rat randomly running over a button, but maybe there’s more to it than that. One internet commenter I saw said that probably the rat had lost half its family and was after revenge.
Anyway, Ant-Man shows up finds out what’s happened in the previous five years, learning first that his daughter Cassie had survived and grown up into an attractive teenager (as all superhero comic book children eventually do), and then finding his way to Avengers headquarters with an idea–use the sub-atomic quantum realm and its crazy properties to…time travel.
The movie makes an amusing joke about how time travel works in this movie, leading to a couple of characters complaining how Back to the Future turned out to actually be just a bunch of nonsense. Basically, it seems out there’s a whole parallel dimension thing happening, so that if you change the past you aren’t changing the future, you are just creating another timeline. This isn’t completely explained in the movie, but the logical conundrums this creates I’m going to try to explore some other day.
Anyway, the plan is to use time travel to send people into the past to collect the Infinity Stones, bring them back to the present, and then use them bring back everyone who was “snapped” away. The problem is, the only brain big enough to actually make all this work is Tony Stark, and since he’s actually a much happier guy then he used to be, he is reluctant to get on board. Eventually, the inventor and problem-solver inside of him takes over, and with his wife Pepper’s full approval, he joins the group and we begin to get the healing between him and Captain America that we’ve all kind of been anticipating since Civil War ended.
And then finally the movie moves into its proper Second Act, with the ten main heroes embarking on a series of missions throughout the past of the MCU to retrieve the stones. They actual visit straight into settings and sequences from The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy to get what they’re after. Some things go well and some go wrong, we get the movie’s first wave of cameos (including the likes of former MCU feature players like Rene Russo, Robert Redford and Tilda Swinton). Overall, these sequences are a whole lot of fun. There are a lot of laughs both on Asgard and in New York, as well as the requisite action, as the heroes attempt to dodge around previous events to get ahold of their priceless artifacts.
In space, meanwhile, things take a turn for the worse. On Volmir (where Gamora died in the previous movie), Black Widow and Hawkeye fight each other for the honor of being the one who dies to free the Soul Stone, with Natasha eventually “winning”. Her death is the first of the two great losses the heroes take in this film. It was sad to see the character go (although of course we know she’s soon appearing in her own movie–I guess probably a prequel), but it was a good storytelling move. Her death profoundly raises the stakes of the action, and the fact that it isn’t undone along with all the others at the end of the movie helps to legitimize the whole “finale” vibe they were going for here.
Meanwhile, a glitch in the cloud-based storage between the future (and good) Nebula and the past (and still evil) Nebula alerts past-Thanos to what is actually going on, and he gets moving as well. Like the one from the previous paragraph, this is also a good plot twist for the movie. It’s entirely believable this early, still passionate and driven Thanos would not be somebody the heroes could just sneak around behind the back of. He’s meant to be the most dangerous guy in the galaxy, so it’s good to see him act like it.
The heroes all return to the present day, and are too distracted by the news of Natasha’s death to notice that Nebula has been replaced by her evil prior version. While everyone else mourns their fallen comrade, and then prepares a new Infinity Gauntlet (made from an Iron Man glove), evil-Nebula reprograms the time machine. As the only one strong enough to withstand the Stones’ energies, the Hulk uses this new gauntlet to undo the snap, bringing everyone who was lost five years ago alive and unchanged in the present. And he apparently gave them working cell phones, because Hawkeye’s revived wife is able to call him almost immediately. But their reunion is cut short by the arrival of prior-Thanos, who arrives through the time machine from the past, blowing the Avengers HQ to pieces but somehow failing to kill anybody inside it. Thor, Captain America and Iron Man find and confront Thanos, who reveals he has an army of baddies to back him up. He plans to lay waste to the earth and then destroy the universe, rebuilding it from scratch so no memory of any heroes or pre-“snapped” universe remains. This serves the important purpose (as my friend Rod pointed out) of establishing clearly that Thanos is evil, and not just some misguided idealist.
Things are looking bleak when help arrives, in the form of all the newly resurrected heroes, who show up en masse, with all their associated helpers and armies. Now we are squarely in Act Three of the film, and really anyone who is an MCU fan and who was not already on board with this movie is at this point on the edge of their seat in excitement. It’s truly an incomparable moment…kind of like a much bigger and more awe-inspiring variation on the airport scene in Civil War. In a couple of rip-roaring moments, we get Falcon, Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, Star-Lord, Drax, Mantis, teenaged Groot, Bucky, Pepper Potts in an Iron Man suit, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and Black Panther and his hordes of energy-shield wielding Wakandans all showing up to join the fray. I have to admit, full-on nerd that I am, I was both quietly cheering and also tearing up a bit.
And the battle that follows is epic. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have proven repeatedly that they can do what the Marvel movies have always aspired to do, which is to give all its heroes attention and make them look awesome, and also to do this with a whole lot of characters at the same time. Even though they don’t really do anything else in the movie, characters like Black Panther, Drax, Okoye, and Scarlet Witch all get iconic moments. Captain Marvel–who wasn’t dead, but just busy–appears as well and rips through a spaceship in spectacular fashion.
It’s perhaps slightly surprising that recently Marvel mega-stars like Captain Marvel and Black Panther don’t get bigger parts during all of this. It seems it’s because nobody realized just how big these guys were going to be (as Black Panther’s movie hadn’t come out when these films were being made, and Captain Marvel’s hadn’t even been written yet.) I for one am grateful. In spite of the breadth of the story, Endgame manages to keep its attention focused around a refreshingly finite group of characters–the original Avengers and a few outliers (War Machine, Rocket, Ant-Man and Nebula), allowing us to experience a much more personal and intimate story than we had with Infinity War. It’s a good move, as the lack of this quality was Infinity War‘s biggest weakness. If Endgame really is going to be the final cinematic hurrah for Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, the Hulk and the rest, it’s nice that they get to go out as fully fleshed out people, and not just really well-rendered video game characters.
And as a nice bonus, the filmmakers still managed to give a lot of their other stars a nice moment or two. The result is that even though their screen time is probably in the single digits of minutes, we still feel like we got to spend some time with the likes of Peter Quill, Scarlet Witch, Bucky, and Spider-Man, and that their stories were genuinely advanced.
It’s impressive how well everything is juggled. The final battle has got the biggest scope out of any conflict I’ve ever seen in any superhero film. Considering the chaotic quality of the melee it might be surprising that there aren’t more casualties, but again I think this is a good move. As a long-term comic reader, I know that it’s tempting for writers to create “massacre” scenes, where lots of characters die in order to help the writer sell just how bad the threat us or to bring out some other contrived emotion. And I know that it rarely works. As I already commented, Marvel films have always brought us to the theatres by showcasing the heroes, and at this stage of the game what we didn’t want to see was a whole lot of good guys dying, even the minor ones. It would have felt repetitive after the dramatic ending of Infinity War, and it would have taken away from the key death they did include at the end.
And what a death it was. Even though he hasn’t had a solo film in a while, Robert Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Endgame is ultimately his movie. There’s a lot in the story that justifies Dr. Strange’s insistence that Tony Stark had to survive the events of Infinity War if the heroes were going to pull together an eventual victory: he’s the one that nuts out the time travel mechanics, he creates the new “infinity gauntlet” out of his own technology, and of course he is the one who eventually uses it to win the final battle, even at the cost of his own life. It’s probably the most affecting “heroic sacrifice” that I’ve seen on film–in equal parts intelligent, dramatic and just plain cool. His final, “I am Iron Man” is certainly one of the best moments in the MCU and makes for a great callback to one of the most memorable bits in the first movie 11 years ago. Extra points to the filmmaking team for managing to not telegraph the moment. It’s only after it happens, as you are thinking about it and dissecting the movie on the car ride home, that you fully realize it only worked because it was Tony who must have made the glove, and that only he as Iron Man who could have manipulated it in that way. The resulting disintegration of Thanos and his minions is incredibly satisfying.
And of course the movie’s other big farewell is to Chris Evans’ Captain America, whose story effectively ends even though he doesn’t die. Captain America was not much of a personality in Infinity War, even though he was on screen a lot. Here, he’s definitely the second lead, which is at it should be. His story takes him to a place where he is forced to accept his own failures and fallibility, without losing his inherent courage and idealism. His defining moment comes when he strides toward Thanos on his own, certain to lose, but unwilling to retreat. His ultimate resolution, in being reunited with Peggy in the past, doesn’t really come as a surprise–it’s been at the top of the theories about the film for ages–but it is gratifying to see. The movie is wise in that it doesn’t try to engage us with another sequence of death and fatal sacrifice, but instead gives Steve Rogers a different sort of ending.
As for the other characters, they all finish the story well set up for their future Marvel adventures. Thor is with the Guardians of the Galaxy, presumably bound for Guardians 3, or hopefully, Thor 4. Falcon, Bucky, Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye are all set to make feature on upcoming TV shows on Disney’s new streaming service. And Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Dr. Strange are getting ready for their individual sequels. So Endgame is not a finale to the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it does serve as one for the Avengers as we’ve known them thus far. The ending titles, while eschewing the traditional extra scenes, does give us a cool send-off to the actors who kicked this whole thing off, with autographs of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner all being animated on screen alongside their individual credits.
Are there any weaknesses to the movie? It’s hard to say. At the moment, where the anticipation that we all had post-Infinity War is still fresh in our memories, it’s pretty much exactly what we wanted, and delivers the goods in every important respect. As time goes on, and the Marvel Universe moves forward, it might begin to show its cracks. Maybe the lengthy first act will more quickly wear out its welcome and become boring and tedious, maybe the illogical and underexplained time travel dynamics will become more annoying than they feel now, maybe the lack of exploration of the social implications of the “snap back” will begin to feel like a critical error.
But for now, none of that seems to matter. Right now, when the movie still feels like the long-awaited conclusion to the most ambitious superhero epic ever put on the big screen, it seems kind of perfect.