NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review, carefully written so you can still enjoy the movie.
It’s hard to remember a time without the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The superhero franchise has become so ingrained in our culture over the past 11 years that Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and Captain America feel like family, as do the friends who sat with us in the theater.
Which is why “Avengers: Endgame” gives us all the feels: eager anticipation, bittersweet adieu, relief from oversaturation and gratitude for the memories. The 22nd installment is a fittingly epic, three-hour finale that packs all of the fan service you could ever want, laced with somber tones and emotional payoffs that will cause even the genre’s biggest detractors to shed a tear.
The film picks up after the gut-punch cliffhanger of “Infinity War,” where Thanos (Josh Brolin) incinerated half of the world’s population with the snap of his fingers, including Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Star-Lord. The surviving Avengers must decide whether they’ll wallow in defeat or rally to find a solution. Fans have debated the course-correction possibilities of the six Infinity Stones. Will our heroes tap into minds? Wield power? Alter reality? Bend time? Shift space? Purge souls? We finally get the hilarious, heartbreaking answer.
First and foremost, this is a film about survivor’s guilt. Thor takes it the hardest, apparent in the physical changes and Lebowski posture of Chris Hemsworth. The Hulk is ironically more optimistic, shown in the facial expressions of Mark Ruffalo, who appears in motion-capture resemblance rather than the previously cartoonish CGI. We also get a bigger stage for Jeremy Renner, as Hawkeye gets to open the film with an affecting family scene before teaming with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow for one of the franchise’s most memorable moments.
And yet, “Endgame” smartly places most of its focus on Captain America and Iron Man — as it should be. The franchise wouldn’t exist without these stalwarts, who have combined for the series’ best installments (“Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “The Winter Solider”). Chris Evans takes the reins of leadership as Cap, having already lost his loved one Peggy decades ago, while Robert Downey Jr. has more to lose as a cynical Tony Stark facing a moral dilemma. Should he rest on the good fortune that his family survived Thanos? Or risk it all for the greater good?
As such, the film feels less like a superhero action flick than it does a solemn episode of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which is a major compliment. After Thanos’ genocide, it would be illogical to have characters smiling in bang-up action sequences. We need the first half of the film devoted to grief, regret and even arguments, as Stark chastises Cap: “We should have covered Earth with a shield like I said, but you were too worried about infringing on personal freedom. We’re always fighting after the fact. We’re the a-vengers, not the pre-vengers, right?”
This moralizing might make the first hour-and-a-half a drag for folks with short attention spans — let’s face it, the target demographic has always been teenagers and the young at heart — but it’s the kind of serious contemplation necessary for this particular story and the type of complexity that will satisfy the adults in the room, critics and audiences alike. By now, we’re so invested that the runtime shouldn’t matter. And when the story takes off, look out.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely weave the most complex narrative since “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) with plenty of plot holes if you think hard enough, but directors Joe & Anthony Russo juggle the storylines in a way that you don’t feel the three-hour runtime. Granted, you’ll be confused if you haven’t seen the prior installments, so don’t think you can hop on this ride while it’s moving. Most casual fans don’t have time to binge all 21 flicks again, but give yourself a quick refresher on New York, Asgard, Morag and Vormir.
If you’re all caught up, you’ll relish in the genuine surprises, wondering whether they’ll whack major heroes or villains at any point. Remember, “Infinity War” killed off Gamora and Loki even before Thanos’ snap, so anything is possible here. What does it say about society’s psyche that “Endgame” arrives the same month as the final season of “Game of Thrones?” We’ve reached a wild time in pop-culture when so many viewers are collectively fearing the demise of beloved characters and praying they survive. Long live Tony and Arya Stark!
There’s also the underlying curiosity about what the Russos will do with the characters they’ve teased as potential saviors. “Ant-Man and The Wasp” (2018) left off with Paul Rudd stuck in the Quantum Realm, while “Captain Marvel” (2019) left off with Brie Larson joining The Avengers. “Where have you been all this time?” they ask. “There were many other planets that needed saving,” she explains, to which Thor replies, “I like this one.” In “Endgame,” her part is disappointingly small — she’s barely on-screen — but when she does appear, she’s vital.
It all builds to a climatic battle that is everything you could hope for, where all of your favorite characters do battle with Thanos’ army, trading blows, weapons and super powers in such an exhilarating fashion that audiences can’t help but cheer. Academics might complain of deus ex machina — a literary term for miraculous events happening out of nowhere to suddenly save the day — but it somehow works in this particular genre with these particular characters.
As Thanos says repeatedly, “I am inevitable,” and so is the end. As a result, don’t expect the usual post-credit teasers. You’ll get none here, and that’s a good thing. The message is clear: finality. At least for the original Avengers (For the record, if any of them reappear in a future film, I’m docking points for false advertising). We all know there are more films already in the works, from “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019) to “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” (2022), while Marvel would be foolish not to capitalize on the surefire smash of a “Black Panther” sequel.
Which bring us to the conundrum that’s always existed: Can you really call something the “endgame” when it’s really not the end? This question reveals the fundamental flaw in the franchise model, which is easy to quantify ($19 billion so far) but artistically hard to qualify. The American Film Institute ranks its Top 100 with stand-alone films (not franchises), meaning one film will have to represent this entire saga. Do any entries deserve all-time status? And which do you choose? “The Winter Soldier” is arguably the best but it lacks Tony Stark, “The Avengers” lacks T’Challa, “Black Panther” lacks the Avengers and “Infinity War” is half a film.
Alas, we’ll let film history settle that score. In the meantime, the filmmakers deserve all the box-office business that “Endgame” does this weekend and beyond. If you told me 11 years ago that you had an idea for a two-part finale to let the villain win in “Infinity War,” then offer tear-jerking catharsis in “Endgame,” I’d have called you brilliant. “Infinity War” is still probably the better of the two, but critics should consider them two parts of the same movie (Part 1 and Part 2). On their own, each film’s report card might read “incomplete,” but as a combined grade, it’s a damn-fine execution of a killer pitch. In that light, Marvel fans should be grateful.
And so we roll the credits, the curtain coming down on the final act of the Tesseract, for once asking us not to look forward to the next teaser clip but instead look back with nostalgia at an epic 11-year journey. “I am Iron Man” is now just a distant memory, but it’s only as distant as firing up your favorite Blu Ray. Like the late Stan Lee, the legacy lives on, lovingly assembled.