As is usual with my reviews of cinematic products emanating from the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), this one is not intended for the True Believer. If you saw Avengers: Endgame on opening night, checking it off your tally of every Marvel movie/TV series ever made, and are merely popping in a week later with the mildest of interests in what your local critic thought of it, shoo. You’re about to take offense at what I’m about to say: that it wasn’t the Best Movie Ever Made.
Seriously, that is what an inordinate number of diehard fans are saying about Endgame on social media – evidence, perhaps, that we’ve reached the pop-culture event horizon at which watching MCU movies takes up so much of a person’s time that he or she simply cannot watch anything else. But we should not be overly surprised. It’s arguably quite appropriate that the “final” installment in a 22-part big-screen franchise should be packed to bursting with fanservice. Endgame has that in spades.
Not to say that this is all bad: Fans have had to live for a full year now with the downer – shocking for non-readers of the series of comic books on which Avengers: Infinity War was based – of seeing fully half of our heroes (not to mention the rest of sentient lifeforms) reduced to ash with a snap of Thanos’ bejeweled fingers. Of course, in this genre, death is a highly negotiable outcome. Thus, it barely requires a spoiler alert to move on to the revelation that the cast of Endgame will not consist merely of those actors mentioned in the advertising campaign. The question was never whether all those characters (some of whose movie franchises, such as Black Panther, are just now picking up steam) would stay dead; it was how they would be resurrected – and, for readers who follow film industry news about which actors are seriously ready to get out of the superhero rut and do other things, how those characters would meet their ends.
Nor is it particularly spoilery, given the genre and the medium, to discuss the fact that time travel is the mechanism – the only one, per Doctor Strange’s complex calculations prior to his self-sacrificial demise in Infinity War – by which Thanos can be thwarted. We already knew that when Ant-Man gets small enough to enter the Quantum Realm, time goes all wonky. To its credit, the Avengers cycle has mostly shied away from this most convenient of science fiction tropes. For all the fun to be had tying our brains in knots working out temporal paradoxes – what happens when you meet your past or future self et cetera – having characters transcend time and sequentiality cheapens them, because it makes the consequences of human behavior less meaningful. So much of drama rests on a character’s having to live with the repercussions of his or her own choices. Do-overs are satisfying only within a very narrow range of literary or cinematic works, in which the do-over itself is the plot device.
It is our good fortune that the humor already established amongst the Avengers’ core crew is self-aware enough not only to acknowledge that time travel is a clichéd solution, but also to make that realization fodder for jokery. Characters tick off the “rules” of what time-travelers are and aren’t allowed to do and cite lists of well-known movies that have established said rules (some acknowledgment of the Golden Era authors who originated them would have been even nicer, but it’s too much to expect that the average Avengers-movie consumer will be a sci-fi literature nerd as well). It adds up to an ironic “What could possibly go wrong?” attitude with which the surviving Avengers must step into their gameplan to reverse Thanos’ Final Solution, and that’s fine. Part of why we love these guys is their willingness to wing it when plans go awry.
Seeing how those complications arise and are dealt with is what makes the middle act of Endgame the most pleasurable. There’s both chaotic humor and some heartstring-tugging to be had, as several characters undertake side quests on their visits to their own pasts to resolve non-Thanos-related personal conflicts. Healing the world begins at the family level, it seems. Fanservice here takes the form of innumerable cameos from characters long dropped from the franchise.
A couple of core characters get amusing makeovers: Bruce Banner and the Hulk have finally found a bespectacled, musclebound middle ground, while buff Thor has “let himself go,” drowning his melancholy in junk food and ale, and now channels the Dude from The Big Lebowski. I recommend not letting a thin skin for fat-shaming jokes get in the way of your appreciation for the fact that Chris Hemsworth is really blossoming these days as a comedic actor. Second-string Avengers also get a chance in Act Two to shine as never before, with special props due to Jeremy Renner for bringing much more depth and nuance to a bereaved Clint Barton/Hawkeye.
Act One is the most sluggish, despite a brisk foray into an unsatisfactory confrontation with present-day Thanos, not long after the great culling of humanity. The next five years are sketched in with some scenes that work (Tony Stark proving a surprisingly awesome, engaged dad) and some that fall flat (Steve Rogers pontificating in a non-superhero survivors’ support group). It isn’t until Scott Lang/Ant-Man turns up after his subatomic sojourn with ideas about the malleability of time that things start getting lively again.
The final act, mainly consisting as usual of an epic-scale battle (with Dutchess County’s Staatsburgh State Historic Site as the unrecognizable backdrop), is the one that will seem most gratifying to the diehard MCU fanbase and most rote to viewers who crave rich character development. There are just too damn many superheroes onscreen at pretty much any given time for us to get immersed in the drama of any one of them. That will, of course, be some viewers’ definition of thrilling cinema.
The exceptions, where only one or two characters are in focus, are handled well; you’ll get a little misty-eye at one point at least, if you have any history with these characters. Keep an eye peeled for the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse in the dim distance during the movie’s elegiac coda, shot at Scenic Hudson’s Black Creek Preserve on the west bank of the Hudson.
Summing up, Avengers: Endgame is not only not the Best Movie Ever, but it’s also not the peak that this particular screen franchise has to offer. While competent manipulators of the action genre, Anthony and Joe Russo lack the directorial intelligence and deft hand of Joss Whedon, who helmed the first two Avengers films. There’s a little too much business crammed into the movie’s three-hour running time. But it’s pretty consistently enjoyable fare, and has its moments when the resonant rises above the flood level of the obligatory. Much of the credit belongs to a well-seasoned cast of actors who have grown comfortable with their characters and with one another. We’ll be missing the ones who are moving on.