Avengers: Endgame is many things. It is an epic. It is science fiction. It is an action/adventure, a war film, a tragedy, a comedy, and a space opera. It is all of these things at the same time. The question is, in the aftermath of the mediocre Infinity War’s admittedly stunning ending, would Endgame be any good? The answer, I’m happy to report, is yes. Endgame builds on the promise and the legacy of a decade’s worth of filmmaking to create a unique cinematic experience, tipping its hat to the fans, to the creators and stars of the days of yore, and to those that can appreciate a big swing for the fences in terms of filmmaking.
*Ed. Note: This review will be relatively spoiler free. Obviously there are certain details that should be considered obvious, and will be treated as such (no sh*t Spider-Man and Black Panther will be coming back, one of them has a movie out in two months), but I will otherwise not give away the hows, whys, or whens that would ruin the movie-going experience for potential viewers
In the aftermath of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) snap, the universe lies in utter disarray. Half of every living creature has been wiped out. Every plan to defeat Thanos and reverse his actions has failed. The survivors, including Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket Raccoon (played by Sean Gunn, voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), are left to pick up the pieces and attempt to rebuild the world going forward. However, when new hope arises of saving their fallen comrades and restoring the universe, the Avengers, along with past and future friends Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), must enact one final plan in an all-out effort to save 50% of the population and save the universe one last time.
The most surprisingly pleasant detail about Endgame is perhaps how dark Disney/Marvel was willing to let this film go. I’m not just talking about the material, either, although enough of that is shockingly grim for a supposedly family-friendly series – the jokes have an air of morbidity (the Baby Hitler conundrum is mentioned once or twice), and the violence is surprisingly gruesome, if not overtly detailed, as audiences witness decapitations, amputations, cracked skulls, stab and gunshot wounds, and a whole lot more. No, I’m talking about the general tone of the movie, and the themes it plays with. For Avengers: Endgame is not just the closing chapter of a grandiose, risky, interconnected storyline. It is also a treatise on grief, the hopelessness, collective grief, the potential futility of goodness (and why we do it anyway), and the failures of not just one past movie, but ten years worth of failures. This theme is established from the very opening, featuring Renner’s Hawkeye, which is absolutely chilling in execution, and carried on with a shocking twist at the thirty-minute mark more hopelessly brutal than anything in Infinity War. As the film goes on, it finds new ways to explore the grief associated with such a traumatic and harrowing event. There’s a small, but significant plot point surrounding monuments to the fallen that resemble the WWII and 9/11 monuments in Washington, D.C. and New York. The Avengers themselves become living embodiments of the Kübler-Ross model of grief: Natasha is denial, Hawkeye is anger, Thor is bargaining, Steve is depression, and Tony is acceptance. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film’s first hour is provided only in a vague allusion, and cast off shortly thereafter: what if Thanos’ snap was indeed the best thing for the universe? Would such knowledge still justify the execution of trillions of people? Sadly, the film never explores these depths, but it does explore other rich territories; specifically, it explores the failures that exist outside of do-gooding, inside our personal relationships. Tying together the grief of 20+ films, Endgame explores the ways parents fail their children, children fail their parents, partners failing each other, and so on. Through such notions, Endgame uses its own legacy to explore how people can be a hero regardless of how we failed in the past, how these failures drive us forward toward new heroism. It’s surprisingly profound for a series that has only explored the realm of philosophy two or three times before (hi, Black Panther!)
However, part of the reason Endgame works is because it serves not only as an individual movie, as well as a capstone on a two-parter; Endgame works because it actually feels like the culmination of ten years of hard work. It’s a lot more effective than Infinity War in this way – it actually creates a cohesive narrative where these ten-to-fifty characters come together, interact intelligently, and close almost ten storylines in as neat a way as possible. I mean, if you want evidence that this film handles this all better than Infinity War, look no further than early scenes (like, first ten minutes) that depict Tony Stark and Nebula, as well as Tony Stark and Rocket – characters who have never interacted before in this saga – joke around, entertain each other, and bond. The use of Peter Quill’s Zune in these scenes is smarter than any attempt to shoehorn these characters together previously. This is similarly drawn out in the moment where James Rhodes meets Peter Quill for the first time – a joke I won’t spoil here, but it’s a solid, accurate quip. However, what’s most impressive about the film is how it actually feels like the culmination of multiple storylines. In a lot of ways, Endgame reminds me of the 2011 Harry Potter conclusion Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – and not just because that was the last time I saw a theatre this busy and a crowd this excited. These are characters we’ve known for a decade inside a series we’re saying goodbye to, and it is all executed like a well-made plan finally paying off. Therefore, as the film enjoys a trip down memory lane, callbacks to classic moments from previous films are not only refreshing – they are essential. As Tony Stark casually notes, “I just want peace,” and Steve declares during a fight, “I can do this all day,” it all interacts as part of an overall homage to the movies that came before, a testament to the great tapestry that they have woven (indeed, think of how insane it is that filmmakers managed to create 21 mostly stand-alone pictures that possessed connected through-lines that eventually all tied together). And thanks to small, but significant references to classic moments from comic book lore, the final achievement, when this entire journey comes together at once in a fantastic, sweeping moment, it truly feels like one of the greatest entertainment accomplishments of the decade. The film even takes moments to praise (or pat themselves on the back, considering how honestly cynical it tends to feel) the strides in inclusivity that this saga has made in terms of representation and fan appreciation: there’s a moment between Nebula and Rhodes where they bond over being disabled, and a later moment dedicated to female empowerment that is both incredibly forced and pandering and still highly impactful (basically, you’ll roll your eyes whilst they simultaneously tear up – I know I did both). And in the end, we witness the only fitting conclusion to this saga (stop worrying, I’m not going to give it away); a moment that both cashes in on the promise of the first Avengers movie, but also capstones the stories the same way they began (again, I won’t spoil either of them, but it wouldn’t be saying too much to say that food is a factor in one of them). This is a fitting conclusion to a decade-long journey, and regardless of how you look at it, you have to give Disney/Marvel credit for this unprecedented achievement.
I suppose I should take some time to talk about the filmmaking, because you can’t judge a single film based on everything that came before. That’s not how this business works. That hilariously bad painting of Jesus isn’t a masterpiece just because it’s based on a masterpiece. Luckily, Endgame manages to hold its own in this department as well. True, the CGI on Thanos still looks like someone took a sh*t on the screen, but in almost all other ways, Joe and Anthony Russo have improved their own technological know-how from the dull mediocrities that came before (outside of The Winter Soldier, of course). An opening shot set in the quiet of space is truly breathtaking, as is a later scene where the vastness of space is portrayed in one character’s awed eyes. There is a sequence where Steve Rogers faces down Thanos’ charging army that looks like a painting. And perhaps most exciting of all, the Russo Brothers have finally figured out how to film a coherent action sequence! There is a Hawkeye fight scene that is one of the most impressive that Marvel has released to date. The final battle is more reminiscent of the Battle of New York than it is the incoherent Wakanda battle of Infinity War. And there are several more cheer-worthy moments that I wouldn’t dare spoil, as it would suck the fun out of the room for everyone. I know if you’re seeing Endgame, the effects and filmmaking probably matter very little to you. However, knowing that it isn’t a god-awful eyesore can only help your appreciation, so here we are.
*Ed. Note, round 2: I know that it’s not technically a spoiler to reveal that certain characters are coming back in this film. However, in order to address which characters give the best performances, I’m going to have to dive into some mild spoiler talk. If this is too much for you, I will hold off on the names until the very end, and you can skip past it. Just stop reading when you see the name Yvette Nicole Brown
In terms of the performances, I cannot and will not stop singing the praises of Robert Downey, Jr., who commands this film in a way he hasn’t since, honestly, the original Iron Man. Downey, Jr. goes beyond Avengers/Iron Man 3 territory here, instead channeling Hugh Jackman in Logan more than any other here. He’s a gaunt, stressed, depressive hero, and he gives it his all in a way he hasn’t since 2007’s Zodiac. The second best performance, I’m surprised to note, comes from Rudd, who balances his comedic and dramatic chops with aplomb. He’s got plenty of great moments, such as a scene where he swears at a group of schoolchildren, but it goes beyond that: I won’t spoil the context, but there is a moment that evokes Matthew McConaughey’s emotionally fraught performance in a certain scene from Interstellar. As is usually the case, Chris Hemsworth is great fun – and even has an emotional moment or two to balance the tone – while Mark Ruffalo finally seems loose and happy for the first time in this series, as opposed to just showing up and reading lines as a way of earning money between Foxcatcher and Spotlight. Evans has been clear from the get-go that this would be his final film in the franchise, and while he doesn’t have any emotionally charged scenes on-par with Downey, Jr. or Rudd, he does manage to give the character the emotional, enjoyable send-off he deserves. Also giving a great performance (thanks to her first meaty role in the series) is Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems quite thrilled that they finally gave her something to work with after ten years. And Brie Larson brings it in a way you’d most likely expect from the Oscar-winner, although I will tell you, dear readers: for as much buildup as you’d expect for this character given Infinity War’s ending (and her own very good standalone movie), she is not nearly in this film as much as you’d expect. Other stand-out performances come from Johansson, Renner, Gillan, Cooper, and Jon Favreau, while Brolin continues to do fine work delivering over-the-top sinister lines. And of course, there’s the expected Community cameos, here from Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown, both serving as pleasant palette cleansers. But some of my favorite performances come from surprise appearances from familiar faces. Taika Waititi pleasantly shows up as Korg, and damn near steals the movie. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is as enjoyable as Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is fierce (she finally gets to do something!). Tom Holland is still a joy as Peter Parker, Anthony Mackie brings his acting chops to Sam Wilson, and John Slattery is heartbreaking as Howard Stark. And in perhaps my favorite turn of the bunch, Rene Russo gets her revenge on the Thor film for giving her sh*t to do by delivering a powerful, emotional monologue at the heart of the movie. Honestly, the only actor who doesn’t totally work (a bummer because he’s normally a great actor) is Sebastian Stan, because no actor on God’s Green Earth is ever going to make me care about Bucky.
Avengers: Endgame is a marvelous closing chapter on one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of film. It is the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of the saga, a closing door on a genre in and of itself. That’s not to say this is going to be the last Marvel movie ever – do you think Disney’s really going to give up on printing money? And there’s certainly a variety of fun new directions that can be built off the film’s closing moments. But even if the series continues on and on, and never ends, and eventually these actors are just digitally replaced by computers while we blindly stare at a screen, this still feels like a defining moment in the genre, in cinematic history, and in the lives of fans who have followed along for a decade. The critique may be raised that this crossover, film devouring franchise is nothing ore than brand optimization, and the entire phenomenon was nothing more than soulless corporatization. And to that I say: yes. It is exactly that. But why can’t that be art? Andy Warhol’s entire shtick was creating art out of corporate entities and brands. Why can’t Avengers: Endgame do the same thing? Why can’t we have a highly entertaining, decade-long experiment that has making us laugh, cry, cheer, and feel down to a science? I think we can, and if Endgame is, indeed, the culmination of this cultural milestone, then I believe we are in fine shape.