“It’s the end. The end of the path I started us on”. “Nothing lasts forever.”
I’m reminded of this short exchange from one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron trailers as I review Endgame. In some ways, Age of Ultron was regarded as a colossal setup for the upcoming two Avengers movies that, as hammered home by Marvel and Disney marketing, would culminate the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, paving the way for fresh blood. Their marketing was successful in feeding us this message twice over, beginning with last year’s campaign for Infinity War, even as eagle-eyed fans realized it would not truly be the end. The message hits harder this time, the feels are higher, and having seen the movie, I can indeed attest that the message has a certain truth to it even if it’s more perceptive than profound.
Avengers: Endgame has an ardous task ahead of it. It needs to provide a satisfying conclusion to a decade’s worth of movies that have in fragments, been serving as precursors to this finale. It has a lot of fan service to do to satiate the countless theories, ideas and wishlist of items floated by hungry fans who expect certain scenarios to play out. It pretty much needs a near-impossible plot to resolve the dangling cliffhanger that painted its writers in a corner in last year’s Infinity War. And amid all this, assuming they truly care, the filmmakers, writers and the studio have to deliver a good movie, possibly even a great one, while keeping things fresh. The great news is that despite the ocassional stumbles along the way, Endgame delivers a product worthy on all these fronts, a laudable effort.
Going in, the 3 hour runtime looms over your head like a double-edged sword. And having been granted the freedom and the studio’s blessing to run with that results in a, dare-I-say, much different kind of movie. Last year’s Infinity War was relentless in its pacing, barely sparing viewers any time to breathe, blink or go for bathroom breaks. In contrast, Endgame feels like it’s been made by a different creative committee altogether. Sequences are allowed to play out longer and in their entirely, without edits, cuts or interruptions breaking their momentum. Whether it’s the opening with Hawkeye and his family, the numerous interactions between Steve and Natasha, or Steve and Tony, the entire first act in general of the Avengers dealing with the ramifications of the snap moves at a sluggish pace that almost makes Endgame feel like a small, indie drama. This is further reinforced in a rehab sequence where Rogers attends and counsels some survivors, including co-director Joe Russo, who cameos as a homosexual individual, a brave first step in a big-budget movie recognizing LGBT characters.
It’s also pleasantly jarring how depressing and bleak the first act really is. The snap being the monumental event that it was, affects everyone around it negatively and the odd joke aside, director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo let those scenes maintain their grim tone. Thanos is retired, dejected, disturbingly crushed, having surrendered to his inevitable fate; he’s as far removed from an antagonist in those opening moments as the Avengers are distant from him. His eventual fate induces shock and sorrow in equal parts, a poignant portrait of a misunderstood being who wanted nothing more than to execute his mission, never mind it was mass genocide. As he crumbles under the weight of his responsibilities, the Avengers deal with the baggage of being unable to fulfil theirs. And yet, the world is supposed to be all the better for it, more peaceful, stable, with resources that would last a lifetime now that Thanos has prevented a potential extinction level event by causing a smaller one. In one of the more brilliant bits, writers Markus & McFeeley imprint Thanos’ reasoning further when a distraught Rogers laments at the cleaner, calmer waters and lesser ships harboring them as he tries hard to sees the bright side of the snap. Despite Endgame providing a light, markedly different characterization of Thanos, the early bits put an interesting spin on some of those lingering issues.
If you walked into Endgame expecting big, ongoing, frequent and thinly spaced out battles, prepare to be disappointed. A lot of the movie’s first act is about characters interacting, going through shocking developments when the world fails to recpuerate despite a five year leap. And the second act is largely about them devising a bold plan for getting their lost comrades back, by pulling off what they internally refer to as a “Time Heist”. Stating anything more would give away the ingenuity in store but suffice to say, it opens a whole new can of worms in terms of both possibilities and plot holes. The plan hinges on a lot of coincidences and a team of individuals, completely broken by their experiences battling Thanos last year, so much so that the Avengers is merely a recognizable name with barely anyone in it, it’s members reduced to a shell of what they once were, instead left shattered and stranded with their spirits broken.
That break-down of our heroes in Endgame is simultaneously exciting and devastating to watch. All the original Avengers go through bouts of self-struggle over their experiences and come out differently, mostly for worse. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is an emotional, physical wreck after his return from space that leaves him malnourished, confounded and weak. He semi-retires into a “safe life” with his family in the woods, away from all the save-the-world shenanigans. Steve Rogers struggles to maintain his “giddy optimism” about the world somehow correcting itself one day. Natasha Romanoff goes through something similar, yet continues to watch over the goings-on to avoid another cataclysmic situation. Both Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson channel their inner emotions to display that sense of brokenness and share a chemistry of unspoken words without going overboard. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has snapped, as though a bomb went off inside his head, and turned into the maniacal gangster-killing assassin Ronin, eliminating all the nefarious people who survived the snap when they deserved to be disintegrated. And without giving anything away, Banner has struck an unlikely peace treaty with the Hulk allowing them to work together, while Thor, like Stark, is not just physically and psychologically broken, but also depressed. Having failed to take down Thanos just on the verge of the snap despite having a clear shot, Thor goes on a guilt trip, blaming himself for a situation that could’ve been avoided had he not let his guard down. Chris Hemsworth turns Thor from a God into a human and evolves his character beyond what we’ve seen him play in so many movies. For the first time in a long while, Thor’s struggles are actually relatable.
Which isn’t to say it’s all hunky-dory. There are definitely stumbles, and often it feels as if Endgame doesn’t use its precious runtime all that wisely. No effort is made to delve back into the Hulk’s situation, or at least provide a glimmer of explanation as to how he came to be. Multiple developments in the Avengers’ ambitious plan rely on quick-thinking and coincidences when the writing could have fleshed some of those details out. I would’ve very much preferred Inception like exposition sequences, that elaborated on the meticulous nature of the planning given what the Time Heist entails. Also welcoming would’ve been to see scenes depicting the world’s reaction to the snap – news reports, people scrambling, governments actually reacting, mass waste, aside from the brief rehab sequences we were treated to (something directors Joss Whedon and Shane Black did incredibly well). I suppose it all boils down to the Russo Brothers preferring to have emotional stakes against focusing on the more science-fiction elements while keeping things closer to the core characters; no wonder all the touching scenes play out longer where as the scifi stuff like upgrading the Quantum Realm suits is dispensed off quickly. This continues throughout the film; there’s a highly emotional sequence between Natasha and Clint that seems impractical when factoring real-world physics but draws out intensely emotional performances by Johansson and Renner who look back to the years of backstory between their characters to deliver yet another devastating outcome.
The result of all this planning and the ensuing developments is a climactic battle, the only one in the movie, that’s on a scale that very closely rivals the battles in The Lord of the Rings in the amount of characters they assemble and the scope they cover. The difference being, the characters here have all been a part of multiple feature-length films, undergoing their own arcs, thereby evoking stronger feelings. The battle is almost operatic in its scale, with top-notch cinematography from Trent Opaloch and visuals reminiscent to a John Martin painting, frames with biblical undertones resembling the kind of apocalypse that Mad Max filmmaker George Miller would salivate over. It’s as if someone re-did a glorious comic book panel as a graphic novel injected with doses of photorealism, presenting what are undoubtedly some of the finest visuals in the history of Marvel films and serving some great wallpaper material on a platter once the movie comes out in 1080p or 4K Blu-Rays. The battle is guided by Alan Silvestri’s magical score and re-rendering of the titular Avengers theme that quadruples its mythical qualities as well as the scene’s impact, ensuring that both the battle and the accompanying melody combined will go down as a fine blend of commercial filmmaking with art.
The battle itself comes on the heels of the movie’s conclusion and is followed by some somber, poignant, extremely emotional final minutes that will touch perhaps even the hardest of cynics. A hero’s sacrifice is acknowledged in one of the most tearjerking ways it can be, yet another instance of the 3-hour runtime allowing the moment to play out in its entirety. The tragedy’s prominence hits harder, again due to Silvestri’s beautifully rendered emotional score used effectively by some competent direction; the veteran composer comes up with a new melancholy that elevates the scene to a squad honoring a fallen soldier, echoing the climactic moments of Saving Private Ryan for the emotional response it evokes. I would be highly surprised if Silvestri does not get an Academy Award nomination for his original score in Endgame.
Balancing out such a complicated plot is a challenge in itself. That the directors and writers undertake it, while also serving eons of fan-fulfilment is the stuff nergasms are made of. Without wanting to give away details, Captain America gets the most fan-pleasing moments including this year’s equivalent of Thor’s arrival in Wakanda from Infinity War, with outcomes that will (and do) draw deafening cheers from audiences. There’s some wicked stuff done with the “Time Heist”, including a devilishly clever use of “Hail Hydra” that expertly embraces even the worst that Marvel Comics had to offer in a way that I so badly wish I could explain without spoiling the plot. And all of this is done in conjunction with striking production values that’s a heterogeneous outcome of the insane production budget coupled with the Russo Brothers and Opaloch shooting the film in the new Arri-65 digital IMAX camera, the same one employed for Infinity War last year.
What’s also satisfying, aside from the blatant fan service, is the character arcs of two of the prime protagonists of Marvel’s 22-film saga – an eccentric billionaire and a selfless patriot – and how their arcs evolve to swap places to a certain extent. Tony Stark starts off the MCU as an incredibly selfish playboy, throwing away his life for babes and booze and grows into a self-made superhero still largely concerned with battles affecting him instead of someone to lay down over a wire for the team. He eventually undergoes a metamorphosis into someone who cares about nothing more than to see the world a safe place. Steve Rogers on the other hand, starts off as the one willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the nation, even if it means dying over a bomb at an infantry camp, and slowly grows into a man who misses his old life and develops partially selfish motives, wanting to relive his own past over serving the nation or saving the world. It’s a long game at play that takes a decade to show results but flourishes in the end thanks to the strong writing and the performances put forth by Downey Jr. and Evans, who deliver some of their strongest work in this shared universe of films by far, ahead of their already strong performances in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
Avengers: Endgame is a wild ride through the MCU’s glorious and lengthy past. It honors the events gone by and creates a legacy for its heroes to be remembered and commemorated and celebrated. It’s a bizarre combination of an imprudent plot concocted in the face of inexplicable circumstances that has no business work as well as it does; and yet, it somehow does. It’s epic, emotional, enigmatic, euphoric, exceptional filmmaking that works on all levels and rewards fans who’ve been watching these movies for years on end, doing marathons and re-runs. It delivers a generational experience so profound, so entertaining and so fulfilling that it’s worth overlooking its flaws, hiccups and plot-holes to have one of the best times you’ll have at a movie theater, and one that you’ll remember for decades to come.
Highly, Highly Recommended