Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.
Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.
Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.
Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.
The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.
The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.