Film Review: Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is Messy, But Thematically Perfect

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The end is here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wraps up its long-running “Infinity Saga” with the messy, convoluted, and thematically satisfying Avengers: Endgame. The 22nd film in a franchise spanning over a decade, Marvel architects Joe and Anthony Russo compose a resonant coda to a story that began with 2008’s Iron Man, but also create a new breed of spectacle that defies criticism and filmmaking logic. Minor spoilers ahead...

Avengers: Endgame is critic-proof; I’m not just talking about reviews and their impact on box office and attendance, but the film as an actual criticism-proof entity. As the long-anticipated conclusion to the decade-spanning “Infinity Saga,” directors Joe and Anthony Russo, alongside their longtime writing partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have delivered a cultural event rather than a traditional cinema experience. The capstone to a 22-film franchise that started with Robert Downey, Jr. uttering the words, “I am Iron Man,” Avengers: Endgame is a love letter to fans and an immensely satisfying parade of closure, even if it doesn't exactly work as a singular movie. In my review of its direct predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War, I wrote the following:

“So, does Avengers: Infinity War deliver? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes,’ but with some asterisks attached. If you're looking for coherence, laser-focused storytelling, or even a compelling standalone film, you will likely be disappointed. The Russo brothers have crafted the ultimate superhero crossover, and while the prior 18 franchise films have at least made an effort to function by themselves so that they can be enjoyed independently, Infinity War makes no such concessions. There's barely time for exposition or even an emotional throughline with so many supergroups colliding together - instead, the film employs a workmanlike efficiency in guaranteeing that every major character gets a moment or two to shine, a strategy that is more effective than you would think.”

If Avengers: Infinity War used the MCU’s storied library as a crutch, then its follow-up leans into it. Hard. The end of the “Infinity Saga” is a strange cinematic animal - a film that requires more than a passing familiarity with past entries to reap the rewards of its story, Endgame rarely feels like its own movie. Instead, with its payoffs, callbacks, and references, the Russo brothers have structured it as the ultimate prize for a decade of loyalty and fandom. Avengers: Endgame is the first Marvel Studios film that feels like it actively punishes casual viewers and non-fans - and that is by design. Through a film critic’s lens, Endgame is a mess. Narratively wobbly, tonally inconsistent, and logically compromised, the film doubles down on Infinity War’s entanglement with a decade’s worth of superhero world-building with an uneven hand. But as a comic book and Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, the film is thematically perfect, a moving and epic conclusion that closes arcs and opens doors.

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“Through a film critic’s lens, Endgame is a mess…but as a comic book and Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, the film is thematically perfect…”

Avengers: Endgame begins where Infinity War left off: in the direct aftermath of Thanos’ devastating snap that obliterated half of all life in the known universe. After a personal and bracing cold open that has tinges of HBO’s The Leftovers, the film cuts to the Avengers as they wallow in their failure in a morose denouement. Tony Stark, stranded in space with “the blue meanie” Nebula, reflects upon the ill-fated battle that left his young charge Peter Parker a pile of dust, while the rest of the Avengers deal with the repercussions on Earth. Grief, however, is quickly swept aside when our heroes locate the Mad Titan in his post-snap retirement on a distant planet. The Avengers’ plan to exact revenge on Thanos and reverse the snap isn’t exactly successful, and with one nastily brutal scene quite uncharacteristic of the MCU, the Russo brothers convey that Endgame won’t be going the way that you expect. Without spoiling the film further, the rest of the story uncovers a third chance at undoing the genocide wrought by the Infinity Gauntlet, leading to a whirlwind adventure that has our cast of heroes revisiting some of the MCU’s greatest hits.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always had an issue with consequence and forward momentum: a stubborn resistance to change and a tendency to rubber-band back to the status quo. In a franchise that has seen Nazis infiltrating the United States Government, superheroes bitterly fighting each other, and its ostensible lead blowing up all of his Iron Man suits, the MCU is surprisingly stagnant. Perhaps its resistance to change is a byproduct of the Disney corporate machine, or perhaps it’s an artifact of its comic book roots; the old adage goes, “In comics, no one stays dead except for Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes.” That may have been true two decades ago, but since then, both Jason Todd and Bucky have returned to the land of the living. In the world of comics, you can have big events like “The Death of Wolverine,” but you know that Logan will always come back with his adamantium claws. Steve Rogers may pass on the mantle of Captain America, but you know he’ll always return for that shield. Comic book characters, through their inkers, colorists, and writers, are effectively immortal; actors, however, are not - contracts run their course, time passes, and people age and yearn to move on. In Avengers: Endgame, the Russo brothers utilize these limitations of a real-life comic book universe to devastating effect, and perhaps for the first time, we feel a narrative with finality and consequence. Where the first 21 films of the MCU have seemingly been in service of the “to be continued” (not necessarily to its detriment), Endgame feels like a punctuation - from its closing character arcs to its emotional deaths, the film carries a weight rarely seen in superhero film. For the first time, a Marvel Studios film delivers a sobering message: “Nothing lasts forever.”

From a narrative perspective, Avengers: Endgame doesn’t always work. Its tendency to jump from hilarious one-liner to deadly serious business induces a sharp tonal whiplash, and I’m pretty sure the logic around the film’s core mechanic is far from airtight, but damn if it isn’t satisfying. With half of the universe dusted, Endgame gets to focus on our original six Avengers (plus some stragglers); from Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and especially Captain America and Iron Man, everyone gets their moment in the sun. And whether these moments make you laugh, cheer, or cry, they all land in the places the Russos want. To call the film a walking personification of fan-service would be accurate, but also a little unfair. While your run-of-the-mill fan-service acts as little nods and fun Easter eggs, Endgame utilizes it to pay off character arcs and splash jaw-dropping moments across the cinema screen, many of them moments that comic book fans have been anticipating for over a decade. It’s no hyperbole to call Avengers: Endgame a cultural event rather than a film - it’s a superhero epic that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the biggest crowd possible.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an incredible beast, a feat of world-building and consistent storytelling that has captivated audiences all around the world. With Avengers: Endgame, Kevin Feige, along with the Russo brothers, have stuck the landing on a decade’s worth of stories. Like Infinity War, the film may not operate fully on its own, but its predecessors have paved the way for an immensely satisfying conclusion; the MCU is the ultimate long game, and Endgame feels like its glorious final lap.

GRADE: A-