Avengers: Endgame - Review

After the colossal cliffhanger of Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame bounces between thoughtful goodbyes and flippant nostalgia, to confused results. Spoilers abound!

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Thanos’s goal was always balance. A tipping of the scales to a weight he determined would be just, but as he says at the end of Avengers: Endgame, he made a mistake. In failing to calculate those who would remember the old world, he decides to alter his trajectory to something more lethal: universal extinction. If any of this sounds like a hand-me-down or tired plot advancement tool, that’s because it is. Endgame is the follow-up to the first Avengers we wanted seven years ago; but in that time things have changed. Infinity War had its issues, but the arrival of a villain as secretly likable and motivated as Thanos was not one of them. Endgame provides an answer, but by focusing on closure for its original-six lineup of heroes, neglects to make good on the lofty promise of Infinity War’s ending.

As with Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame is an achievement. Pacing is tight, coordinated and split, not unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The much touted three-hour runtime breezes by, especially when the third act kicks into gear and the Avengers start pushing the story forward. The film balances a Hawkeye/Black Widow subplot, a Bruce Banner hero arc, and an emotional trek through the past for Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, all without missing a beat. In order to bring everyone back, and prevent Thanos from attaining all six infinity stones, the Avengers left alive journey through the past to get them before he does. This means returning to iconic locations such as the battle for New York in Avengers, Thor: The Dark World-era Asgard, and Morag, that planet Star Lord dances on at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy. Time travel is the central pillar of Endgame, and thankfully it’s more interesting than the copious Back to the Future jokes the gang lay on. Time travel is silly, yes, but the Avengers do what they do best and make everything that should be ridiculous very, very serious.

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For roughly an hour and a half, the Avengers are fragmented, split across multiple timelines with the goal of locating the world-ending infinity stones before Thanos did in those timelines. It’s convoluted almost instantly; you can feel writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus patting the audience on the back and slowly explaining their version of time travel through mouthpieces like Hulk and Ant-Man. The story is begging for plot holes, for coincidences that don’t serve any purpose other than to fill up time, but aside from a prolonged encounter with Doctor Strange’s Ancient One (reprised by Tilda Swinton!), Endgame does a fair job making the past relevant to the present.

Yet as the film continues, and things like Captain America picking up Thor’s hammer to uppercut Thanos occur in quick succession, the frivolous antics of time travel seem purposeless, included for pure nostalgia. There are several key beats in Endgame that exist only for this purpose, to make the audience laugh or cry or both based on the return of an iconic line or unexpected return, but scenes like Rogers fighting his past self in 2012 don’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s a goofy, unnecessary encounter that doesn’t mean much unless you’ve seen every Captain America film, though it does give us the best line of the MCU, “That is America’s ass.” For a three-hour movie that doesn’t need to be that long, there is an awful lot of time spent reminding us why these characters are iconic, when the sheer existence of this film proves that doesn’t need retelling.

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Endgame is always better when it looks ahead. In this case that means the strongest ending of any Marvel film yet, precisely because it is an ending: a definitive period closing out a remarkable run of great and so-so films, some of which now exist in a landscape when we all pretended climate change wasn’t a serious problem. True to its title, Endgame is satisfaction for characters we’ve been traveling alongside for quite some time, and without giving away the final frame, it treats Cap best of all.

Endgame is a human story, grounded in Earth’s past and present. It’s a massive leap from 2018’s Infinity War, which took to expanding the Marvel universe beyond simple boundaries like “planets” and “cities.” Endgame is eager to humanize its heroes, because whether we like it or not, some of them are not coming back after this. Whether that’s through serendipitous chance or a literal passing of the shield, these moments need to hit, and that is the ultimate goal.

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It’s easy to complain about the film’s action-light second act, but I would be hard pressed to think of what to replace it with. Tony Stark meeting his father, Cap re-encountering his lifelong love; these are essential to the finale, those last twenty minutes that cement Endgame as an unmissable event film. It hurts to say goodbye to Tony, Cap, and Black Widow, but without their deaths, what purpose would Endgame serve? In attempting to deliver on the stakes of Infinity War, the creative team of Endgame removed them from the equation, substituting in character development and characteristically muddy CGI battles.

As closure for the 20 films that came before it, Avengers: Endgame is an effecting and stirring release, the send off we all knew was coming. But as a direct continuation to the story established in Infinity War, Endgame drops the ball with too many repeated setpieces and a castrating of the main antagonistic. It’s The Dark Knight Rises’s Bane all over again. Endgame is the ultimate fan-service, rewarding those who have sat through every film since Iron Man, which begs the question, what will all this nostalgia be worth in 10 years? The emotion will last, as well as the feat of constructing a universe so vast, but the fat will disappear, along with Thanos, boldness, and the best hope for the MCU to become something more than a crowd-pleasing money printer.