SAVING THE WORLD
‘Avengers: Endgame’ Is an Emotional, Balls-to-the-Wall Finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Several doors close and several more open in this fitting end to the first three phases of the MCU.
A common complaint against the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its 22 films and 11 years of existence zeroes in on the saga’s perpetual delay of real consequences. Rhodey broke his back in Captain America: Civil War? He’s back on his feet by the next film. Tony finally comprehends his own limits in Iron Man 3, but by Age of Ultron, that lesson seems half-forgotten. Even Thanos’ universe-decimating Snap in Infinity War tipped us off to its impermanence the moment Black Panther and Spider-Man went up in dust, despite sequels already planned for each. Avengers: Endgame, we already knew, would have to undo the damage. That meant consequences would not be delayed this time—they’d be straight-up erased.
But Endgame—the sequel to Infinity War and a capstone on the most popular movie franchise of all time—is unique in the Marvel universe for how, in some regards, the buck really, actually stops here. The fallout from this movie may be irreversible. But it’s that finality that makes Endgame such a satisfying adventure and a near-perfect conclusion to the MCU’s first Avengers saga.
Endgame is patient enough to allow each of the six surviving original Avengers (Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man) time and space to reckon with not only their legacies as heroes, but with personal grief, self-doubt, and their lives’ unfulfilled potential. It’s heavy stuff handled beautifully in three hours that succeeds as a reward for investing in these characters; it dissects each of their mythos with insight and affectionate detail.
After Infinity War, it was never a matter of if certain dusted characters would return, but how. To its credit, Endgame plants inventive, emotional surprises at every plot turn toward the inevitable. We pick up a few weeks after the greatest frustration of the Avengers’ career: failing to stop the purple megalomaniac Thanos (Josh Brolin) from using the Infinity Stones to turn half the universe to dust. An early, hopeful attempt at setting things right falls apart. From there, each hero is left for long, quiet stretches to contend with their failures.
Some struggle to move on, others are consumed by it. A pair will comfort each other over PB&J sandwiches here, another two will bicker and point fingers there. The relentless pace of Infinity War left little time for human-scale interactions like these, despite the shawarma-eating, house-party hangout scenes invariably being the best parts of Avengers movies. They’re the moments that feel most like watching a family. That’s an important theme in Endgame, it turns out: “I used to have nothing,” Natasha says at one point. “Then I got this job, this family, and was better because of it. Even though they’re gone, I’m still trying to be better.”
Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who’s been stuck in the Quantum Realm since last summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, squirms his way into the Avengers’ orbit again with a plan. But by then, some heroes have adjusted to their new normal, even learned to relish it. It’s an honest look at change, really—there’s no telling what’s on the other side.
As scripted by Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Endgame is smart enough to realize that undoing the Snap isn’t actually our most pressing concern. The real focus here is six longtime friends (though there are about a hundred named characters that flit on and off-screen from different eras of the MCU) and their evolving relationships with one another. It’s an epic movie brimming with intimate moments that celebrate these characters’ shared histories—and not just theirs, but our own with them, too.
The last 11 years has seen the creation, deepening, and challenging of these characters onscreen; we’ve aged along with them, so to remember their past is to recall a bit of our own. Endgame is obsessed with this idea. It recreates familiar situations and summons old faces to confront each hero with the sum of their past, often to melancholy effect. That sense of shared experience may be why audiences react so strongly to this movie—I heard gasps, cheers, laughter, and weeping to match my own all around me in the theater. Endgame may be unabashedly self-referential, but it’s a victory lap for Marvel that’s well earned. There’s not another pop-culture property right now (save perhaps Game of Thrones) that’s fostered such fierce attachment to fictional people.
Not that Endgame is strictly a memorial service; each major player continues to change in dynamic, even startling ways. It helps that each of the six principal actors—Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark—know their characters better than anyone now, and act the ever-living hell out of their final performances together.
Natasha, the once-inscrutable assassin turned moral compass of the Avengers, is more vulnerable here than she’s ever been. Thor, the earnest doofus who happens to be a god, reaches surprisingly dark depths as he’s overwhelmed by all that he’s lost. Clint warps his anger into violence against petty criminals around the world. Bruce and Tony, meanwhile, reveal sides of themselves that would have seemed, if not impossible, at least extremely far-fetched a decade ago.
Steve Rogers is a changed man, too. He’s wearier, more pragmatic, a little rougher around the edges—and funnier than he’s ever been. This is the first movie in which he dares utter a swear word, reflecting how he’s loosened up. It’s also the first time in years he’s expressed sadness over the life he never had with the love of his life, Peggy Carter. It’s one of many long-neglected character beats granted oxygen in this film, from Natasha and Clint’s best friendship to the lack of closure in Tony’s relationship with his father.
Because much of Endgame lingers in more personal drama, the usual, steady Marvel clip of wise-ass humor functions less to undercut serious moments, and more as natural relief—grief is what makes their jokes believable here. (The film’s sci-fi premise, along with Hulk’s sweaters, Thor’s Big Lebowski makeover, and a line about “America’s ass” bring brilliant comedy, too.)
The film’s action scenes are less coherently choreographed than the Russos’ previous efforts in Winter Soldier and Civil War. But they make up for it in the pure spectacle of one dizzying last stand—a balls-out bananas, practically biblical-level battle unmatched in scale and chaos within the MCU. It’s the kind of action figure-smashing display of little-kid imagination ripe for dismissal as fan service. (I thought instantly of Patton Oswalt’s Star Wars filibuster from Parks and Rec.) Still, after 11 years spent assembling each individual piece with painstaking care, it’s a glorious sequence to behold.
Not every hero walks out of that battle—and I won’t spoil the machinations of the plot to undo the Snap, or what goes down between Nebula (Karen Gillan) and her “father,” or how Captain America and Iron Man resolve the rift between them after Civil War. Suffice to say that Endgame lives up to its promise as a gratifying, if bittersweet goodbye to modern cinema’s biggest superheroes. There’s no post-credits stinger at the end of this one. Like our heroes, we simply have to move on.