The culmination of a 22-film franchise, Avengers: Endgame represents one of the most ambitious projects in filmmaking history—if not the most ambitious.
Providing a thorough synopsis of a complex, multifaceted, three-hour film is both overly cumbersome and unnecessary for a review like this one, so I’ll skip that. I’d rather analyze it from a narrative and storytelling perspective, which is what matters to me, anyway. Understand, though, that there will be numerous spoilers ahead.
Avengers: Endgame (OR: Back to the Future, Too)
One of the things that makes Endgame so ambitious in a standalone sense is that it tackles not one, but two powerful handicaps in terms of plot devices. First, time travel. Second, a supernatural gauntlet that lets the user do nearly anything he can possibly imagine.
In both cases, these devices have the potential to wreck the very concept of stakes. To wit, the entire point of Endgame is that the heroes want to use a combination of these two elements to undo the consequences that made Infinity War‘s story so potent.
There are always inherent problems that make incorporating time travel a tricky business. First and foremost, there must be an artificial limiting principle in place, or else stakes have absolutely no meaning whatsoever. For example, in Back to the Future (a virtually perfect film that is repeatedly and explicitly referenced in Endgame), the device needs to generate a massive amount of energy in order to work. In 1955, there is no way to generate that power outside of a bolt of lightning, which sets in motion the events of the final two acts, and also creates dramatic tension.
In Endgame, a similarly artificial limitation is created. Instead of plutonium, the Avengers need “Pym particles,” as seen in the Ant-Man films, in order to make quantum time travel work. Ok, fair enough.
But there’s another stakes-altering aspect to time travel: Even if we have a finite number of attempts, we can alter the past and eliminate any errors we made previously. The way Endgame tackles this problem is . . . less satisfactory.
Most films caution that further missteps while time traveling can have catastrophic results that are even worse than whatever happened before. This, again, adds (or substitutes) a potential new danger for the one that is being remedied through the use of time travel.
This is where Endgame had a plot problem: because of the Gauntlet, the danger already in play was “maxed out.” Thus, there was no hypothetical danger that could equal or surpass what was being undone, because, as we saw, the Infinity Gauntlet could literally destroy all of existence, and Thanos could remake the new universe in his own image if he so chose.
The way the creators of Endgame chose to address that was novel, if somewhat clunky. They actually wrote a scene in which the characters discuss the usual “rules” to which filmgoers are accustomed, and then super-genius Bruce Banner dismisses those rules as silly fiction—but doesn’t precisely explain why they’re any more silly than the alternative he presents.
This entire scene is essentially a waving of the hands with a call to the audience not to overthink any of this (mission not accomplished in my case, obviously). We’re more or less told not to worry about any kind of past event changing the history of the characters as we know them in the “present” of Endgame.
But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem: The Gauntlet. Or, more precisely, the power of all six Infinity Stones being used together, which equates to near-omnipotence. If the Stones can do virtually anything, then is any victory—or defeat—truly “final,” even within the rules of the movie?
Now, all of my hand-wringing about convoluted plot devices out of the way, this is not to say that Endgame is a bad film. It’s a very good film.
But the effect these devices have on threat and stakes color the emotional responses we have to the movie. Case-in-point, I think perhaps the most emotionally powerful scene is the fight between Hawkeye and Black Widow over the right to sacrifice themselves for the Soul Stone.
Not only is there a genuine conflict in the mind of most of the audience about who “should” die, but the “rules” of the movie work to the advantage of creating dramatic tension. Specifically, we know that a Soul Stone sacrifice is one of the few things that cannot be undone. Therefore, we know whoever dies isn’t going to be resurrected at the end of the film (which is exactly how things play out, and this is even addressed by the characters).
But this same idea also works to the disadvantage of the death of Tony Stark. It may be inferred that there’s no one who can resurrect him without themselves being killed (Hulk had already nearly been killed when he used the new Gauntlet), and, offscreen, the characters discussed that possibility and Steve Rogers dropped a “we don’t trade lives” on the group. But it takes just a bit of the impact of an otherwise-exceptional scene involving Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Holland, and Gwyneth Paltrow that reverses Iron Man and Spider-Man’s roles from one of the most impactful scenes of Infinity War.
Ok, at this point, it feels like I’m just talking about the minor problems with the movie, so let me shift gears and talk about what the film gets right, which is most things.
For starters, the five-year jump at the beginning is crucial. It not only carves out a bloc of time for (possibly) telling additional stories in the future—such as a standalone Black Widow movie, for example—but it also helps drive home the impact that the Snap has had on the survivors.
Case-in-point, Fat Thor (a/k/a the Big Thorbowski). He’s the character who came closest to defeating Thanos in Infinity War, and that near-miss appropriately haunts him in alternatingly hilarious and harrowing ways. Chris Hemsworth did an excellent job toggling between the darker and lighter aspects of the character that Thor has necessarily become.
So it goes as well with the bitter Tony Stark we see at the beginning of the movie. He’s livid—and understandably so. From his perspective, all of this could have been avoided if the events of Civil War had played out differently. This is the kind of satisfying continuity that is only possible in a film arc as long as this one.
It’s also a quality that is perhaps unique to the MCU. Previously, movies always had an advantage over television in terms of budget and star power, but television had a storytelling advantage: rather than two or three movies set years apart, viewers had the chance to come to know television characters over years, spending hours with those characters every year.
The MCU gets as close to duplicating that as possible for a film franchise. That gives extra weight to the audience’s emotional connection to these characters in a way previously only possible in other mediums.
That brings me to the do-over aspect of Endgame. Revisiting key moments from the past is something of a mixed bag because of the potential pitfalls I spoke of at the top. Despite the exponentially larger, beyond-epic scope, it all reminded me a lot of Back to the Future, Part II, wherein the characters revisited favorite moments from the previous film in a fun way, albeit in something of a cheat (just ask Crispin Glover). I did think it was exceptionally clever to have Nebula be the conduit for Thanos getting on level ground with the future Avengers.
Even with some reservations on my part, there’s no question that there’s a ton of fun to be had in this aspect of Endgame, particularly for people who have seen every MCU film. One of the best scenes in the entire movie is the elevator scene, but almost everything about that brilliant moment will be lost on people who have never seen Winter Soldier—or even those who have seen it, but not since it first came out.
Speaking of payoffs for longtime fans, that’s really what this film is all about. And it delivers those moments in droves.
Everything, big and small, from Tony Stark being able to reconcile with his father to Cap finally getting to live that life he missed to Scarlet Witch confronting Thanos to Fat Thor lumbering past an imprisoned Loki to Falcon’s saying “on your left” to Cap rewarded those who have been with the series since the beginning. I probably even missed a few of these moments that I’ll only catch on a repeated viewing.
And, of course, there’s the top-line payoff of Tony Stark’s (and Nick Fury’s) big-picture concern about protecting the planet from an alien invasion. Tony’s premise is vindicated, his multi-year journey is validated, and, best of all, it is he who ultimately deals the deathblow to Earth’s—and the universe’s—existential threat.
But the payoff that actually stands out above all the others, the one that I’ve been waiting for since Age of Ultron—and the one that makes the movie—is when, during the climactic battle, Captain America is able to save Thor by wielding Mjolnir (prompting a perfect “I KNEW IT” from Thor).
In the showing I attended, the audience broke into cheers and applause when this happened. And rightfully so.
That’s another thing this movie gets very right: intertwining in a totally convincing and natural way genuinely funny moments with genuinely poignant or exciting ones. It also brings the most important threads to a close. It gives us what we needed to finish off the story of these Avengers while also setting the stage for the next generation of the MCU movies (which is why, incidentally, I think they were right to leave Captain Marvel out of much of the film—and, by the way, Anthony Mackie will make a terrific Captain America, and the (As)Guardians of the Galaxy are in very capable hands as well).
But is Endgame as good as Infinity War?
Ultimately, I don’t think it is. Not only because of the storytelling nerd stuff I talked about at the outset, but also because one of the things that made Infinity War so incredible was the fairly nuanced character of Thanos. He was evil, but he was also a philosopher of sorts. He had a capacity for generosity and love as much as he did a capacity for destruction—and, remember, it was destruction with a purpose, no matter how misguided.
The Thanos we get in this film seems flatter. More pure, violent evil, with a lot of the nuance lost. He even admits as much at the end of the film, saying he would take pleasure in the destruction of the Avengers, and that he would re-create the universe in his own image. This seems a far cry from the contemplative farmer who has voluntarily destroyed the stones before being beheaded by a guilt-stricken Thor at the beginning of the film.
I have other minor quibbles with the movie. All of the female characters randomly banding together during the final battle was a little on-the-nose, for example. And the “alternate timeline” cheat that will undoubtedly allow Disney+ to drain even more money from this franchise is a bit of an eye-roller (where did 2012 Loki get to with the Tesseract?!?).
However, my chief grievances, to the extent we want to call them that, are the inherent challenges created by overpowered plot devices, and the less-interesting version of Thanos we get here.
In the end, though, the movie still scores a ton of points based on degree of difficulty. I’ll have to ruminate on it before I can rate it among the entirety of the MCU, but it’s certainly in the top five. The only films that might give it a run for the money are Infinity War (still my #1), The Avengers, and Civil War.
Ultimately, while Endgame was very good, I think Infinity War will always be the Empire Strikes Back of the MCU—a film, and a story, that is of such high quality that it transcends the normal constraints of its genre.
But that takes nothing away from Endgame. If you want an extremely satisfying conclusion to a decade-plus, 22-film odyssey, you’ve come to the right place.
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