Film — Avengers: Endgame

Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes (well, more or less) with the fittingly titled Avengers: Endgame (2019). It is, in many ways, the most satisfying team movie since the original, exceptionally entertaining for the many things it does well. But like Avengers: Infinity War, it tries to do so bloody much it can’t do justice to every idea and objective. The script also possesses  familiar, problematic symptoms that mar the overall achievement. I definitely enjoyed it, but wish it had made some key decisions differently.

Warning: necessarily, the following review is full of spoilers.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the end of Infinity War delivered the MCU to a profoundly dark place. Cosmic, villainous sociopath Thanos (Josh Brolin), despite the best efforts of the Avengers, managed to collect the six powerful Infinity Stones, rendering him effectively omnipotent. His signature act, “the Snap,” wiped out half of the living creatures in the universe, including a number of Avengers. As Endgame opens, the team launches an attempt track down Thanos and undo this horrific event, but Thanos—his “work done”—has destroyed the Stones. Thereafter, Endgame spends important time in its three-hour run dealing with the psychological fallout of this failure on the team. Some, like Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), retire, trying to move on. Others, like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), keep the Avengers going in an attempt to do some good in a shattered world. But ultimately all have more or less given up hope that they’ll ever be able to bring back their vanished loved ones.

That is, until Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from an experimental mission to the quantum realm, after five years have passed. He’s been trapped in the microverse since the Snap, but for him, only a few minutes have elapsed—which gives him an idea. What if the Avengers can leverage the time-travel side effects of visiting the quantum realm to go back in time? If they can recover the Infinity Stones before Thanos gets his hands on them, they could undo his evil work. He brings this notion to the Avengers, who gradually re-form to explore the possibility. It’s Iron Man who solves the crucial equations that make precision time travel possible, sending the surviving Avengers on one last-ditch mission to thwart Thanos. Splitting into teams, they journey backwards across the timescape to take their one-in-a-billion shot at saving the universe.

Much of the joy of Endgame comes from the fact that it affords its characters a chance to breathe. A major drawback of Infinity War was that it didn’t give its unlikely crossover interactions time to develop, relentlessly subjugating everyone to crisis-mode action spectacle. Endgame doesn’t make that mistake. While its early stretches may be slow and somber, they also allow the story a chance to build, and the characters time to shine. The focus, quite rightly, is on the original six: Cap, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Officially, this may only be the final team film of Phase Three, but really it’s the end of an MCU-long saga, so best to come full circle on its formative players.

On this score, the results are decidedly mixed. Robert Downey, Jr., of course, is given every opportunity to shine, and he is—as usual—exceptional as Tony Stark. Do I think they overinflate his importance? Absolutely. But you know, with all due respect to Edward Norton, Iron Man did kind of start it all, and Downey has been a huge part of the series’ success, so I’ll give them this one (well, up to a point). Chris Evans also gets satisfying story time as Cap, and has fine, fine moments, although one of them shoots all kind of holes in the film’s time-travel logic. These two definitely get the lion’s share of focus, and considering their key roles and their rivalry throughout the series, that’s only to be expected.

For the “second stringers,” Hulk is the most entertainingly handled, giving Mark Ruffalo plenty of great material in a new Hulk/Banner “hybrid mode” that leads to some of the film’s funniest moments. Hawkeye’s journey includes an unnecessary descent into the lamentable Ronin canon, but it’s definitely nice to see him back. As a long-time Hawkeye fan, I’ve never been entirely thrilled by how he’s been developed, but Renner eventually won me over. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile, has a grand old time as Thor. Unfortunately, the script turns his alcoholic depression into a running fat joke, taking an opportunity to be sensitive to the character’s legit trauma response and shitting all over it. Thor’s descent into a babbling, Dude-like wreck could have worked just as well without fat-shaming nastiness. As for Black Widow—well, we should all feel betrayed. To me, this character was essentially the glue of the franchise, and she is profoundly short-shrifted. While at first it appears her post-Snap leadership may figure to be important, she’s ultimately “written out” in a depressingly predictable way—one that, alarmingly, manages to repeat one of Infinity War’s most objectionable moments. The scene does afford her an affecting chance to reconnect with Hawkeye, at least, a nod to their storied past in the comics. But when all is said and done, the fact that she is a quiet, uncelebrated casualty while a certain popular, flashier male counterpart is lauded as a veritable god in the film’s final moments? To say the least, I could have done without that fucking decision—and that’s about as polite as I can be about it.

Black Widow’s fate is, of course, emblematic of Marvel’s clumsy treatment of female characters over the last decade. It’s quite clear they’re starting—just starting!—to see the error of their ways, and hopefully the success of Captain Marvel will grease the wheels on this chronic failing. But Endgame, despite some lip service, doesn’t do much to improve their reputation. In fact, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is here, not that you would notice. Considering she’s one of the most powerful Avengers, she’s given shockingly little to do. Well, except that she is exploited as the centerpiece of a calculated “Girl Power” moment, which purports to solve the franchise’s systemic sexism, but frankly just calls more attention to it. The women of the MCU, when they’re included at all, remain something of a “special interest.” Only the misguided Nebula (Karen Gillan) is given meaty material, which I welcomed. As it turns out, though, Nebula’s involvement turns out to be a flaw in the Avengers strategy that nearly dooms the mission. In terms of its gender politics, the MCU really just hasn’t come very far at all in the past eleven years. There’s no good reason for it.

But like I said, Avengers: Endgame does many things well. First of all, Paul Rudd is freaking delightful, yet again. But perhaps its best aspect of the film is its structure…and when have we ever said that about a Marvel movie? Endgame unfolds with mostly natural plot beats, deploying ingenious conceits to inform character and deliver emotional impact. The time-travel hijinks not only provide wonderful moments, with the heroes skulking about in the shadows of their own pasts. They also afford the viewer a chance to voyeuristically revisit the journey of the entire film universe. Endgame is riddled with nifty easter eggs that will give seasoned MCU fans a real kick. As gimmicky as that sounds, the scenes also work—again, because they speak to character, showing where our heroes have been and how they’ve changed. After all, when it comes down to it the characters are the heart of this franchise’s spectacular success. In many of the franchise’s twenty-two films, talented performers have gone a long way to rescue weak scripts and formulaic stories. Endgame puts character at center stage, and that elevates it above some of its weaker predecessors.

So where does the MCU go next? The upcoming schedule is pretty spotty, and Avengers 5 isn’t on it yet. Wherever they go, though, I’m bound to follow. It’s quite possible I’ll spend parts of the journey screaming criticism at its easily fixed, unnecessary flaws; the ones in Endgame mitigated my enthusiasm considerably. But for all that it’s an impressive cultural moment in modern film, and the MCU still rekindles the nostalgic joy I experienced in the sprawling, messy, colorful Avengers books of my youth. I look forward to more movies in the next sequence, which hopefully do it even better.

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