It’s finally here — the conclusion to Marvel’s Avengers series (or at least its first incarnation). With 22 films spread out over 11 years (and an increase from one film a year to three), Marvel Studios has managed to create an epic slate of films interconnected in ways that seemed like fan service at best and self-promotion at worst. But more than just the culmination of the development of the Marvel brand, Avengers: Endgame is (seemingly) the end of the road for the two directors who have helmed some of the most defining films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Anthony and Joe Russo. Endgame is their chance to show off what they’ve learned, as well as to send off a few beloved characters, and for the film’s first two hours they craft something more compelling than any previous Marvel film. Alas, Endgame isn’t a tight two-hour powerhouse, but rather a bloated three-hour pseudo-epic trafficking in the worst excesses of previous superhero films.
But back to those great two hours. The film opens shortly before the end of Infinity War, but rather than a simple recap, we spend time back on Earth with one of the characters who got short shrift in that earlier film. At the moment when half the universe’s population simply turned to dust and blew away, we get a sense of real loss. Aside from the very moving death of Spider-Man with a helpless Tony Stark by his side, Infinity War’s supposedly-shocking ending was robbed of much of its intended power by Marvel Studios’ constant need to return to the same well. These characters are its bread and butter, and it won’t let half of them cease to exist just because that might make for a compelling film. It’s no spoiler to say that those heroes all return in Endgame (though one might be amazed at what some people consider spoilers), but the same can’t be said of the rest of the universe’s denizens, and considering their plight is a welcome change for a franchise that once destroyed much of Manhattan without considering how many people would have died in such a tragedy.
Wisely, the Russos focus on the surviving Avengers and their overwhelming grief. We see Captain Marvel attending a grief support group, and later we see Tony Stark battling with his grief over the teenage boy he let down, as well as his guilt at fostering a new family even as so many other families were destroyed. We haven’t been allowed to see these emotions in previous Marvel films, at least not to this degree, and it’s exhilarating despite the downbeat tone. Avengers fans whose favorite parts of the movies are the battles at the end will be bored to tears, but anyone interested in heroes with actual thoughts and feelings will find something new and moving here.
Avengers: Endgame boasts two of the best hours Marvel has ever made…
Despite the first hour’s focus on loss, it’s surprisingly upbeat, thanks to a focus on Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was left stranded in the quantum realm when Thanos snapped his fingers. It’s through his eyes that we first get a sense of the total devastation wrought on the planet following the deaths of half its population. Abandoned buildings and smashed up cars abound, and everything seems to have come to a stand-still. When Lang asks a passing boy what happened, he just shrugs, suggesting the survivors were overcome by apathy once the greed abated.
Hour two shows Endgame at its most playful and joyous, as the remaining heroes plot what they think will be a stealth plan to save their fallen comrades, involving a complicated and relatively silly time travel plot that takes the characters back to scenes both well-remembered and barely thought of from the earlier Marvel films. Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk is particularly spirited, and Chris Evans, always a bit of stiff, seems to be having some fun for once. (He, or more accurately, his ass, is also the subject of the film’s funniest joke.)
But Endgame is three hours long, not two (just in case you hadn’t read all the histrionic social media posts from weak-bladdered viewers). Like nearly every single Marvel film before it, this one features a massive, utterly boring, and ineptly staged concluding battle. The problem is that there are only so many ways that Captain America can hit someone with his shield and only so many new gadgets Iron Man can shoot from his arms. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. And this one very much feels like we’ve seen it a thousand times before. Although it feels blessedly shorter than the Infinity War end-battle, it also feels like a weak redux of that film once Thanos’ army arrives. It doesn’t help that the Russos belong to the incomprehensible school of action filmmaking, where a bevy of quick cuts makes what’s going on unintelligible. Perhaps they can’t settle on any one character for more than a few seconds because they fear of boring the audience, but it would be more interesting to see the actual struggle of these battles, instead of just editing together their most impressive kills. What saves the weak final section of Endgame ends up not being the Russos’ filmmaking chops, but something far more mundane: contractual obligations. This is the last film for several Avengers stars, and Endgame finds moving and varied ways to send them off.
Though its greatest faults lie in the third hour, Endgame is peppered with painfully self-aware moments. The Russos went to great extremes to pat themselves on the back for featuring a gay character, but the person in question turns out to be an unnamed man in Captain America’s support group who only briefly mentions having a husband, before disappearing from the rest of the film (he’s also played by Joe Russo, who’s not gay). Rather than showing one of the heroes that audiences have connected to is gay, the Russos merely confirm that the Avengers don’t live in some alternate universe free of gay people, a laughably low bar to clear. The scene reinforces the studio’s habit of talking up any hint of representation while simultaneously tamping down those already negligible moments. The movie is also beset by some of the most ham-fisted product placement ever seen. There’s nothing wrong with Audis, but something’s amiss when all of the Avengers drive them. Every time they go for a drive, they manage to park their cars at that diagonal angle beloved by car ads because it shows off the exterior while still keeping the brand’s logo front and center.
But even with those embarrassing faults and the film’s action snoozefest conclusion, it’s worth remembering that 2/3 of Avengers: Endgame is among the best work Marvel has ever produced. It’s a film that deserves to be seen, and maybe it’s the best conclusion to this first chapter that anyone could have hoped for. But it’s a shame that Marvel hasn’t found a way to end its films without these anonymous concluding battles. Perhaps the 23rd times’ the charm.