This particular entry of “Musings…” is going to be a challenge for me, as I’m not writing a plot synopsis, and I will resist the temptation to drop any spoilers (which would be impossible if I wrote a synopsis). Instead, I will try to give you the overall gestalt of the movie through my own personal prism.
I’m assuming the reader has seen the previous Avengers film, “Infinity Wars”, and at least a few of the 22 Marvel shared universe movies over the past 11 years, beginning with “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man” (both 2008).
Last time on “The Avengers”…
At the conclusion of “Infinity Wars”, big purple genocidal bad guy Thanos (James Brolin) used a collection of “infinity stones” (a stone for time, souls, reality, etc), gathered throughout the galaxy to reshape reality into his own vision of a perfectly balanced universe…which includes eradicating half of all life everywhere. Right before our eyes, a sizable number of our heroes suddenly turn to ash, including the Red Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), SpiderMan (Tom Holland, in a genuine tearjerker of a goodbye), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy, save for Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper). The bad guy wins, and our heroes are resoundingly defeated.
That was the ending of “Infinity Wars.”
“Endgame” begins with our heroes trying to pick up the pieces after the traumatic loss of half of the universe’s living things. This dystopian first act of the three-hour movie is surprisingly introspective. We really get to know our surviving Avengers, Tony Stark/Iron-Man (Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes/Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle), Thor (a wonderfully ridiculous Chris Hemsworth), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), as they try to live out their lives. Some struggle to cope, others try to live in the here-and-now, but all of them would do almost anything for a second chance…
Those fans who are used to Marvel movies hitting the ground running with action might be disappointed in the pensive first act, but those who prefer character and depth over mindless fisticuffs will be richly rewarded. If one is patient, the movie eventually achieves equilibrium, satisfying all tastes. Considerable time passes in this first act, but it never feels like time wasted; if anything, the gloom and doom are what fuels the character’s motivations later on.
Some of the film’s most interesting moments are in the roundup of the main characters at different stages of their lives. One of the great joys of this movie is that we get to really know these characters as human beings in a way that we haven’t previously (in 11 years and 22 movies).
Things do pick up on the action front, as one of the characters (almost against their will) stumbles across a tremendous technological breakthrough. This ‘breakthrough’ is a well-known (but cleverly-used) science fiction trope, which gives an impetus for ‘getting the band back together’ and ultimately goads back them into action. I really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek way the film manages to revisit many of the Marvel cinematic universe’s greatest hits as organic elements of this new story. Yes, it’s fan service, but it’s of the best kind… the kind that works with the story presently being told.
The middle act builds the action quotient up to the levels of previous Marvel movies, but usually in tandem with (not against) the character moments. The final act just explodes, and there are consequences… even a few casualties. It’s how the film deals with genuine loss in the final act that defines this movie as much as the brooding first act defines its characters. The losses are real, not the phony-baloney kind that sci-fi characters all too often bounce back from like a clumsy pratfall. Despite my wife’s tears, I was glad to see the movie embrace sacrifice without the impulse to ‘fix’ it later. Loss is part of what gives our existence meaning… that impermanence and fragility.
Even as characters fly through space, summon lightning, open inter-dimensional portals, and survive what should be continuous rounds of bone-shattering concussions, they ultimately have to be mortal to matter. This is a key point of the movie; all good things, and people, end. This is a movie dealing with loss and closure.
While some characters may not be coming back, it’s a safe bet that many of them are still available for future movies. However, all of the major performers (returning or not) really throw their backs into this one. Everyone in the cast deserves a round of applause for putting up with countless hours on wire rigs in front of green screens acting their asses off to pingpong balls on gaffer poles. They all work very hard to sell it, and to make the audience believe in it. That said, a few deserve extra notice…
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. He is the irreverent soul of the Marvel cinematic universe. Like the movies themselves, he is brilliant, witty, irreverent and often too restless for his own good. He’s been with these movies since the beginning, and has set the tone for all that followed. He truly is “iron man.” Even when the character is at his lowest, he is effortlessly the center of attention, and remains the gravitational center of these films. Stark’s personal history and life with Pepper are also given a lot of room for exploration in “Endgame”, much like Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. It’s a genuine pleasure to see all new aspects of Downey’s for-the-ages character.
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America. If Downey is the soul, then Evans is the leader. One of the reasons I hear people saying why Superman doesn’t work as well the 21st century is because we live in such morally murky times, and that stalwart, do-gooder heroes are too old-fashioned these days. Evans blows that theory straight to hell, playing his Captain Rogers with every ounce of sincerity and earnestness with which the late Christopher Reeve gave to Clark Kent/Superman. If Reeve made us ‘believe a man could fly’, then Evans makes us believe an old-fashioned hero can still soar. Cap’s the reason we have superheroes…modern myths who remind us of the better parts of ourselves.
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow. Johansson took a character whom I originally saw as little more than leather-clad eye-candy (in “Iron Man 2”) and by her second movie (2012’s “The Avengers”), made her indispensable. Much of that was the writing, of course, but a much greater part of it was that soul of the angry orphan-turned-protector that was Johansson’s Natasha. She is “Le Femme Nikita” reaching full maturation and depth. Would love to see a standalone movie of this character.
Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye. A character who started out as ‘that archer guy’ in 2012’s “Avengers” has also come to quietly assume the role of everyman in these movies. Family guy, career soldier, and easily the most relatable Avenger for much of the audience. Renner gives the role a reality that reminds us these aren’t robed gods living on Mount Olympus…these are, like those who serve in our armed forces, just regular folks (however uniquely gifted).
All of the cast are terrific, including Don Cheadle’s Rhodie, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (who is played almost entirely for laughs), Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, and literally dozens more. Each actor’s cheering section will get their due, I promise.
If one character left me wanting, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk. Nothing against the actor who does the most with what’s written, but the character’s transformation in this movie made me long for the days of the Hulk was taken a bit more seriously. We already have much comic relief with Hemsworth’s Thor (and several others), so playing the Hulk for broad laughs as well just feels like a bit too much. I often miss the simmering intensity and gentle charm of the late Bill Bixby (“The Incredible Hulk” TV series), who (along with writer/producer Kenny Johnson) never allowed the character to descend into a cartoon. Bixby played the role of Banner with the same earnestness as Reeve’s Superman or Evans’ Captain America. I wish Ruffalo’s Banner was afforded that same opportunity.
This is business.
If I had my own Infinity Stone gauntlet, I might also wish that Disney/Marvel give the Marvel superhero movies a nice long rest after “Endgame.” Of course, I know they won’t. There’s just too much money to be made. Opening weekend alone, “Avengers: Endgame” has grossed a record-shattering $1.2 billion worldwide. Sequels are, as villain Thanos describes himself, “inevitable.”
Knowing full well there will be motivation (ka-ching!) to make yet another long series of Marvel films, “Endgame” certainly feels like the last Marvel movie… and if it were, I’d be perfectly okay with that. It ends well.
Summing it all up.
Despite its prodigious running time and hundreds of fan boxes satisfyingly checked, “Avengers: Endgame” is not for the Marvel newbie. In fact, it’s nowhere near a standalone piece of entertainment. Anyone using it as their gateway drug into the Marvel cinematic universe will be hopelessly lost. Even I had to brush up on “Infinity Wars” (via our blu-ray copy) shortly before my wife and I left for the theater.
Movies like this are the cinematic equivalent of Netflix binging, with each episode less a standalone installment and more of a chapter in a novel. They’re not like the James Bond movies, which tell complete tales for both fan and newbie alike. These Marvel flicks are made solely for the fans who follow the series, and that’s just the way it is. Either you’re onboard, or you’re not.
The Marvel movies’ rollercoaster ride appeal is probably my single greatest issue with them as well. I enjoy them as I watch them, but they quickly evaporate from memory, like a vivid but forgettable dream. Too often (with notable exceptions), superhero films are full of action and funny quips, but little else. “Endgame” wisely adds a lot of character depth right into its first act, grounding the final acts of this story. The film also accomplishes the near impossible by giving all of the Marvel shared-universe movies more depth… even imbuing some of the lesser entries with a bit more sentiment than they might otherwise deserve (looking at you, “Thor: Dark World”). That is one hell of a trick.
Most of my minor nits with the movie quickly sublimated in light of the spectacular and deeply satisfying resolutions to dozens of character arcs developed over the past decade. Fans of each major character are well-served. That’s a Hurculean (or Asgardian) achievement, and “Endgame” does so with aplomb. Major kudos to the directing team of the Russo brothers (Anthony & Joe, who also helmed the superlative “Winter Soldier”), as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
The single greatest accomplishment of “Avengers: Endgame” is taking 11 years of these dazzling, sometimes maddeningly ephemeral mini-epics and binding them into a spectacularly cohesive and entertaining whole. A stunning achievement in pop entertainment.