After 150 minutes of cameos in Infinity War, I honestly expected Marvel to peddle out a never-ending sprawl of superhero crossovers, killing off and reviving their characters ad infinitum in the spirit of creating superficial stakes. I mean, you HAD to know Marvel was going to bring back everyone Thanos killed, right? How else could they make a Spider-Man sequel starring Tom Holland, set to release for July? Why else would they need a director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? Considering the inevitability of Endgame’s giant undo button, I couldn’t help be pessimistic at the prospect of another ten years of mediocre MCU movies.
Having watched Avengers: Endgame, I now have a better understanding of how this movie serves as a milestone for the entire franchise. At the very least, I’m willing to admit that Marvel Studios did have a relative endgame in mind for their gigantic cinematic universe, albeit one heavily dependent on hollow pretext to drive its drama.
Five years after Thanos (Josh Brolin) wipes out half of all civilization, the surviving Avengers struggle to live with the aftermath. But when Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) inexplicably emerges back from the quantum realm (wherein he was initially trapped at the end of The Ant-Man and the Wasp), the Avengers develop a plan to revive all of Thanos’ victims by going back in time to “borrow” all six Infinity Stones.
So it’s basically one big time heist. The remaining Avengers break up into separate groups and revisit key moments in past movies when the Infinity Stones were present.
Okay, NOW, I get it. What better way to celebrate your multi-billion-dollar IP than to make a greatest hits compilation of the journey there? I know I sound sarcastic, but I’m genuinely impressed by how elegant their follow-up to Infinity War is. It rewards loyal fans for watching every MCU movie, while finding an interesting way to bring all the characters back to life.
This isn’t some cheap clip show either. Many of Endgame’s scenes recall fan favourite moments from Marvel’s canon: for instance, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) travels down an elevator surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. goons, much like he did in The Winter Soldier. There are even times when Endgame would re-contextualize one of Marvel’s weaker movies through comedy, as is the case when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) sneak through Asgard during the events of Thor: The Dark World. Seeing our heroes mess around with the characters and environments of previous movies is a true delight, reminding us how light and fun the Marvel universe is compared to its other contemporaries.
There are limits to this approach, though. Not every moment in the MCU is worth remembering, and some are better left forgotten. Thanos sacrificing Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain the Soul Stone was a particular low point in Infinity War; the scene tried unconvincingly to give Thanos a meaningful conflict. When Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) encounter the same situation in Endgame, the scene devolves into a laughable game of leapfrog as the two of them compete to be the martyr.
For what it’s worth, Endgame is quite good at selecting which scenes in Marvel’s filmography to revisit, most likely because Marvel did a lot of market testing to see what people loved most about their movies. It gives fans exactly what they want, but it comes with its own caveats. The upside is that, out of Endgame’s 180-minute runtime and large variety of scenes, viewers are bound to find at least one scene they feel an attachment to. But this comes with a downside as well; as potent as individual scenes may be, they don’t have any thematic synergy as a whole. As a result, Endgame is lesser than the sum of its parts.
That’s the biggest issue with blatant fan service: any validation you receive from die-hard fandom is short-term. After all these years, there is no world-building to Endgame, no massive story to tell; the writers are just making it up as they go along. The torrent of internet memes Endgame has graced us with are all but temporary. If the words that best encapsulate this movie are “I love you 3000,” then expect Avengers: Endgame to have the same ephemeral impact on pop culture as James Cameron’s Avatar.
Maybe this sounds harsh. After all, Endgame is already miles better than it has any right to be. It’s a charming, mildly entertaining blockbuster! What more do I really want?
Call me a purist, but I believe that stories are defined by the characters that inhabit them: the choices they make, the pain they experience, and the change they ultimately undergo. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok clearly demonstrate how Marvel is capable of creating dramatic character arcs.
By comparison, much of Endgame’s drama happens off-screen. The five-year time skip excludes all visible character change; we never see Thor’s slide into depression, Hulk’s (Mark Ruffalo) zen transformation, or Iron Man/Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) parenting struggles. Instead, they are spoken of, established through verbal exposition, and immediately pushed aside for a plot about retrieving a bunch of magic rocks.
In other words, Endgame is a movie with no buildup and only payoff. Massive turning points occur suddenly, and everything happens in a snap. There isn’t enough time to soak in the scenery or consider the consequences. The movie is too busy whisking us away to the next set piece, the next plot beat, the next action sequence.
And if that’s what you want out of Endgame, then I don’t blame you. But as the summation of a decade’s worth of Marvel movies, the film is just passable. If you have been yearning for a climatic conclusion to last year’s Infinity War featuring all of your favourite comic book characters, then you can do much worse than Endgame. But if you aren’t interested in superhero movies or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Avengers: Endgame isn’t going to be the movie to make you think otherwise.