By now, much of the world has seen ‘Avengers: Endgame’ at least once, as the film has shattered opening-weekend records across the globe and elicited a veritable tsunami of fan reactions that run the entire range of the emotional spectrum. Last week, I brought you my spoiler-free review of the film; now, one week and two viewings of the film later, let’s take this opportunity to talk about the movie a bit more in-depth, shall we?
WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead for the plot and character details of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ so if you have not seen the film yet and wish to not have these details discussed in your presence, the time to stop reading is now!
The task, in and of itself, was a daunting one: somehow follow-up the incredibly well-received ‘Avengers: Infinity War‘ with a contained plot that not only brought this particular story to a close but also managed to pay respects and homage to the last eleven years of Marvel Cinematic Universe story-telling. Easy peasy, right? Fortunately, the Russo Brothers were up for the task.
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Brothers Joe and Anthony, co-directors of previous MCU films ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ and of course, ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ were the perfect – possibly the only – choice to bring this epic piece of the superhero silver-screen saga to an end. And yes, I know that technically, ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home‘ is the conclusion to Phase Three of the MCU, and that the franchise will continue onward and upward with more films to come, but I think we all understand that ‘Endgame’ is the culmination of so much that this franchise has set in motion for so, so many years.
First and foremost, that cliffhanger-style ending from ‘Infinity War’ must be addressed. Things were left in as “dark” a fashion as any MCU film to date: Thanos had succeeded in collecting all the Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers, inciting the “Decimation” and erasure of half of all life in the universe. As ‘Endgame’ begins, we know that our remaining heroes are living in this terrible new existence; it’s been about three weeks since Thanos snapped and ran, and all reports seem to confirm that half of all life is indeed gone (details are still a little vague if we’re talking about “sentient life” here or all life, as the movie really didn’t address whether half the trees, pets, worms in the ground, etc., have been dusted or not).
Before the opening Marvel splash logo, we see the terrible effect that Thanos’ actions had on people who weren’t physically present at the battle: namely, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and his family. Barton is at home on his farm, still under house arrest from the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ and tragically, his entire family save himself fall prey to Thanos’ Decimation. Something like this can obviously drive a man to a fairly dark place mentally, and Clint is no exception: as we see later in the film, he has become the rogue “anti-hero” colloquially known as Ronin, picking up some serious martial-arts skills and going on a one-man crusade to wipe out those that he deems unworthy of surviving the Decimation. Gee, if only Marvel already had an existing character who is a one-man judge/jury/executioner and whose family was taken from him in an unfair and untimely fashion and who is also a bad-ass unstoppable killing machine and also exists in the MCU… *cough*PUNISHER*cough
But I digress (mostly as a die-hard Frank Castle fan). Ronin isn’t introduced in the film until a bit later, after the dramatic outer-space rescue of Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) by Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who has finally found her way back to Earth upon receiving Nick Fury’s cosmic text message. Tony is happy to be rescued, even more happy to see his love Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) has survived, but is super-pissed at Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), whom Tony believes discounted the idea of protecting the Earth and has a heavy hand to play in their current situation. Tony wants nothing to do with the super-hero game anymore.
Now, our remaining heroes have one very important mission to accomplish: find Thanos, defeat him, and see if they can use the Infinity Stones to undo what he did. The rag-tag group of super-powered survivors discover that, much like Meat Loaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad – but it ain’t that great either. They are able to locate Thanos and Thor, dealing with a hefty bout of survivor’s guilt, lops the Mad Titan’s head clean off. Not before Thanos tells them, sadly, that he “used the Stones to destroy the Stones,” as he had used them to fulfill their intended purpose and their continued existence proved to be nothing but temptation.
Five years pass. Captain Marvel, Rocket, and Nebula return to the stars to help the thousands of planets that are going through the same kind of crises that Earth is; our human heroes do their duty as best they can, but the chances of fixing what has been done look and feel very bleak. That is, of course, until a fateful rat wanders across a mostly-shuttered computer console attached to a long-forgotten experimental Quantum Realm device. Just like that, zip zap zop, Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) miraculously returns from the microcosmic Realm where he had been experimenting just prior to the Decimation. Unaware of what’s transpired or how long he has been gone, Scott eventually gets caught up and high-tails it to Avengers HQ, where a daring plan is hatched: attempt to harness the temporal powers of the Quantum Realm and pull off a “Time Heist” – stealing Infinity Stones from other timelines and using them to bring back everyone that Thanos sent away.
In my spoiler-free review of ‘Endgame,’ I vaguely summed up the entire plot of the movie in one sentence; here, I’ve used five whole paragraphs, and could probably keep going for another five. But you know what happens moving forward: the Time Heist is green-lit but things go slightly awry, allowing a Thanos from another timeline to secretly enter this “Prime” universe; as Hulk un-Snaps things and brings everyone back, he attacks, setting up a glorious third-act mega-battle between quite literally the entirety of the forces of good and evil. Thanks to Tony Stark’s heroic sacrifice, Thanos is defeated and the dead are brought back – mostly. RIP Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), whose mid-film sacrifice proved a key piece of winning the climactic fight.
Is the film perfect? Far from it. The pacing is a bit hit-or-miss in the early going, although I personally didn’t mind that, as it felt to me to be very much in-line with what the main characters would be experiencing in this confusing time: bursts of frenetic action with lots of abruptly slower “well damn, what do we do know?” type of moments. There are several plot-related questions that went largely unanswered – always a danger when you involve a plot device as confusing as time travel – and we address most of them in our forthcoming “15 Burning Questions We Have After Seeing ‘Avengers: Endgame'” feature piece.
Where ‘Endgame’ earns its total redemption from these issues, however, is two-fold. It features what may be the largest and most glorious superhero-versus-the-forces-of-evil battle ever shown on film to date. When all the magic portals were opening and all the formerly-dusted heroes came on through, my heart skipped several beats. It was one of the most “comic book” moments I’ve ever seen come to life on a screen. Secondly – and more permeated throughout the entire film – is that the movie is clearly designed as a “love letter” to the fans of the MCU and Marvel Comics in general, and many, many characters, particularly the “original six” Avengers, are given amazing story lines that absolutely do their cinematic journeys justice.
Speaking more to this: the character arcs for the original six Avengers are incredibly impressive throughout this film – not only the four we’ve mentioned already, but also Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who manages to use his post-Decimation time to come to grips with his dual nature and actually combine the two so that an intelligent “Professor Hulk” is born. Most significant, however, may very well be Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose journey of self-discovery started in his first self-titled film and has progressed by figurative and literal leaps and bounds throughout both his titular trilogy and all of the Avengers films. As his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) so eloquently puts it when the two are able to meet in one of the Time Heist timelines: “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be… a measure of a person – a hero – is how well they succeed at being who they are.”
Therein lies the true moral of this film – possibly even the entire MCU to this point: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The journey for people, super-powered and otherwise, to be the best versions of themselves that they can possibly be, regardless of good times or bad. We’ve seen many, many characters in the MCU who are the leads of their movies, the heroes of their stories – but they are not necessarily super-powered, they are just discovering who they are and trying to be the best versions of themselves. It’s no fluke that half of the original Avengers (Tony Stark, Clint Barton, and Natasha Romanoff) are regular people who have worked hard to be very, very good at what they do (science/tech, marksmanship, and espionage/combat, respectively); of the other three Avengers, one was in an accident but was smart enough to save himself, one was a good man by nature and enhanced by science, and one… well, the last one is a Norse God who came from outer space. They can’t all be rags-to-riches type feel-good stories, now can they?
As Tony Stark himself says while self-eulogizing himself (a very Tony Stark thing to do, of course) at the end of the film, “Part of the journey is the end.” For this journey of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, the 22 films over the last 11 years, this is truly a fitting conclusion. A proper send-off to certain characters, and an exciting jumping-off point for the further character development of many, many more. We should all be so lucky to get such amazing conclusions to our own journeys – and I consider myself very lucky and very humbled to have been a part of this amazing years-long journey.