[Editor’s note: This review contains no spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.]
And so we have come to this.
Part of the brilliance of the original Iron Man was in its status as a low-risk proposition. Fighting off bankruptcy Marvel Comics sold the film rights to its most popular heroes—Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four (and lesser ones like Hulk and Ghost Rider)—leaving them with characters who, at the time, weren’t popular outside of comics fans. With the original Iron Man, the fledging Marvel Studios used a then-C-list character, a talented movie star of then-disrepute, and a writer/director then-known for indy comedies to test whether or not the idea of a cinematic universe could work. If it hadn’t, they could try again, perhaps with a better known character, star, or director without already using the very best they had available. Fortunately, for both the studio and for those of us who have come to love these films, Iron Man succeeded, thus creating a formula the studio has iterated on to tremendous effect. The result has been twenty-two films over eleven years which, while far from individually perfect, have proven that superhero cinema, and blockbuster filmmaking in general, can be financially successful while also offering a satisfying emotional, intellectual, and entertainment experience.
And so, after three completed trilogies, excursions into space, an introduction to magic, definitive proof that films lead by a woman or by a majority minority cast can be successful, and one devastating cliffhanger, we have come to this: the endgame.
Avengers: Endgame has so much happening on screen that even without delving into spoilers there is still an overabundance of material to talk about. Yet, through the same brilliance which made the unwieldy plot of Infinity War watchable, rarely does the film become overwhelming in any but the best of ways. The opening act of Endgame makes it clear that Thanos’s bisection of the universe serves as both a shocking backdrop and a way for writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to focus on a handful of primary characters. Instead of splitting time with dozens upon dozens of figures, we zoom in on one or two at time, allowing their stories to deepen. These characters are mostly those of the original Avengers team, whom we have seen through at least four movies each, and therefore those we have likely most invested in.
The greatest beneficiary of this approach is the Avenger absent from the previous film: Hawkeye. By making him the very first image, showing moments before the snap, we witness his importance, and the impact of Thanos upon the people who weren’t involved in the conflict, before catching up with the rest. Hawkeye’s reaction is in-line with our understanding of him, showing just how well defined he, along with all the others, has become over the years. It is entirely believable that (as seen in the trailer) Steve Rogers would lead a support group and Clint Barton would revert to wetwork. In this grief the talented Avengers cast is finally allowed to flex its considerable might. While Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Paul Rudd and, especially, Robert Downey Jr. have had solo films in which to shine it’s hard not feel that Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johanssen haven’t been given a lot of meat to chew on. In this final chapter these performers are at last given some dramatic weight of their own, present in the sorrow, intensity, and determination displayed in their performances. This is a cast of Oscar winners and nominees, and it’s about time they’re allowed to showcase this talent in how their characters continue living after their world has died. As Thor tells us upon his re-introduction, what matters is not what we are supposed to be but who we are. In the post-snap world, we see the essence of each character. For some this emphasizes their best or most fearsome qualities, for others this is a loss of purpose, but each one is unique, well defined, and above all else, real.
It’s also during this opening act that Endgame is at its funniest. As with any Marvel film there are hearty laughs throughout. The humor of Endgame, as with that of Infinity War, keeps away the feeling that we are witnessing a dirge on screen. While nowhere near as funny as other entries in the MCU, with fewer quips and almost no scenes thrown in for pure comic relief, the humor of Endgame is some of the most organic in the series, rising from the situations rather than someone being goofy.
This same necessity applies to the emotional beats of the film. Early reviews have labeled Endgame as full of fan service. This isn’t accurate. Endgame is packed with crowd-pleasing moments, but seldom are these ham-fisted or inessential (the closest, unfortunately, being Stan Lee’s cameo). Rather, Endgame is loaded with character service. Where many other franchises would use a capstone like Endgame‘s as a chance to cash-in on cheap nostalgia or its own accumulated goodwill, The Russo Brothers and Kevin Feige focus their framework on giving each character satisfying, at times heart-wrenching, closure. While I didn’t personally cry, I did get close four or five times, and could easily have done so half a dozen others.
It’s during Endgame‘s second act that we as moviegoers come to understand the sheer scope of this project. In one film, Marvel must continue the story introduced in Infinity War, pay off ten years’ worth of emotional investment and tell a stand-alone tale. In structure, the story of Endgame is extremely familiar, complete with scenes echoing yet expanding some in earlier films. But instead of simply running through a greatest hits collection, Endgame changes our understanding of those scenes, giving a new perspective, level or dimension, building upon its own history and climaxing in possibly the single most spectacular sequence ever in cinema, packed full of its own wonderful character moments.
The truly remarkable thing is that, give or take a couple of slip-ups, Endgame accomplishes this impossible triple act. Obviously knowing everything which has come before increases the emotional impact, but one doesn’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of MCU lore, or even to have seen every film, to feel for these characters. Callbacks, references, allusions, and Easter eggs of all sort are sprinkled throughout, but not a single one of them is necessary to understand the impact these events have on the characters. Other than Infinity War there is no other Marvel film that is one hundred percent necessary to see prior to this one (although reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and, sadly, Thor: The Dark World might be good) but otherwise everything we need is on the screen, in the way the characters act, react and interact. On its own, Endgame is an immensely entertaining movie.
Yet taken with all the others, as the ultimate chapter of this multi-year saga, it is a truly singular achievement. What has made Marvel movies standout over the years isn’t action or comedy, it’s character. Our investment in Iron Man and Captain America is what made Civil War a clash between brothers of differing ideologies, rather than two action figures bashing together (as in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). We have watched these heroes fight, laugh, bleed, triumph and, finally, lose. Now, in the end, we see how these stories are paid off, one by one, in ways that we may not expect but are exactly as they need to be. Obviously the stories will continue but if the franchise were to end here, it will have been an amazing ride. It’s almost a shame that economic demands require that the universe continue so soon as it would be very nice to let the impact of this finale linger. Besides, after the immensity of Endgame anything else will feel minute.
In considering any film’s overall quality the question I ask myself is: Could this have been better? In the case of Endgame, given the story being told, the scope and breath of the narrative, and demands placed upon the filmmakers after a decade of interlocking stories, the honest answer is: No.
Even at three hours nothing is superfluous. Scenes which don’t land prove their worth later. Convoluted twists unravel into satisfying moments. Of course there are a ton of logical conundrums and continuity leaps to nit-pick but, even smoothing or answering these wouldn’t make the film better, just longer and even more convoluted. Most of all, every character is given a moment which is truly theirs, one that no other could receive, as the pay-off to years of development. We can argue tiny quirks and tweaks but, as with chaos theory, the littlest change could have the biggest consequence, and even a perfectly structured, perfectly plotted, perfectly logic film isn’t necessarily the best. In short, what matters is not what Endgame is supposed to be but what it is. There are fourteen million six hundred and five ways in which this movie could be made, but none in which it could be better.
And so from the low-risk experiment of the original Iron Man to the soul-crushing conclusion of Infinity War, and almost two dozen films in between where unpopular heroes have become the most recognizable figures in modern popular culture, we have come to this: a single film that not only ends a two-part story but also wraps a ten-year, multi-part saga. This feat alone would make Endgame worth watching. Yet the craft and the care put into creating an intimate epic unparalled in cinematic history makes Avengers: Endgame everything it is: everything it could possibly be.