By Mark Laherty
This review will contain mild spoilers, especially for the first hour of the film. This is because I can’t talk about a film if I leave out every important part.
Nowadays, most reviews of superhero movies begin with some preamble about the genre’s global domination, Avengers fatigue, and the regrettable state of the American film industry, especially where Disney is involved. All that stuff is true and especially difficult to ignore in this parade of IPs, but let’s be fair and try to think about Endgame in a what-is-this-trying-to-do kind of way.
This movie picks up after the cliffhanger of last year’s Infinity War, where the tyrannical alien Thanos used a magic glove with some magic gems to kill half the universe with a snap of his fingers because he has never read a book on sociology. This ending is a commendably upsetting narrative collapse; it takes the huge-stakes battle common to other Marvel movies (e.g. the first two Avengers and both Guardians movies) and calmly plays it out to its logical conclusion: the cataclysmic event actually happens. So, what kind of a story does Marvel tell next?
As snarky as I am about spoilers, it genuinely would be poor form for me to tell you the full shape of the film. But, it can certainly be said that the first hour or so of the film largely consists of people being sad. Five years on from the snapture, how have the Avengers moved on? What are their coping mechanisms? This is good because attractive men having shit-tons of trauma is what sold me on this franchise back in 2013’s Iron Man 3 and 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This film takes that kind of character work and applies it to the structure of the first Avengers back in 2012. So, we have a dark mirror of that original, lengthy ‘putting a band together’ section – a ‘getting the band back together’ section, in other words. It’s no coincidence that the original six Avengers all survived the snap. After many films of setup, this is Payoff City. I used to say that you don’t need to be caught up on every previous MCU film to watch a new Avengers; I wouldn’t say that about this one. You might be able to follow the basic gist of it, but you’d miss what satisfaction is available.
Different characters deal with their grief in different ways. Not all these ideas work, unfortunately. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), always the dullest of the film Avengers, is given an unremarkable turn toward vigilantism. One ridiculous scene tries to sell Renner as a samurai prowling the streets of Tokyo. But that’s at least bearable. The real clunker is Thor (Chris Hemsworth). After his outstanding entry in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian royal is fat now and that’s really funny because he’s fat. Hemsworth puts in another deft comic performance but there’s no saving this material. It’s a shame because, underneath the bad jokes, there are some interesting ideas about how he felt acutely responsible for his failure in Infinity War. Oh well.
The remaining four got much luckier. That this film came from the directors of the best two Captain America movies (Joe and Anthony Russo) and the writers of the whole Cap trilogy (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is reflected here. We don’t see much of it, but the decision to make Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a grief counsellor is an inspired move that feels true to what’s come before. Steve gets several understated moments that totally nail him as a character; this is a relief since the crowded Infinity War could reasonably be accused of skimping on characterisation. Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) is similarly on-point. Apart from the Whedon-inflicted character assassination in 2015’s Age of Ultron, Natasha has always run crazedly toward responsibility, trying to make up for her past. Of course she spends every day looking for a way to undo the snap.
The beating metal heart of the franchise, Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), is similarly delightful and moving when we find him settled down into married life with a daughter. He affectingly refuses the call to action at first because he doesn’t want to place his family in risk again – a far cry from the Tony that angrily dared a villain to attack his home back in Iron Man 3. And Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has a delightful turn here as a happy, stable compromise between personas. Ruffalo’s performance is fresh and funny. It’s just frustrating that this compromise between Banner and Hulk happens off- screen. It seems like a missed chance for catharsis. But it works – and God only knows that at three hours, this movie runs long enough already.
Of course, it’s not all moping. A spark of hope appears when Scott Lang / Ant- Man (Paul Rudd) tumbles into proceedings after the events of his last solo outing and pushes the movie in the direction of a time-travel adventure. Another familiar face is Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel (Brie Larson); after a huge box office haul with her own film, she pops her head in the door now and again here but is mostly off in space helping other planets deal with the snapture. Fans might be disappointed by her scant presence, but this is, after all, a send-off for the original six. Plus, Danvers gets a good few awesome moments in. There are lots of returning characters like this knocking around in the background. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is back, of course, although he gets less attention. It still feels like most of these characters are underutilised, but part of the point is that absolutely everyone (or near enough) is here. It stings much less now that the movie is mainly focusing on a select few protagonists.
Where Endgame wants to be a dazzling spectacle, it succeeds at that, especially in the final throwdown. Where it wants to be a fun romp and a celebration of what comes before, it’s an absolute delight. But, those parts only succeed in pretty much the ways you’d expect them to. There are plot surprises, but you usually know exactly what kind of a movie this is. Where it really shines is the characterisation, the small moments that sing.
To end by very carefully talk about the ending: catharsis was always going to be a tricky beast for the MCU, a story that’s given some key players nothing to do for years at a time. Other characters have been circling the drain, learning the same lessons. This isn’t the fault of Endgame, which hits the necessary beats and wrings out as much catharsis as it can. It’s a fitting sequence of farewells. Goodbye, Avengers.
See you tomorrow.