Review: In “Avengers: Endgame,” the MCU takes a victory lap and a moment to reflect

For how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven its willingness to be malleable in its storytelling, to allow filmmakers to both shape and expand what we categorize as a superhero movie, finality is something it’s never really concerned itself with.

Post-credits scenes, cameos and cross-pollination have become as much a characteristic of these films as tight spandex and daddy issues. We used to see individual superheroes exclusively on the frontlines of their own big-screen stories – Tobey Maguire never web-slung across the city alongside the Human Torch – but that’s become a relic of yesterdecade with the MCU’s steadily calculated erasure of narrative borders because of, and in service to, an overarching narrative that only began to become clear several films into the MCU’s existence.

The idea of finality may not be something the MCU will associate itself with in the near future (have you seen these movies’ box office numbers lately?), but its 22nd entry, “Avengers: Endgame,” offers up perhaps the best possible alternative to this cinematic mosaic of inexplicable powers and space raccoons and glowing MacGuffins: Culmination.

And it’s, for the most part, a hell of a fun culmination, one that almost makes a mind-boggling 11 years of buildup worth it. “Avengers: Endgame” isn’t going to apologize for taking so long to pull off what it has accomplished; it’s just glad you were able to RSVP to the after-party.

After a rare MCU cold open injects us with an expected sensation that this post-snap world will be dourer than anything it’s conjured up before, “Endgame” – the fourth Avengers movie, and fourth MCU flick with Joe and Anthony Russo sharing the director’s chair – begins not far gone from where we last saw Earth’s mightiest heroes, that unbeatable, undefeatable group of mismatching parts that always comes together right when we need them most: Beaten, defeated and starting at the face of abject, apocalyptic failure.

And, in the case of Tony Stark, for 11 years this universe’s spark plug and anchor, stranded in space, millions of miles away from even being afforded the opportunity to cope with it all under the safety of Avengers HQ.

It’s an utterly refreshing sight. How can it not be? Betting odds are the Avengers are going to turn this right around—180 minutes ought to be enough for that. But in the meantime it’s no coincidence that one of the best opening hours ever written and realized for the MCU has minimal punching and kicking and vibranium shield-throwing. These are the Avengers at their most pensive; all they can do is meditate on what has passed. And meditation, as it turns out, brings about some major changes in mindset, some more obvious than others.

Putting it bluntly, “Endgame” begins with our superheroes the most distanced from the first half of that word than we’ve seen. They’re at their most primitive, and even mustering a bit of super-strength to open a tight jar of pickles would manifest in guilt. Some are coping with the trauma better than others, but the screenplay (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, both with plenty of MCU stamina) are not dismissive of the repercussions of mass genocide on an intimate level.

Nor do Markus and McFeely indulge themselves in it. A large chunk of this movie’s demographic is still made up of folks not old enough to vote, after all. This might be a three-hour movie, but the Avengers have still gotta get around to doing some good old fashioned avengin’. It used to be sex that sells; now it’s superpowers (you’re more likely to now find the former on Disney Channel).

So suit up our superteam eventually does. No specific plot points will be divulged here, but suffice to say that the middle hour of “Endgame,” the very best of its three acts, bursts with excitement, propelled on a sci-fi trajectory that, miraculously, feels like new territory for this series that has made several trips to the cosmos.

“Endgame’s” most delightful and buoyant moments are manifestations of the Russos’ commendable storytelling agenda: Creating not just a megasized milestone for this franchise, but a self-reflexive one.

For how smart (and, let’s face it, lucky) MCU gatekeeper Kevin Feige has played his hand, it’s been equal parts frustrating and impossible to think that Disney has overlooked the increasingly hyperbolic nature of the MCU’s existence (See: 22 films, $20 billion at the box office, millions of childhoods nurtured). But “Endgame” provides, for the first time and particularly in the unyieldingly satisfying romp that is its second hour, a real purpose to there being as many films in its canon as there is. There’s a weight that’s given to the monstrosity of this universe, its connective threads not given slack, but for once grabbed, pulled and wound up tight. References both big and small are made, settings revisited and, most rewardingly, specific relationships examined from new perspectives both on the parts of these characters and ours, having absorbed as many hours of these movies as we have. Culmination.

A particular, extended exchange between one of the original six Avengers and a, shall we say, significant associate, gushes with a caliber of purpose of which this universe typically sorely lacks. This isn’t as character-driven an MCU entry as the multi-dimensional “Black Panther” is, but for once the mythos of some heroes we’ve devoted years of attention to  – Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers –refers how we understand them as beings with eye-level motivations and flaws, not as monoliths to ambivalent permanence.

“Endgame’s” best moments bring things full circle in ways that feel natural, making us believe, even if for just seconds at a time, that this universe is a single organism. It’s narrative advancement by fortifying the films that came before, all while continuing to churn toward, well, the endgame. And it’s the force of a corporation actually taking time to think on its legacy from the comfort of an arm chair, not the cockpit of some vehicle readying to break the land-speed record for printing tickets.

It’s a victory lap, in other words. Has any other movie franchise earned one over so long a period of time? “Endgame” is even just meta enough at times to poke fun at the overwrought, marketing campaign-fueling clichés it’s created. How humble of our Disney overlords to kneel and bring themselves down to our level for once.

As I continue to write and reflect on this movie and its universe writ large, I realize I’m presented and present myself with a bit of a problem. If my having enjoyed most of “Endgame” is a reflection of a different collection, a unique cadre, of movie-watching experiences than those I shared a theater with, then on what curve do I judge this movie? The one that merits reward for my having stuck with the franchise up until this point, or the one that finds it impossible to believe this three-hour story would be anything resembling a coherent piece of art had I not?

Surely someone who has watched these movies over bits of 11 years will receive “Endgame” different than someone who binged them all over the course of 45 hours last week?

On one level, that’s unfair of me. Would anyone going blindly into “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” in 2011 or the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” this spring or the supposed final chapter of the Skywalker saga this Christmas feel any different? Maybe. Maybe not. But in a franchise that has guided and goaded us from individual stories to a much larger one as ambitious as it was inevitable – repositioning Hollywood’s priorities in the process – thinking about “Endgame” means nothing if we’re not thinking about the 21 films that preceded it (for my part, the first “Thor” movie is the one I have yet to get around to, years after its release).

So, what then? In thinking about “Endgame,” about culminations and legacies and the spontaneous existence of narrative totality at a time when pop culture has destroyed the concept of totality with fire and brimstone, how can we possibly hope to meet it on its own terms, and thus reconcile it with our own? How to judge what has taken up years of your life when years have done what they tend to do—evolve us? Nobody is the same person they were when they saw “Iron Man” in 2008. Some were not yet born; others are no longer with us. In that case, who’s getting the bigger pat on the back—those who have watched 22 movies, or those who dedicated an enormous chunk of their lives and careers to making them? “Endgame” is a mostly mutually beneficial affair; we award Disney three hours of our time and it awards us with long-awaited payoff. And isn’t that one of the age-old mysteries of cinema anyway, the constant pull-and-give over what movies are meant to provide?

The MCU has surely changed the stakes of that inquiry; leave it to a talking tree, the god of thunder, a man the size of an ant and their pals to shift our perception of a 130-year-old medium, at least temporarily.

I’m inclined to think, though, that it comes down to giving the MCU the benefit of the doubt. “Endgame,” after all, is a movie that knows what it’s expected to do, and for the most part it does those things very, very well (the third act reverts back to some of the genre’s weaker flaws, despite that being where many will find the emotional crux of the film, as well as the developments that most immediately change the short-term outlook of the MCU). And what we take away from movies are nothing if not a reflection of our own experiences. It just so happens that here, more than perhaps ever before, that means taking stock of what we know, have seen, have read and have absorbed of the MCU up until this point. A trick with a price tag in the billions. Don’t bother asking how they did it.

In my case, then: “Endgame” is an entertaining, at-times supremely satisfying success. Is it juice enough to justify 21 other movies and the MCU doing its part of putting a stranglehold on the industry in terms of engineering original stories? Probably not. But its lifeblood feels less like the orchestrated greasing of Disney-branded gears, and a bit more like the rhythms of a beating heart. Perhaps those harmonies are one in the same and 11 years is enough time for Feige to perfect the illusion, but for at least one movie that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing.

It’s a testament, I suppose, to “Endgame’s” ability to make an impact with more than just the dulled blade of sparkly, look-Mama-no-stakes spectacle that it feels strangely sobering to think this universe is going to grow by yet another entry in just a few months’ time. The Disney machine must continue to churn, after all, and Thanos knows our butts will be in the seats. A few months, though, feels like hardly enough time to revel in the idea that, after 11 years of films and because of 11 years of films, the MCU might actually be ending on a high note; nor enough time to absorb its idea of ostensible finality – culmination – as legitimate, not a temporary drug for those of us who seek conclusion in movies.

But hell. I’ll try anyway. Right up until that pesky Tom Holland pipes up and pulls me right back into the thick of it.

 

“Avengers: Endgame” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

2019

 

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