Film Review: Avengers: Endgame Brings 11 Years of Storytelling to a Satisfying End (And Beginning)

(Editor’s note: If you want to know absolutely nothing about Avengers: Endgame, come back here when you’re done. We totally understand. The review will still be here. Please don’t yell at us for speaking to basic plot details so that this review can exist at all.)

The Pitch: Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers, and the world changed irreparably. Fifty percent of all life, from humans to animals to plants, disappeared in an instant. Those left are forced to reckon not only with a world robbed of its future, but with the singular truth that what has been done cannot be undone. Yet for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and the rest of the remaining Avengers and their allies, it’s still their responsibility to figure out what (if anything) can be done about Thanos and the untold billions killed on Earth alone.

As long as the Avengers exist in any form, the fate of the world remains their burden. And when one of Tony Stark’s scenario simulations offers the possibility that Stephen Strange’s pre-dust prophecy might still carry weight, it’s up to those remaining to try one more time. For the sake of those not present, and for the sake of the world to come. That is, if there’s still one to which they can return at all when it’s over.

Infinity War Infinitum: If you’ll forgive the mild cheat, here’s something this site (and this writer) noted about Avengers: Infinity War this week a year ago: “It’s the culmination of a decade of storytelling, branding, and an interconnected film franchise which has grossed more than the GDP of many small to mid-size nations. It’s a gathering place for audiences all over the world, to enjoy one of the few truly shared experiences this generation has enjoyed in an era of mass fractionalization. It’s the end of a great many character arcs, short- and long-term alike, in which Disney and Marvel has asked us to become extremely invested. But somewhere in there, Infinity War also has to be a movie.”

A year, 168 minutes of preamble, and one Snap later, here we sit. Endgame has to not only serve every single one of the aforementioned masters, but this time around, there’s no longer a later movie for which to hold back. There isn’t even Infinity War or a year-long cliffhanger anymore. Endgame is a finite point, simultaneously a hinge on which to promise more Marvel movies in the years to come and the culmination of 21 movies, just shy of a dozen TV shows, and the long-simmering expectations of billions.

In this sense, evaluating Endgame in the same manner as any other movie is arguably a fundamental misreading of what the MCU has attempted, particularly in the last two to three years. Whatever you might make of Endgame from an opinionated perspective, it’s indisputable that it’s in a distinctly different business from even most other major franchises. Most franchises don’t have the audacity to declare a terminal moment like Babe Ruth pointing out a homer, and the MCU did it all the way back during the mid-credits sequence of The Avengers, when that weird proto-Thanos showed up for the first time.

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Well Shit, Dude, How’s the Actual Movie? Pretty great, honestly. Without any further preamble about Marvel’s place in modern filmmaking, Endgame mercifully picks up right where Infinity War left off, not wasting a second in jumping straight into the action despite its 182-minute runtime. From the encroaching dread of the opening scene and onward, Endgame defines itself as a graver kind of MCU movie, far more so than even Infinity War or Captain America: The Winter Soldier or any other high-water marks in the onset-depression department that Marvel has achieved to date.

(Seriously, one more time, if you don’t want to know anything about Endgame, this is the point where you may wish to hop off the train.)

Given that the Infinity Stones destroyed the world, it should then come as little surprise that attempting to reunite them in the service of good, regardless of Thanos’ continued presence on Earth, is the dramatic crux of the film. The ways in which the surviving heroes go about doing that allow for some of the film’s most effective moments, both comically and dramatically. One of the great achievements of Endgame is that it doesn’t entirely abandon the sense of humor on which the MCU has long defined itself, even as its heroes stare into the void of damnation.

It feels more honest, somehow, that Thor and Cap and Iron Man still have time to hit a punchline or two, even as the stakes are higher than ever before. It fits that Black Widow and Captain America still have an easy rapport, even in the worst of times. Endgame absolutely pushes a few of its jokes near or past the point of outright gallows humor. Yet for all the portentous atmosphere of impending doom hanging heavy over almost every scene, Endgame still spends much of its shockingly fast-moving 182 minutes as a Marvel movie, with the balance of laughs and pathos and splash-page re-enactments that led to these films changing the medium in the first place.

Endgame manages to effectively deliver reunions alongside farewells, fan service alongside the kind of storytelling which needs to occur in order for the whole billion-dollar machine to keep a’grinding, and a handful of sincere, honest-to-God surprises that make the grandeur of the whole thing feel justified. Consider it this way: In the last 20 years or so, no shortage of hyper-publicized Event Movies have struggled to deliver on their boundless promises, in one respect or another. Endgame manages to deliver on an diverse, miles-long array of expectations, far more often than it doesn’t.

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Assemble: Much of that tonal malleability emerges, as it long has, from the cast, which in most cases is afforded at least one individual “moment” to shine throughout. One of Endgame‘s primary dramatic functions is to chart the ways in which these characters have evolved over the years and assorted films, and it allows its performers to play those dilemmas out in various resonant ways.

It’s particularly fascinating to consider the core group, and how different they are from their initial appearances. Tony has evolved from a misanthrope to a true hero to a man reckoning with how much more he can give to the cause. Cap has learned, the hard way, that sometimes the decent path isn’t the right or best one. Black Widow rose to heroism from unimaginably violent beginnings. Thor is…well, he’s still Thor as played by Chris Hemsworth, but he too has risen to both the occasion and his birthright. You can follow these changes all the way down, from the biggest names to the most peripheral players.

For all of the VFX cacophony put to film in the service of building the MCU in the last decade and change, what’s made these films a cultural phenomenon is the committed, thoughtful work each of its actors (major and minor) has done. One might not recall every moment of the many, many climactic battles waged up to this point, but they remember the small things, the character beats that lent weight to the endless property destruction. The same applies in the case of Endgame, with the easy rapport between the cast used as a kind of shorthand for dedicated fans. You know who these people are; Endgame depends and trades directly on that pre-existing investment, and it almost uniformly rewards it.

(Read: After Avengers: Infinity War, What’s Next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?)

The Verdict: If Infinity War, for its virtues, struggled to marry its narrative obligations with a satisfying level of dramatic payoff, Endgame is a more vivid realization of that same goal. Again: To consider any one Marvel movie independent of its context is to reject the premise of its serialized, comic-influenced storytelling, let alone that it took place on a scale that may never be seen again, in such a deliberate and well-earned way.

But let’s be frank about this: You’re going to see Avengers: Endgame. Everyone you know is going to see Avengers: Endgame at some point, whether or not they jump on Twitter to whine about their disinterest in seeing it. It’s not the end of the MCU, and anybody who knows even a little bit about the film industry is aware of that. There are more heroes and more adventures yet to come, more universes to be explored.

This, however, might be Endgame‘s greatest achievement of all: As it unfolds, the film invites you to forget about whatever you came in deciding it would be. It is its own story, even as it’s tied to so many other stories, one that will satisfy many and, in all likelihood, leave a certain cohort of fans enraged, because that’s how even the most universal stories now function. But unlike so many Marvel films, and even Infinity War as a prologue of sorts preceding it, Endgame feels like a movie that could sincerely be for everybody, even if it probably won’t be.

On May 2nd, 2008, this all began. Now, even if it’s not over, here is a film offering a sense of closure for those who want it, and a promise for those who don’t. Imagine one movie being able to do all of that.

Where’s It Playing? Basically every theater on the planet, from the evening of April 25th. This is not an exaggeration. Get your tickers now!

Trailer:

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