Very light spoilers ahead.
At three hours long, Avengers: Endgame manages both the impossible and the predictable when it comes to the Marvel Universe timeline. It’s bloated and at times overwhelming with big, cluttered CGI battles and it shouldn’t work. However, perhaps more so than any other Marvel film that’s come prior, it achieves the messiness with a grandiosity; it’s purposeful chaos with a sleek finesse that highlights directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s understanding of the mayhem they need to both reign in and indulge in. Due to the nature of Infinity War, with half of the population snapped to dust – including half the Avengers – the film has more time to spend with characters and because of it, Avengers: Endgame gets to play with spectacle while simultaneously allowing characters, their relationships, and ever growing dynamics to take center stage. It shouldn’t work but it does and the effect is a rallying celebration of the history of the unprecedented success of the studio and the characters born from it, a fitting close to this chapter of the MCU.
Kicking things off a mere 22 days after Thanos snapped his fingers and threw the world into quiet devastation, the Avengers are scattered across the universe and desperate to try and reverse what he did. The Avengers have never lost prior to this and they don’t handle their first with a willingness to let go. To say any more would be to spoil plot points but what follows is a race against time to bring back those they’ve lost, whatever the cost.
The Russos were up against a hell of a challenge this go around, especially following the tethered Infinity War, which was momentarily spellbinding but on the whole, in somewhat of a disarray due to the all of the moving parts it needed to set up going into the closing chapter of the current MCU saga. Their direction in the past has at times left something to be desired, with unflattering and uninspiring gray hues in Captain America: Civil War to a Wakanda that lost some of its magic in Infinity War. They’re not ones that err on the side of visual storytelling, rather relying on statement imagery and settings and dialogue driven beats, expecting the place itself to do half the work. They try and make up for that here with some of the most otherworldly images ever seen in a Marvel film. Colors are bountiful in moments with potent vibrancy that highlight the emotional stories that are taking place within them.
The screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus is, for the most part, solid aside from a wobbly second act. There’s a defeated grim atmosphere to the first hour that allows for some of the best writing the duo has ever done for the saga, of which Robert Downey Jr. in particular flourishes, an acidity linked to the tip of his tongue. Similarly, it’s the most emotive score Alan Silvestri has composed for the Marvel Universe and the cinematography by Trent Opaloch offers visuals that both stun and devastate. Between all of them, they’ve created something beautifully melancholy.
The heart of the film, however, are the characters and, while actors such as Scarlett Johansson and Karen Gillan in particular get to impress as respective heroes/turned heroes Black Widow and Nebula, it’s Chris Evans and Downey who get to shine. They’ve always offered the greatest sense of iconography in their characters and that’s tremendously true here as both have their trauma – individual and shared – examined and heroism declaratively displayed. Evans possesses his familiar timeless energy as Cap, a man who has been out of time, out of place and forced to deal with survivor’s guilt so often that his ability to remain sturdy is an unspoken character beat all its own. Here, there’s a greater sense of vulnerability as his desperation to fix the situation deepens. Where Tony is the other side of the coin to Steve, Downey is the opposing energy to Evans, an acerbic, effusive livewire who’s wild-eyed and always fidgeting, in stark contrast to Evans’s classic, calm control. Downey delivers his best performance as Iron Man, ranging from a wit that sours to a heart that swells in differing scenes. Despite a mass of characters who all, for the most part, are serviced decently barring one or two, it’s Evans and Downey as the Marvel linchpins Iron Man and Captain America that soar above the rest.
It’s hardly without fault – such as that murky middle and reliance on familiar battle tropes and a finale that probably could’ve used some trimming, but its moments of excellence are so damnably charming, so wildly entertaining they easily eclipse the messier moments. This won’t be the end of the MCU, but it represents the culmination of an era of storytelling, doing so with an assertive and bullish bang that stirs hope in our chest and tempestuous, childlike glee in our hearts, in all the thrills and losses. It’s a cyclical bit of storytelling that revels in fan expectations and narrative promise with payoff for not just Infinity War but the also the entire MCU canon. We feel the pain of these characters because of the history we’ve shared with them, making the moments of wonder all the more enlightening because we’ve been holding our breath along with them, hoping to see the day break through the clouds.
There’s a larger (much larger) discussion about the place of superheroes in pop culture and how its dominance over media for the last decade and counting has helped steam roll middle budget cinema, creating a monopoly over a medium that, in the best case scenario, would mirror our reality – with stories from all walks of life being told and celebrated to the highest degree. What’s fascinating to contemplate though in the now is why, beyond a consumer’s quest to fill their bellies with everything that’s ever flirted with nostalgia, superheros make such tentpole, momentive beacons in our everyday lives. Because we need one perhaps? Or maybe because we want to see the very best of ourselves in heroes that have been at our very worst? Cinema has always been and will always be a reflection or reaction to the times, and ours are dire. Avengers: Endgame takes a step past pure escapism and into greener, fresher pastures.
If the MCU of the last decade has granted us anything, it’s been the ability to see ourselves – particularly, our flaws – reflected back at us and see them not only absolved, but transformed into acts of heroism. Spotted pasts can be transformed into redemptive futures and youthful naivete to altruism, blind patriotism into a need to serve the weaker man. We are always growing into the person we were meant to be, even if we don’t don a cowl, lead an army of soldiers, or swing from buildings that rise high above Brooklyn or Queens. The future’s not set. It can always be better and we can always strive to make it match the vision of optimism and hope that we deem best – one fit for a hero.