Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ delivers a satisfying conclusion
“Avengers: Endgame” is one of those odd films that everyone wants to talk about, but, in a sense, no one does. Fans fear that critics will spoil the experience for them, and critics fear the wrath of these fans, resulting in a cycle that does its very best to curtail any actual conversation about the film or its content. Thus, while I will certainly strive to avoid spoilers throughout this review, I always want to talk about some of the thematic and narrative implications of the film. To paraphrase video essayist Dan Olson, if you don’t want spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame,” don’t go see “Avengers: Endgame” because it is wall to wall with spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”
Seriously though, just go see the film. The long and short of it is that if you’re a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll be satisfied. And if your relationship with the franchise is somewhat less dedicated — as is the case with me — you’ll still be satisfied. “Endgame” is fun, mostly well-made, and a touching send-off for this era of the franchise.
Of course, the notion of “Endgame” being a genuine end for the MCU is something of a bad joke. The MCU is going nowhere; they already have “Spider-man: Far From Home” slated to come out this summer, and undoubtedly a dozen more films in various stages of preproduction. That being said, “Endgame” does seek to be a proper ending to the franchise’s current overarching storyline; the past 21 films have all tangentially revolved around the all-powerful infinity stones.
For the uninitiated, in the previous “Avengers” film, “Infinity War,” the mad titan Thanos managed to successfully collect all six infinity stones and used them to eradicate half of life in the universe in the hopes of combatting overpopulation and limited resources. At the start of “Endgame,” Thanos has essentially gone into retirement, but the surviving Avengers are none too pleased with the new, apocalyptic status quo, and collectively devise a plan that will hopefully allow them to bring back all of the lives that were lost. I dare not reveal their plan, but it suffices to say it is inelegant from a narrative perspective but deeply satisfying from a thematic perspective. And while I might be a minority among filmgoers on this front, I’ll take thematic cohesion over a bulletproof plot structure any day.
Speaking of structure, “Endgame” is three hours long and neatly segregates itself into three very distinct acts, such to the point that I wonder if it quite literally adds up to an hour per act. Regardless, it makes the film feel more like a three-episode miniseries than a single film — but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Unwieldy though the film’s runtime may be, this structure allows each act to provide the MCU with various different sense of closure. The first act deftly manages to take the outcome of “Infinity War” seriously, speculating as to what a world would look like if suddenly half the population disappeared. Wisely, the screenwriters choose to focus less on a global catastrophe angle, instead exploring the increasingly broken lives of the remaining Avengers. As a result, the ending of “Infinity War” is still allowed to resonate due to its monumental impact on the survivors, even as the entirety of “Endgame” seeks to reverse that very ending.
If the first act provides a sense of closure for the events of “Infinity War,” then the third act provides a sense of closure for the fans. As film critic Bob Chipman notes of the very first “Avengers” film, the final 20 minutes or so, during which all the heroes are assembled for a massive action set piece, doesn’t really progressive the film’s narrative. But, Chipman contends, after four years and five films, the filmmakers and audience are allowed to indulge in 20 minutes of pure fun because watching all of the heroes team up for a big showdown is why the film was made in the first place. Much the same can be said of the final confrontation in “Endgame,” which puts its predecessors to shame in terms of scope, scale and ambition. And while there are some genuinely show-stopping moments scattered throughout, it also makes the third act easily the weakest. It’s the only place where the three-hour runtime really begins to register as excessive. Then again, after 11 years and 21 films, you’re allowed to make your final act as bombastic as possible.
Of course, the perceptive reader will have noticed that I deliberately skipped any meaningful discussion of the film’s second act, which is — by my estimation, at least — where the film really shines. The second act creates its sense of closure by essentially performing a nostalgic victory lap for the MCU while simultaneously using that victory lap as a facilitator for a series of well-balanced character arcs. This entire portion of the film is about the Avengers actually putting their plan into action, and without spoiling anything, I think it’s safe to say that the solution devised by the writers allows “Endgame” to reminiscence about the franchise’s highlights in a way that is fun, quirky and unexpectedly touching all at once. Moreover, these moments of nostalgia never feel too gratuitous because they are all anchored by moments of character growth. As many fans noticed, “Infinity War” ended with the six original Avengers from the first film (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye) all still alive. And while they certainly aren’t the only major players in “Endgame,” the film very deliberately places a spotlight on each of them during the second act. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that the MCU’s real stroke of genius was creating memorable characters, and thus it makes the notion of “Endgame” as the end of an era all the more palpable.
Of course, the film isn’t without its flaws. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are adequate filmmakers, but their work is rarely visually exceptional. As I’ve already alluded to, the third act is so extravagant that it almost feels structureless. And the film generally lacks the thematic depth and fine-tuned filmmaking precision of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther,” which I will continue to insist are easily the two best films to come out of the MCU. Likewise, for all the wonderful character beats hit in “Endgame,” one also senses that the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are more adept at handling certain characters and threads in contrast to others. As with “Infinity War,” the Guardians of the Galaxy once again feel largely misused. And whereas Thor’s character arc was among the best thing about “Infinity War,” here it’s among the worst.
Yet these are all minor quibbles. What strikes me most about “Endgame” is how sad and yet also gratified I felt in response to its decidedly poignant ending. In my reviews, I’ve always tried to be open about my mixed feelings regarding the MCU. Like so many, I was initially thrilled by the shared universe concept. But as time went on, the franchise continued to expose more and more of its inevitable flaws. And while those flaws haven’t gone anywhere, I also realize now that I’ve taken the MCU for granted. It’s far from perfect, but it somehow managed to succeed far more often than it failed. And given that 10 years ago the very premise of the MCU sounded ludicrous, that’s honestly pretty impressive. In that sense, “Endgame” ultimately feels like a fairly perfect embodiment of the MCU as a whole; flawed, but also consistently better than it has any right to be.