“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.
Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, the biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown up, with the Avengers.
It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.
Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.
Let’s face it, if you’re not invested, why are you even watching Endgame in the first place?
As I discussed in more detail last year in my review of Avengers: Infinity War, it and Endgame are the culmination of over ten years and twenty-two interconnected films which represent the first depiction in cinematic terms of a television seasonal structure. Iron Man in 2008 was the pilot episode, and Endgame is the Season 1 finale, and in the time-honoured tradition of season finales, it throws everything at the kitchen sink. Though in real terms, Endgame functions more realistically as a series finale. The so-called Phase Four of the MCU, starting in July with Spider-Man: Far From Home, in real terms will be both a Season 2 and a new series premiere after Endgame.
Endgame operates differently from Infinity War, as directors Joe & Anthony Russo have been promising for some time. Audiences were able to successfully guesstimate some of the narrative in advance – the use of time travel to undo the end of Infinity War; putting together the Infinity Stones in order to somehow change the past; and the culmination of certain key character arcs along the way, but Endgame does play with a few expectations as well. How many people anticipated a five year time jump into the future? Structurally, it means Endgame is very much using time broadly as a way to write themselves out of one of the most infamous narrative corners in cinema history.
The nature of this provides the Russo’s and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely a gimmick to hang the film on – our future characters, at the end of their journey, returning to points earlier in their own timelines. Endings of stories are often cyclical, with finales riffing off key past moments or characters, and Endgame is no different; so our heroes are trying to yank Infinity Stones out of the 2012 Battle of New York from Avengers Assemble, or in 2013 from Asgard during the events of Thor: The Dark World, or 2014 on Morag from the beginning of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Though few people would consider the appearance of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster in the worst Thor movie—and one of the worst MCU movies—as a fond pre-requisite of the end, these choices are serving a bigger and broader purpose.
Marvel’s now iconic Cinematic Universe is approaching a significant crossroads with Endgame. It is both the ending to how this grand project, unequalled historically in cinema, came to be in 2008 and equally the start of something new. We may be saying goodbye to Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff (in a way…), but we’re just at the beginning for T’Challa, Stephen Strange or Carol Danvers; indeed there was a telling moment, during the final Battle for Infinity (let’s call it that for ease), when Captain Marvel helps out Spider-Man and he says “Hi, I’m Peter Parker” and Carol’s playful response, “Hi, Peter Parker” almost screamed to me of the tiniest seed of a future friendship, even mentorship, in the next era of the Avengers – if, of course, the MCU gets to keep Spidey that long.
Endgame is having to play these two strings at once. It is principally a goodbye to the characters who helped originate this universe, and a firm conclusion to the Infinity Saga (before anyone starts to wonder, Thanos is very unequivocally dead dead dead ok?), while at the same time it layers in the characters who will be inheriting the future of the franchise, or at least some of them. Endgame is, quite rightly, more concerned with the goodbye than directly passing the baton (there is no Tony Stark knighting Dr. Strange as an Avenger or anything); indeed the Avengers as a concept is a pile of rubble technically by the end, even if the potential team members are there. It’s too early to be focusing on any of that – it’s all fodder, presumably, for the next Phase of the MCU, if we’re to assume there will even be an Avengers 5 in the manner of the previous Avengers movies.
So the MCU is in both an exciting and tentative position. Robert Downey. Jr, for all sometimes he may have been playing himself as Tony, was the heart and soul of this idea and his influence, and loss, cannot be underestimated; his charm, in no small part, is how the MCU weathered its rockier earlier films until they pulled Captain America: The First Avenger out of the bag, and Chris Evans cemented himself as the rock and foundation stone alongside Downey. Jr. Everyone else played a key part, from Scarlett Johannsson to Chris Hemsworth, but the very core of the MCU’s first era was Cap and Tony, and now they’re both conclusively gone. No comebacks. It leaves Marvel now having to reboot, to some extent, and rebuild the dynamic they spent a decade constructing to reach the payoff of Endgame, and that will not be easy.
This is why you can understand the franchise glancing back as it prepares to move forward. Endgame revels in revisiting some of the fans most beloved moments or settings from the earlier days of the first three Phases; the battle in the first Avengers movie was the moment everyone realised how unique the MCU as an entity was (even if it looks like a brawl in a shed compared to Endgame’s climactic showdown), Asgard was a setting enjoyed by many and of course was destroyed in Ragnarok, and the sight of Peter Quill skipping along to ‘Come and Get Your Love’ instantly cemented Guardians as a fresh slice of retro pop-culture science-fiction. Oddly enough it was at this point it struck me just how much Endgame, perhaps unintentionally (perhaps not), reminded me of The End of Time, the finale for David Tennant’s incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who.
The End of Time sees the Doctor travel back at the end of his life to visit, or have one final glance upon, the companions and friends who have meant the most to him, and us as viewers, over the first era of the series, the first four seasons. While Tennant was the second Doctor in the revival of Doctor Who, after Christopher Eccleston’s lone season (an actor with his own connection to Marvel via The Dark World ironically), his departure signalled the end of Russell T. Davies’ tenure as show runner and is a clear demarkation line between not just two Doctor’s but two eras of the show, from visuals down to narrative styles as Steven Moffat (a very different writer) took charge. The End of Time, like Endgame, was purposefully giving fans something back at the end of the story, allowing them to reflect on the journey so far with the Doctor before he goes.
Endgame does this for numerous main characters. Thor gets the goodbye with his mother Frigga (played with regal grace by Rene Russo) he was robbed of following her sudden murder in The Dark World, which conversely feels like a goodbye to his life as an Asgardian royal (even if this contradicts a bit of his psychology from Ragnarok), allowing him to come to terms with stepping aside for Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to rule the remaining Asgardians instead so he can go off and… well, who knows? Bicker with Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 most likely! Steve gets to see Peggy Carter in 1970, the same year as Tony has a touching and emotional conversation with his father Howard, the man obviously unaware he’s speaking to his unborn son from the future! Even Natasha, through some creepy time travel chicanery, learns the name of her true father.
In truth, the film struggles a bit in the first half through the mechanics of trying to set these events in motion and establish the necessary plot beats to put everyone where they need to be to keep the narrative moving. You can almost hear Markus & McFeely straining to lever everyone into place so they can enter the Quantum Realm (who knew watching Ant Man and the Wasp would be so essential to Endgame…) and visit these points in the franchise’s history. The New York scenes are a little stodgy, allowing more for moments of “oooh! There’s Tilda Swinton!”, “No way, Frank Grillo!” “Cool, Robert Redford” (this makes Endgame technically his final cinematic appearance, not David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun, which is almost a shame…), and you wonder the thinking of having an earlier, more villainous version of Loki find an escape hatch. It felt very openly a door to allow the Tom Hiddleston-fronted Loki mini-series already announced for incoming streaming service Disney+.
The pairing of characters don’t provide quite the levity or brevity we saw in Infinity War either during these missions.
Rudd sparring with Downey. Jr recalls a little of his bite with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, but it never goes anywhere unlike that dynamic; not nearly enough fun is had with Thor & Rocket sneaking around Asgard; and while important from a narrative sense as a means of reintroducing the Thanos threat, War Machine and Nebula (two rather dour characters) don’t make for the most thrilling team up. If anything the biggest problem comes from the unification of Black Widow and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (a returning Jeremy Renner), forced to make a sacrifice on Vormir in similar circumstances we saw Gamora be hauled to her death in Infinity War. We have waited quite some years for a level of payoff to their dynamic, especially as Hawkeye has often been dumped from proceedings, but what we get is… lacking.
Be honest… how much did you really feel Black Widow’s death? There has been a sense of inevitability about Tony dying to save the world for quite a while, even if maybe we thought it might also be Cap who takes the bullet; Tony’s sacrifice (again reminiscent of Doctor Who’s The End of Time in that, just like the Doctor, he takes a blast of fatal radiation to stop an universe-ending maniac wielding a giant magic glove) makes sense as part of his heroes journey, and is made even more tragic given he had found peace, love and a family in the wake of Thanos’ snap of the fingers. You may have seen Tony’s death coming but that doesn’t make it any less emotional when the end comes. In what way does Natasha’s shock death resonate? It feels arbitrary. The writers knew the rules about the Soul Stone meant someone had to die, but Gamora’s demise was a powerful way to serve Thanos’ existential, philosophical villainy.
Black Widow’s just feels like it was necessary for the plot – and it makes even less sense when you consider she has a film in development, a film now set to be a prequel for a dead character. Maybe Marvel wanted to honour Johansson’s contribution as a founding Avenger who has never had her own film. Maybe they just want to take away the heat they’ve always got for having no female-led superhero movies (until Captain Marvel recently). Who knows? Maybe the Black Widow will have a cameo from a crinkly Chris Evans, as an aged Steve Rogers tells her story we see in flashback to a mourning Bruce Banner? It’s hard to say. In a way, Natasha did feel like a spare part at times; not quite a leader, not quite a follower, never really explored, not nearly as useful or powerful as everyone else. Would her presence have made any difference at the Battle for Infinity? Not really. The MCU sort of outgrew her really but it feels as if she deserved better than this, even if she died technically to save the world.
Consequently, Endgame only clicks into a purely natural rhythm, in the manner Infinity War had across the majority of the film, when the Infinity Stones have been gathered and Thanos rocks up again to cause major problems. The film kind of morphs back into Infinity War at that point and, tellingly, that was the point the audience started cheering and whooping. To its credit, Endgame does work to develop character across the core time-travel story which makes the climactic payoff more enjoyable, even if structurally it has to drag itself in place to get there. Enough is done with Tony and his daughter Morgan to give you a tear in the eye when an emotional Happy Hogan promises her “all the cheeseburgers you want”. Cap passing the baton to Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, the old white man giving the young black man the American shield, feels like a pointed note of diversity in our troubled times. Thor’s reunion with Frigga works surprisingly well too, and Scott Lang is fashioned into a stronger future Avenger in a similar manner to the wonders Infinity War worked for Stephen Strange.
Other aspects work less well.
Comical as a fat Thor is, worth it perhaps alone for Tony referring to him as “Lebowski”, it feels a little bit of a cliched cheap shot – a less witty attempt to emulate Ragnarok’s quirky oddball nature (it does afford us a Korg & Miek cameo though, thankfully). It’s telling that Hemsworth reportedly didn’t know what his character arc was in the movie because Thor only sort of has one. The dark avenger they turn Hawkeye into also seems a very strange choice – it’s hard to understand his rationale for becoming a ‘Punisher’ of cartels instead of going back and helping the other Avengers following the snap. Gamora’s return as a past version without the life she lived with the Guardians is disappointing, and could well make Guardians fans feel a little robbed after two films developing her and Peter’s (quite lovely) attachment. Surprisingly too, Steve has less of an emotional through line in his desire to live a happy life with Peggy too, which in the end is his payoff – there are hints but it’s never entirely voiced.
Without doubt though, the biggest missed opportunity is the lack of true closure for Tony and Cap’s relationship. One of the major character beats we had been waiting for in Endgame isn’t really there. Avengers Assemble established the difficulty Tony had in cleaving to Steve’s leadership, Avengers: Age of Ultron kickstarted the lack of trust between them, Captain America: Civil War cemented it and drove them almost to the point of killing each other, and Infinity War had them unable to contact each other in the face of the biggest threat. All signs pointed to Endgame, at its core, being about these two central MCU characters returning to each other, admitting they made mistakes, and cementing their trust and faith in each other. Yet this is all condensed into a handful of lines and maybe three moments. Tony’s arc is a parental one, a channeling of his fatherly instincts into getting Peter Parker back, while Steve drifts through the film until he gets to his final sundown.
What about Thanos, too? He was the main character of Infinity War, it was his origin story – that of a powerful alien who believes the universe will become extinct due to over-population and consumption of resources, and decides to change the balance of it forever. Inevitably, Thanos plays less of a role in Endgame, but to the films credit Endgame allows him to retain his initial victory; there is a version of Thanos who dies who did win, whose actions were not technically undone. The time travel chicanery of the story nevertheless allows them to have their cake and eat it with Thanos, and he provides an effective source of megalomaniacal villainy by the end (come the final battle he’s elected half the universe isn’t enough, he’s taking out everything and everyone now). His demise is also an enormously fitting slice of poetic justice and probably the perfect way to end his story.
Will Thanos go down as one of the great villains of our time? It’s hard to say if he will have the staying power of a Darth Vader or a Khan Noonien Singh. Thanos is certainly a villain fit for our time; a nihilistic purveyor of doom who believes, completely, in his own rhetoric. “I am inevitable!” he opines at several points and you sense maybe Thanos always was, in much the same way the Night King on Game of Thrones—the next major pop-culture climax days away from unloading—is an unstoppable force, one we have been expecting for a long time. The super-villains of modern cinema represent our own fear of impending destruction in the face of threats we couldn’t even conceive of in recent history. Thanos is an appropriate villain for the Trump era and maybe him fading ultimately from the universe, and memory, is the best way for him to go.
Some of these aspects underline what is both the joy of and the key essential problem with Avengers: Endgame. Even with an almost three-hour running time, it has such an immense amount to do, to service and to pay off, it has to condense or sacrifice certain elements in order to keep the balance together. On the whole, it pulls the trick off extremely well. There is a shot at the end which is quite stunning; almost every single Marvel Cinematic Universe character in one place for a specific reason which shows you just how huge this franchise has become, made up of various different branches and strands, and characters from different worlds, dimensions and corners of a vast tapestry. Many of them will never stand in the same space again, much like you’ll never get an MCU film quite like Endgame again, one suspects.
Where do we go from here? Marvel will know. Much as Endgame has its problems, it sticks the emotional landing (mostly) and that’s enough, certainly if you’re invested. As for the future, in Marvel we should trust.
Whatever it takes.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTORS: Anthony & Joe Russo
CAST: Robert Downey. Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo + THE ENTIRE WORLD
STUDIO: Marvel Studios