Avengers Endgame has such a level of secrecy surrounding it that to even contemplate reviewing it without mentioning any specifics is a tall order, but I will endeavour to keep this entirely spoiler free, however if you want to go in completely blind then feel free to read on after you’ve experienced it.
Endgame is a tall order. How do you construct a suitably epic culmination to 11 years of storytelling, 22 movies worth of build up and satisfy a payoff to last years devastatingly bleak Infinity War ending? When you combine all those challenges and then lay on the sheer weight of audience expectations that only truly accompany ‘event’ pictures such as these, you see just what a miracle it is that Endgame even coheres at all, let alone delivering one of the most powerful conclusions seen in a blockbuster franchise. The Russos Brothers have got a Return of the King sized epic on their hands here (and not just in the multiple goodbye endings that both films employ), one that rounds off the previous 11 years investment but also one that nicely sets up a future of infinite possibilities.
Right from the two film announcement directors Anthony and Joe Russo, along with Marvel producer Kevin Feige, spoke of how Infinity War and Endgame were not a two parter. Rather both were their own distinct films, complementing one another but not merely one massive movie split down the middle. After the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ style tragedy of Infinity War, which laid waste to half the universe (as well as many of our favourite characters), it was hard not to see that as a mid film twist, a moment to split the inevitable resolution of its second half. Fool on me though for doubting The Russos intent. Endgame isn’t simply the “2nd part”, this is a film that feels different from the very core of itself. Whilst War was the action behemoth, Endgame is quieter, lighter (well not too light, half the universe did die after all) and immensely moving. A character drama first, superhero movie second. And oh boy does it work.
I cannot get into real detail as pretty much every second of this film is a spoiler, so dense is it with plot, twists and surprises that you need to discover them for yourself. However what I can say is the opening deals with the immediate fallout of that terrible Thanos snap (now called The Decimation, albeit not explicitly). The remaining survivors are shattered, helpless and truly lost. In a smart move writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley have used this “decimation” to whittle the somewhat insane cast numbers down to the core original Avengers, with a few supporting characters around them to keep things moving. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow etc were there from the very beginning and wisely, as this is a conclusion to this chapter of the MCU (so named The Infinity Saga), we get to spend actual lengthy screentime with each. Infinity War was beautifully measured in giving at least everyone a chance to shine, but owing to the sheer breadth of its story it could never really allow us to breathe. No such problems here. The Russos content to just let their characters talk, and not always in terms of narrative momentum, but really talk. Anguish, pain, guilt, all weigh heavily in different ways on each of them. Although how each of them cope with it is ripe with surprises, some that may vex deeper comic book rooted fans.
One unlikely cultural touchstone referenced in the opening hour is surprisingly The Leftovers. That show dealt with a population disappearing and the ramifications for those left behind. Endgame never quite reaches to the same levels of heartbreak and despair that Damon Lindelof’s devastating show did (graphic violence and challenging religious subtext aren’t really made for Marvel PG-13 entertainment), but it is no less effective in its stark shots of desolation and characters desperately clinging to some semblance of normality. Now I know what you’re thinking, this all sounds rather depressing for a major Hollywood event, yet the script is still laden with those token Marvel quips. It arguably has better and more consistent jokes than any of its team up predecessors, yes even the Whedon ones. Before too long plans have been made, teams drawn up, and the film morphs into territory some may predict but few can dispute is rip roaringly exciting. 3hrs is a long time but at no point do you feel like the film is overstaying its welcome, so fine tuned is its narrative playfulness.
Endgame is not for newcomers. This is a film designed from the ground up to reward an audience who have stuck with them from the beginning. Sure you don’t have to know every little easter egg that’s come before, or remember minute details from lesser entries, you’d still get similar emotive responses from the big moments. Yet for those who have followed, rewatched and savoured every MCU flick to have graced us (and even the lesser championed TV shows) there is such a delightful excess of callbacks you’d think all your nerd dreams have come at once. I’m sure we’re bound to see article after article bemoaning this as nothing more than orgasmic fan service, however I see each and every one of them being 100% earned. This is longform storytelling, one story told over 22 chapters. You’d be hard pressed to find other media, whether that be books or TV that doesn’t reward those who have stayed with fist pumping moments of “oh I remember that guy!”
11 years gives you history, gives things elevated emotion, a connective tissue to characters that have evolved alongside you. The Russos understand this, and even more so than in their previous entries (notably Civil War) use this history to cement emotional beats which I challenge any of you not to shed a tear at. In fact I counted at least 3 instances of wholesale sobbing at what I was seeing. It certainly helps that almost all of the cast here have been playing their roles for pretty much a decade, meaning they inhabit fully and you can feel the weight of their pasts push down upon them. The central six deliver easily their best work here, particularly Downey Jr and Chris Evans. The two of them are so simpatico with their comic book counterparts that they just simply exist within our hearts now, definitively setting out those characters for generations to come. Not to say that time isn’t given to some of the little players operating around the sidelines too. Paul Rudd becomes a key focus this time out, and he maximises that giddy enthusiasm coupled with baffled wonderment to peak effect. In focusing so much on the core group however there are a few with less to do than you’d perhaps like. Rocket is still a fun wisecracker but is not allowed to finalise any sort of arc, same for peripherals such as Don Cheadle’s War Machine. Thanos too, while still intimidating, becomes a bit more of a one note villain, although that’s an unavoidable consequence of where the narrative leads than any performance based reasons. Also some you may have expected to play a bigger role, notably Captain Marvel, are disappointingly short changed, despite getting a few nice action beats.
In actual fact action is itself surprisingly light this time around. There are spurts throughout, but the focus is primarily on narrative and character momentum. Dialogue takes precedent over needless CGI fights, which is remarkably refreshing. Don’t fret though, those in search of their pyrotechnics fix will be more than compensated by a third act beast of an action sequence. In the pantheon of fight scenes it ranks lower down than some of the other visceral bouts The Russos in particular have constructed. Not for lack of audience pleasing moments, a couple resulted in cheers in the crowd I was in, and not for lack of nice editorial construction. But more for its excessive CGI backgrounds, removing the balletic clear cut choreography of other high points such as Civil War or the first Avengers. Yet for all its issues the sense of scale and tension is hard to beat. I genuinely wasn’t sure how it would play out and the resulting emotional fallout is heartbreaking.
Emotion is the key word here, and quite frankly the main goal. Markus and McFeeley have constructed a narrative that is by equal measure baffling and ballsy. Never quite able to avoid plot hole bingo, albeit multiple watches may firm up what is at times a confusing watch, but one that goes for broke. Twisting and turning the very fabric of what we expect and what we thought we knew. I admire their lust for the clear high concepts of movies you’d expect to find in the 80s (one in particular but to say which would be a major spoiler) and it once again marks out Endgame within another genre. Each of their scripted Marvel flicks have very much had different influences. No matter where we are though, or what crazy turn things may take, they and the Russos always centre us on the feelings and the characters that drive them. This is the true success of what Marvel have accomplished these 11 years. Building a story that bleeds and evolves into the next, but one in which we have seen figures we love fail, succeed and fail again. Films only succeed when we care for those who play within their fictional universes, and Marvel have made us truly care for theirs. This may be the end, but there will be another story to come (one that Endgame thankfully never excessively sets up), yet we will always remember the first. The grand filmmaking experiment that Marvel undertook back in 2008 was at times flawed and yet it soared into something more, an event, a culture, a legend. What a film this is, and what a journey it has been.
Verdict: Epic in scope, but intimate in its focus on character. This is a BIG film, a flawed, funny, unpredictable, and soaring piece of event moviemaking. Exactly what 11 years of storytelling deserves. You will laugh, you will cry and you will cheer.