After 11 years and, as of Endgame, 22 superhero flicks, dating back to Robert Downey Jr.’s spin in Iron Man, the examples are numerous. But with each successive film, those moments become harder to earn, and the returns diminishing.
Once you’ve seen Chris Evans’s Captain America launch his shield or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor call down crackling thunder for the first time, it’s hard to make it feel exciting again. As Marvel’s extensive war chest of well-made superhero blockbusters expands, those flashes of superhero greatness need to be a little more special if they’re to earn a spot among the Cinematic Universe’s best.
So it’s special that Marvel manages to achieve the seemingly impossible in Endgame: creating a movie steeped in years of lore that still manages to recapture the excitement of watching your very first Marvel experience.
Endgame is a celebration of, and goodbye to, the superheroes that many of us have grown a decade older with. It’s an earnest reminder of these heroes’ ability to reflect our own feelings about what they stand for and the emotions we share with them.
Endgame picks up at somewhere close to rock bottom for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. At the end of Infinity War, Thanos has eliminated half of all life in the universe, and the Avengers, as the film’s multiple trailers have shown us, are scrambling to figure out a plan that will bring those lives back.
That plan relies on a key component of a superhero story: that the Avengers represent the very best of us.
Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed Infinity War and return here to finish the job, understand that the “best” doesn’t just mean the strongest, fastest, smartest, or more powerful. The “best” also applies to heroes’ spirits and souls; at the end of the day, when the world is crashing down, they are going to show us how refusing to give up, powers or no powers, makes us, well, super.
Endgame smartly celebrates Tony Stark and Steve Rogers
Perhaps the most obnoxious thing about Endgame is that it’s so easy to spoil (five minutes of the movie already leaked ahead of the film’s premiere), so please forgive me for erring on the conservative side.
Endgame begins with the Avengers splintered and in tatters. Twenty-two days after Thanos’s snap, Tony Stark and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are drifting off in space, while Steve Rogers, Thor, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rhodey a.k.a. War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are on Earth without a plan or any clue where Thanos is.
For the first time, we see individual Avengers go through their personal grief, that of losing their friends and their chosen families, while also suffering a loss on a galactic scale. The Avengers have never failed before; imagine how they must feel losing a fight for the first time, and having it be at the expense of half the universe.
Watching the Avengers deal with grief allows Marvel’s actors to show the relentless emotional toll of superheroism. Hemsworth’s Thor processes (or refuses to process) his pain by wasting away into a demigod with a dad bod, while Johansson takes Romanov — usually the dependable, no-frills assassin — into quiet, stoic suffering.
Steve Rogers should be a little more accustomed to mourning his loved ones by now than he first appears to be here. Rogers, for those keeping up with his Marvel arc, first fought in WWII, then was frozen for decades before waking up in the present day. His experience has largely been treated like a joke; he’s been presented as a hunk who only understands references from half a century ago and has trouble keeping up with the present.
It’s not until his situation in Endgame that we begin to understand the emotional trauma — coming to terms with all your friends and family disintegrating before your eyes; being forced to grit your teeth and bear it; the anxiety of assimilating from a different world — that Rogers has had to deal with.
Meanwhile, Tony Stark deals with the snap and his own failure by shutting down, lashing out at his loved ones with caustic, toxic wit. Downey Jr. delivers an effective performance, showing how Stark’s whip-smart irreverence can easily go south into darker, nastier places.
Despite the laundry list of actors on Endgame’s roster — punctuated by cinematic hall-of-famers like Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Robert Redford, Angela Bassett, Glenn Close, Anthony Hopkins, and Chiwetel Ejiofor — no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been as emotionally vulnerable as Evans and Downey Jr. get to be in this movie. It’s a shame that these other luminary talents have gone unused to that end, despite how good Downey Jr. and Evans are in their roles.
It’s also unfortunate that Marvel’s hero of the moment, Captain Marvel, doesn’t really get much to do beyond throw some photonic punches and briefly reaffirm her incredible strength in this film, which is meant to be the one place where all of our favorite heroes play around together. The same is true of several other Avengers who are present mostly to hit their beats.
But as much as I love Carol Danvers, I understand the decision to streamline Endgame’s cast to Captain America, Iron Man, and the other original Avengers. It keeps the movie grounded and centered instead of careening out into an assemblage of jagged jumps — one of the major flaws in Infinity War. Honing in on the well-worn, familiar Rogers and Stark, and to a lesser degree Thor, Black Widow, Bruce Banner, and Hawkeye, tightens Endgame into a superhero movie that’s much more thoughtful, wistful even, than its predecessors.
Endgame is Marvel’s love letter to its biggest fans
Like the Marvel movies that came before it, Endgame still has a buoyancy about it, with humor flanking the seriousness. In the context of loss though, comedy becomes an escape — laughs buffer pain, and allow us to approach it more closely. That’s still plenty alive here, with funny scenes centered on about the roundness of Captain America’s peach-shaped bottom, the physical silliness of Mark Ruffalo’s oversized Hulk, and Thor’s lunkiness adding needed levity.
Marvel has turned the afterthought joke — the moment when a major character of status, usually a powerful superhero or villain, delivers something so self-serious only to be undercut by silence or a sardonic riff — into art. Endgame’s abundance of these led me to temporarily believe, that we just might see one of the things I wanted most in this movie: for Ant-Man to defeat Thanos by crawling up his anus and then expanding to the size of Big Ben. If you wanted this as much as I did, you may be slightly disappointed.
I say “slightly” only because Endgame’s climactic battle sequence is easily the most colossal and spirit-soaring superhero brawl ever created. It’s made of that Marvel miracle stuff that hits you with chills and throws your heart into your throat.
Think Captain America’s shield, charged by Thor’s godly lightning, screaming through space, combined with Captain Marvel’s photon punches and Iron Man’s scorching lasers backing her up. Add to that the genius way Marvel has trained its fans to recognize the familiar and specific sizzle that glowing orange magic makes or the drums of Wakanda, and this sequence becomes an example of action at its most perfect. Endgame translates the beauty of photon blasts and kinetic wonder of magic into a fight sequence effortlessly, unlike some of the previous Marvel movies.
Most of Endgame functions as an homage to fans who have memorized every pixel of those 21 preceding Marvel movies while serving as a condensed crash course to newbies and casual fans.
There are a few scratchy moments that hold Endgame back from being a perfect capper to this superhero saga. Setting Hawkeye on a killing spree that only involves nonwhite criminals — and is hardly remarked upon — is not a particularly great look, and there’s perhaps a visit to a planet or two that feels longer than it needs to be. After all, it is a three-hour movie.
Yet Endgame is still a fitting, winsome celebration of all things Marvel. It’s true to its name as a stunning final chapter in a narrative that Marvel has built over 11 years. After Endgame, Marvel could stop, and its fans would be satisfied with the complete series. But we know that’s not happening anytime soon, and if Endgame is any indication, we’re still in for at least a few more miracles yet.
Avengers: Endgame will officially be released in theaters on April 26, 2019 (screenings begin on April 25).