As is my default approach, this review does not contain anything that most people would consider to be a spoiler
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley
Last week I gave myself an exercise of sorts. Rather than allowing myself to write my typical, mood-in-the-moment driven review, I decided I wanted to set a standard in advance for how I would review Avengers: Endgame. While reviewing is no exact science, in this case, I worried my extremely dissonant relationship to superhero films would render my review inappropriate. As it turned out, I quite enjoyed Avengers: Endgame, and as such did not need a pre-set rubric to safeguard against irrational frustration. Nonetheless, I will stand by my word and use my pre-set evaluative categories. If nothing else, they give me a way of deciding what to say about this particularly long (181 minutes) and detail-rich work.
Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?
The very premise of Avengers: Infinity War was a battle between all-powerful villain Thanos, and virtually every superhero the Marvel Cinematic Universe had known to date. It was a combination I did not much care for, as it relied on audiences having pre-established investments in characters, rather than providing much character development on its own. Endgame by contrast, is set following Infinity War’s apocalyptic events and, as such, has a better economy of characters. For the most part its main cast are the original Avengers (Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This decision allowed for further development of the friendly rivalry between the brooding and somewhat selfish Iron Man and the idealist, team-player Captain America. In fact, the film takes this dynamic to another level, by presenting an Iron Man with a more nuanced brand of selfishness (wanting to start a family). Thor’s role in the series, meanwhile, is improved. Thanks to the stylistic developments of Thor: Ragnorak, he is no longer a quasi-Iron-Man-type, and instead, along with Hulk, fills a comic-relief niche in contrast to Iron Man and Cap’s leading-man personas.
Other important heroes in the film include Rocket (Bradley Cooper), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd) all of whom find their niches. There is a degree of fourth wall breaking in Ant Man’s writing. Marvel’s two Ant Man movies have been described as lower-stakes than other Marvel efforts, and as such, Ant Man (who was not in Infinity War) appropriately makes contributions to the movie by asking questions on behalf of confused audience members about what exactly is going on. Given my misgivings about the chaos of Infinity War, I appreciated this low-key act of self-deprecation on the writers’ part.
One issue that may have been a source of tension in the writer’s room was the role of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who seems to be introduced as a major character at the beginning of the film, but is subsequently removed since she has duties to protect the galaxy. It is understandable that she is not given a bigger role in the film, given that she has only just been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as such, having her and her overwhelming power save the day would feel like a bit of a deus ex machina. Still, I can’t help but wonder then why her solo-film was released in the midst of what is now called Marvel’s “Infinity Saga” and her subsequent involvement in Endgame was promoted at all, when surely the Marvel writing-team must have realized Endgame would have to be a story about the core Avengers. All I can speculate is that, as members of comic-book-rooted-studio (and also as part of a big business), a lot of Marvel’s team is genuinely convinced that pumping out as many superheroes as fast as possible is better than having good narrative development.
That said, while Captain Marvel’s presence in the film may show that pure narrative coherence was not all Endgame’s writing team had in mind, the presence of her and other semi-relevant characters does not interrupt Endgame’s overall flow in any meaningful way. Furthermore, given the film’s lack of gender parity (Black Widow and Nebula do, luckily, play memorable parts) its hard to fault the studio too much for being eager to bring Captain Marvel into the picture.
How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?
As I noted above, Thor Ragnorak (which I did not appreciate at the time of its release, but have since warmed up to), made a major change to the structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It confirmed that Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk was a comic figure (in contrast to the quiet, brooding soles portrayed by Eric Bana and Edward Norton) while also establishing Thor in a similar niche. Endgame’s depiction of new Asgaard ranks amongst its best scenes thanks to the presence of Thor, as well as the return of his New Zealand-accented comrade from Ragnorak. This segment, alongside the film’s unique take on the Hulk (a character whose awkwardly polar persona is one filmmakers have struggled to convincingly represent), suggests that Endgame’s writers agreed with me as to where Marvel’s humor had previously been lacking. Humor in fight scenes (common practice in the M.C.U.) just feels like another weapon. Humor in dialogue is charming and memorable.
How Intimate is the Action? Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?
I previously wrote that rather than having a general aversion to action sequences, I (and perhaps many who “don’t like action movies”) can find action scenes to be entertaining so long as they focus on the characters and not just the explosions involved. While the fighting in Endgame is admittedly consistent with the non-intimate style employed in most other M.C.U. movies, at very least its context gives it special emotional weight.
I should clarify that there is in fact one “intimate fight” in Endgame. I can’t say too much about it without revealing a major spoiler, but I will say that it is a higher-stakes continuation of a conflict first seen in Captain America: Civil War.
How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie? Does the Film have a Memorable Villain? Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point?
Avengers Endgame was not designed to be a standalone movie, and as such this point of criteria was always a bit unfair. I will say though that there is a real cost to this film bringing in numerous heroes in minor roles as these appearances likely make the film feel too chaotic (despite a main plot that might otherwise be enjoyable) for first-time Marvel viewers. On the flip-side, the film’s dearth of guest appearances and cameos are certainly satisfying (we even get a few seconds of Thor’s ex-love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)), as are its throwbacks to past movie sets and one character’s iconic deployment of a catchphrase.
As for the question of its villain, Endgame both memorably builds on and fails to meet the standards set by Infinity War. While I can’t say much more on this contradiction without spoiling the movie, I think this problem has its roots in the contradictory writing of Thanos (Josh Brolin) over different M.C.U. films. While Thanos’ twisted idealism was the strength of Infinity War, he also appeared in The Guardians of the Galaxy saga as a more conventional villain.
The questions of Endgame functioning as a standalone movie and having a memorable villain both in turn point to the bigger question of whether the movie makes an interesting philosophical point. The Avengers’ first confrontation with Thanos in the film is indeed shocking. It’s a moment where notions of justice and purpose are brought into question. The effect of this scene, however, is ultimately not political. What the scene does do is introduce an element of despair into the Avengers’ world, and that despair in turn is what gives the film its unique character.
In short, Endgame lacks the overall character to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “greatest film,” but it nonetheless may be its most enjoyable. It resolves character arcs, assembles a range of characters and uses (by Marvel standards) a range of storytelling techniques. While viewers should be warned that it is probably worth doing their homework (ie watching 2/3 of the previous M.C.U movies at least) before giving Endgame a try, at very least, for this superhero-movie skeptic, the effort was worth it.
A final note: The film does not have an end-credits scene save for a subtle sound some fans might appreciate. The first part of the credits, however, is worth staying for.