Here we are, one year removed from the Snap Heard ‘Round the World, and we’ve been wondering how the Marvel powers-that-be would concoct a narrative to restore super-humanity and keep all those lucrative franchises running. That sounds quite cynical, obviously, but it’s hard to avoid such a feeling after more than a decade of films and franchises that are precluded from existing as standalone entities and function as building blocks of a broader enterprise. The cracks of light that beam through that wall of cynicism are the films themselves, which have maintained a consistent quality over the years, via strong directorial choices and a tonal balance that fits the broader mold and yet is just different enough for each sub-franchise exist on its own. But even the most unique entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are created, and therefore viewed, with the understanding that The Big Thing is looming on the horizon.
Behold, The Big Thing is finally upon us. Avengers: Endgame is the film, the event, the spectacle that every Marvel movie has been building to since May 2008, the culmination of a narrative through-line that has coursed through 21 films. Fittingly and expectedly, it’s a gargantuan experience, though what’s most interesting throughout this 3-hour opus – with its unification of multiple storylines, fusion of various timelines, and 40-some primary characters – is that it works. Endgame works as a grandiose finale – and reflecting on everything that led up to it, one must concede that the broad design worked, too. It’s undeniable that the “U” in MCU has been fully actualized. We have witnessed the mounting of an interplanetary, fully functional cinematic universe over the past 11 years, and its finishing touches are quite impressive.
Any broad-canvassed cinematic spectacle risk of becoming ungainly or bloated, but what’s clever about this, the spectacliest of all spectacles, is its overt awareness that ungainliness cannot be avoided – after all, the MCU was designed to culminate with this bloat. Last year’s Infinity War was a bombastic embrace of the mega-bloat as a preamble to this more intricate and intimate final act, with the aforementioned “snap” as the somber transition. In Endgame, our heroes are plagued by the guilt of apparent failure, having grown accustomed – like the audience – to the inevitability of a happy ending.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, focus acutely on the personal stakes of this final Avengers mission. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) ponders an alternate outcome in which he followed through with his most overtly protectionist creations. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) undergoes…quite a transformation as a coping strategy for his inability to vanquish the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin). Even Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), ever the optimist, finds himself in a cycle of despair with no clear exit strategy. Failure and fallout are the key drivers of these characters in this final chapter. Sure, the universe hangs in the balance, as it’s wont to do in these comic-based stories, but in Endgame these indomitable heroes aren’t merely responsible for humanity’s survival, they are the humanity of this story.
To say anything more specific about the story is tantamount to heresy – all these superstars keep telling me “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” on social media — but there is a clever conceit at this film’s center that sets it apart as a standalone piece of creativity while also highlighting its status as The Finale. The filmmakers are wise to not replicate the balls-to-the-wall drive of Infinity War; instead, Endgame is more careful and considered from moment-to-moment, slower-paced but with more propulsive forward motion, which is quite impressive for a movie that runs just over three hours. It doesn’t hurt that this screenplay – be it out of necessity or design – might be the most inventive film in the Marvel canon, able to navigate a creative triptych through the annals of MCU lore without a bunch of forced flashbacks or awkward cameos.
Given the pressure and the stakes, with the last decade-plus of multiplex dominance and rising expectations all leading to this one last ride, it’s kind of amazing that Avengers: Endgame flows with such ease and assurance. One key factor is that these actors, after years of shared storylines and extended cameos in each other’s films, work in effortless concert with one another. Another is that finally, at long last, this is a film that isn’t explicitly and inextricably leading to another film. Sure, there are breadcrumbs aplenty that will lead to MCU Phase Four and beyond, but for the first time in 11 years, this film’s resolution is just that: a resolution. Along the way, there are some spectacular action set pieces to behold. There are rousing moments of tension. And yes, there are tears in more than one instance. Because just as these characters have grown together over the past decade, we as an audience have grown accustomed to going on these adventures with them. We’ve been there every step of the way – even if we sometimes went kicking and screaming. And that ubiquity, that consistency to keep building to this film might be the clearest indicator of Marvel’s success. All this time we’ve referred to this as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but now it feels like ours, too.