The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), an initiative begun by producer Kevin Feige in 2008, has spawned 22 superhero films in the last decade. A quarter of those have been memorable, but only two have been great films. The first is last year’s “Black Panther”, and the second is undoubtedly “Avengers: Endgame”. There’s no two ways about this: the touchdown has been scored.
After watching the severely disappointing and egregiously “tune-in-next-time” splattered “Infinity War”, I feared that the MCU’s master plan had finally gone off the rails. “Infinity War” is not a good film. It may be entertaining and very satisfying in spots, but it has no conception of giving the audience a real, tangible reward for what they’ve invested. The screenwriting mentality of “Infinity War” can be summed up in a single sentence: “Why give fans what they’ve been waiting for when we can spend 20 minutes fixing Thor’s hammer?” Even the ending, replete with Game of Thrones-scale unexpected deaths, left a lingering skepticism in every viewer’s mind: “yeah, but Spider-man and the Guardians have another movie coming out, so…”
It felt like one big cheat.
“Endgame” is the antithesis of a letdown. It is a three hour jaw-dropper. There is no more time left to waste. Every minute of screentime is put to emotional, bizarre, wickedly fun use.
The first chunk of this film is a surprisingly intimate portrait of all of the remaining key Avengers (Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, the Raccoon), dressed down and looking thoroughly unheroic, coping with the misery Thanos has left the galaxy in. Thanos (Josh Brolin) got exactly what he wanted when he snapped his fingers: a healthier, spryer world, one less at risk for eventual disintegration. But the mass genocide has left everybody feeling ripped apart and alone.
There are still series staple quips and entertaining writing, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo allow for many moments of examination. It is uncomfortable seeing these once immovable forces now inconsolable with guilt. This is the first Avengers film to give off the genuine feeling that this team is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health; a family.
So when something (that will not be spoiled here) kickstarts the action, the tension is at a fever pitch. In a way that makes no sense yet still somehow works, the characters unlock time travel with the goal of assembling all of the infinity stones before Thanos begins looking for them. To do this, they need to locate the stones in a reckless timeline, which places them at pivotal moments throughout the series.
This is less a movie and more of a giant, overwhelming reunion concert. These scenes are, let’s face it, fan service, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dodge repetition by finding entertaining, unpredictable ways for the future Avengers to interact with the past. The bulk of the film is spent exploring the wacky intricacies of time travel, and even though the conceit falls apart the second you begin to deconstruct it, everybody who is buying a ticket to this film knows they are not sitting down to watch a three hour logic festival.
All of the cast are acting their asses off, and without exception, everybody gets the job done. You can see on their faces a thinly veiled melancholy that this really is all coming to an end. All the fan favorites get ample time to strut their stuff, but the MVPs of the show are Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Now that “Black Panther” has lifted the embargo on not nominating MCU blockbusters for significant awards, it’s likely that Downey Jr. will receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. He is having as much fun as ever, but he is also heartbreakingly vulnerable. The composed, word-salad-spouting, billionaire Playboy has been stripped away and put to rest. The post-Thanos Iron Man isn’t Iron Man at all: Stark is weary and tired of pretending to have all of the answers. He’s sensitive, unbalanced, and most shockingly, humbled. He understands how much of this is his fault, and not once throughout the film does he toot his own horn the way he has in past Avengers flicks. This is the most human we have ever seen the man who started this series off back in 2008.
Watching ScarJo finally get a chance to shine is the film’s strongest asset. She has always struggled to be taken seriously in this universe. She’s been overly sexualized, poorly written (every other word some kind of cringy innuendo, i.e., “No more two piece bikinis!” in “The Winter Soldier” or all the forgettable flirting with Hulk/Captain America), and flat out ignored just when her development was going somewhere (think about how much traumatizing yet fascinating information we’ve gleaned about her over the series, just to never get brought up again). This is one of Johansson's best performances, and Black Widow is the film’s bravest and most inspiring hero.
If you have been eagerly anticipating this film, you have nothing left to fear. It’s better than good. It’s mind blowing. It’s tear-jerking. It’s gleefully, vibrantly entertaining. It’s long yet never overcooked. As wretched as some of the films are (the “Iron Man” sequels and “Thor” are not retroactively redeemed by this), the cumulative effect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is overwhelming.
The fatigue of years of cliffhangers is gone. This is the dream the series has always aspired to having. It harkens back to a time when seeing a long, star-studded movie wasn’t a chore or daunting commitment, but an event that everybody clammers to talk about when it’s finished. “Endgame” is the most immense movie of the year in sheer content, and as an emotional trip, it’s a bonafide thrill.