Avengers: Endgame puts character over spectacle
Last year (has it only been a year?), I compared Avengers: Infinity War to a wedding. Much of the joy I found in that film was seeing the characters from various corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) interacting for the first time. And what that film does well is maximize the reasons people love these films–and the characters–while not telling a particularly interesting story. That was enough to carry the day while trying to answer the question of the value of a single human life against untold trillions. Infinity War represents a huge loss on the cosmic scale, but more pressingly, it represents a personal failure for a group of characters that can never let go when they don’t succeed.
“Because if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn well sure we'll avenge it.” -Tony Stark, The Avengers
Avengers: Endgame smartly reframes the “hardest choices require the strongest wills.” mantra of Thanos (Josh Brolin) from the first film and putting it on our original team of Avengers. And beyond the faceless masses, they’ve each let down one or more people closest to them in at least a few ways. With all of the family issues (mostly around dads!) embedded into the MCU from Phase 2 forward, Endgame foregrounds the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one big crazy family. Every character in the film, from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), is motivated to protect or avenge their family, whether a traditional family like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) or their superhero as family, like Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) or Rocket (Bradley Cooper).
And with this aim in mind, MCU architects–screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely–have mined the existing tapestry of films for ways to pull these threads together in a way that will delight longtime fans. Which they should. This is the film to pay off all of the groundwork laid by the previous 22 films. If Endgame doesn’t lead to dramatic payoffs on a grand scale, then what is even the point of having a franchise that exists like this?
But this is also where the film surprised me. Typically these Marvel films barely have room to breathe, each scene punctuated with an action beat or a quippy line to carry us through to a new scene. This is rarely true of Endgame, the first time that you could call one of these crossover films an actor’s movie. The film gives ample time to all of the core cast. Each of them has been put through the ringer, trying to deal with their sense of loss and failure, and each is allowed to deal with it in their own way while giving what might be their best performances in the entire series. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) moved on. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha do not. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isolates himself and self-medicates. We get even deeper glimpses into the psyche of these characters than we’ve ever gotten before.
Some of this depth surfaces because there is a time travel element to the plot, where our heroes revisit the past in order to try and stop Thanos in the present. Not only do we get to revisit and see new perspectives on events from previous films, but it also provides new emotional ground for the characters. This allows Thor and his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo) to get closure on her death from 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. We are also treated to an extended scene between the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) talking about time travel ethics, science, and magic. These previously underutilized actresses getting a spotlight is a huge strength of this film. These cameos and smaller moments are used by the filmmakers (directors Joe and Anthony Russo) in order to leverage and reflect on this run of films. It’s a love letter of sorts, showing the ways the series and characters have grown in the preceding 10 years. One of the best moments in the film uses our expectations from a previous film against us, preparing us to revisit one of the best action scenes in the entire series, and then takes an alternate path. As a longtime comics reader, but even more as a fan of these films for about a third of my life, Endgame finally feels like I’m being rewarded for tracking the Infinity Stones for all this time. And the clever retcons actually succeed in making the MCU feel bigger, not smaller.
As the kind of fan who shows up for these characters debating superhero ethics while sharing peanut butter sandwiches at Avengers headquarters, I was completely satisfied by the first two acts of this film. And then everything goes sideways for our heroes, which culminates in a stunning battle sequence clearly inspired by Peter Jackson’s take on the Battle of Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King in terms of scale and sheer amount of digital people running around. But the stakes and geography are clearer here, and the Russos get across the feeling that it’s all been leading to this battle. It’s the hot fudge on top of the banana split.
The film isn’t quite flawless, and there is some humor that juts out like a sore thumb. And while every character gets a moment to shine, there are still reminders that there are characters that have been around for almost a decade that Marvel still hasn’t quite figured out what to do with, like Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow. Thor’s emotional arc in this film is moving, but undercut by a couple of jokes about his physical appearance. Time will tell if these flaws will grow into larger imperfections upon repeat viewings.
If Avengers: Infinity War was a wedding, then Endgame is a high school reunion. Friendships are repaired, old stories are revisited, new understanding is achieved...and then everyone will go their separate ways. It is a reminder that even the families we choose will not last forever, that we must always remember the past as we share it with others, but be open to new families and new futures. It is important to share how we feel about the people in our lives within the time we have to share with them, despite all of the reasons we can imagine not to do just that. It shouldn’t have to be as existential as the threat of cosmic-scale genocide for us to express these feelings, as forces far more pedestrian–like time and space–are far more likely to pull us apart. So here’s to at least one last ride. Remember how far we’ve come together and how much love we have for each other.
Avengers: Endgame opens in Philly theaters tonight.