Just before Avengers: Infinity War was released, there was a fairly common critical consensus that it would be a big ol’ mess. With a massive cast and a budget to match, plus the necessity of tying up so many Marvel Cinematic Universe threads and mushing them into one huge showdown, many folks assumed we’d be paying premium prices for a train wreck of a movie.
Then, surprise surprise: it was fairly coherent and very fun. The Brothers Russo split their heroes into logical teams and leaned on Josh Brolin’s terrific work as Thanos, and the result was a captivating good time. Suddenly, we weren’t asking “How bloated and subpar are these going to be?” but “How will the next one top that?”
It couldn’t. It didn’t. But to the Russos’ credit, they didn’t really try. Being that Infinity War ended with a major cliffhanger – albeit one that would be resolved with ease – Avengers: Endgame had to link new and old together into a somehow-satisfying conclusion. It had to do the work we expected its predecessor to suffer under while also straining to meet massive expectations.
So rather than worry about how to do that, the Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely paved their own path. Endgame is essentially a best-of compilation, where all your favorite Marvel stars (Robert Redford! Rene Russo! Tilda Swinton!) pop in and old movies are revisited through the magic of time travel. Sure, we get some emotional deaths and a conclusion to the war against Thanos, but ultimately this is a ‘thank you’ to everyone who made Marvel the most talked-about studio in the world.
You’ll notice that we’re 300 words in and I haven’t even started the review yet; that’s because, as a movie, Avengers: Endgame is bad. Despite having seen every Marvel movie, I couldn’t always follow along; it would be borderline incomprehensible to anyone with a gap in their viewing history. There’s a “girl power” moment that only highlights how poorly developed Marvel’s female characters have been. The story is ludicrous; the character motivations are flimsy at best; everything feels manufactured to serve a very specific purpose.
None of this is a shock, and not all of it is negative. Paring down the cast through Thanos’s snap at least gives the original Avengers (plus a robot and a space raccoon) the appropriate room to complete their personal journeys. And though Endgame comes in at a beefy 180 minutes, I never felt bored. Though I occasionally scoffed at certain absurd choices and cheesy bits of dialogue, the Russos and their writers kept the wheels turning in a manner that few big-budget blockbusters can match.
A real critic might emerge from Endgame in the middle of yet another rant about how Marvel is disrupting the sanctity of the moviegoing process, turning feature films into expensive chunks of a larger narrative and then ‘punishing’ you for skipping even one. Kevin Feige would probably even admit to it. To be fair, I do think there’s a shelf life to that model of cinematic storytelling. I believe audiences will soon get tired of seeing 20 movies in order to fully grasp the 21st, even if the initial 20 are all fine-to-great.
But that remains the beauty of Marvel’s current run; through impeccable casting and a solid overarching plot, they’ve kept us coming back for more and entertained in the process. As much as I enjoy Black Panther, Spider-Man and the other likely future leaders in the Marvel clubhouse, I don’t think any new group will have the allure of the Captain America/Iron Man/Thor/Hulk/Black Widow/Hawkeye combo. From The Avengers onward, everyone fit and (almost) every major team-up met or exceeded expectations. A toast to those days is justified.
As for Endgame itself, without giving too much away, its emotional apex packs exactly the tearful wallop they were hoping for. Karen Gillan easily wins Most Improved Player for turning Nebula into a character audiences care about. And its back-in-time forays into other Marvel movies were successful at making outliers like Thor: The Dark World retroactively matter. But ultimately, not much happened. Brolin had exponentially less to do as Thanos. A few actors who were done with their characters moved on, and the rest remain to be deployed as needed. It feels like a fitting conclusion, but also a meandering three hours that accomplished very little.
From Iron Man up until now, the question has evolved from “Are you going to see the new Marvel movie?” to “You saw the last two and you know you’ll see the next three; are you sure you want to skip this one?” As the icing on top of that truly unique arc in cinematic history, Endgame is what it was always meant to be. The age of Marvel being above the cinematic law is about to end, but what a run it was.