It would not be an exaggeration to consider Avengers: Endgame, the three hour behemoth designed to not only bring the story of Avengers: Infinity War, but every Marvel Studios branded movie of the last eleven years to a close, the most movie we’ve ever seen. It’s got the most backstory, the most characters, the most actors, the most sets, the most ideas, the most everything. The concept of wrapping up twenty movies worth of story in one fell swoop is dizzying, and series mastermind Kevin Feige, along with the Infinity War and Civil War creative team of directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have set out to do just that. WIll they succeed? Can they succeed? What even does success look like for a movie that was going to make two billion dollars at the box office for Disney simply by existing?
To go into detail about what happens would be the sort of spoiler that the Russos seem hell-bent to ensure critics avoid (despite the supposed plot leaks coming long before a single critic saw a single frame), but be not surprised that Avengers: Endgame begins pretty much right where Infinity War left off. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are stranded in space with a broken ship. The surviving heroes on Earth, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the newly arrived Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), are in the middle of a mad dash to find Thanos (Josh Brolin), steal his Infinity Gauntlet and reverse the snap that wiped out half the universe and most of their friends and colleagues.
To be honest, that doesn’t sound like a movie that needs a ton of plot, but that giant run time certainly seems to point to a far more complex answer to the problem than a big fight with lots of lasers and a lightning axe for good measure. And that bears out; there’s astonishingly little filler in place for such a long movie. Sure, some things could probably be trimmed here and there (your odd reaction shot that takes a little too long, some of the tension-breaking quips, etc), but from a plot machination perspective, it all proves essential. It’s probably the most difficult scripting dilemma you could try to cook up for someone, with the breadth of characters and concepts at play; it’s not an exaggeration to claim that Avengers: Endgame makes references to and gathers characterization forward from all 21 MCU movies that preceded it. Anyone coming into this film as their first ever Marvel movie would be comically, hopelessly lost, but let’s be real here: no one’s actually doing that in this day and age. For those with the sort of intimate knowledge the film expects, the script is an immaculate juggling act. It brims over with fan service, both subtle and not remotely subtle, shifting from a somber, melancholic tone at its outset to the soaring spectacle we’ve come to demand from these movies.
For all the issues that have plagued the MCU movies to various degrees over the past decade, whether it's disappointing villains, lack of stakes, the need to focus more on what's coming next than what's happening now or the boring, CGI-riddled third act explosion-a-thons, they’ve still left plenty of room to build up these heroes as characters in their own right, with their own thoughts and feelings and motivations beyond simply getting us to the next installment of the franchise and buying loads of toys along the way. With the amount of total screen time they’ve had, you’d hope for that at the very least. We’ve seen Robert Downey Jr. play the role of Tony Stark ten times over those eleven years, and despite his slow, inexorable deterioration into a smirky snarky quip machine, there’s still a character under all of it to explore.
Endgame is very much designed to be a spotlight on the original team of Avengers (they all survived the snap for a reason), those who have been with us for the long haul and whose actors have been yearning for something else to do. The result is something that feels a lot more like a series finale than a season finale, though we know this train will never stop. With the way contract negotiations and inside baseball is so often reported, it’s known going in that this is going to be the last ride on the rodeo for some of the big names involved here, but the script does its due diligence in how it approaches their final moments. I’m not sure I can consider it emotional per se, since the foundational bent of these films is so nakedly calculated to squeeze every last dollar out of most of the people on this Earth, but it can be affecting in its own way nonetheless. Those heavily invested in the lives and personalities of these characters after a decade on the big screen will find plenty to love here.
The saying goes that movies like this are critic-proof. And that’s honestly true; nothing we say about Avengers: Endgame is going to sway the minds of people who spent an hour in an online waiting room to buy tickets for opening night while theaters stay open for four straight days with round the clock screenings just for this movie. It’s a cultural event far more than a piece of art. People aren’t going to be concerned about the effectiveness of the editing or the cinematography. It’s judged on the scale of spectacle, and on that scale, Avengers: Endgame is a rousing success. It does exactly what you expect of it and not all that much more (though the approach to the central problem leads to a pretty fun second act). Years from now, it seems unlikely that Joe and Anthony Russo will be seen as the auteurs of the age, but their status as the stewards of Marvel’s biggest movies will likely be far more important to the collective pop culture consciousness. Avengers: Endgame is bigger than all of us, and weaves an effective and thrilling tale to end a remarkable run.