'Avengers: Endgame': To infinity and beyond
Turns out, infinity has an end. It just takes a really long time to get there. “Avengers: Endgame” is the three-hour grand finale of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe story arc, which began 11 years and 21 films ago with “Iron Man.” If we’re to learn anything from this pretty much unprecedented pop-cultural phenomenon, it’s that time has no meaning, but it also means everything.
I know. Vague quasi-profundities. They’re annoying. But the threat of exile and/or execution for revealing spoilers for “Endgame” is so evident, vagueness is a must. In fact, I’m tempted to reveal only that time exists throughout the movie’s narrative, and that it remains in motion, as it must, then call it a review: Three-and-a-half stars. It’s Miller time.
Yet there are Things that must be discussed and contextualized. One year ago, “Avengers: Infinity War” brought together dozens of heroes to battle Thanos, a thick purple guy from outer space, played by Josh Brolin and a lot of CGI. The statute of limitations on spoilers has expired on that movie, so I’ll reveal its ending: Thanos used a gizmo known as the Infinity Gauntlet to murder half the living things in the universe. They turned to dust and blew away -- and that included a large pile of the heroes we’d grown attached to: Spider-Man, Black Panther, Groot, Doctor Strange, Winter Soldier, Star Lord, etc. Watching Spider-Man die nearly killed us. Killed us. “He’s just a kid!”, we wept.
“Endgame,” as a matter of course, picks up right there. And right here is where I’ll do some necessary inventory, using only superhero names, not regular human names, for the sake of brevity, because there are so many of them. So, so many. Then I’ll get on with being as vague as possible.
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is afloat in space with “Guardians of the Galaxy” alien Nebula (Karen Gillan). They’re rescued by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and brought back to Earth. Iron Man is relieved to learn his squeeze Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is undisintegrated, as are Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who wasn’t in “Infinity War” at all, is in the movie’s opening scene, and something I’m terrified to reveal happens, prompting him to do stuff; he has yet to unite with the other Avengers.
Meanwhile, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from an extended stay in the super-teensy Quantum Realm. You may recall from “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a movie released last year after “Infinity War,” that his cohort the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) disintegrated, leaving him stranded among the quarks. You may also recall the joke from that movie, where the script prompts Ant-Man to crack wise about the overuse of the word “quantum”; funny, isn’t it, how what seemed like a throwaway then becomes important to the plot now. (Have I said too much?) This is precisely why you’ve seen all 21 previous MCU movies, for fear of missing a single reference, right? Right.
At first, Iron Man and Cap squabble, because that’s what they do. But eventually they’ll come together, because who else is going to save half the entire universe? Someone in some other movie? The idea that half the entire universe won’t be saved is patently absurd, because anyone with a lick of sense knows what happens when comic-book characters die: they get rebooted. That’s a perfectly vague statement which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but I’m going to just leave it there. Were we dumb to cry when Spider-Man died? I say no -- because it’s not the fact that he died even though we know he’ll be brought back somehow, but that we had to watch the character believe he was dying. That in itself is tragic.
Taking the idea a step further, the inevitability of triumphant victory at the end of movies like this is always tainted by the question: At what cost? Not knowing that answer is the source of suspense. And what constitutes victory and defeat anyway? Think about it, and neither is absolute. Sacrifice is always a part of these sagas of war and battle, be they small or cosmic in scale. Like they say, it isn’t the destination, but the journey.
Am I being vague enough? Needless to say, the tone at the beginning of “Endgame” is despairing. Half the entire universe is dead, and the living sit around eating crappy peanut butter sandwiches on mushy white bread, crying, just like Black Widow does. Black Widow actually cries in this movie. Cries! Black Widow doesn’t cry! She digs in and finds a way to put a boot in evil’s ass. But here we are, in the depths, waiting for a glimmer of hope to push the narrative pendulum in the other direction.
And boy howdy, does it ever swing, from the dark, challenging first-act character drama rarely seen in the MCU, to the type of third-act fan service exquisitely contrived to turn us all into quivering bundles of raw gooseflesh. “Endgame” is all about our feeeeeeeelinggggggggggs. After 22 movies, it better be all about our feeeeeeeelinggggggggggs, because by now, we have so goddamn many of them, and they need to be dealt with.
The details as to how the pendulum reverses course I’ll let you learn for yourselves, but I will say it involves The Concept. The Concept is something we’ve seen in other movies, and the characters in “Endgame” explain it by referencing the other movies, and how those movies got it all wrong. This gives the screenwriters carte blanche to do whatever they want without upsetting traditional parameters for The Concept. The Concept here isn’t always convincing, and you’ll find holes in it, but remember, this isn’t those other movies, this is “Avengers: Endgame,” which is a movie unlike pretty much every other movie, so it has every right to set its own rules.
As they did with “Infinity War,” Joe and Anthony Russo -- who also helmed the Captain America films “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” -- don’t really direct “Endgame.” They do their best to control a gigantic beast with more heads and arms than a single IMDb cast page can contain. The aforementioned characters are joined by numerous stars from throughout the series, making cameos and adding key emotional beats to the story. The girth of the movie is such that characters can enjoy a scene, disappear for two hours, return, and still get decent screen time.
I will say the feeeeeeeelinggggggggggs in “Endgame” run the gamut, from despair to elation. In the middle somewhere are many laughs, big ones, well-earned ones, necessary ones. In a sense, the film ends where it all began, focusing on its most beloved hero characters, Iron Man and Captain America, who deservingly arrest its narrative focus. Who will be most marvelous? Who will experience the thrill and agony of victory and defeat?
And of course, one more question: Where do we go from here? Another Spider-Man movie of course, in July, and another Black Panther and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and a Black Widow movie, and. And! But more metaphysically, how do you top this 22-movie achievement? Conjure another infinity? An end is always a beginning too, isn’t it?
Instead of looking ahead, I’ll look back, and more practically: The grandiosity of the mildly bloated “Endgame” renders it on par with the more economical “Infinity War.” “Captain America: Winter Soldier” is extraordinary in its blend of virtuoso action and thematic depth. “Black Panther” is rich and vibrant, “Guardians of the Galaxy” a terrific blend of cleverness and heart, “Iron Man” a bold statement of intent. I still love 2012’s “The Avengers” the most. Sometimes the heft and sprawl of this “cinematic universe” made me weary, but in the end, these films lifted my spirit more times than I can count. How remarkable.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some language
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo
Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
Run time: 181 minutes