Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra show creator Bryan Konietzko once said that the best stories have endings. What he meant was that, no matter how much we love certain characters, eventually we have to realize that their narrative journey is over and move on. In Avengers: Endgame, the MCU likely came as close as it ever will to providing this type of closure.
The only question remains: Just how satisfying is it? I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review (there are minor ones regarding the film setup). My first piece of advice: See this movie, especially if you’ve seen a majority of the previous films. My second piece of advice is this: Don’t set your standards too high.
Is Avengers: Endgame Even an Ending?
Things were really bleak when we last left our heroes. Arch-villain Thanos had completed his master plan, cancelling out half the life of the universe, including roughly half of the Avengers. As Endgame opens, our remaining heroes are dealing with the fallout of their failure. Some are definitely handling it better than others.
In a film universe often known for its quickness and rush to action (think of how Infinity War began), it is refreshing that Endgame allows its opening to linger. We are in the fallout of the snap, as much as we wouldn’t like to be. As an audience, it helps us get in the mindset of our protagonists – It’s depressing, it’s awful, and we want out. But Endgame isn’t content to merely open dark, it twists the knife as the team’s initial promising lead turns out to be a dead end.
From there, we lurch forward five years into the darkest timeline. This allows us to see the Avengers at new stages of grief and acceptance, and really drives home just how badly Thanos beat them.
Then time travel comes into play, and it’s finally anyone’s battle to win again.
While Endgame has its share of newness (especially the intergalactic Captain Marvel), this is a film that is much more focused on its older characters. In particular, Endgame deals with the six original members: Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, and Thor. Given that these characters have formed many of the dominant threads over these past movies, this comes as no surprise.
What was surprising – at least to this reviewer – was how wildly the handling of these characters, and the conclusions of their arcs, varied. The results ranged from the immensely satisfying (Iron Man and Black Widow) to the gratifying (Captain America), to the unsound (Hawkeye and Hulk). I honestly can’t call Thor’s arc a resolution as it still felt very much a set-up for a proper passing of the torch in Thor 4.
And that’s one of the issues with Endgame: It is trying to be two different films at once. While the majority of the narrative focuses on conclusion, the groundwork is laid for a new Avengers team. That said, not enough time is devoted to the latter. It leads certain scenes toward pandering and artificiality – I felt one event in particular at the end of the movie happened because it was expected but far from earned.
When talking about Age of Ultron (another fun but uneven Avengers film), Joss Whedon said watching his second movie in the MCU felt more like watching an agenda than a story. Endgame has a similar loss of identity. It is so busy checking its many, many boxes that certain resolutions feel rushed or sidestepped entirely to move onto the next story point.
Coming to Terms with the Source Material
Avengers: Endgame is arguably the most comic-book-y movie in the MCU, and I found this to be a strength and weakness. There’s time travel, other dimensions, aliens, gods – almost every fantasy and science fiction element you could want in escapist art. That said, this film also has some of the smallest sense of consequence I’ve ever seen, which is strange given how it begins.
I feel it is not a spoiler to say that everyone killed in the snap comes back. If it is, blame Marvel – not me. They’ve had trailers up for Spider-Man: Far From Home for months. The Avengers biggest loss is ultimately undone. And, while it comes at the expense of more – seemingly permanent – character death, please read how I began this piece. There’s time travel. There’s other dimensions. To quote Luke Skywalker: “No one is ever really gone.”
More than that, however, is how the film treats death and other mature themes. I have butted heads in the past with the MCU’s handling of mature topics like alcoholism and PTSD. My criticisms largely convey that I feel they focus on these topics to add drama and then diminish them to the point of nothing when it’s time to move on in the story, leading to halfhearted resolutions and shallow character moments.
Endgame has this problem as well. While Thanos was treated with an element of tragedy in Infinity War, he is largely just evil in this movie, rendering him narratively uninteresting. We the audience are told that Thanos – who kills due to a past trauma – is completely unrelatable and bad while Hawkeye – who now kills due to a past trauma – is still, at the end of the day, completely redeemable and good. Heck, he’s back to quipping with team in no time after what could be seen as little more than a murderous vacation with a side of cultural appropriation.
Likewise, the complex multi-film character conflicts between Captain America and Iron Man are reintroduced only to be largely ignored for the remainder of the film.
It has been a criticism of these films that they are largely popcorn, too concerned with snarky dialogue and over-the-top action scenes to focus on comprehensive character drama and growth, and I have to say that Endgame firmly cements the films in the former category.
Yes it can still be depressing and moving – heck I teared up in the theater on more than one occasion – but at the end of the day it’s a comic book. There is no consequence that cannot be undone or ignored, save perhaps by an expired contract or an uninterested actor.
Where Can the MCU Go From Here?
With time travel now firmly in the picture and other, alternate dimensions surrounding our new heroes, I am skeptical of the MCU’s staying power. But heck, what do I know – I’ve been skeptical since 2012. Regardless of where Marvel’s cinematic ambitions take them, I have confidence that they will still create fun narratives and quirky characters.
With Endgame now done, I personally am bidding farewell to the MCU for a solid while. I have no plans to see the “official” phase 3 ending in July, nor can I think of any announced future project that immediately causes me to want to rush back to theaters.
Avengers: Endgame – to me – represents the ending of an unprecedented effort in cinematic storytelling. Yes, there were failures but I believe there is more to like than dislike, that is both my review of the film and my concluding thoughts on the MCU as a whole. Even though I walked out of that theater last night a little bummed out, it still doesn’t matter. Marvel has triumphed. Eleven years and 22 movies end as they began – with a lot of fun in a quirky film that had its moments of genius as well as its narrative dissonance.