Avengers: Endgame, while remaining worth a watch, is not Marvel’s best work. It’s not the series’ funniest installment, despite devoting a remarkable fraction of its unnecessary running time to jokes and gags; it’s not the most thought-provoking, with story decisions and contrivances that undermine its “move-on” message on multiple occasions; it’s not even the most intense, with its epic battle scenes, few as they are, coming at the expense of a story that seems to otherwise have little to do or to say. For viewers expecting a somber meditation on grief and loss, or a complex Civil War-esque combination of politics and character drama, this dabbles in but doesn’t commit to any of those things. It’s a collection of admittedly epic cameos, well-made fight scenes, and numerous callbacks to earlier movies, without a lot of its own substance.
The beginning is certainly memorable. A man celebrates his idyllic life with his partner and children only to turn around and find all of them gone. They’ve been snapped, disintegrated in a moment, seemingly never to return. The villainous Thanos succeeded in his scheme to kill half of all living things. After a few more character introductions and reunions, cue … happy, silly music set against company logos. It’s an abrupt mood shift that brings to mind the Beastie Boys scene from the 2009 Star Trek film, and it’s not the only abrupt or unwelcome mood shift the film brings. The next forty minutes consist of more character reunions and a ton of gags, but in tone and structure these primarily feel like a retread of the first third of the first Avengers movie, in a story that really didn’t need a recap.
The gist of the plot is that that Avengers travel back and forth through time (amusingly, using Ant-Man’s equipment) to steal the Infinity Stones from Thanos before he can use them; meanwhile, their antagonist gets wind of this and races not only to stop them but also to exact his vengeance for their getting in the way. For several characters who have managed to restabilize their lives, the idea of physically and metaphorically sacrificing a life of comfort in order to stop a madman creates a conflict partially similar to the DC story “For the Man Who Has Everything” or to The Last Temptation of Christ, but while this would make for a profound arc finale on paper, it comes with several problems: 1) This expectation of familial sacrifice in practice only applies to a few of the many heroes, regardless of how much they talk about it, 2) its consequences aren’t even applied consistently, with some subplots feeling like they receive a happy yet unsatisfying resolution all too conveniently, and 3) without spoiling details, the single most poignant loss in the whole film is painfully mundane. It doesn’t come from a death, its character truly has no recourse but to move on with his life, and his palpable grief and its circumstances aren’t shown to be magically reversible. It’s a deeply mature perspective that feels out of place in a film that toys with the idea of using magic and technology to save the lives of billions.
The performances are well done, with franchise regulars shedding the last of the few acting issues I’d had with previous installments such as Age of Ultron, but there are few standouts other than Chris Evans’ superb Captain America. Tony Stark, however, has truly grown and matured as a person, including questioning the safety of his comrades’ ideas when he knows full well that he’s made his own severe mistakes in the past. Another character has a habit of performing ludicrous accomplishments effortlessly and gets written out of most of the story; one of these deeds undercuts a big portion of the drama that the film’s marketing built up, and it’s one of the most ridiculous things I think this franchise has ever done.
Other than a deeply emotional and creative fight between two allies that’s much more interesting than another “hero goes rogue” plot, the bright side of the whole film is that once the final battle begins, it begins, with an all-star cast list of heroes and monsters that really feels like it does justice to Marvel’s myriad sub-franchises and settings. The catch is that even though the battle stretches on for about ten or fifteen minutes and gives its characters plenty of time to show off their unique abilities, few of those people receive any sort of significant storytelling or character development, other than simply showing up as they are needed. Many of them don’t get more than one or two lines of dialogue, though a few classic slogans and some fun sight gags provide entertaining fan service.
In terms of its production values, the film overall is solid except for some annoying shaky-cam near the opening: conversations are framed well, solemn moments (that aren’t written out when they become inconvenient) are given their proper due including a funeral, and the art direction does a good job of showing the user where to focus on even when the plot splits in several directions at once. Many settings feel completely deserted when logically they should only look “half-deserted,” though granted, that’s no better. There is one odd moment where a questionably placed camera is aimed downward at a character’s exposed cleavage in what is otherwise supposed to be a tense and dangerous scene. The music itself is appropriately stirring, complete with a downbeat song toward the beginning that really feels like it makes an effort to be distinctive and memorable. Several of the most significant story elements happen either without obstacles or completely offscreen, sometimes both, which doesn’t feel justified in a movie that’s being reported as one of the most expensive films ever made (it certainly looks like one even if these numbers prove to be unreliable) and could likely have been made significantly shorter without a substantial loss of content as it is.
Conclusion: A gratifying but thin close to an iconic storyline
What Thanos lacks in depth, he makes up for in chilling charisma and unshakable, intensifying conviction, though he feels more like an ominous threat of a villain in Infinity War than he manages to do in its own sequel. If this is to truly be “one last time” for much of the cast, the main performers bring their best acting abilities even as they don’t have much of a deep or complex script surrounding them.
Avengers: Endgame, for the most part, does a terrific job of delivering an epic payoff that series fans have had over a decade to eagerly wait for, but even as that payoff only occupies a small part of such a lengthy film, the lack of many subplots other than the occasional “I-have-a-family” causes these characters to feel like they exist in a story that’s largely run out of ideas for what to do with them. Nonetheless, the human moments tend to work well, with certain characters’ goofier habits minimized, having been replaced by some unusually strong language that tends to be played for laughs.
I’d recommend seeing Endgame once. I wouldn’t consider it among Marvel’s best, but it’s worth a watch if you’re not expecting another mega-story that’s been crammed full of raw content to dissect.
Film poster is from this source. Property of Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures.
This post was originally written and published for my movie-review blog, Projected Realities.