Alright: for the benefit of early readership, I’m going to attempt to keep this review about 98 percent SPOILER-FREE so for those of you who are invested in such things that means I’m sincerely trying to avoid getting into unnecessary detail about surprises, cameos, specific plot twists, whether anyone who died last time comes back somehow, to not give away any big moments, and nothing that hasn’t been dropped into the trailers already.
That said I can’t really do a review without at least a basic description of the plot of Avengers: Endgame. To review the movie I need to explain the basic setup and what the main characters are attempting to accomplish. If you consider even that to be a spoiler and would prefer to just know the review score upfront? Fair enough: I’m giving it an 8 out of 10. If you need some sort of comparable metric for measuring that: The original Avengers would be a 9, Infinity War would be about a 7, Age of Ultron would be 5. All caught up? Okay.
MILD MINOR POSSIBLE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
So here we are at the ending that’s not really an ending to a story that’s not really a story. What we now call the Marvel Cinematic Universe works because it’s structured to feel like it has a grand, overarching narrative but it’s really a set of individual movies and franchises that sometimes reference and bounce off each other. Once every few years they coalesce into a bigger crossover that retroactively pretends as though various events prior were building to something specific. Avengers could have been called Avengers: We Meant To Do That.
Infinity War was different. After several installments of intermittent buildup to the confrontation with Thanos, there needed to be a whole movie just for telling us where he came from, what his goals were, why he wanted to accomplish them and how he planned to do so. They couldn’t tell us in the previous movies because they didn’t actually know yet, because if you try to pre-plan that kind of thing all the way in advance you get might end up making Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League (and nobody wants that again.)
With that film sorted and the mother of all cliffhanger climaxes still fresh in audience’s mind, Endgame begins by cleverly establishing that, no, it will not in fact be as easy as tracking down Thanos, finishing him off and hitting a cosmic reset button. It swiftly moves on with an audacious skip forward in time that’s just long enough for the surviving main characters to have undergone some interesting life, appearance and personality shifts before introducing what is ultimately the film’s main conceit. The heroes discover a limited ability to leap backwards in time to prior events in recent history (i.e. previous Marvel movies) and perform certain tasks which if successful may allow the Avengers to — if not reverse the events of Infinity War — at least rescue the half of universal life Thanos wiped out.
Avengers: Endgame is a fitting send-off and a fine preview of things to come.
As a result, the climax to the biggest serialized blockbuster undertaking ever is largely the action movie equivalent of paging through the family photo albums before going off to college. I admire how upfront they are about the whole thing: Endgame might not be the most meta of the Marvel features, but it’s definitely the most meta about the sentimentality that’s come to underline the Avengers movies in particular. Almost everyone’s story is centered on family, surrogate family, longing therefore, lack thereof, etc. And when it becomes clear that the second act really is going to be a long stretch of various Avengers pairing up and popping back into key moments from the previous films so that fans can laugh, cheer and be wistful about how far they’ve come alongside these heroes it’s hard not to get into the spirit. Assuming you recognize everything, playing the “I remember that! Oooh! Look who it is!” game is great fun..
If there is one thing that sets Endgame apart from the first three Avengers movies and really the whole rest of the MCU, it’s that it is the first one that actually feels more tailored for devoted fans than for a casual general audience. I’d argue even Infinity War can be easily watched as a big wacky superhero epic with a bizarre ending without the context of the other Marvel movies. It feels like the main reason Endgame’s runtime swelled to a full three hours is that one of those total hours consists entirely of — for lack of a better word — fanservice.
Fortunately, for the most part, it’s good fanservice. Catchphrases are said, callbacks are called back to, references are referenced, beloved supporting characters return, old subplots are revisited, loose threads tied up, things long left unsaid are said, new combinations of pairings and quip tradings are tried out, powers are tested against one another. All of its leads up to the big climactic battle. (No, I do not in fact think it is a spoiler to say that an Avengers movie has a battle near the end of it.) About a third of the big showdown is stuff you want to see them do one last time, another third is stuff you always wanted to see them do, and then a surprisingly large final third feels like a series of test runs for the prospective future of the Cinematic Universe itself. New team arrangements, pair-offs and brand new characters getting big, splashy showcase moments clearly designed to generate an entire year of spontaneous social media polling data on who and/or what should get their own movie deal next.
How does it fare as a film rather than as a cultural event, though? As is the case with the very best of the Marvel films — among which Endgame overall earns a place — this is an exceedingly fun action feature that also works as a highly agreeable character piece. Most of the main featured players here have been inhabiting these roles for close to a decade — or over a decade in the case of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man — and it’s thrilling to see them both swing for the fences in classic mode and try on new world-weary, deeply-traumatized takes. True, it doesn’t reach the heights of the Guardians of The Galaxy franchise’s expertly-honed sad-clown sarcastic whimsy or Black Panther’s legitimately transcendent topical gravitas. There is, however, a boldness to the way the film attempts and succeeds in making a fantasy about unwinding the end of the world that’s really about the fact that everyone still has to deal with having lived through it.
On the acting front it’s the original Avengers crew who get the most to work with this time out. The surprise MVP ends up being Karen Gillan as Nebula, who ends up centered more than you’d expected for plot reasons and carries a lot of important, difficult scenes. I’ll be extremely curious to see how certain fans respond to how various people’s stories conclude, as the wind-down includes a few endings more definitive than others. The implications of at least one of those endings seems to actually raise more questions than it answers. (And, yes, there will be a lot of questions about exactly how a whole slew of already-announced upcoming projects are going to work now.)
While in spots a bit shaggy and perhaps not a wholly transformative experience, I can safely say that Avengers: Endgame is at once a satisfying and comfortable yet bizarre and utterly unique entry in what’s turned out to be one of the most unique mass-entertainment properties of its age.
A fitting send-off and fine preview of things to come.