I guess Joseph Stalin was wrong: the death of millions is not just a statistic! Nobody could have timed the release of AVENGERS: ENDGAME more befittingly. With GAME OF THRONES’ Battle of Winterfell right around the corner, two touchstones of the past decade of film and television are bowing out, handing the reins to new players—and in HBO’s case, WESTWORLD? Yikes. It’s a cultural moment forever engraved as part of 2019 history, and I seriously doubt there’ll be a more important moment for Hollywood this year. Hell, it just might be the decade’s most indelible week for pop culture, a comforting farewell that segues us into the blockbusters of the 2020s, whatever they may look like.
Any way you spin it, AVENGERS: ENDGAME is event cinema of the highest order. I literally caught a 2:45 AM showing of this behemoth. What other film is so grossly in demand that a Los Angeles movie theatre can screen it at a time that allows for the sun to rise while the thing is still playing? As much as I might abhor the lack of directorial panache, or the workmanlike attitude that this whole universe seems to have adopted, the actual dedication it must have taken to pulling off this film is completely unprecedented.
Pictured: something unprecedented
It’s not that AVENGERS: ENDGAME is three hours long. It’s not even that its a star-studded superhero time-travel marathon. It’s that it retroactively gives purpose to the 20 (occasionally memorable, often lackluster, but mostly just entertaining) films that preceded it. It’s an attempt to do right on many series clunkers—most notably the much maligned THOR: THE DARK WORLD—by way of intertextuality. It’s a reverse-engineered patchwork blockbuster that melds the communal aspects of the cinema experience with the binge-watching mania of golden era television.
Seriously, AVENGERS: ENDGAME could not work without all of these preceding films, and for that reason alone, it’s an accomplishment worthy of acknowledgment. Where DC certainly found their place with fast, loose, and wildly inconsistent films, Marvel proved that slow and easy does it when adapting comic books for the silver screen. Are either of these approaches ideal? Not really. We’re still missing all of the interpersonal meat in between these apocalyptic adventures, but outside of a televised soap opera, I think this is the best the studios can do.
Top two haircuts of the film
Among these 20 Marvel entries is GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, perhaps the only outing to actually put a tear in my eye. So to have the Russo brothers compensate this franchise’s absence of dramatic weight with ENDGAME’s “final” hurrah is honestly the very least I could have asked for. Does it ever get as tear-jerking as James Gunn’s unforgettable space funeral? No. But there is just enough closure here for me (a casual viewer who has been somewhat on the fence with these films for the past five-odd years) to embrace this as a potential finale to the superhero genre—even though we all know that’s far from the truth.
Narratively, AVENGERS: ENDGAME is an attempt to give some kind of biblical purpose to this universe, using its cinematic predecessors as stories carved in stone; a place to return to (both literally and in memory). Thus, the much-touted sentiment that superhero films are the mythology of the 21st century actually bears some truth here. Referring to individual heroes’ adventures within this final showdown gives them deeper meaning, an opportunity for the spectacle of a single Marvel entry to carry more purpose than throwaway annual entertainment. It has become a walk through memory lane; a summation of the past 10 years of these characters’ lives and our participatory journey with them.
Thanos hangs up the uniform and becomes a SPY KIDS thumb
It’s fan service as much as it is a meditation on the audience’s intertwined lives with these characters. Captain America can stand in an elevator with Hydra agents masquerading as Shield, and learn from his past endeavors to redirect his present. The Russos force these heroes to wrestle with their actions, their successes, and failures, in order to deal with an unwavering, calm evil. It’s perhaps what also makes Thanos the best Marvel villain to date—a chill, contemplative baddie who never belts in anger, but sits with patience; a Greek chorus for the film’s existential thesis.
All of that is to say that it’s truly amazing how this manages to still feel fresh in spite of being an attempt at retconning the cataclysmic events of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Everything from the shockingly slow burn, to the nifty time heist set pieces, to the fact that this is, in many ways, a Hawkeye/Nebula film just reads as a welcome curveball. It’s fun, there’s no doubt about it, even if the actual filmmaking on display (or the depth of its messaging) leaves a lot to be desired. In spite of the uninspired READY PLAYER ONE-esque finale, the Russos give us just enough time to sit with the trauma of the last film that this doesn’t feel like yet another run in the hamster wheel. As familiar as the territory is, it still feels just a little different.
Or at least as different as action on yet another brown battlefield can be…
However, it’s a bit of a shame that this film jumps the gun in its own internal logic as often as it does. How and why do the Avengers know that snapping the infinity gauntlet a second time would undo the chaos of yore? Was there a set-up as to how Captain America could wield Mjolnir? Look, I’m not claiming to be a Marvel superfan, but I’ve also followed this series closely enough not to be totally clueless. And look, I’m sure some of these story beats were set up in prior films (some friends have already checked me on this), but the fact that no hypothesizing and off-hand mention of these (pretty big) plot points is made within this actual film rings false.
It’s a massive undertaking, one anchored by a half-dozen characters who all share unique reasons for wanting revenge. It’s no surprise that not every dramatic beat would land as well as the film’s occasional high points (Paul Rudd and Jeremy Renner really get with the program, while Chris Hemsworth gives us an awful Jack Sparrow imitation), and with only one character being allowed to technically “kill Thanos,” I imagine this must’ve been quite the toss-up in the writer’s room. Nothing about writing this is easy, so the fact that any of it works is somewhat of a minor miracle.
You think he shaves?
But here’s the rub: The Russos aren’t great filmmakers, and therefore, AVENGERS: ENDGAME can never be more than the cultural touchstone that it is. And in a way, that’s fine. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is elevated craftsmanship. From hokey dialogue to lazy visual directing, the Russos continue to prove my hypothesis that they’ve got an excellent handle on the emotions and the story in a way that a Snyder certainly never would, but the fact that nothing in this film (save for a few impressive static wide shots of approaching enemy spaceships) even remotely resembles a comic book splash page completely guts the film of the aesthetics emblematic of the comic book movie. Hell, it really doesn’t help that they literally incorporate Whedon’s most iconic shot from the first Avengers film, only to cut to a lazy introduction of the same batch of characters in the same location.
This absence of truly visual storytelling is the bane of the MCU. Case in point: Jeremy Renner seeing his family for the first time since Thanos’ snap (perhaps the most emotionally potent scene of the film’s first half), doesn’t conclude with him covered in tears, but instead simply cuts to him exhausted, exclaiming that the time machine “works, it works.” It’s a hangup from television that the Russos (and frankly many other Marvel directors) haven’t been able to kill. Every thought is said, and therefore no close speaks for itself. It’s not good filmmaking, it’s workmanlike storytelling. But there’s certainly a case to be made that when you’re working with a film of such astronomical proportions, this is the best you can do.
And still, I must conclude this tangent with a final acknowledgment of what Kevin Feige and the people at Disney have pulled off. It’s nothing short of astounding that every major actor in the world has skin in the game with this franchise (Bradley Cooper clearly having pulled the luckiest straw, seeing how he reaps the financial benefits of this franchise but still got to act and direct his Oscar darling last year). It’s truly larger-than-life filmmaking, giving some of its most iconic characters a welcome sendoff. Alas, even these characters could theoretically still get yet another film, because nobody is ever really gone from this universe. So with that said, will a Marvel film ever feel as conclusive and heartrending as the final Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter entries did? Probably not, but this is as close as we’ll likely ever get.