We left the Avengers in a cloud of dust that used to be their friends and fellow heroes, snapped out of existence along with half the living creatures in the universe. We meet them again a few weeks later, attempting to pick up the pieces, to try once more to retrieve the infinity stones from Thanos and reverse his seemingly final victory.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced a few very good films, some very bad ones and a whole lot that fall somewhere in between. Tonally, it’s achieved a remarkable consistency that has become a brand all of its own; a particular mixture of action, comedy and just enough engagement with real world issues and character relationships. This has also made it, over 21 films, a bit samey, and contributed to my feeling that the entire project is more televisual – in concept if not in scale and scope – than it is truly cinematic. It’s fitting, then, that Avengers: Endgame feels like a season finale. It draws together characters from the disparate episodes, provides the showdown to end all showdowns, concludes long running storylines and seeds new developments ready for the seasons ahead. Some of these things directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely hit the bullseye on, while others miss the mark.
At 181 minutes, Endgame is a long sit. On the one hand, given the audience investment built up over the past decade, the MCU has earned the right to stretch its legs a bit, on the other the first hour in particular makes you feel its duration. Before the mission can properly start, the film must draw its now diminished band of warriors back together and this leads to a very bitty series of sequences as we find where each character has ended up. Even after we’ve got the band back together, the missions of the second act are separated into smaller teams. There are some fun touches as the narrative in this section almost collapses in on itself in a way that recalls the very clever second part of a great 80s franchise, but for me, only one of these sections is all that thrilling. In both the first and second acts the Captain America section stands out, taking full advantage of the plot device to deliver one of the film’s best small scale fights.
Chris Evans continues to deliver the goods as Steve Rogers. One absolute clanger of a line aside, he mostly nails his comedy beats, but what he does especially well, along with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, is to sell the emotional stakes.
Emotion is often where Endgame struggles. In one sequence that revisits an impactful moment from Infinity War, with different characters having to make a difficult choice for the greater good, I couldn’t help feeling that the moment was occurring between the wrong people. Again, it is Captain America’s scenes that deal best with the emotion at the heart of the film, with his love for Peggy Carter still felt powerfully in small moments throughout Evans’ performance.
Even more so than Infinity War before it, Endgame breaks somewhat with the usual tone of an MCU film for something darker and weightier, or at least it tries to. The comedy beats – which sound the same whichever character is delivering them – don’t fit as well here as they have in previous films. They add little of value and often end up undercutting emotion or darkness, rather than providing a counterpoint to them. The Thor storyline is the worst offender. Chris Hemsworth may have good comic timing, but that doesn’t make the direction his character takes here any more amusing, nor does it pay off interestingly in the final battle.
All this said, Avengers: Endgame is far from a bad film. While it takes time to cohere, there are good bits of individual work throughout. An underused Brie Larson (who shot this before her own film, explaining some of the inconsistencies with her character) is nevertheless a rousing presence. Jeremy Renner finally has something interesting to do, and Scarlett Johansson gets her most developed role within the MCU to date, turning in a good performance as Natasha finds her place in the new, post Thanos, world. The film serves as a fitting culmination of Tony Stark’s story, and Downey gives one of his best showings in the role. It’s also good to see, finally, the MCU engaging with the idea that sometimes consequences can’t be reversed, these moments being where the emotion of the film does click.
When, in the last hour, we finally get to see what the film has been working towards, it’s hard not to be stirred by it. The action can get chaotic at times, but when the Russo brothers find space within the melee, they always do something with it. Everyone gets their iconic moment, none more so than Captain America; a wide shot of him standing almost alone on the battlefield is perhaps the film’s most beautiful and powerful (with the possible exception of one shot of a massed attack that will make the Youtubers who got so angry about Captain Marvel cry salty tears for years to come). The battle may be pure fan service, but it embraces that, delivering moments fans have been trying to will into being for years, and wraps it all in a well executed and highly entertaining action sequence. It is these moments when Endgame is the best version of itself that it could possibly be. The many, many endings point the way to some promising developments, and it will be interesting to see how July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home deals with the aftermath of these events.
There are many foregone conclusions here, but the process of getting to them has at least a few surprising twists and turns. All told, Avengers: Endgame is likely to be exactly the film you wanted it to be, or expected it to be, or feared it would be. This isn’t a franchise that particularly needs to win new people over, and this wouldn’t be the film to do it. For fans, it will be a wishlist delivery system; for detractors, further confirmation of the death of cinema. For me, it’s neither of those things. It has plenty of thrilling moments, and largely delivers the goods, but never quite knits together into something better than the sum of its occasionally ill-fitting parts.