Where Avengers: Endgame
is concerned, the Russo brothers can’t win. Where Avengers: Endgame
is concerned, the Russo brothers couldn’t lose.
On the one hand, it seems almost impossible to live up to the expectations created by the decade-long Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, in terms of delivering a satisfying resolution that checks 100 different boxes. On the other, audiences are primed for that resolution after having followed many of these characters for the better part of a decade, much akin to the Harry Potter franchise, and the directing brothers have an opportunity to deliver something that literally none of the other Marvel films has been able to offer: an actual, bona fide, as-God-is-my-witness ending.
But first we must return to those characters in the aftermath of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) big Infinity Gauntlet snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War
, which left half of all creation dissolving into ashes. Those who remain—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and more—are dealing with a complex mix of grief and survivor guilt in a world that’s been changed forever. Not all of them are coping with this aftermath in healthy ways—Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) least healthy of all, though on radically different ends of the emotional spectrum—but the Russos and their screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show an impressive willingness to let that first act really sink in, with few action beats to interrupt the character moments. Much has been made of Endgame
’s epic three-hour running time, but it was mostly worth it to provide the kind of narrative patience that hasn’t often been present in MCU features hell-bent on a formula that demands someone punch something every 20 minutes lest the ticket-buyers get restless.
Eventually, the principal plot does kick into high gear, centered as it is on a wild plan by the surviving Avengers to undo Thanos’ destruction. The specifics are best left unspoken, except that, as was the case in Infinity War
, the plan involves the team breaking into sub-groups that allow for entertaining individual interactions. It’s a set-up that plays as a kind of victory lap for the 22-movie cycle, with ample callbacks and satisfying twists on familiar moments. It’s also where the story gets most bogged down, bouncing between multiple theaters of action in a way that makes me want to cry tears of compassion for the editing team. Endgame
demands screen time for dozens of characters, including some that weren’t even part of Infinity War
—like returned-from-the-Quantum Realm Ant-Man
(Paul Rudd) and new hero on the cosmic block Captain Marvel
(Brie Larson)—and that expansive cast is not always handled with grace and subtlety; filmmakers still have some figuring out to do when it comes to when and how to make use of Captain Marvel’s seemingly limitless powers.
There is, of course, also a climactic battle royale, one that allows for plenty of characters to get their showcase scenes inspiring giddy squeals—even if some of those scenes seem particularly pandering—while not dragging on in a way that suggests that the battle is the real climax. Because Endgame
is really about what happens after the dust settles, in a series of epilogues that gives The Return of the King
a run for its money. The thing about those many epilogues, though, is that they’re satisfying—not just an individual level at providing effective ways for some of the old guard to (potentially) let the next MCU generation take over, but at conveying what an improbable accomplishment it is that it’s possible for there to be
a next MCU generation. If Avengers: Endgame
at times feels self-congratulatory at parading its unprecedented success past an audience for 181 minutes, it’s a self-congratulation that’s mostly earned. Marvel features haven’t always been great, yet it’s hard to deny the cumulative impact. The Russos might not be able to completely lose, or completely win. Viewers who have stuck with the franchise for 11 years are the ones who at last can enjoy the sense of closure at knowing the game—at least this
game—has come to an end.