Listen, I’m a cynical man—so much so that oftentimes I find myself more excited by the number crunching that goes along with super hero blockbusters than I am about the films themselves—but there is a moment in Avengers: Endgame that is awesome in the traditional sense of the word; it fills one with a sense of awe.
It is a moment in the doorway of the film’s climax (to its back is a climactic sequence, in its own right), and it succeeds as a fulfilling moment solely because the business mechanisms that comprise Marvel Studios have allowed for the latitude to make such a broadly fan-service gesture a genuine emotional high point.
This is not to say that I am going to get into the details of this moment, or the climax, or the climactic sequence that comes before it. But it is perhaps important to note just what Endgame is, and why that makes writing a purely non-spoiler review a challenge. Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame are a single film. Of course, many fans will know that this was always by design, as Endgame was initially titled Infinity War – Part Two.
But reviewing Avengers: Endgame, in light of it functioning as the second half of a film that was reviewed a year previous, is a strange experience. David Ehrlich’s Letterboxd review of the film sums it up in an interesting way: “INFINITY WAR: unwatchable space trash. one of the worst movies in the MCU. ENDGAME: a genuinely touching (and cleverly self-reflexive) mega-spectacle.”
Ehrlich game Avengers: Infinity War two stars out of five, and he gave Endgame a four out of five. Other critics whose work I personally follow had a similar trend. Brian Tellerico: one and a half stars and three and a half stars, respectively. Josh Larsen: two and a half stars and four stars, respectively. Matt Singer: three stars to four. David Sims: three stars to four.
It’s a small sample size, but it appears that the general critical trend favors Endgame to Infinity War. But some critics who were turned off by Infinity War were turned off because of what the film needed to do to allow for Endgame to be an emotionally satisfying experience.
Infinity War was a mechanical film, by design, and I can appreciate it as such. It is a 149 minute film with so little fat that it is impressive merely as a feat of pacing. Of course, 10 years of film installments allowed for this exciting, breakneck pacing, but that same build time allowed for the sinking, dark night of the soul denouement, without which Endgame would have nothing of note to say.
My point is, to make a long story longer, that Endgame is a very different film to Infinity War, but, in my mind, a no less satisfying one, simply because they are two parts of one Thanos-centric whole.
With that said, my initial reaction to Endgame was, counter-intuitively, to compare it to Infinity War. Where Infinity War is lean and long, Endgame takes a note from one of its characters and shows some flab. To pick up the many pieces left on the ground after Infinity War, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have to let the dust settle and allow the characters to find their way in a universe decimated by Thanos (Josh Brolin), the big purple baddie whose villain plot the Avengers failed to foil.
We see bits of this coping in the trailer. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, is leading a support group—his finest piece of acting in the film, which is surprising only due to how strong his entire performance is. Thanos’ actions have real consequences, and the film takes its time to show us these consequences.
While this is a phenomenally restrained approach—it is an amount of restraint that has never been achieved in a superhero film before, at least not to this scale—it becomes a repetitive ploy for emotional appeals. Endgame has no shortage of emotional beats, in which fans of these films and of these characters will likely find much satisfaction and closure. But the sheer amount of rack focus shots to sad and/or teary-eyed superheros makes a stretch of this film’s runtime feel longer than it should. (Not to mention one comic relief scene in the middle of all of this that is a complete tonal misfire, in my opinion. But more on tone later).
On the broadest narrative scope, these emotional appeals are in service of the grand design, the MCU machine that promised with Infinity War a new direction. In that sense, Endgame is emotionally satisfying. It grounds the universe-sweeping effects of a giant CGI purple guy snapping his fingers in tangible human stakes. Some characters’ motivations drastically shifted post-Thanos. Seeing them grapple with grief, these new motivations, and a new opportunity that has come to light adds layers of interpersonal depth to the Avengers roster that, in a way, make spectacle MCU installments like Captain America: Civil War more satisfying.
These characters show more dimension in this film. Largely, this is in the form of adding a layer of guilt and grief to their previously established personalities. And sometimes this yields superficial results. But certain relationships between characters are given nuanced resolutions.
However, this attention to the emotional development of these characters is hindered in one significant way, and, to put it in context, I have to relive another MCU film. What I saw as a detriment in Thor: Ragnarok was what many considered its greatest asset, and that was comedy. Director Taika Waititi made Thor more fun than what was illustrated in previous Thor installments, but his film was also about the destruction of the title character’s planet. The comedy was effective and a strong selling point, but it was tonally deaf given the film’s plot.
Endgame suffers from Ragnarok syndrome, as well, if not to a lesser extent. The stakes in Endgame could not be higher. The world is in complete turmoil. The Avengers are desperate to do whatever they can to make the world whole again. But the characters crack wise early and often. Of course, this is part and parcel with the Avengers brand; these are lively personalities that play off of each other in many different ways. Comedy often comes of this, and even with the dire circumstances most of this comedy is funny.
But there is a tipping point. The closer the script gets to that tipping point, the harder it is to take the stakes seriously. Because the stakes in this film are easily the most meaningful of the entire Marvel franchise to this point, it becomes hard to appreciate the under-cutting comedy.
To put perhaps too fine a point on it, Kevin Feige, Anthony & Joe Russo, and Markus & McFeely have created the cinematic version of a comic book event arc. In 330 minutes, they have condensed the storylines of dozens of characters into a package of major consequence. Can this come across as mechanical and emotionally manipulative? Yes, it can.
But as a 330 minute saga, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame is something that cinema has not quite seen before. That such a thing can be said of a genre at its saturation point is a noteworthy feat. For all the cynicism and fatigue that I personally face when it comes to the superhero genre, I believe Marvel has made the long ride to Endgame worthwhile.
Avengers: Endgame: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)