|Original caricature by Jeff York of the characters from AVENGERS: ENDGAME. (copyright 2019)|
Keeping ahead of the fanboys and pundits online is a ceaseless task. When Marvel Studios decided to split its concluding AVENGERS opus into two parts, it was a Herculean one. Not only would they need to deliver two incredible films after such hype, but they’d need to keep all the spoilers a secret by keeping the gossipers, fanboys, and trolls at bay in the year between chapters. Thankfully, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) head honcho Kevin Feige and crew have not only managed to deliver two thrilling epics back-to-back, but they’ve kept most everything very close to the vest. Not only is AVENGERS: END GAME a fitting conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, but it’s moving, profound, and filled with unexpected twists and genuine hilarity.
The MCU has always ensured that their stories are character-driven. Stan Lee and Bruce Kirby laid down a template that no matter what incredible powers the superheroes they created had, they were even more fascinating as people behind the masks. And vulnerability is the key to ensuring that, providing an ironic counter to their out-of-this-world abilities. That’s why Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) is so stubborn and egotistical. It’s why Captain America is so idealistic, almost to the point where you’d want to jam his shiny, white teeth down his throat. It is why the Guardians of the Galaxy resemble a group therapy session more than a band of planet savers. They’re all relatable people.
In AVENGERS: ENDGAME, the film succeeds mostly because we care about those vulnerable heroes as they try to restore goodness to the universe or some sense of purpose to their lives. It’s not easy, what with the world falling apart with 50% less to occupy and take care of it after the villainous Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the galaxy. How these heroes succeed or don’t succeed is what gives the film its power and most of the surprises. It starts right off the bat with a malnourished Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) lost in space, adrift in a ship with Nebula (Karen Gillan), the only other remaining survivor from their battle on Titan in INFINITY WAR. It’s a very dark beginning, and the film actually stays dark throughout. Sure, the movie balances it out some with overt hilarity and exciting adventure scenes, but make no mistake, this film has a real edge to it, with serious stakes and repercussions.
(NOTE: I will reveal some plot spoilers in the next three paragraphs, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you likely expected them. Still, if you don’t want to know anything, skip ahead.)
Not that it’s much of a surprise, but Stark’s ship is rescued by the most logical superhero to pull off such a stunt – Captain Marvel, the only one who can fly through space all by her lonesome. But from there, the first big shocker in the film is in how quickly the team heads out on their mission to avenge what happened in INFINITY WAR. Most of the online chatter expected such a set-piece to be held more towards the climax of the film, but the bold folks at MCU throw it in after just 30 minutes. From there, many more rugs are pulled, and part of the delight is in how shocking most of them are.
Did anyone expect that the narrative would pick up with a title card announcing “Five years later”? Indeed, that’s what happens, and even more shockingly the world has gone to seed along with the team. There aren’t enough citizens to keep the world in smooth working order, so it’s become a dilapidated mess. Meanwhile, the Avengers struggle to police it. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) keeps going through different hairstyles, likely thinking that the change will do her good, but the effects of Miss Clairol are only a temporary boost. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) tries to keep a positive attitude, but he gets lost in his own past and regrets. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has finally managed to live with his Hulk side and find a daily routine where he’s a blend of his two personas. He’s kind of a big lug, and one of the genuine surprises is how the Hulk is really a complete comic character now.
Meanwhile, the lack of Captain Marvel’s presence in the narrative is another big shock given expectations after her stand-alone movie. (Almost as surprising is her new shorter haircut, a nod to the look of the character in the comic pages.) She’s needed elsewhere in the universe, and it’s unfortunate that the appealing Brie Larson has such little screen time in this chapter.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up, and that time travel will play a crucial part in correcting the universal landscape. However, even with that inevitability, the film manages to zig when it would have probably been wholly acceptable for it to merely zag. I won’t give away much more except to say that Karen Gillan’s Nebula is the key female character this time and that Chris Hemsworth steals the film.
The film manages to blend in serious, moving moments buttressed right up against LOL lines and thrilling set-pieces. Certain characters find out that they can’t go home again, and others realize that they can. It’s a rather profound film in what it has to say about love and loss, showing that having a silver hammer or an infinity stone doesn’t always make a world of difference.
As if all that isn’t entertainment enough, the film continues to traffic in sly little Easter eggs and inside jokes that weave into the mix to dazzle the loyal followers. Specific quotes from the 20-year oeuvre return, as do well-known bits and scenes. Additionally, several characters are welcomed back, from those we expected to return to some we probably didn’t. (Ahem, Robert Redford!) One of the best bits includes a riff on Michael Douglas’ hair and the way he used to always run around in movies and TV shows from the 1970s. Another highlight is a discussion between some of the characters about how time travel works in movies and shows. The argument manages to reference several pop culture references, from BACK TO THE FUTURE to STAR TREK, and the only shame of it is that Gillan’s Nebula character doesn’t mention DOCTOR WHO.
Yes, there is a lot that is inevitable here. The ‘all-hands-on-deck’ set action climax is a given, of course. Equally predictable is the return from the dead of various characters who have sequels already in the pipeline. Additionally, some of the time travel logic doesn’t stand up quite as well as it should, and Doctor Strange’s prophecy from INFINITY WAR is given little more than a passing glance. But with everything that’s done so well, these are mostly just quibbles.
So, where do the Avengers go from here, after this vivid and satisfying saga’s end? Will a new team emerge? (A new Captain America seems apparent in the last few moments.) Perhaps the MCU will take another stab at getting the Fantastic Four right, or maybe straighten out the struggling X-Men franchise. But right now, they deserve their victory lap. The MCU has delivered a helluva decade’s worth of joy and adventure at the cineplex. Bravo!