In the aftermath of a colossal defeat that has seen half of the universe’s population erased from existence – including many of their friends and teammates – the surviving members of the Avengers set out to somehow defeat the alien responsible: the villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Any way you slice it, this is the end of an era. Much has been written about Marvel Studios’ unprecedented 22-film narrative, with each film further developing story and character into a shared universe. It has all has come to a height with the two-film climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and this year’s epic three-hour Avengers: Endgame. There honestly is not another film quite like this. There is not a franchise as big. It is simultaneously one of the best and worst commercial phenomenons in cinema history. Best because audiences have never seen an ongoing series of films succeed with such consistent quality. There has not been a single bad Marvel film. Some have been better than others, and a few actively mediocre, but I challenge any claim that there was a single release that could be fairly described as out-and-out awful.
It is also among the worst too, since its success has become so overwhelmingly large that Marvel is now beginning to drown out alternative voices in commercial cinema. On the day I saw Endgame at my local multiplex every session but one was of Marvel’s film. The sole hold-out was a single screening of New Line Cinema’s The Curse of the Weeping Woman. It is a relief that Marvel are making such entertaining films, because some days it feels like we are approaching a world where it is all we’re going to be allowed to watch.
Last year I described Infinity War as ‘a great half-movie’, noting that Disney had rather disengenuouly ended the film on a monster-sized surprise cliff-hanger. This second part resolves that cliffhanger and provides a much-desired conclusion. While one could conceivably watch Endgame on its own without the preceding part, I cannot imagine why one would voluntarily choose to do so. This too, in isolation, represents another ‘great half-movie’, but together they form a messy, uneven, but overwhelmingly satisfying five-and-a-half hour epic. Infinity War ramped up the scale and the stakes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Endgame resolves that story, as well as many of the narrative threads of the previous 21 films, and finally throws in a well-deserved victory lap for good measure. It is absolutely constructed as an object for the hardcore fans, but with the film grossing $1.2 billion worldwide on its opening weekend alone it clearly has an awful lot of fans.
Endgame is an episodic affair, with a surprisingly contained first act leading into a series of parallel narratives as the remaining Avengers work their best to repair the damage done in the previous film. It does feel very slightly over-long, because the story its makers have elected to tell is just too complicated and involved to be wrapped up in a standard two-hour running time. Emotionally it is a mess, in large part because its characters are all an emotional mess. There is great comedy. There is tragedy. I personally teared-up three times: twice in the film’s mid-section, and again for the film’s entire climax. That climax is of the extended, high-stakes style typified by Return of the Jedi (1983), packed with desperate measures, against-all-odds moments, and flourishes guaranteed to generate cheers and applause in the cinema. There are an impressive number of pay-offs to earlier films, and highlights for key characters. Not everyone gets a fair moment in the spotlight, but those that do are excellently served. Characters are mixed and matched in innovative and delightful combinations. One character suffers a rather tedious and ill-advised development for comedic purposes – you will know it when you see it, and to me it seemed a creative misstep.
The film comes with a prolonged denoument, providing conclusions for some heroes and pushing others off into new situations. Some of the creative choices are surprising, but most of them work remarkably well. Certainly all of Marvel’s upcoming live-action series on the streaming service Disney+ now make a lot more sense.
I have not shared any of the story details of Endgame, because the surprises represent much of what makes the film’s best moments work the way they do. I discourage you from seeking out spoilers yourself: this is big-scale, populist entertainment, best experienced on the biggest screen possible and preferably with the largest audience you can find. It works better with a crowd, enjoying each development together. Avengers: Endgame is loud, long, slightly messy and imperfect, but likely more satisfying than any other studio blockbuster for the year. It is a must-see, simply because films this big and this anticipated rarely come along. 21 films, all wrapped up in a 22nd: it is doubtful we will ever see a film this climactic again.