This review may contain spoilers. While this review of Avengers: Endgame will not be strictly spoiler-free, I’m trying to be as vague as possible, so bear with me.
A year ago, Marvel Studios released Avengers: Infinity War, a culmination of the previous ten years of films released under the label. It was a mammoth, action-driven spectacle that wowed fans and shocked them when it didn’t end the way they thought it would. Having been aware of that production schedule for Marvel Studios films, it was hard for me to take any events in the movie seriously after the narrative introduced a device that allowed for time travel. In superhero movies in general, characters don’t really stay dead, and at the end of Infinity War, I did not feel the bleak hopelessness of the bad guy winning. I felt like it was only the beginning, and of course, it was.
Avengers: Endgame, however, remembers what’s important. It recalled that the reason the public has responded en masse to these movies in the first place is because of these characters and the way they interact with each other. It’s about taking down the bad guy and saving the world, but it’s not really about that. These actors have been playing off each other for years, and have learned how to get the best work out of each other, and Endgame shows this ensemble at its strongest. The large 70-something character cast is considerably lesser this time around, and we’re focusing on the core six characters we started with. It’s basically Fan Service: The Movie, and it is designed to explain in detail why that’s not a bad thing.
In the aftermath of Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapping his fingers and decimating half of the earth’s population, the world is reeling. The remaining Avengers including Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) attempt a last-ditch effort to reverse the snap and save the future of humanity and bring the fallen Avengers back.
The reason the dark tone of Infinity War didn’t work for me is that I knew it was the first part that would later be completed the following year. Endgame picks up immediately after the tragic events of Infinity War, and everyone feels appropriately defeated. The stakes feel more real than ever now because half of everyone is dead. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) swoops in to attempt to save the day in the opening minutes of the film, but by then, the damage is already done. At this point, we have a time jump, which is the smartest thing the Russo Brothers could have done in this narrative. We see the desperation of this bleak, post-apocalyptic world that has resulted from the snap, and how that’s the exact opposite of what Thanos anticipated. Once a loophole is discovered, the ‘time heist’ plot begins, and it’s a delightful and shocking journey complete with callback after callback to fan favorite scenes in previous movies and warm send-offs for characters that may not return in subsequent films.
There are many factors at play here, and without one, the others fall apart. The individual performances here are some of the best the MCU has ever seen. Particularly the main three – Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth are putting in their best work in the franchise to date. Scarlett Johansson has also evolved as an actor since she started in these films ten years ago, and those films have clearly prepared her for a performance like this. I still don’t really care for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, but I suppose I’ll give credit where it’s due. There are some devastatingly emotional moments between Hawkeye and Black Widow that would not have worked without his performance.
Josh Brolin also continues to add to the layers of why Thanos will be remembered as one of the greatest screen villains. He’s pure evil, but there’s a little more to it than there might be with a different actor. And in the spirit of credit where credit is due, Gwyneth Paltrow has a few moments where she reminds you why she’s an Academy Award-winning actress. She has a few scenes that could be more showy and melodramatic, that she handles with nuance and elegance.
However, this is by no means a perfect film. Except for Captain Marvel’s recent solo film, the MCU has been weird and inconsistent toward its female heroes. Aside from one glorious moment in the last act where all of the MCU heroines come together, the women in this story are short-changed in a truly off-putting way. Brie Larson’s role is somewhat limited as Carol Danvers just sort of goes away for a large chunk of the movie, and Captain Marvel fan favorite Goose the Cat isn’t in the film at all. Also, Black Panther’s Okoye (Danai Gurira), who I also thought would play a more significant role in Endgame, is also barely in the film. It’s explained why these roles are reduced, and the reasoning checks out, but it’s still a bummer to get so little of these two women (and the cat) onscreen. On the flip side, Karen Gillan as Nebula gets more to do than she ever has in this franchise, so that’s worth noting.
Joe and Anthony Russo, who have previously directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War, as well as Infinity War, seem very shrewd and precise about what details this film focuses on. One of my main problems with Infinity War was that we spent almost no time with any character, and once we got to the climactic endpoint, nothing quite felt earned. With a three-hour running time and a tighter focus on the original Avengers, crucial arcs feel more fleshed out, and once we get to the finale that is sure to make grown men cry, the stakes are authentic and heightened. These are episodic movies, and this feels like a big season finale, where you know that contracts are up and everyone you love won’t be back by the time the show picks up next year. As a result, this is a film overstuffed with genuine pathos and character arcs that are wrapped up with some class.
Overall, Endgame is bombastic fan service in the best possible way, and yet it’s emotionally impactful where it counts. As with Infinity War, it’s still a gargantuan spectacle with a tense, self-serious tone, but it knows when and how long to let its guard down so the audience can enjoy more tender moments being played out between beloved characters. It also has an emotional core that was lacking for me in Infinity War. The people here have known each other for so long, and all of the built-up resentments, fractured friendships, and alliances all feel genuine and heartfelt. And that’s a lot to say for a flashy, expensive three-hour-long action epic. While this film carries the longest runtime of any MCU movie, it is paced better than most of them. It never feels like three full hours, because there is so much coming at you from all corners of the frame at any given time. As in Infinity War, we’re still cutting between many different storylines, but this one knows how to let a moment land, and it also remembers the most crucial detail of all. The characters are what make these movies unique. Avengers: Endgame is an affectionate and fitting send-off to one of the most beloved film sagas of our time.