Spoiler notice: this review expressly doesn’t spoil any specific plot points in Avengers: Endgame whatsoever, but does discuss general themes, ideas, and cast members.
It’s been just over a decade since Marvel Studios launched its flagship franchise of interconnected comics-inspired movies with 2008’s Iron Man. Even now it’s difficult to begin to evaluate how much that franchise has changed the face of filmmaking. After 10 years, 21 films, nearly a dozen television shows, countless tie-in comics and games, and merchandising options and viral videos, and billions upon billions of dollars in earnings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the Holy Grail that every major studio is questing after, usually with little success. The MCU films have set off a mania for interconnected multi-platform franchises and multi-film arcs, not to mention a still-growing tide of superhero stories in every possible medium.
But while Marvel has expressly laid out a number of formulas that its competitors have struggled to imitate — from its highly specific mix of action and fast-paced snippy humor to its frequent, unapologetic visual and narrative nods to the most obsessive fans in its midst — it’s also beginning to break those formulas. Spider-Man: Homecoming followed up on the international hero-on-hero warfare of Captain America: Civil War with a personal little neighborhood story that dialed the MCU stakes way back and reset expectations for the franchise. Thor: Ragnarok placed its story in the hands of Taika Waititi, a comedian with a distinctively deadpan sensibility, and introduced indie-style emotional improv to the superhero world. Avengers: Infinity War let the heroes lose, and lose big — even killing off many of the series’ flagship characters at the end.
But nothing so far has broken the Marvel formula quite like Avengers: Endgame, which follows Infinity War by diving deep into the previous film’s feeling of emotional loss and helplessness, exploring it at length, and then expanding into something that isn’t so much a Marvel story as a series of calculated payoffs for a decade of Marvel stories.
Hero movies have a longstanding bad habit of faking a character’s tragic death for a few seconds of pathos, then immediately taking it back — and Marvel’s parent company, Disney, has a particularly bad track record with this trope, going all the way back to 1937. Avengers: Endgame puts the brakes on that by finally taking its own sweet time in exploring how heroes might deal with grief, loss, survivors’ guilt, and the pervasive feeling of failure. The crowded cast means that no one character gets much time to fully examine their feelings, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make it clear that they’re all thinking about individual people who died in Infinity War, and how to navigate a future without them.
Endgame spends so much time on these thoughts that it winds up turning into an extended superhero take on Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s excellently weird HBO series The Leftovers, about survivors navigating the wake of mass worldwide disappearance. Endgame’s tone is mostly deeply somber — even when the protagonists formulate a plan and start taking steps, they’re grim and angry. The most purely comic-relief characters barely get out a few dark, barbed chuckle lines along the way, and many of the action scenes are brief and abortive. On top of that, the narrative ends up splitting to put a wide selection of characters in different places, chasing goals in ways that don’t always convey urgency.
At times, Endgame feels like Inception, with the mind-bending sense of a dozen equally important things happening all at once, but without the sense of unity or a cohesive, well-modulated buildup. Endgame gives its characters a lot of downtimes to consider the ramifications of their moves or to explore personal sidetracks that drop the momentum off to nothing.
All of which leaves Endgame feeling like an odd mess of a movie. If a film with this exact structure and pacing (and 181-minute run time) was made with original characters, critics would eviscerate it as self-indulgent, sloppy, and incoherent. Viewers would probably meet it with the kind of cult love and mass indifference that greeted similarly ambitious, effects-packed, narratively sprawling projects like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
But these aren’t original characters. Generally, when a superhero glowers and grimaces and can’t express any emotion but fear and anger, it feels frustratingly familiar.
And Endgame’s filmmakers pack their story with payoffs for the longest-term fans, reminding them how well they know these characters’ existing emotional arcs and deep-seated insecurities, and drawing those ideas out at length.
Inevitably, not everyone gets an examination worth having, or a storyline that lives up to the 10-year buildup. Sidekick characters like Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) get plenty of screentime without doing anything new. Primary characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) are key to the action in ways that become actively frustrating as they don’t develop past their familiar baselines. And the most-changed character, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), goes through yet another significant evolution in his Hulk history, without ever contending with what the latest changes mean in this story, or could mean in future stories.
And yet. The shadow of Infinity War is a stark, dark one, and Endgame only has one real job: to move the MCU forward past Infinity War’s climactic horror. It was made for the kind of fans that will collectively gasp in shock at every significant twist (and there are a few huge ones), then cheer in relief at every climactic blow for the future integrity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With that in mind, Endgame doesn’t just play as a wild tangle of interacting plotlines and self-indulgent personal rabbit holes for these characters. It plays like an endless series of payoffs, in some cases for long arcs — like Tony Stark’s standoffish, dismissive relationship with Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whom he starts the film mourning in a passionate, personal way — and in other cases, for the tiniest of passing jokes from other MCU movies. It’s full of catharsis for its characters and its audience, sometimes through immense battles, sometimes through elaborate low-key conversations between characters, and sometimes through tiny, abrupt moments. It feels like an anniversary project, a look back through the old’ MCU scrapbook, and a big collective group hug after Infinity War.
Endgame was never designed to stand on its own as a single well-crafted movie, and it was never designed to follow the MCU formula. (Even if Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has confirmed that Endgame isn’t the final film in this arc — the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home is.) In that sense, it’s certainly a triumph: it’s ambitious, towering, and above all, daring in its difference.
Much like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it will inevitably anger some viewers, who won’t get the specific payoffs they wanted. And it’ll lose some viewers entirely, either through its tangled storylines, or its dedication to dark, sad emotions instead of the triumph that usually comes with superhero stories. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has started a lot of studios down some dark roads, chasing franchise money at the expense of everything else. But at least Feige and his teams can say this: they’ve parlayed their successes into a chance to make movies that no one else could get away with making.