Movie Review - Avengers: Endgame
By Ben Gruchow
April 30, 2019
Snap your fingers, and move on. These form two (or three or four, depending on how we count) of the pivotal events in Avengers: Endgame; they are appropriate in how their respective philosophies contrast, belonging as they do to a film that at once cries out for and discourages lengthy dissertation or retrospective thought. Lengthy would be the durable constant; at a bit over three hours, this is comfortably the longest entry in the now-22 film run of Marvel Comics’ cinematic universe, and it’d be an unforgivably indulgent amount of time were it not for the careful handling of each entry by franchise producer Kevin Feige. With his influence, ten years’ worth of superhero cinema has produced a series of building teases and cliffhangers and insider references that all promise to come to a climax and resolution here, with such a pervasive attention to tonal consistency that we’re able to accept the divergent thematic trajectories summarized in the first sentence of this review. The readiness with which you’re able to reconcile those two depends on the amount of emotional involvement you’ve given over to this franchise, and how readily you can equate an inside reference with emotional investment, and extract one from the other.
Endgame starts in the immediate aftermath of last spring’s Avengers: Infinity War (a full recap for those newcomers inexplicably starting this franchise with the final film is thankfully unnecessary, because the screenplay summarizes history and circumstances and stakes ahead of each incident). Moving on is what occupies most of the early going, mood-wise: how we try to, how we fail to, and how we must do so in order to be whole again (this last is actually rendered early on by monologue, in what is simultaneously one of the movie’s best scenes and one of its most irritatingly daft). Most of the characters spared by the previous movie’s grim conclusion have not moved on; they remain dysphoric, aimless, stranded in deep space, and otherwise inconvenienced. The other pivotal event, the one that led to all this, is a snap of the fingers: a simple gesture which could have technically taken the form of a shrug, a got-your-nose, or a breakdance. What matters is the effect, not the gesture, and it isn’t too far into Endgame before the shape of this final plot makes itself apparent: undoing the final events of the previous film.
I take that back, because it’s shortchanging our deductive abilities as a society and points the movie toward a goal it’s not really reaching for. We’ve known more or less since the last movie opened that this one would be about undoing those last few minutes of Infinity War; the movie didn’t set itself up to answer whether it’d go that route, but how, and one of the pleasures of Endgame (and one of the things that make it a better movie than the last one) is in watching that clockwork precision of plot events take effect, in more or less the order we expect, playing more or less fairly with its clues and payoffs. And make no mistake, it does deliver payoff. The somber regret of the opening acts eventually give way, as they must in a film of this type, to a colossal war between various heroes and villains and gods and monsters, most of whom are computer-generated. This climactic battle reminded me of the similar sequence in last December’s Aquaman, where the overall setpiece is so overwhelming that the filmmakers must zero in on intimate shots of a few individuals in order to prevent audience numbness from setting in. That film’s battle was more visually bold, but this one is easier to follow: rather than painting in the corners, the climactic moments in Endgame concern themselves with a bombastic variation of keep-away (a distinctly grittier keep-away: this movie is more violent than the Marvel norm).
I hesitate to reveal any more of the plot or even the concept, because the story is complicated in explaining how everyone gets everywhere and does everything, and because there’s not a whole lot left once we figure out the mechanics of the plot events. Once we know the actual endgame, what’s remaining is observation of the characters and dialogue and interplay, and appreciation of the movie’s technical credits: visual effects, art design, set design. On this, the movie delivers: mostly confined to earthbound locations, cinematographer Trent Opaloch and directors Joe and Anthony Russo find atmosphere by relying on tableaux and effective use of empty space more than on pyrotechnics—at least for the first third. We get only scant glimpses of a world that’s still on life support, but the images we do see are haunting in the same way the abandoned New York City was in 2007’s I Am Legend. There’s a tangible pall over this first act, pervasive without being crushing in its disconsolation, and it’s appropriate for the weight of the events here.
Even when the main narrative starts to kick into gear and the tone lightens up a bit, starting with an unlikely reappearance by Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the movie doesn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s telling mostly a final chapter instead of an interstitial one. For one thing, the branching heist plot that the second act segues into is quite a bit more fun to observe than the convoluted treasure hunt from the previous film (and a damn sight better than pretty much anything from Age of Ultron); if I’ve expressed ambiguity about the micromanaged tone and incident of Feige’s vision in past MCU films, this act is an example of that micromanagement living its best life. For another thing, that heist plot’s locations and scenarios are familiar enough for us to disengage from the plot events and observe the character beats and actions, and gives us more time to process that this is indeed the final adventure for most of the participants onscreen. This helps give the final-act theatrics some weight, and the final minutes of Endgame are imbued with enough closure to trigger all the right feelings in audience members and fans who have been diligently following this massive storyline to its conclusion.
My own feeling is mostly relief that the story is over. That the movie ends on a relatively high note owes as much of its implication to the use of the word “relatively” as the use of the word “high”. The movie is leaky on the level of both incident and theme; the story is fun to unpack more due to our innate enjoyment of solving a puzzle than for any ingenuity with which this puzzle was crafted. Characters of seemingly great import end up serving ineffectual purpose; characters unseen for several films show up and get a resolution to an arc all but the most devoted viewers will have likely forgotten about. The way the movie resolves its dual philosophies is vague and incomplete, to the extent that the final events short-circuit the significance of the initial events. And the movie has an escapist immaturity about death that underscores how little any of these films have actually grown or evolved in the last ten years. When a human character survives being engulfed by a massive fireball and falling under a collapsing building with naught but a few smudges and mussed hair, it’s a cheat: the filmmaker’s way of telling us secretly that nothing in this universe is really going to matter all that much, because nothing is really permanent—up to and including billions of people disintegrating to ash. The screenplay doesn’t actually know or care much about the psychology of its characters, exemplified by the shockingly lazy way it frames the critical third-act reintroductions we all know are coming.
All that said: Most of this (maybe all of it) is predestined by the formula of the franchise rather than this film, and the weaknesses I observe in the Marvel formula are not a thing to expect rectification for at the end of a 22-film series. If a thousand-piece puzzle ends up forming a bland picture, you don’t blame the final fifty puzzle pieces; they’re just doing their job. There are those individuals who extract reward from viewing how these pieces fit together, and Avengers: Endgame is an appropriate and honorable final completion of that process. There are better movies to celebrate, and worse ones.
3 out of 5