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Early in Avengers: Endgame, the screen is filled by Chris Evans’ eyes, as Captain America gazes upon yet another wonder of the universe that skinny Steve Rogers would never have seen had he not taken the injection of Super Soldier Serum. It’s a simultaneous excitement and lament — reflecting the adrenaline rush of heroism encoded into Cap’s DNA but yet another reminder that he’s never known the normalcy of those on whose behalf he regularly risks his life.
The scene twins a moment from before in which the camera lingers on Robert Downey Jr.’s sallow, haggard face and bleary, bloodshot eyes as Tony Stark. He’s stranded 1,000 light years from anything even remotely familiar, most notably the thrill of success after Iron Man failed to stop the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his plot to dissolve half of the universe with a snap of his fingers.
Steve has never known domestic bliss. Tony has, and it continues to save him even when he’s trapped in the vast unknown with no direction home. He doesn’t even know if his beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still alive after Thanos’s snap, let alone capable of receiving the messages he’s recording for her. But Tony assures Pepper that even if he should fade away, “I’m fine, I’m … totally fine.” It’s not bravado. Tony believes it. We do, too. We’re far from “billionaire playboy.”
The indefatigable optimism and the opportunities it affords these ideologically opposed heroes — even as they wrestle with the responsibility over ripping up comforts they’ve found — papers over some of the more hurried segments of Avengers: Endgame. The film is intended both as a conclusion to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first 11 years of storytelling. It’s a herculean effort, nearly every scene across a three-hour running time suffused with surprises that pick up, pay off and play around with known plots, puns and players. Describing it without deflating the discoveries is even more difficult than it was for Infinity War.
Endgame also isn’t as immediately transfixing or tight in its tapestry of tones as Infinity War. The factions into which its surviving heroes split are less surprising, the momentum isn’t quite as persistently crisp, and you will definitely think about how long it’s been since we checked in on some characters. There are so many threads, recurrent and newly introduced, to wrap up that character development is not as skillfully parsed even with half the players off the screen this time around.
And yet even as some parts and pieces unfold with more duty than meaning, the majority of them uphold that flood of emotions behind these widened eyes of its two main heroes — as well as the friends, new and old, beside whom they fight. Collectively, they embody the problems of people fighting to get back what they’ve lost while keeping everything else they have gained. It’s the very conundrum of life itself and something to which not even the mightiest heroes from Earth or elsewhere are invincible.
The tiniest shred of plot details, with nothing you wouldn’t find in the trailer: Last seen trapped in the Quantum Realm, Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up on the doorstep of Avengers HQ. What he tells Captain America and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) instills hope that they can bring back those who disintegrated upon Thanos’s activation of the Infinity Gauntlet — in which Thanos united the Reality, Soul, Mind, Space, Power and Time Stones to enact his division of the universe by two.
One character calls the plan a “billion-to-one cosmic fluke” that will be difficult to replicate. Of course, those who remember Infinity War know the odds are slightly better than that. They’re actually 1 in 14,000,605, as foretold to Tony Stark by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) before Strange turned to dust. Still, the doctor was telling them there’s a chance. Seizing the opportunity to restore clarity from chaos, though, will require reassembling all the heroes — even those hit hardest by their inability to prevent Thanos’s victory, and they’re hardly eager to jump back onboard.
You’ll be surprised to see who has become a bit of a hipster, who has left the grid altogether, who has really let themselves go, who we see at their strongest and weakest, and who has an aerodynamically severe haircut (besides Hawkeye who, like Ant-Man, returns after sitting out Infinity War).
It’s not a spoiler to say there is yet another surprisingly good arc of depth for Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose regret over not decapitating Thanos when he had the chance leads him further toward reconciliation of the role that best suits him — namely that perhaps he’s more rogue than royal. No character has been rehabilitated more radically, or rewardingly, over the course of the MCU thus far, and here’s yet another Avengers film that props him up with both rapier wit and relatable anxieties.
Considering the dour situation in which he and his friends find themselves, Endgame is certainly concerned with surface pleasures of fun and laughter. It’s frequently funny and spry, sacrificing only a bit of that dramatic weight for wit. There are plenty of pips, larks and smirks, including an unexpected, warm Wes Anderson-esque framing (complete with a Kinks needle-drop) and even an unexpected tip of the cap to the slashfic crowd. It’s perhaps too cute with a barrage of references to films it’s either riffing on or rebuffing, composer Alan Silvestri reflecting this in the score through bongos and fluttering flutes.
There’s also more push and pull between narrative incident and invested meaning here, along with appearances from a handful of characters that feel inserted to soothe actors’ egos or satisfy agents’ contracts. Part of that is a function by which co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely must unstick themselves from their finale of Infinity War while trying to give fans as full a boat as possible.
Markus and McFeely have been architects of the main MCU narrative over the last five years, with The Winter Soldier and Civil War on their docket, too. For the most part, they introduce enough complications or course corrections without cluttering the board — including finding a way to resurrect Thanos as a threat and afford Brolin a few more key flourishes. They also occasionally let the flesh-and-blood ensemble find pauses for reflection during their race against time. One particularly notable, if brief, exchange lets James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Thanos’s daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) discover commonality in the damage to their shells based on choices they’ve made for better or for worse.
If Markus and McFeely err anywhere, it’s the inability to figure out what to do with Jeremy Renner besides giving him an unintentionally amusing coif. (And to think the MCU is the best use of an actor who’s been more or less written out of two other big-time franchises.) Hawkeye gets several make-good showcases — including one that feels like directors Joe and Anthony Russo trying their hand at a sort of PG-13 John Wick — but the uncertainty of how to handle Hawkeye unfortunately rubs off here on those sharing the most screen time with him. One major mid-movie moment lands with a bit of a thud because it’s a bit hard to believe that another character in a position to know doesn’t tell Hawkeye or his partners on this part of the mission exactly what they’d be facing. This incident also represents a natural intermission point, but even the Russos seem to know that giving anyone even just a minute to think about would be a poor idea.
If that preceding critique feels like a vague tease about what’s happening, well … the Russos play bits of the movie that way, too — albeit in a playful way. One title card takes … its … time filling the screen in a manner that’s certain to agonize audiences. Still, the Russos are able to roust some fist-pumping poetry through the personnel put front and center for a key development in the final act, as well as a reverential and affecting denouement apt to put a small lump in all but the most cynical throat. (If, as in Infinity War, you think that’s code for “people dying,” there are some memories to which we’re made privy that are monumentally moving.)
“Would you be able to rest?” That’s asked of a specific character during the first act, and Endgame understands a couple things crucial to the crux of that question: It is not rooted exclusively in reversing what Thanos has done and it could be asked of any one of the dozen heroes on display. How these individuals choose to answer it, and at what cost, gets rolled up in a surprisingly poignant reflection on the passage of time and the domino effect of years that we waste to petty grievances. (There’s great power in the choice of one character’s pronoun early on.) Ultimately, Endgame finds itself in a bit of a position between victory lap and valediction — a champagne problem, to be sure, but one for which Marvel ultimately finds a satisfying, thrilling solution.