It's been a long time coming.
And by that, I'm not simply referring to the climactic chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we (presently) know it; this is the end of an era that a comic book fan of yesteryear could scarcely have imagined. Four-color newsprint adventures, stapled thrice in the middle, published monthly: these were the source of pulpy, fantastic adventures the Big Screen couldn't hope to replicate. Even once STAR WARS appeared to shatter all previous conventions in terms of special effects and commercial crossover potential, a nerdy, pimply teen could enter the trippy Marvel cosmos by way of the page only. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and all who followed became like movie stars to those who worshipped at the House of Ideas, and it seemed there would never come a day when actual Movie Stars would be forced, and privileged, to keep pace with their mighty steps.
And here we are, finishing an eleven-year cycle that began with IRON MAN. If that kid -- listening to Kiss in the garage, devouring the "Phoenix Saga," and feeling strangely betrayed by Spidey's accidental killing of Gwen Stacy -- ever could have dreamt of what he might see in just that first installment of the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe, he would have thought he'd entered a bizarre Jim Steranko illustration brought to life. But had he known what was to come, and the sheer scope of an interconnected Marvel epic that would hammer down walls that Geek culture could once only hope to peer overtop of, he'd never be able to return to his own world. How could he? Mythologies are literally unfolding before our eyes. Superheroes are no longer the idols of outcasts, of juveniles. Comic book stores are a place for gathering, not for retreat. The Marvel Age has come to the screen and conquered, as it did on newsstands beginning in 1961. Black and white, dudebros and dorks, guys and girls, parents and kids: join hands. In the multiplex we are united, and there's something for us all. We are the Merry Marvel Marching Society, Mark II.
There. Hope you enjoyed the hyperbole. So, how is AVENGERS: ENDGAME as a movie, rather than simply a pop culture event...?
It's everything you want, and everything you didn't know you wanted. It's a film with heart, pumping relentlessly without pause. It's a tremendous achievement in a genre that, DARK KNIGHT aside, is critically viewed as bland, vanilla entertainment with all the nutrition of brightly-colored breakfast cereal. You will cheer, and you will cry, and it's everything you've been told it will be, and more.
Until the last five minutes.
I'm not going to waste time with a detailed plot synopsis, or list every single actor playing what are now iconic roles. You know all of that; we all saw INFINITY WAR. And was it ever a question of how the major arc would be resolved? Between our shared ability to identify the tropes expected in a film like this, as well as the meta-knowledge that certain key players are hanging up the shield and helmet, it's pretty much a given that it plays out as you expect. So yes, ENDGAME focuses chiefly on those heroes who avoided the deadly snap that reduced half the Earth's population to literal dust (a roster that is notable in being comprised of the core team members established in the first AVENGERS film); and yes, they reunite, kick the hell out of Thanos, and restore world order. Roll credits, and wait for that final scene.
And while it might sound as if I'm boiling the plot down to generic paint-by-the-numbers storytelling, what's truly striking about ENDGAME is the film's palpable sense of dread and melancholy. No sooner have the lights dimmed than we're thrown into a scene in which Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is coaching his daughter on her marksmanship while the rest of his family is preparing a picnic nearby. We know what's coming. Any parent can relate to that horrifying panic when they turn from their child just long enough to lose sight of them, and in this case, Hawkeye loses them all. His anguish sets the table for a three-hour feast of PTSD as experienced by men and women who can fly, or happen to be Norse gods. These characters might have their faces plastered on Underoos at Target, but AVENGERS: ENDGAME couldn't be any less made for the kiddos if it tried. It's a stealth Rapture film with a shiny veneer.
We're reintroduced to the old guard. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an emaciated shell of a man, as hollow as the suit of iron he's left behind; Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is playing the part of Captain America to a mostly empty headquarters. It doesn't take long before Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) arrives to boost morale and help the struggling heroes locate Thanos (Josh Brolin), whom they execute upon learning he's destroyed the Infinity Stones that caused this whole mess. After that, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becomes a bloated, man-boobed drunk, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) eats peanut butter sandwiches while pondering the point of her current existence. And so on and further. Miserable, unhappy superheroes. In fact, after an unexpected five-year time jump, we see that the only Avenger who seems to have benefited from the devastating blow to global morale is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now morphed into Professor Hulk, a comics-accurate fusion of his green and less-green psyche. Everyone else is crying, staring mournfully out of windows...and it works. Somehow, a film series known for its expansive visual set pieces manages to spend more than half its run time on guys and girls in silly costumes sitting around talking about their feelings. If ever a concluding chapter to an epic saga had a pair of balls that could power a Dwarf forge, it's AVENGERS: ENDGAME.
And then those two words are spoken, sending a creeping chill up the spine, filling one with dread for how this all might wrap up. Two words that tend to unravel plotlines, or further muddy the narrative waters. Two words that offer storytellers a backdoor, a deus ex machina, a narrative cheat. Two words you'd only see in comic books. Two words: time travel.
There's a difference between a complex story and a complicated one; the former is great while the latter, not so much. If you've had faith in the Russo Brothers and their directorial prowess up to this point, you have no reason to expect anything less than a deft handling of a cliched and somewhat cheap device. All the same, there it is, the only possible way to resurrect new characters like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whom we already know will be stepping up to replace cast members who won't make it to the post-credits stinger. But can we be blamed for expecting more after a film as near-perfect as INFINITY WAR? Especially after the first hour of ENDGAME, which plays more like a nihilistic character drama than a spandex costume adventure?
Make no mistake, the Russos derive some enjoyment out of the time travel conceit, as our remaining Avengers split up to travel through time and collect the Infinity Stones before Thanos has a chance to wipe out half of all existence. Seeing the current incarnations of these characters revisiting sequences and set pieces from earlier Marvel movies functions as a travelogue, or like flipping through a high school yearbook. But once the Stones are collected, and the status quo restored in time for a rousing climactic battle featuring every MCU superhero onscreen at once, those two dreaded words begin to nag, and remind us that much of the plot device was played for laughs. Time travel and alternate universes are great in comedies; when retconning or undoing the impactful climax of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, it feels somewhat juvenile, and reinforces the notions of base simplicity that have dogged comic books since their creation. Troubling questions arise during the final minutes, such as how we're five years in the future, and while the people who were left behind (haha) have aged in real time, those who have risen from the dead have not. When we see Peter Parker return to his normal life as a high school student, his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) hasn't aged a day...but both Stark and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) have daughters who have. The film offers no explanation, and in fact undercuts the genuinely affecting fates of both Iron Man and Captain America by leaving these issues unresolved. Complex? Cool. Complicated? Fuck off, movie; you're making me think rather than feel.
Knowing what's next up on the Marvel slate serves only to reinforce the confusion. Half the world has magically reappeared after a five-year absence; global trauma and mass hysteria is inevitable. How do we slide smoothly from this into SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, with trailers depicting smiling, happy kids, jaunting about on an international vacation...? Why are they all still the same age? Has the economy crashed? Are airlines even still in service, let alone the tourism industry? Why am I thinking about this stuff? Why can't I just cry at the end of the movie like I'm supposed to...?
AVENGERS: ENDGAME is a hell of a lot of fun. Every character has at least one memorably iconic moment, meaning there's a very long list of memorably iconic moments. There's genuine heart, and a few shocks along the way. Once that time travel plot is introduced, the ground begins to shift a bit; during the last five minutes, it all falls apart the moment you notice there's absolutely nothing holding it together but emotional good-byes to characters we've loved for more than a decade, slathered over the cracks and fooling us into thinking this entire Infinity Wars thing has been resolved. But hey, hang on, isn't that what the post-credits scene is for...?
Be sure to stay through the credits, and you'll get exactly what you've waited for.
erik kristopher myers (aka ekm)