It’s been a week today since Avengers: Endgame opened, to (to no one’s surprise) epic box office numbers in the GNP-of-a-small-nation class. If you are an MCU fan, I can safely assume you have either already seen it or are sitting alone under noise canceling headphones in a dark room with no internet connection for fear of spoilers. If you are a movie buff but not a fan, you are standing by to critique, and I wish you luck because a more fan-centered flick would be hard to find. Is there even any movie there for someone who hasn’t seen (and enjoyed) at least a few of the twenty-some earlier films in the Universe?
Regardless, we will stick to standing blog policy and put the bulk of the review behind a cut and put up the “spoilers ahead” barricade. If nothing else, this is going to be a long one, though not as long as the movie. Three hours, folks, and more like three and a half if you like to be seated for the trailers. Plan ahead.
But first, some a words of warning. If you are going to a later showing, don’t stand by the doors of the theater while the credits play out. The music that plays during the last section of the final credits is a spoiler in itself. Go get popcorn or something and come back after the lights come up.
Oh, and bring a handkerchief. I mean it.
Endgame is the second half of a two part story that began last year with Avengers: Infinity War. In my review of the first installment (capsule: I thought it was way too “epic” and I didn’t like it very much at all) I expressed hope that the Infinity War story would satisfy the MCU’s creators’ taste for the cosmic scale and let them get back to telling stories about the characters. I was pleasantly surprised to see signs of that happening within Endgame itself. Great swathes of that three hour running time was spent on character stuff and a relatively small-scale time travel quest plot. That plot was mildly nonsensical, as all time travel plots must be, but it was quite tight and offered an assortment of small scale, small group adventures for beloved characters to shine in. There were expected and unexpected fights, encounters with people from characters’ pasts (and futures), acts of reconciliation and acts of redemption. These interlocking subplots managed to be exciting, even sometimes thrilling, and well balanced with character development, worldbuilding revelations, and even some touching moments.
It was only in the last hour or so that Endgame fell into the “epic” trap and reverted to being a giant fight between dozens of characters in semi darkness. (As always, the semi official MCU Bathroom Break is in the Big Fight. Get up as soon as the Avengers Assemble, watch from a polite position in the aisle until Tony has a Moment with Peter, and then run. If you are super quick, you won’t miss anything essential.) If you like Big Fights or just choose to watch the whole thing, you won’t be disappointed/entirely sorry. For an epic battle, it is pretty good, with some twists and turns. And maybe watching the whole thing makes the last moments even more heart wrenching. Maybe? It’s also possible that this scene reaches the maximum heart wrenching level possible in an MCU context, all the more so because it ties up an ongoing plot thread so beautifully.
Because we’ve known Tony Stark’s Last Words* by heart since the very first movie, and even if you managed to arrive at that point in Endgame unspoiled you will say them right along with him. Oh, so corny, oh, so grossly sentimental, oh, so Hollywood-perfect. (Oh, so sniffling at your desk as you write the review.) * Tony’s Last Words get an asterisk because after he says them he gets both a protracted death scene and a video last message. Add in the not-quite-needed death speech in the first moments of the film, and Tony gets four sets of last words, and it’s perfectly in character. Tony Stark never shut up, and now that he’s gone we’ll sort of miss that.
So yeah, Tony dies, just as everyone expected him to. And, again, just as expected, he gives his life willingly to save the world and everything he loves, thereby completing the arc that began with a wealthy, selfish playboy taking the first steps toward becoming a hero. And with the major unexpected structural element of Endgame, the sacrifice becomes even more profound.
I was not expecting Endgame to begin (after a few catch-ups and preliminaries) with another classic Hollywood device, the “five years later” card. This has a lot of ramifications that make Endgame a much better movie. In Tony’s case, this means that the life he is giving up is not the empty life of a rich playboy, the suffering life of a drunk or a dying man or a scientist who has unleashed Things Man was Not Meant to Know, or the battered life of an aging superhero who has seen too much loss and betrayal. (Robert Downey Junior has chewed the scenery on all of these in many years of playing Tony in the MCU.) Five years later find Tony drying dishes, telling bedtime stories, and doing small scale engineering in the golden light of a late harvest, and to give that up is true comic book heroism.
Excuse me for a moment. Sniffle.
Moving the timeline forward five years was really a brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers. Practically, it allows the ages of the characters to catch up with the ages of the actors. The MCU has suffered for a long time from the classic problem of an extended film series: the long lead times between installments mean the actors will age faster than the characters, which sometimes results in an unpleasant dissonance. Adding five years, combined with the psychologically devastating effects of Thanos’ “snap” in Infinity War, means the characters at last can show the marks of well deserved aging. Even the supersoldiers are looking a bit worn.
But even better, the five year gap has let some of the Avengers actually change and develop, offering opportunities for fresh interactions, new insights, and a general shuffling of the board. Some characters are more settled, some are much less so. For a “last chapter”, Endgame offers a surprising amount of new material that bodes will for the MCU’s future. (More on this in the Notes below.)
After five years, Hawkeye has reinvented himself as a true avenger with a small a, hunting bad guys with a sword alongside his bow, and Thor is slacking off in New Asgard. This is sad, but played for laughs in true Asgardian style (laughing at people in trouble being one of the great Asgardian flaws) and Thor’s rediscovery of himself, as a person as much as a hero, makes a satisfying small arc within the larger film.
But most of all the five year gap allowed for a joyous revitalization of my second favorite character in the cast, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. Five years, and some brilliant application of CGI, have given us a wonder mash-up of Hulk and Bruce, a Professor Hulk played with zest as a giant scientist with hornrims and chest hair and bare feet in uniform. Ruffalo is having so much fun with this new version of the character, and I am eager to see more of him.
So we return, at last, to the musical spoiler I mentioned way up above the cut. As the last section of the final credits rolls, the sound track changes from “superhero music” to a big band dance number from the 40s. Hearing this before I saw the movie made me think about Captain America and the dance he missed with his True Love, Peggy Carter. And I began to wonder if among all the possible endings for Endgame there was one for Cap where he got his dance somehow.
And he does. And it’s corny Hollywood-satisfying in the most tear-jerking way, a long delayed coda, perfectly matched in tone to the great 40s period piece that was Captain America: The First Avenger. To make it even better, he doesn’t just get the dance, he gets the life– the life with Peggy in the little house with a picket fence, which is what the story leads you to believe is what he always wanted. (I personally that the pair also managed to found their timeline’s version of SHIELD, a better SHIELD, in their spare time, but that’s another story.) In a way, it was fun to have guessed the dance ending ahead of time, since I could watch the hooks for the twist being set.
But Endgame doesn’t end there, with Steve and Peggy dancing to a radio in their own living room. As the credits fade, and the screen goes dark for the last time on the first cycle of the MCU, we hear the strikes of Tony Stark’s forge hammer. This arc is Tony’s story, and Tony gets the last word.
- I firmly believe that many of the people who are dead after the finale of Endgame are dead for good, but Black Widow is not one of them. Somebody is going to bring her back (in time for her own solo movie?). My money is on Bucky and Sam, with help from Professor Hulk. Bucky in particular will not forget everything that Natasha did for him in Winter Soldier.
- Speaking of Bucky and Sam, count me in with the people who think Bucky made the right decision stepping back to let Sam take the shield and become the prospective new Captain America. My guess is Buck is both too damaged from his years as the Winter Soldier and too intrigued by the new possibilities he was seeing in Wakanda to want to take on the role, which is both squeaky clean and essentially limiting. Sam, humble and pure of heart, is a much better match. Rhodey and Bucky will help him, and he will be a credit to the wings. If it bothers you that he isn’t a supersoldier, just add the word “yet”. There’s a plot for his next film.
- I am really, really, looking forward to the next Guardians of the Galaxy, with bonus Thor.