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Avengers: Endgame (2019)
~Review by Grawlix (May 2019)
I’m gonna try to keep this as spoiler free as I can.
Hard to believe it’s already been a year since Infinity War, but here we are, back for the thrilling conclusion. I remember gushing over Infinity War’s massive scope, which set a new standard for superhero spectacle and probably deserves to be in the conversation with classic cinematic epics like Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and Gettysburg by virtue of its ambition alone. Well, now directors, Joe and Anthony Russo are charged with the Herculean task of delivering a suitable conclusion to this third phase of the Marvel cinematic universe as well as one worthy of the 21 previous films that brought us to this point. No pressure, right? Clocking in at a full three hours, and with what I can only assume was a blank check for a budget, Endgame mostly succeeds. But there are a few cracks that finally show, suggesting that the MCU has grown ever so slightly beyond control.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by confirming that the events of Infinity War left the MCU in a precarious state. With archvillain Thanos triumphant, fifty percent of all life in the universe has ceased to exist. This includes roughly half of the main cast of Infinity War, though Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, whose absence from Infinity War must have triggered enough fan outrage to reach the screenwriters) remain among the survivors. This culling of the roster allows a welcome focus on more personal-scale characterization as our various heros attempt to cope with the new circumstances as best they can, some more productively than others. What’s impressive is that the Russo’s aren’t afraid to take their time with this part of the story (the rather bold opening reel, notwithstanding), allowing us to breathe in this new normal, and even taking care to pare down the normal ambience, which really reinforces the desolation of this new world. I do wonder if a city as populous as New York would be reduced to quite such a level of barrenness – some establishing shots look like they were lifted from I Am Legend – but I suppose if half of everyone’s social circle suddenly vanished there would be times when the entire world felt like a massive, perpetual wake. But still, some have moved on, so when an opportunity is presented to set things back to the way they were, there is some surprising contemplation given to what, in the new reality, might have to be left behind.
I don’t think I’m spoiling much by confirming that time travel factors heavily into the heroes’ plan. The movie goes to some length (quite unnecessarily, in my opinion) to attempt to explain why this particular brand of time travel is different from that of other movies (seriously, it namechecks like four or five other movies with time travel plots) although as a practical matter it’s really all the same in the end. What is cool is that this plot device allows for something of a victory tour around the MCU. We revisit scenes from prior movies from different angles and points of view, often to brilliant effect. There are a few surprising and welcome cameos (possibly done through archival footage. Sometimes it was hard to tell) allowing for one final shot at tying up some loose ends that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be done in prior movies.
There’s a lot of great character moments that punctuate these scenes as well, keeping them from being a simple game of hunt-the-plot-coupon. As in Infinity War, it’s probably Downey’s Tony Stark that has the most complete arc, which is fitting enough since he was there in the very beginning with 2008’s Iron Man. But Evans and Chris Hemsworth, as Captain America and Thor respectively, come in close behind with surprisingly powerful scenes that fit seamlessly into the larger narrative and stay true to their characters motivations. That said, however, there were times when it seemed that the movie got a bit greedy with its grasps for pathos. One would be forgiven for thinking that the actors were actively competing to see who could deliver the most convincing onscreen cry, and there are only so many times we can see a mid-closeup face shot of a single tear rolling down before it loses some of its impact.
When it comes to the grand finale, well, it’s pretty much all you would expect given the build up and the fact that the Russos have already been responsible for some of the most elaborate grand melees in the Marvel catalog. They’ve clearly mastered the art of orchestrating absurdly intricate action sequences in such a way that keeps things mostly coherent while still getting fists pumping and blood pressure elevated. The effects, the music, the sheer magnificence of it all is as grand as modern cinema can possibly make it. There are gasp inducing moments that come years in the making which will dazzle the casual fans and raise die-hards to a state of absolute nirvana.
Still, amid all the sound and fury I couldn’t help but notice some… well, ‘omissions’ isn’t the right word. Maybe some glossing and sliding, that I wish wasn’t there. Superhero movies have always flirted with deus ex machina resolutions and Endgame gets a little too close for comfort a few times as damn near everyone from the history of the MCU who could even remotely be considered credible in combat shows up for the final battle. Likewise, while Infinity War managed to make an impressive percentage of its cast of near-thousands seem meaningful to the plot, in Endgame there are ostensibly-major characters who are lucky to get one or two spoken lines before fading into the whirling maelstrom of the climactic chaos. Even Captain Marvel, who made her much ballyhooed grand entrance into the MCU less than two months ago functions as more of a plot device than an actual character. I fully realize that it’s simply not possible to fit in everybody doing everything, but that in itself makes Endgame feel, in some small ways at least, like a victim of its own immensity. If your favorite character is not among the chosen few spotlit across the main story, then you might find their overall participation in the festivities disappointingly limited.
In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. It’s not like the reality altering powers of the Infinity Gauntlet come out of nowhere, for one thing, and Endgame is a massive movie that needs to do massive things simply to keep pace with its buildup. Likewise, while it is a bit unsatisfying that more character arcs couldn’t be wrapped up (one can only assume that future Marvel movies will fill in some of the blanks), the movie definitely focused on the right ones and the highs it hits easily equal, if not exceed, the greatest moments in the whole of superhero cinema. More than once, the theater in which my screening took place broke out in spontaneous applause, and I think I even heard some sobs during the more emotional beats. If anything, I only wish Endgame could’ve been longer to fit in even more content. And if that’s how I felt after an already three-hour movie, well, what does that tell you?
Final Grade: A
It’s close, but on balance, I’d say that Infinity War was the better movie of the two. But hey, Empire was better than Jedi, and Jedi was still pretty damn good. With that said, Endgame is still a fine day at the pictures. The action is eye-popping, and the writing and character work make every iconic moment feel earned and earnest. A truly worthy climax to the current stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There are NO post credits scenes. I guess just this once there’s really no need for one. There is an evocative, nostalgic soundbite at the very end of the credits, though, if you’re so inclined.
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