Avengers: Endgame | Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 3h 1m
This review is free of spoilers… we think.
When Bucky Barnes (spoiler!) turned to dust, I couldn’t quite believe Marvel had been so bold. It was generally understood that Chris Evans was coming to the end of his time as Captain America and that, if the MCU went anything like the comics, Bucky would probably pick up the shield in his place. But he’d just died! That was genuinely unexpected. I guessed Marvel movies could still be surprising.
Then we cut to a field of Wakandan warriors, fresh from the battle with Thanos’s armies and half of them are turning to dust too! My god, they’re actually doing this. Suddenly there are stakes – real consequences for the failures of our heroes. Finally!
And then Black Panther turned to dust and so did my quiet admiration. BLACK PANTHER was the most recent film released prior to INFINITY WAR, and it had grossed $1.35 billion globally, and had become the highest grossing film of 2018 at the US domestic box office. And here was its lead, dying in his next film.
None of this mattered. It would be undone within the year.
Such is my problem with INFINITY WAR: as someone who is invested in these films, I do enjoy it. Simultaneously, however, as someone who enjoys these films, I understand that its implications can only reach so far, because the endless deluge of sequels and cross-overs demands that nothing truly world-changing ever happens, and that no-one’s ever really dead. I could believe a character like Bucky might die, having never lead an MCU film before and ultimately being replaceable, but there is no world in which T’Challa gets one film to himself and then disappears forever.
I have no such problems with ENDGAME, the Avengers film that aims to wrap up the past 11 years of storytelling in modern cinema’s grandest and most revolutionary experiment. Every moment of the preceding 21 movies has led up to what seems to be the biggest box-office behemoth in history, and that’s not something that directors Joe and Anthony Russo, or writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have forgotten. It’s a worthy follow-up to INFINITY WAR – it takes that films slightly unsatisfying ending and resolves it in just about the most satisfying way possible.
ENDGAME surprises principally in how much time it spends looking back, rather than forward. This is not a movie much interested in establishing what’s to come next. Instead, various plot contrivances see the heroes that survived the snap revisiting past glories.
To go into specifics would verge on spoiler territory, something that I’m keen to avoid, as the film is best experienced as blind as possible. It is surprising at every turn, and its – dare I say it? – genuinely bold storytelling is not something we’re really accustomed to seeing in these major studio movies. At the screening I attended (midnight on opening day, as God intended the movie to be seen), every revelation elicited gasps and whoops and cheers. Normally, this would make my skin crawl, but this time it was difficult to resist joining in.
It’s not just the surprises that are worth the price of admission, however. While it’s the curse of those who are vaguely familiar with the source material to be roughly aware of how certain stories and arcs will play out, even having an idea of what comes next doesn’t detract from the pleasure of seeing things work out that way on screen.
It won’t come as any surprise that there’s quite a bit of CGI-punching-to-save-the-world in ENDGAME. And though there’s nothing particularly unique or interesting about the specifics of how all of that happens, the sheer scale of it is exhilarating and sets the heart racing. ENDGAME benefits from visual effects which are substantially improved from INFINITY WAR. Though never distracting enough to ruin the experience, BLACK PANTHER, INFINITY WAR, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, and CAPTAIN MARVEL each bothered me after a while, as what was happening on screen became less and less believable (and thus engaging). That’s less of a problem in this case.
It’s complemented by an unusually rich colour palette from the Russo brothers, who made their mark on the MCU by introducing a slightly washed-out frame, full of dim greys and browns and beige, when they directed THE WINTER SOLDIER. (Such dull colour schemes then became a staple of Marvel movies for many instalments to come). It looks like a comic book that’s come to life. Effective cinematography from franchise veteran Trent Opaloch rounds off the film’s look.
Alan Silvestri has produced the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s finest score to date, deftly interweaving themes from films he’s scored before, and those he hasn’t. Steve Rogers’ theme, written by Silvestri for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER makes a welcome return. Christophe Beck’s theme from ANT-MAN is in there too, as is Pinar Toprak’s CAPTAIN MARVEL theme. Some of Michael Giacchino’s work also rears its head.
Front and centre is that wonderful Avengers theme, the only piece of music in this universe that seems to have permeated the public consciousness. Also making a welcome return is the theme for Thanos, first heard in INFINITY WAR. In it, Silvestri conjures up more dread in just two notes than most scores manage across their runtime. Marvel films have often been criticised in the past (including by me) for having unremarkable, clichéd, disposable musical accompaniments, and as such it’s wonderful to see our heroes finally getting their own reliable musical motifs. It’s just as enjoyable to hear these interact with one another as it is to watch the characters work together on screen.
The most important of ENDGAME’s successes is its character work. Whereas INFINITY WAR had virtually no character arcs at all, ENDGAME examines how each of the core team copes with their failures. Bruce Banner decides to deal with it in an unexpected but welcome manner, Black Widow and Hawkeye are being crushed under the weight of their survivor’s guilt in different ways, and Captain America and Iron Man clash in their approaches to the future after surviving the snap. The Avengers films have always been at their best when focussing on these stark differences in personalities and philosophies, and it’s a wise choice to keep these at the front and centre as the movie progresses.
It’s not all good though: without saying too much about the specifics, Thor deals with his grief in rather a different way, and after having become a more complex and tragic character in his last couple of appearances, it’s disappointing to see him reduced to nothing more than a comic afterthought. It’s even more disappointing that the joke is so laboured and unfunny after a couple of minutes. It’s a misstep, sure, but it’s not enough to sully the enjoyment of the surrounding material.
Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but the mechanics of the plot of ENDGAME are complicated, and I am pretty certain that if you sat down and thought about them for more than five minutes the entire thing would fall apart and make no sense. But having said that, it’s a testament to the film that none of this really seems to matter. In essence, ENDGAME is a protracted third act, one in which the action never stops. The problems I’ve mentioned are minor, and as the movie started to draw to a close, and (no spoilers) the past 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to a head, these quibbles looked especially trivial. It was far more fun to sit back and revel in it all. It’s somewhat messy, and it is totally bonkers, but it is more fun than just about anything I’ve ever seen. I am ready for 11 more years of Marvel films.