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The Avengers: Endgame (2019)

DIRECTOR: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Don Cheadle, Bradley Cooper (voice)

REVIEW:

This is it. After eleven years and twenty-two movies, the long-awaited “endgame” that came to a head in last year’s The Avengers: Infinity War comes to a conclusion, and with it so too does at least the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which began with 2008’s Iron Man and has since blown up into an interconnected universe more sprawling and ambitious than has ever been mounted before. It’s also no secret—and has not been for quite some time—that the appropriately-titled Endgame is the swan song for at least some of the MCU’s crowded cast of characters, including some of its biggest mainstays, a fact its fans have made their peace with long before setting foot in the theater. The MCU will go on, to be sure (this isn’t even the last MCU installment of the year), but it will not go on for everyone. Like the sign-off of the original cast of Star Trek, it’s the end of an era. Endgame fulfills its mission. The two-part climax of this first phase of the MCU is brought to a (mostly) satisfactory conclusion, but the movie’s real strength is serving as a well-crafted love letter both to the entire MCU up to this point and to the fans who’ve come along on every step of the journey.

Endgame follows an unusual narrative structure. We open in the immediate aftermath of the snap heard round the universe, the grim finale of Infinity War, which saw such popular, seemingly unkillable characters as Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), among various others, wiped out of existence with a snap of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) Infinity Gauntlet-wielding fingers, a fate which also befell half the population of the universe. But we don’t stay there. After a cold open showing how Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is affected by The Snap, and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) showing up to lend a helping hand to a stranded Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), we jump ahead five years, where our heroes—along with civilization—are struggling to move on from The Snap and cope with their own combination of survivor’s guilt and the depth of their failure, some more effectually than others. Tony has moved on as best he can, settled down in peaceful retirement with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), with whom he is raising a young daughter. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) runs a support group. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) still runs missions from the Avengers headquarters with the help of Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and Captain Marvel. Hawkeye and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) aren’t taking things well. The former is a brutal vigilante slaughtering gangsters around the world, while the latter “God of Thunder” has fallen way out of shape and is a down-and-out drunkard. The years have been a little kinder to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has finally managed to merge his Banner and Hulk personas; he spends most of his time looking like The Hulk, but acts like Banner. The team gets brought back together by the reappearance of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who has finally escaped from the quantum realm he was left stranded in in the mid-credits stinger of Ant-Man and the Wasp and proposes a radical idea: using the quantum realm to jump back to different points in time and collect the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get his hands on them. But things are about to get complicated, the danger mounts when Thanos realizes what’s happening, and undoing what’s been done won’t come easy….or free.

It should go without saying that Endgame cannot stand on its own. Considering it’s the conclusion of a two-part climax point, and the culmination of eleven years and twenty-two movies, that’s not a criticism, but more than perhaps any other installment, this is not a movie for the casual viewer or the uninitiated. It’s designed and intended as a love letter to the entire MCU and a farewell (of sorts) for the fans who’ve followed the journey all along, and familiarity with nearly the entire MCU is necessary to fully understanding and appreciating everything here. Callbacks, from repeated passages of dialogue to revisited scenes to surprise returning faces, are heavy, and in fact there are so many callbacks and tie-ins that it has the effect of retroactively making some seemingly disposable side entries like Doctor Strange and Thor: The Dark World more relevant to “the big picture”. There are several surefire crowd-pleasing moments, including a certain character wielding a certain weapon in the climactic battle royale that’s sure to bring down the house. There’s also a line repeated from a previous movie by the same character but in very different context that might send chills down fan’s spines (and good luck ever hearing the original line the same way again). Time travel is nothing new in film, but the usage of the quantum realm is at least a slightly different spin on it, and the whole time-hopping treasure hunt that comprises the second act takes us down memory lane, revisiting such scenes as the Battle of New York from the first Avengers, among various others. As is often the case in time travel scenarios, your present self meeting your past self is a no-no (a rule that gets broken when Captain America has a hand-to-hand fight with….Captain America, and the reformed Nebula gets taken prisoner by her previous villainous self), and there’s also talk about creating multiple alternate realities (this seems partly designed to brush aside from plot holes about how the overall history of the MCU has been affected by the shenanigans here). Along the way, we meet a slew of old faces, including some “dead” characters, and Steve and Tony get to find a little emotional closure with blasts from the past. There are a lot of cameos and surprise appearances in the movie, some of which are easy to guess but others whom I hadn’t expected to see again, but it would be venturing into spoiler territory to say who some of them are. Suffice to say, among the MCU’s huge cast of characters past and present, listing the ones who don’t show up here would be quicker and easier than listing the ones who do. And considering this is the Endgame and culmination of the entire MCU road up to this point, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting movie to contain the final posthumous cameo of Stan Lee. There’s something poetically fitting about this being Lee’s last onscreen appearance.

In addition to wrapping up the journeys and arcs of some of its stars, Endgame also emphasizes the camaraderie among the original Avengers, and each one gets a moment to shine in the final battle, with only Chris Hemsworth, sporting a fat suit, being used a little too much for comic relief. Paul Rudd and Jeremy Renner, who were the biggest faces to be MIA from the otherwise “all hands on deck” Infinity War, have prominent roles here. Captain Marvel is the deus ex machina many feared she would be, but it’s not as bad as it could have been; apart from coming to the rescue early on, and again in the climax, both of which are a little too convenient, she’s kept on the sidelines, and Endgame lets the original heroes have the spotlight, an appropriate approach especially considering it’s the last time we’re spending with some of them. When it comes to the departures, a climactic death is handled gracefully and with appropriate gravitas without being overdramatic about it (in fact, in the manner of the character’s demise, I was reminded of the death of Spock in The Wrath of Khan). The other biggest departure, while not necessarily as 100% definitive (there’s enough wiggle room for a pop-up at some point), is a likewise fitting and affecting send-off. There will be wet eyes in the theater. It also borrows a page from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (the final voyage of the original Enterprise crew) by featuring the signatures of the cast writ large across the screen during the closing credits. When it comes to the goodbyes onhand, Endgame does the characters and their arcs justice.

Endgame by and large succeeds at what it sets out to do—which is a not inconsiderable task—but it’s not perfect. Captain Marvel, when she’s not serving as a deus ex machina on two occasions, is just kind of “there”. There’s some pacing issues; the formidable three hour runtime starts strongly, then drags for a while before kicking into gear with the “time heist” and climaxing in a massive battle royale where the Russos throw everything but the kitchen sink—and two-thirds of all characters in a crowded roster—onto the battlefield. Thanos, who virtually owned the movie in Infinity War, is reduced here; apart from a brief early appearance, he doesn’t figure prominently until the final battle, leaving him lacking the same level of imposing presence he had in the previous film. The multidimensional time traveling raises some questions about the overall continuity of the MCU that aren’t clearly addressed. But none of its flaws stop Endgame from succeeding as both a worthy climax point, and a gracefully-crafted love letter both to the entire MCU and to the devoted fanbase. It lacks the breakneck pace of Infinity War but makes a fuller emotional impact, and serves as a fitting conclusion to both phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a fitting send-off for some of its stars.

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