22 movies in, a melancholic victory lap for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Avengers: Endgame has a melancholic heart. That much is true from the very first scene: an idyllic fantasy turned tragedy which focuses on characters who were relegated to the sidelines in Infinity War. Following this tragedy, the Marvel logo appears, but unlike Captain Marvel’s excellent, heartfelt tribute to Stan Lee, this time it appears mournful, empty, hollow. In this we see Endgame’s first incredible success: it refuses to shy away from tragedy. In fact, for the nearly three hour running time, there’s rarely a moment where we’re truly allowed to forget the end of Infinity War, and what’s been lost for this fictional world Marvel spent all this time creating.
At the very center of this film, we have the Avengers, initially shown attempting to shovel up the remnants of Thanos’ snap. The world has been completely devastated, not only physically, but emotionally, and even after a brief time skip, the world appears post-apocalyptic. Meanwhile, here and on other planets, the Avengers try their best to keep the peace, communicating infrequently, busy trying to keep what’s left of the universe together. And while most of the team appears resolute, not all our heroes have that emotional strength. In small scenes, early in the film, we see characters go to grief counseling or retreat into alcoholism. One character has become an angry shadow of his former self, and one has even seen his life improve dramatically since the snap, a glimmer of hope in this unforgiving new reality.
Of course, this is a superhero movie, and a Disney-Marvel one at that. So the film does have its sense of glee about it as well. Despite one character’s reduction to a sniveling alcoholic, his appearance and newfound demeanor become a constant source of humor for the film. Even the grief counseling scene contains pointed comments meant to incite laughter. I’m not trying to say the movies not funny. On the contrary. It’s often uproarious. But as with much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sometimes the humor feels like an effort to suppress any real emotion. One remembers the original Thor’s hackneyed earnestness. Such a thing would be seen as an enemy in this film, something to be snuffed out with a joke.
It’s amazing that in this movie, despite Thanos’ omnipresence and role as protagonist in Infinity War, the fight against him often takes a backseat. Rather than focus on the conflict between hero and villain, much of this movie is an exploration of the previous films, with surprising cameos, call-backs, and a celebratory fight scene that shows how far we’ve come. It’s in these moments that we can see that despite the steadfast nature of some of these heroes, really every single one of them have grown since their debuts, with the actors delivering strong lived-in performances.
And in the end, that’s always why people go and see these movies. It’s something that Joss Whedon knew when he wrote and directed the first two Avengers movies, and it’s something James Gunn’s mastered in his Guardians of the Galaxy films. These characters are most fun to watch not in the action scenes, but when they’re bantering or arguing with each other. Over time, their individual voices have gotten diluted with the introduction of more comedic tones into the films, but through the heavy lifting done in their solo adventures, the characters are developed enough so that a good screenwriter can just let them do the work.
And that’s just what screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus did. In a screenplay that provides a plethora of comedy, drama, and fan-service, we see these characters at their rawest, as well as their funniest. In moments away from their peers, we see how each of them deals with failure, with a few characters providing some well-earned tearjerkers. Only in the last act of the movie, does the film turns into a climactic battle, taking its victory lap. In the cacophony, every character gets their spotlight, and the audience is free to relax and revel in the journey we’ve taken.
During the final fight, it’s easy to relax and watch the Russos’ shortcomings fall away. They have never been the most interesting or entertaining directors, often shooting things flatly, as they would when the worked on television, but during this final scene, they allow pure bombast, creating intense fly-by shots reminiscent of Whedon’s from the first Avengers. And though the movie does end on a softer note, it’s here, with explosions in the background and our heroes working together, that Kevin Feige, the producer of these 22 movies, gets his parade.