Avengers: Endgame doesn’t start with high drama, a thrilling action sequence, or a special-effects showpiece. It doesn’t even start with a fade-in. The first thing we see is a quiet moment of Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) teaching his daughter how to shoot a bow and arrow. We’re treated to a few unsettlingly calm moments of domestic bliss with Clint’s family before what we all know is going to happen ends up happening. When the Marvel logo sequence begins immediately after, it’s not scored to fanfare or familiar themes, but to Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy“, with Steve Winwood begging “Do anything, take us out of this gloom.”
That’s the note Endgame opens on, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. This is a film as much about inner adventures as it is outer. For all the fighting, blasting, space travel, and super-science, the most difficult opponents our heroes face this time around are loss, grief, and the consequences of their own failures.
The film mostly takes place several years after the events of the Snap in Avengers: Infinity War that instantly dusted half the life in the universe. Most of the remaining Avengers have carried on, trying to maintain their civic duty in the strange new world that’s left over. Eventually someone appears that offers a possibility of undoing the damage Thanos (Josh Brolin) has caused, and the team is gathered together for a mission that is too important to fail.
If that description seems a tad vague, that’s intentional. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have made a concerted effort to encourage fans not to spoil the events of the film, and given what unfolds in the three hours here, that’s a request I’m willing to honor. Particularly sharp Marvel Cinematic Universe fans may have already figured it out; after all, with all the fan theories out there, at least one of them is bound to be mostly correct. But part of the exhilarating energy of the film is seeing not only how events pan out but how the characters respond to them in a new and altered context.
Each of the remaining heroes is a fusion of themselves, of the character we’ve grown accustomed to and of their near-future self. They’re defined not so much by their accomplishments as by what they failed to accomplish, and their response to this is reflected in their established personality. Some handle it better than others, but no two heroes handle it in exactly the same way.
There’s a balance going on with each performance, possibly best exemplified by Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Evans has always been one of the MCU’s most valuable players, and he proves why time and again in Endgame. As expected, Steve is still optimistic and hopeful, even in the wake of universal devastation, but his battle fatigue is starting to show. When he starts dropping curse words to punctuate his sentences, you know the cracks have formed. It’s to Evans’ credit that it feels like a logical evolution and not like a shock tactic or cheap mood signal. After all, you know things are pretty damn serious when Captain America starts swearing.
He’s not the only shining star in the cast, though, because nearly every one of the remaining heroes gets a moment in the spotlight, and a lot of focus is placed on characters we don’t necessarily know as well. Karen Gillian manages to make the relatively monochromatic Nebula one of the most nuanced and multi-dimensional characters this time around, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets a brutal makeover that allows the actor to truly show what he can do. The core Avengers all get their moments as well, especially Robert Downey, Jr.’s conflicted Tony Stark/Iron Man and Marc Ruffalo’s consistently entertaining performance as Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
But do you know who doesn’t come off as well? Josh Brolin’s Thanos. That the Avengers will take another stand against the Mad Titan isn’t a spoiler at all. It’s part of nearly every trailer. What is a bit of a spoiler is how flat and dull Thanos has become between films. In Infinity War, he was a philosophical tyrant, a broad-minded but brutal big-picture villain with quasi-noble intentions in his conquering heart. Here, he’s just another Big Bad, the antagonistic half of a “get the thing and stop the plan” equation. Given how relatively nuanced Thanos was compared to the typical MCU baddie, his downgrade here is a major disappointment. Brolin still does what he can, though, keeping Thanos as intimidating and commanding as ever regardless.
However, that doesn’t in the end turn out to be as bad a thing as it first appears, because Thanos isn’t the REAL threat here. The Avengers’ biggest challenge is coming face-to-face with their own defeat from the previous film. The internal struggle each character goes through is far more interesting than the external one going on with the giant, purple guy from beyond the stars. In fact, the first half of the film is devoted almost entirely to this conflict, giving the film a tense and grounded atmosphere that starts as jarring but ultimately comes off as welcome. We rarely get to see such extended moments of self-reflection from our MCU superheroes, and it’s honestly hypnotic.
Of course, there IS an epic battle during the climax. Again, not a spoiler; it’s MCU-standard. But it seems more refined this time around. It’s less chaotic, more refined, and wickedly cathartic. If it’s as long as Infinity War‘s take on the Battle of Helm’s Deep, it certainly doesn’t seem like it, and it feels less like a giant set piece and more like a natural progression of the plot. Every hero gets a highlight at one point, and it’s a glorious representation of the pinnacle of superhero teamwork. Literally every character involved gets a moment to own their power, unleashing the full force of their abilities in a choreography that must have taken forever to plan.
If Endgame has any real downside, it isn’t its length but its scope. There’s an entire TV season’s worth of story beats crammed into three hours, and it can be dense to get through. Although it’s to the film’s credit that the cast never seems overly large, and that it balances all the plot threads well. Alan Silvestri, doing some of his best-ever scoring work and certainly his best for the franchise, helps by having a theme for every mood and character. Without his music, the film simply wouldn’t flow the way it does. It’s episodic and sometimes even dry on the page, but it’s a dynamic journey with Silvestri’s contribution.
There were several potential and rumored titles for this film before Endgame was revealed, and there’s frankly no better title for it. This is the result of 11 years and 22 films’ worth of storylines. It’s the end of an era in the MCU, the film that literally everything has been leading up to. It’s an emotionally satisfying, heart-grabbing, fandom-shaking work of genre cinema, a reward for loyal viewers and casual fans alike. It’s a testament to the cultural power of the MCU, its heroes, and its players. Where do we go from here? Anywhere.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-