Whatever the consensus on Avengers: Endgame, the very existence of the film, at the end of an unprecedented 22-entry arc is testament to an historic experiment. For all the snobbery occasionally thrown in the direction of the franchise, the attempts of other studios to copy this with their own shared universes simply hasn’t worked: at Warner’s the DC Universe fell apart after a handful of underwhelming instalments – with the studio now reverting to a looser continuity; at Universal the Dark Universe didn’t make it past its first entry, The Mummy; there were even suggestions at Sony of bringing Men in Black and 21 Jump Street together – an idea that came to nothing. It must be noted at the outset that what was seen by competitors as a new template for tentpole filmmaking, has proven, in the event, to be a prototype that no one has yet been able to replicate. There are a number of reasons for this but, in short, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced consistent quality, backed-up with heart, likeable characters, and an unfolding narrative that has drawn in audiences worldwide.
Avengers: Endgame takes up from the events of Avengers: Infinity War, with half of all life having been extinguished. The first scene of the film sees Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) with his family as the catastrophic snap takes place, and he loses everyone. From there, we pick up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) adrift in space, with Nebula (Karen Gillan). At this point it becomes difficult to discuss a film that is best experienced with as few spoilers as possible; as relatively little of what occurs matches any specific predictions. Suffice to say there is an early attempt to counteract the snap, followed by a jump forward along the timeline as the remaining Avengers work to recover their fallen comrades and the universe’s losses.
In pure character terms, Endgame is wisely working on a more stripped back canvas than the third Avengers film. Infinity War handled its massive cast extremely well, with scenes flowing well, and most key players getting their moments. It did mean, though, that audiences could never settle in one place for very long, and actual character beats (such as Tony’s upcoming nuptials) had to be dealt with very efficiently indeed. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo managed it, but spinning that many plates for that long does risk disaster. In many ways Infinity War and Endgame have the inverse relationship to the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That duology began small, with a focus on character, and exploded into life for its finale. Here, so much of the heavy lifting was done last time, that a smaller (though hardly small) cast is welcome.
Any thoughts that this has led to a smaller film, though, can be brushed aside. Endgame has a packed, relatively convoluted plot, of the type that is reasonably difficult to summarise in a couple of small paragraphs in any case. This is a film of remarkable ambition; that looks forward, while celebrating an exceptional 11-year run of filmmaking. It looks forward by allowing characters to grow and change. As with Infinity War, where the Russo brothers felt no need to fill in every detail of each between-instalment development – with Wanda and Vision’s love having developed off-screen, and Xandar’s destruction happening before the film even began – this film trusts its audience to accept often major changes in its characters. Those changes are usually logical and never betray the core concepts behind these people. It celebrates the terrific work of Marvel Studios over the last decade-plus by…. well, that needs to be experienced, first-hand: suffice to say the back catalogue of the film’s composer, Alan Silvestri, may lend a clue…
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More than all of that, Avengers: Endgame is brave enough to commit to a different tone again – the fourth variation in the four films directed by the brothers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a desaturated 1970s-style conspiracy thriller; Captain America: Civil War felt, in many ways like a family falling apart – even after the wiping out of half of all life in the Universe, there has been little to match the emotional impact of Cap and Tony coming to blows at the end of that film (“He’s my friend”, “I thought I was!”). For this pair of films, Infinity War was the fast-paced, galaxy-spanning, heavily stuffed actioner. Endgame has a lot of that, but it has, also, a far slower first act than its predecessor, matched with a mournful, contemplative tone; as we see the core Avengers – people with whom we have spent so many years – attempt to come to terms with loss. Grief in a superhero film has rarely been dealt with outside of the Dark Knight Trilogy (and, to a lesser degree in the Sony Spider-Man films, as Peter Parker had to come to terms with the loss of his Uncle Ben).
Joe and Anthony Russo are able, fully, to commit to showing audiences the pain of our team, without sacrificing humour, action or general pace. The film doesn’t race by, but is comfortable in its three-hour long skin. We should consider the traps into which this film could have fallen: Justice League raced audiences through a plot with characters we barely knew, and those we did know (Batman) were written entirely inconsistently with earlier entries, in order to foster the team dynamic that, in the event, didn’t work anyhow. Even in this universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron rushed a villain’s backstory, gave us character motivations that seemed to come out of nowhere, struggled to present a coherent climactic action sequence that gave everyone something to do whilst keeping the audience engaged, and it forced humour where it didn’t belong.
This film avoids all that, whilst working on a huge canvas, trying to follow one of the biggest-grossing films of all time – one that has sparked, more than any other in recent memory – multiple versions in fans’ heads of what should happen next, whilst handling the (likely) final entries in this series for so many actors – all of whom, on that basis, could have phoned in performances – and taking us to an emotional crescendo that not a single film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever matched (though an honourable mention for Steve with Peggy Carter in The Winter Soldier).
There are some concepts that don’t quite make sense, and potential knock-on effects that may provide future storytelling difficulties. These niggles will either pass, or they will remain as relatively small quibbles, given the magnitude of what’s been attempted here.
At a rate of development of two films a year, rising to three post-2017, we have come to take the Marvel Cinematic Universe somewhat for granted. Starting with a patchy record, the studio got themselves to the point (around 2014, or so) where almost everything they produced – with few exceptions – ranged from good to great. That no other studio has been able to replicate this should tell us that what we have just witnessed is both special, and historic. Producer Kevin Feige, directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and all of the creatives involved in Avengers: Endgame should take great pride that they saved the absolute best for last.