Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead! You have been warned!
Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd entry in the 11-year long Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to become the eighth franchise entry to make $1 billion worldwide. Depending on when you’re reading this, it may already have crossed that milestone, it may even have done so before the weekend was out. 39 movies will now make up the billionaire club and Marvel will be responsible for nearly a quarter of them. $2 billion worldwide is practically assured and if Detective Pikachu weren’t a mere week away then we’d probably have to invent new metrics to count the amount of cash Endgame would bring in. Movie theatres worldwide stayed open 24 hours across the weekend to accommodate demand, 3.25% of the UK population supposedly pre-booked a ticket to at least one screening. This was the kind of global cultural event that comes along once in a generation, hooking hardcore fans and casual audiences alike; I’m amazed it wasn’t designated an international holiday.
So, with the world completely and firmly in the palm of their hands, Marvel Studios opted to perform arguably the biggest flex in the history of cinema. Endgame is a $400 million 183-minute ultra-self-indulgent victory parade for their previous 21 movies that the viewer NEEDS to have seen every single one of, including ones from eight years ago with key plot and character beats coming from series’ worst entries, in order to understand an otherwise incomprehensible movie. “And not only are hardcore MCU stans going to adore it, the more general audiences who don’t religiously pore over every minutia or have skipped a few entries are also going to eat up every last goddamn second because we are Marvel and we own your asses eternal,” they seem to gloat.
The entire middle hour of the film is based around time-travel shenanigans which involve restaging, calling back to and subverting sequences from prior films whose effects require that prior knowledge to appreciate at all let alone fully. Major characters drop in and out with zero fanfare or explanation for anyone who happened to miss or forget where they were last. Giant crowd-popping moments of the finale hinge entirely on the viewer recalling throwaway gags or asides from movies released almost half a decade ago. Do you remember anything at all about Thor: The Dark World? Despite that being statistically improbable, Marvel’s sure hoping you do because it’s the basis of Thor’s most affecting scene. And very little of this receives even a passing line bringing more casual viewers up to speed.
This should be hubris, grand hubris which finally sees the Marvel Cinematic Universe splat into a wall financially and critically. I’ve been racking my brains attempting to find some comparable antecedent for Endgame and I guess the closest might be The Return of the King? But even that doesn’t quite track since Lord of the Rings was only a trilogy instead of whatever-we-call-a-22-film-series, released over three years instead of eleven, and was always designed to function as a complete film with a singular narrative rather than a bunch of entirely separate series which only sometimes intersect in a manner which retroactively causes them to work as a grand narrative. Even the biggest world-conquering franchises approaching their ends make sure to handhold casual audiences through either expository recaps or giant spectacle which works independent of prior context – Harry Potter, Fast & Furious, Star Wars. They’re not explicitly fan films, ones whose enjoyment and understanding depends heavily upon memorisation of minutiae from years ago with minimal action or entry points to appease the non-dedicated, and those which do tend to flop spectacularly – Allegiant, Fantastic Beasts series, Solo.
So, Endgame shouldn’t work. Even Infinity War kind of works as a standalone movie, partly because its villain was really the protagonist and partly because Bruce Banner functioned as a walking excuse for catch-up exposition, and the reason why that first Avengers conquered the globe so thoroughly was because it hits with the same power for those who hadn’t seen the movies leading up to it as it did for those who had. Endgame arguably doesn’t, unless we’re talking in the Aquaman sense where somebody judges their satisfaction upon how much movie is in their movie (for there is THE MOST MOVIE in this movie).
And yet… it really does work. Not all the time but Marvel’s massive self-indulgent flex does somehow work, particularly in that third act which kills from start to finish. Perhaps this is because Marvel more fully embraced the popular critical comparison of their narratives acting more like instalments in a serialised TV show, with Endgame functioning as the big nostalgic series finale which sees every single character return in some capacity and is all about feeling like a firm end to something. A franchise petrified of long-lasting consequences, with a plot explicitly about undoing a long-lasting consequence from another film, pulling the trigger and not shying away from a true sense of finality to such a degree that it even resisted the urge to add a stinger, instead playing a call-back audio cue over those final logos as a perfect full-circle button.
I’ve seen a bunch of cynicism surrounding the finale of Endgame from many corners of the critic-sphere, much of which I understand given the MCU’s perpetual inability to make anything stick and all of which I respect. But I can’t quite join in on that cynicism this time. The Russos, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel Studios draw just enough of a line in the sand with Endgame that, if it weren’t my “job” to see and remain up-to-date on all of these films, I would genuinely be content with never seeing another entry in this series again. For all its self-indulgence, for all its self-congratulatory ticker-tape parades, for its steadfast refusal to appeal to anyone not already on the train, Endgame somehow works. Neither fully in spite of or because of itself. It just… does, like a magic trick whose method I am yet to figure out.
What I have figured out, however, is that nobody should ever try to duplicate, replicate or outdo Endgame. Ever. This is a miracle movie, all the more so for its flaws, its blatant bullish swaggering flex, and it walking this particular tightrope over a bottomless chasm without any harness or safety net. It cannot be replicated, it cannot be exceeded, and anyone who tries to, whether that be imbecilic Hollywood execs or Marvel themselves, is a goddamn fool who hasn’t been paying attention. If anyone could pull this feat off, to make this kind of movie in this kind of franchise and have it forcibly halt the world on its axis so everyone could accommodate its might, they could only do so the once. Anybody who tries to or expects to recreate this is setting themselves up for embarrassment, it is the freak anomaly in the results chart.
There were 14 million possible realities where Endgame was a colossal failure in every respect. We live in the one where it somehow wasn’t. There has never been a movie like Endgame before, there never will be a movie like Endgame again, and there never should be a movie like Endgame again.