For many reasons within and without Endgame and the MCU, there is, of course, a way to undo everything. Comic book tropes dictate that beings of great power aren’t ever really gone, a stakes-cheapening mechanic that nevertheless brings readers, and now viewers, back time and time again. To its credit, the film devises a passable way out of its own problems, though it’s one that seems far too easy to not hang over every subsequent negative outcome in the next several decades of MCU output. Most importantly for the growing megaconglomerate that owns these films, billions of dollars in future revenue cannot be foregone by keeping dead characters snapped, so the outcome was never in question and further robbed Endgame of suspense. To return to the television comparison, continuity limits the extent of what can happen, and while shows like Game of Thrones momentarily tossed that expectation aside, a longer view of that particular series only reveals a multiyear game plan and it has in its totality sunk into predictable rhythms, just as the MCU does.
While the various outside forces that make the viewing of Endgame as a single movie, or, as a double feature with Infinity War, into an impossible and perhaps not even desired experience, it is as entertaining as an MCU entry is expected to be. These big team-up episodes are varyingly successful, hamstrung by the need to service dozens of characters and largely in the critical shadow of more recent solitary outings like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, but at over three hours, Endgame uses the blunt instrument of time to find room for everyone. MCU mainstay directors Joe and Anthony Russo pair with mainstay writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to take the viewer on something of a clip show, but one with a knowing twist expected from a franchise often stamped with meta humor and a recognition of what else is going on in the world of superhero cinema. Revisiting earlier stages of the MCU also allows for the reintroduction of actors long gone, a tactic that rewards fans and provides the veteran actors of the franchise a chance to work with actors either in different parts of the universe or those who left it long ago. Combined with Marvel’s usual sense of humor that shouldn’t work in the presence of perpetual of grief (see the laugh riot The Leftovers which only blanked out 3% of humanity) but somehow does and an action style that’s more intimate than the magical nonsense of Infinity War, Endgame provides a spectrum of emotions and reactions that make it worthy of the eventual ‘highest box office total’ title it will soon claim.
While this reviewer laughed and could feel his body tightening in anticipation during Endgame, what I didn’t do is join in on the audible sobbing that occurred in the theater. No stonefaced cynic, up to a third of the franchise has produced a deep emotional reaction, but not Endgame. Part of criticism is interrogation of emotions, and the flatness of the film’s major developments does come as a surprise worth investigating. Some of this surely comes from the incredulousness with which I interpreted Infinity War, a crass attempt at stakes that were never going to last, and from how much that intrusion of the business of superhero films into the cinematic sphere bothered me and perhaps ruined future MCU films based on my lackluster reaction to the two that came between Infinity War and Endgame. Certain devices introduced in Endgame are also personal bugaboo’s that cheapen the world, and the film itself isn’t overly invested in doing anything but hand-waving when it says this event is permanent and this one isn’t. The film also lays it on too thick in wanting to generate a particular response and displays an earnestness that doesn’t fit for the franchise. I felt manipulated by Endgame in a way that the best MCU moments haven’t had to resort to, leaving me dry-eyed in my seat while others sniffled helplessly.
In wanting to give the original Avengers cast plenty of big, potentially arc-closing moments, Endgame is most successful. Missing from Infinity War, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye reemerges as a broken assassin after having lost his whole family, and his return is welcome even if his post-snap haircut isn’t. Also in for a new style is the multi-dyed Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), having moved into a leadership role after spending so much time in the shadows. Marc Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, unable to transform into the Hulk during Infinity War, doesn’t have that problem here, having mastered his dual identity off-camera in a development that seems like it might’ve warranted more screentime than it gets. It’s Stark, Rogers, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who the film ultimately rests on, appropriately so as they’ve been anchoring MCU films since Phase One. Rogers, ever the calm center of the hurricane, doesn’t go through the dramatic changes that Stark and Thor do, but each is given the opportunity to connect with their past and look towards what the rest of their lives will look like, if they survive this latest challenge. Again, it all left me cold, but the bones of a full arc are plainly there, and that’s worthy of admiration whether or not the specifics worked on one individual.
As for the newer characters who didn’t get snapped out of existence, success is more variable. Nebula emerges as one of the franchise’s better characters here, a surly counterpart to the more jovial characters as played by an actor who puts a little extra mustard on everything she’s given. Rocket Raccoon, as voiced by Bradley Cooper, is the right Guardian of the Galaxy to keep around. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang plays heavily into the film’s primary plot mechanic, and speaking of jovial, it’s good to know that trillions of deaths won’t diminish Rudd’s preternatural charm. The loser is sadly Larson, who was made too powerful in her origin story to plausibly keep around. Overlooked in the opening scenes as a person too new to effectively banter with all these characters who are effectively strangers to her and instead left to be awkwardly silent, the film banishes her in some offscreen galactic peacekeeping mission before reemerging as a deus ex machina to turn the tide. The chasm between Hawkeye or Romanoff’s peak physical but non-magical status and Danvers’ galaxy-spanning dominance is vast, and the solution the film chooses for this is to just take Danvers out of the equation.
While mastermind Kevin Feige has said that the technical end to this phase of the MCU is Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) upcoming film, Endgame certainly works as a conclusion, though what’s really concluding are a set of contracts to be replaced by new ones. It’s a tremendous credit to Feige, the Russo’s, and many more that this particular formula, applied and repeated to twenty-two films, hasn’t been worn out and rejected by audiences. The opposite seems to be true, as even lackluster outings like Ant Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel enjoy 9 and 10 figure receipts. In the face of that plus Disney’s consolidation and dominance and uniformity of the theater space, the real conclusion in Endgame might be my own, where it represents the limits of my patience to be a consumer of a product that increasingly feels commercial instead of artistic or creative. I’ve sobbed in a theater before, and look back fondly on those experiences of being so overwhelmed as to nakedly show raw emotion. It’s just not going to happen here. B-