I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I hardly know where to begin talking about Avengers: Endgame, and I don’t mean because I’d rather not spoil anything for the three of you who haven’t yet seen the film. And also not just because I find it a satisfying challenge as a film critic to write about a film in a substantive way without spoiling the plot, which is absolutely possible in every instance, but not always the easiest thing to do.
Getting my head around Endgame in a way that helps me digest it is tough because it’s just so big. Which is certainly appropriate for a film that is the finale of a 22-movie saga. Has anything movie-movie ever been truly as epic as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicked off 11 years ago by 2008’s Iron Man? I go reread my decade-plus-old review of Iron Man now, and it feels so prophetic for the entire series: I noted its humor and its snark, but also its seemingly (but not) contradictory sincerity and its humanity, its sense that Tony Stark isn’t (and has subsequently proven not to be) a superhero in the cartoony sense but a real, complicated, flawed human man just trying to navigate a world that has gotten weirder than he ever could have imagined, even if that weird world is, at least at that point, entirely of his own making.
Maybe that’s part of what the MCU has been: something strange and wonderful but also its own Frankenstein monster, as if it willed its own delightful unexpectedness into existence against all odds, in spite of itself, and probably against all good advice. I mean, of course, it did will itself into existence: it’s a corporate product motivated by a desire to make a profit that will appease its shareholders. But it kind of doesn’t feel like that, for all that its movies sport production budgets each close to the annual GDP of a small nation. It feels more organic than that. It feels like a lot of very talented, very creative people both in front of and behind the camera fumphering along, in the best possible way, making it up as they go — maybe to a rough sketch of a larger plan, but nothing more than that. And it astonishingly mostly all worked out in the grand scheme. Which is incredible. Except it also isn’t. Because that is often what happens when creative people are given free rein to do their thing and trust their instincts. Goddamn if the MCU doesn’t feel, as much as is possible, like the studio-filmmaking equivalent of the theater nerds ganging together, taking over Farmer Brown’s barn, and gosh-darning, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” With more CGI assistance than any theater nerds ever had, but still. Maybe that’s its greatest legacy.
I am aware that I am also glossing over the fact that the creativity of the MCU has mostly excluded women and people of color — pretty much anyone who isn’t a white man — and please do not write in to say “But Black Panther” or “But Captain Marvel.” Because those are very late-in-the-game outliers. And Endgame still centers white men, mostly Cap and Tony and a little bit Scott Lang. I love them! But I long for more inclusive stories. I am painfully aware that my love of the MCU has very much been about what I hope is a last gasp of gotta empathize with white men cuz that’s all we got for ya, toots. As a female geek, I really would love to feel like I am seen the way that white male nerds are. (I can’t even truly imagine what it must feel like to be a geek who ain’t white.) But this has also been what My Life As A Geek has been since I was a kid: having to learn to love stories that center white men, because there wasn’t much else. Maybe part of why Endgame feels so momentous is because it puts a period on the big overarching stories about Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.: The Judge, Chef) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans: Snowpiercer, What’s Your Number?) that have driven the MCU, and as much as I will miss them, that’s a good thing, too.
Ah god, I’m not sure I even know what I’m talking about. As the kids today say, Avengers: Endgame is a lot. I’m only chipping away at one tiny corner of it, if even that.
So, previously on Avengers: Thanos (CGI’d Josh Brolin: Deadpool 2, Only the Brave), perhaps the most powerful Bad Guy ever, has — OMG — erased half of all life in the universe with the snap of his fingers, aided by the Infinity Stones, which are, well, infinitely powerful. Endgame opens immediately after that, with the 50 percent of the Avengers who are left reeling with shock and grief. When Tony gasps, “I lost the kid” — he is referring to teenaged Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland: Pilgrimage, The Lost City of Z), who turned to dust in Thanos’s snap — it’s like a punch in the gut, not least because he didn’t “lose” the kid, it was just the random result of Thanos’s action. But it also feels, if you are an adult of Tony’s age *raises hand* like a premonition of the near future, what with the kids today starting to wake up and be angry (and justifiable so!) about the world-ending shit *cough* global warming *cough* that we Xers and our Boomer elders have been unable to shift any action on. At least Tony was trying to stop Thanos! Fuck all the rest of us in the real world who’ve done fuck-all to stop our own looming apocalypse.
Looming apocalypse. Clearly this is starting to weigh heavily on the pop-culture zeitgeist. (See also: this weekend’s Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell, and its general “winter is coming” vibe.) There is something going on across these 22 movies, culminating in Endgame, that is very much about us feeling an end-of-the-world barreling down on us, a very dramatic paradigm shift in the offing. And I think part of the emotional right hook of these movies is that we absolutely know, even if we don’t want to admit it, that there are no metahumans who are going to swoop in and save us from it at the last minute.
Fittingly, Endgame does not downplay its apocalypse, or make it easier to accept. Returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (as a team: Pain and Gain, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) do not indulge in the great science-fiction reset button that we are all used to and were, frankly, expecting here. There’s a moment early on in Endgame at which any self-respecting geek was, I suspect, feeling simultaneously like, “Okay, this is where they fix everything, and I’m gonna hate it because it’ll be a cheat,” and they don’t fix it and it’s not a cheat and we are all “Waah, but I want adorbs teen Spider-Man back!”
Then Endgame continues on and settles into its apocalypse and starts to be about how we deal with grief and how we move on after the very worst has happened. And even though it fixes some bad things that happened, it doesn’t erase them, doesn’t make them not have happened. And those fixes cannot make right the new bad things that occur along the way. The trauma that the world — the universe! — has suffered cannot be undone, and fresh trauma cannot be avoided. (Enduring something awful does not, alas, make us immune from further awfulness.) It can only be coped with, new paths forged, new lives built. And every new choice comes with the risk that that will be snatched away at some point, too. Tragedy never ends.
And yet, miraculously, Endgame is not relentlessly sad. It doesn’t wallow in its grief. It’s surprisingly funny! Sometimes in bold, brash ways, as with Thor (Chris Hemsworth: Bad Times at the El Royale, 12 Strong) continuing to embrace the more fleshly aspects of his existence as a god, and the movie also continuing to embrace the bittersweetly comic side of him as a character, both of which we started seeing in Ragnarok. Sometimes in sneaky, meta ways, as in how it has a few characters — Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd: Fun Mom Dinner, They Came Together) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle: Miles Ahead, Flight) — explicitly discussing pop-culture explorations of a science-fiction trope that Tony and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo: Now You See Me 2, Foxcatcher) are trying to harness for real in their quest to undo Thanos’s snap. The characters invoke these other movies — which are clearly movies in the MCU reality — as a way to point out what a fresh disaster this plan could be and how difficult it will be to make this idea work. But then this movie itself audaciously steals the brilliant conceit of a franchise Scott makes particular snarky reference to, and centers its entire plot around that conceit!
Stealing that other franchise’s Big Idea is part of how, meta and in-story, everything appropriately comes full circle in Endgame. It revisits its own progression, reminding us of how far these characters have come, how much they’ve willingly sacrificed, and how much they’ve unwillingly lost. It lodges the MCU firmly in a realm of pop-culture geekery that has gone mainstream in a way that I think lots of us — me certainly — never could have imagined happening to such nerdy stuff, cheekily anchoring it to other fictional universes we love and winking to Marvel continuity outside the movies. (Cap has a line of dialogue, in a scene that mirrors one that has become iconic in the movies, that references something that has only happened in the comics. It’s a huge nod to the utter sprawl of the many parallel Marvel realities.) It cements itself as an ultimate sort of superhero science-fiction soap opera, one that it’s difficult to imagine ever being topped. And Endgame does that, for better or for worse, by reinforcing something that has become obvious in the last decade-plus of superhero cinema: the big battles are least interesting bits; that remains true of the big battles here. The ’shipping and the stanning and the fan-service downtime for our beloved heroes to process the emotions the battles inspire, to comfort one another? That’s where the real deal is.
Still, I have only begun to scratch the surface of what Avengers: Endgame does, why it feels so important to fans and what’s so important about it as a movie, both creatively and from the business perspective. I feel like there’s something really key hidden in Thanos’s insistence here that “I am inevitable,” but I haven’t hit on what that is yet. More viewings and much more thought is required. I can’t wait.