After the Marvel Cinematic Universe nearly ate its own tail with Avengers: Infinity War—a penultimate installment that felt like a grandiose act of self-perpetuation—Avengers: Endgame arrives to provide something truly satisfying: a sense of closure.
With a return to character and an emphasis on relationship, Endgame fairly elegantly brings 11 years of interconnected films to (something) of an end. I could tell things were headed in the right direction with the movie’s grave opening, which bravely sits with the psychological pain of the wounded warriors who survived Infinity War (I won’t get into spoilers for a bit). This is a gray, quiet, post-Thanos world. Instead of the flourishing he envisioned by wiping out half the population and thereby increasing resources for those who have been spared, Earth has become a global funeral home, as people shuffle about in a state of collective mourning (we see a massive memorial listing the names of “The Vanished”). For the remaining Avengers, who feel personally responsible for every single death, including those of their close compatriots, guilt is mixed in with the grieving. When Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) attends an emotional support group and tries to convince everyone that they must move on, even he seems to find his gung-ho words hollow.
Life eventually comes to the movie in the form of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), whose bewildered return from the quantum realm, where he’s been stuck since the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, carries a hint of hope. How did Scott survive? Might something in quantum theory offer a new future for those who have been left behind? And so Cap somewhat reluctantly reconnects with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (their Civil War rift still carries real echoes here, unlike in Infinity War) and they gather the other Avengers to embark on a half-baked mission, one that plays like Back to the Future if Marty McFly could shrink to the size of, well, a fly and Doc Brown had green skin. (OK, spoilers ahead.)
So yes, as many predicted, time travel comes into play. Endgame at once holds that conceit lightly (there are Back to the Future jokes) and depends on it to drive its central plot. Miraculously, the balance works, as long as you don’t ask too many questions. It also allows for my favorite section of the movie: a “time heist,” as Lang calls it, in which the Avengers split up, go back in time to events in previous MCU movies, and try to retrieve the Infinity Stones that Thanos used to commit interplanetary genocide. And so, for instance, Iron Man and Cap spy on the final moments of 2012’s The Avengers, offering their own sort of bonus-feature commentary as they scheme to steal one of the stones from “themselves.” It’s clever, and also a welcome deflation of the sense of self-importance that a franchise this massive inherently accrues (upon coming face to face with his 2012 self, Cap delivers a pithy one-liner that nicely undercuts his own legend). The MCU films have always had a healthy sense of humor about the superhero genre, but by popping into previous installments and having fun with the labyrinthine superstructure we’ve all enjoyed/endured, Endgame amusingly takes the air out of the MCU itself, while still doing it justice.
This is especially true of one of the funniest scenes in the movie. As they make plans for the time heist, a drunken Thor (Chris Hemsworth) tries to walk the team through the ludicrous plot of Thor: The Dark World (not one of the most popular MCU installments). The others watch in befuddlement—well, everyone but Lang, who’s amusingly enthralled—their faces mirroring the expression of any parent who’s had their kid lecture them on MCU chronology. It’s a new level of self-awareness for the series, and while it teeters toward insincere satire, it ultimately registers as a witty confession that, at times, the franchise has become too convoluted for its own good.
The moment also solidifies Hemsworth as the funniest actor in the series (which is saying something, considering comic chops have always been an important part of casting decisions). Cap and Stark get grander exits—I’ll get to those—but Thor is the MVP of Endgame. His impulsive beheading of Thanos early on is one of the film’s great surprises (and completely in character). Later, Hemsworth deftly balances the movie’s need for him to be both in genuine despair (his momentary, time-heist reunion with his dead mother, played by Rene Russo, squeezes a lot of emotion out of only a few moments) and the film’s need for him to be the biggest buffoon. The sight of a bare-chested, big-bellied Thor in self-imposed exile after Infinity’s failure—swilling beers and bickering with teenagers while playing online video games—will go down as one of my favorite moments in the franchise.
Endgame provides something truly satisfying: a sense of closure.
That prosthetic belly, it should be said, is far less convincing than the impressive motion-capture work that gives us Endgame’s Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Might convincing Hulk technology finally be here? Perhaps it helps that this Hulk is in something of an in-between state—Banner describes it as “the best of both worlds”—where he’s big and green but also calm and logical (and willing to wear shirts). In any case, the ability to convincingly map Ruffalo’s recognizable facial features—and expressions—onto that giant mug makes for the most effective Hulk we’ve had.
A few quibbles before I get to those good-byes. I don’t mind that there isn’t much action in Endgame, but given that the brother directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo staged some of the best sequences in the MCU (namely in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War), I wish the action we do get had more impact. A sequence involving Hawkeye in vigilante mode after his own family falls to Thanos employs a showy, single-take camera movement, but could still be plucked from any other generic MCU installment that came before. And while the climactic battle between Thanos’ army and the re-assembled Avengers achieves an impressive Lord of the Rings scale and has a few nice grace notes (including all the MCU women aligning in support of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel), it still suffers from CGI overload. Besides that, it’s basically a steroids variation on Infinity War’s infinite finale, only with a different outcome.
That outcome, of course, involves a good-bye. While earlier in the film we’ve witnessed the death of Natasha (in a sacrificial tug-of-war with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye that doesn’t really make much character sense), here we see the end of Tony Stark. To choose Stark as the one who should give up his new family life for the sake of the universe makes for a satisfying character arc. Iron Man, after all, effectively began the MCU meta-narrative in 2008 by establishing Stark as the most selfish, egotistical man on the planet. This is at once Stark’s death, then, and his redemption.
For my money, however, it’s the handling of Steve Rogers’ departure from the MCU that makes Endgame truly special. While taking care of some final, time-heist details, Cap decides to jump out of the timeline to mid-century America so that he can live a full life as a regular man married to his one-time sweetheart (Hayley Atwell’s Margaret Carter). This means, most poignantly, accepting mortality. When the aged Cap is asked what it was like to live life not as a scientifically enhanced super-man, an all-powerful alien, or a mythical Norse god, he raspily responds, “It was beautiful.”
More often than not, and especially in Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has been the same.