A year after “Avengers: Infinity War” hit the big screen in 2018, the sequel “Avengers: Endgame” arrived in theaters this weekend with a bang that would make Thanos jealous. But though the movie is technically the second half of a story begun last year, it is far more than that. It is really the final movie in a series 11 years in the making, the culmination of an unprecedented 22-film series, which so far include no less than 10 different standalone superhero franchises, all interconnected within a single universe.
It is a movie with no precedent in the history of filmmaking, carving a path no franchise has managed to navigate before. When viewed through this lens, it’s not surprising “Avengers: Endgame” has AMC theaters holding round-the-clock showings to accommodate demand. With that kind of hype, whether or not the movie is any good might seem like a rather irrelevant concern. However, thankfully the film succeeds in that regard, too.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) doesn’t just produce box office hits — its films do well with critics, too.
Blockbuster films like “Endgame” are considered mostly critic-proof. (Think the massive box office openings of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” or “Suicide Squad,” both of which were given severe drubbings.) But the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) doesn’t just produce box office hits — its films do well with critics, too. There have been a few duds, such as “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor: The Dark World,” but even these films have an average review ranking of 67 percent each, according to the critical aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. In the Rotten Tomatoes universe, this is a high enough approval ranking to be considered “fresh.” In other words, all of Marvel’s 22 interconnected films have all been critical successes by the average standard of measure.
“Avengers: Endgame” is no exception. In the space of three hours, “Endgame” manages to be all things to all parts of the franchise all at once. It is, first and foremost, a standalone film, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) band together with their surviving friends from other standalone films and attempt to save the world from Thanos (Josh Brolin). Like “Infinity War” last year, the narrative assumes a passing familiarity with the comic book characters. (It helps, for instance, to know who or what Bruce Banner’s “Hulk” is upon meeting the green giant.) But one could go into this film having seen none of the previous films, including “Infinity War,” and not be lost for lack of context.
That being said, “Endgame” is also a rejoinder to “Infinity War.” Last year’s film attempted Shakespearean tragedy, and watching it again a year later ahead of the release of “Endgame,” I was surprised by how well it still stands up. “Endgame” allows each character to process the grief from the last film’s tragic events. Then it picks them up, dusts them off and insists that our heroes stand right back up again. After all, there is more work to be done.
These scenes are where the film does its best work. This is the fourth MCU movie in five years from directors Joe and Anthony Russo, more than any other director (or directors) in the franchise. Three of those four films have been “crossover event” type films: “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Each has been better than the last. “Civil War” had memorable moments but lacked cohesion or intimacy. “Infinity War” figured out how to do the cohesion and featured plenty of memorable moments but was lacking in the emotional content department. “Endgame” has found how to do all three, finding the space for emotional intimacy, sometimes even in the middle of a raging battle.
But "Endgame" is also not just a sequel to “Infinity War;" it is a concluding story for the entire franchise up to this point.
But "Endgame" is also not just a sequel to “Infinity War;" it is a concluding story for the entire franchise up to this point. In the attempt to accomplish this, one might say the movie is less a film than a series of references to earlier MCU films, remarkably strung together in narrative order. It recreates scenes from 2012’s “The Avengers,” 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World” and 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But within these recreations it seeds direct references to other installments, such as “Winter Solider,” “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange.” It even stops to acknowledge the ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Agent Carter.” Indeed, during one prodigious scene I counted no less than five references within references, with a shout-out to the recent (and infamous) “Captain America as Nazi” comic book in the center. The directors have created a virtual nesting doll of homages which will be appreciated by the most hardcore of fans, but still have value for less devoted fans.
“Endgame” is also clearly a send-off to the original cast, with chapters closing on Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff. Hawkeye, Hulk and Thor will likely be allowed to gracefully bow out now, too, if they wish.
But like any season finale, the end is only temporary. Phase IV starts with “Spider-Man: Far From Home” this summer. That film will most likely coincide with or help announce the next generation of superheroes, not to mention the continuation of the “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men” franchises, both of which Marvel got back from 20th Century Fox when parent company Disney swallowed the rival whole last month.
It is, at this point, hard to imagine how much longer the MCU will be able to keep up this level of production and quality. But no one thought back in 2008 the company would be able to pull off a run like this either. This is a remarkable achievement, and like Captain America, Marvel may very well insist it can keep doing this all day.