This review includes full SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame
There’s a moment in Avengers: Endgame when Thor talks to his deceased mother in the past. She tells him that “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be.” I’m going to treat her counsel as very wise in approaching this movie because Endgame doesn’t try to be what it’s “supposed to be” – a continuation of the incredible subversions of Avengers: Infinity War – and instead succeeds at what it is, which is a sendoff to a series of stories in an attempt to make the whole thing seem like one metanarrative aimed at satisfying its devoted fans.
This is not the first Avengers film to feature references to other movies, but it is the first that doesn’t work without that knowledge. I want to state outright that I understand why most people saw this movie as a mother sees her baby: nothing but what it should be. I will acknowledge when the commitment to this franchise creates more enjoyment than pointless nitpicking can take away, which I will do my best not to engage in. All I ask in return is for a little of your acceptance to talk about the movie underneath all the excitement and release day cheering (the theaters sound like football stadiums). Understand that this review is from my perspective, which is of someone who expected less of this series as it became more crowded and wasn’t proven wrong until Thanos appeared in Infinity War.
Why that moment? As I said in my review, the greatest thing about Avengers: Infinity War was that it made all nineteen previous movies feel like they were building to something new. I believed that I had seen mainstream superhero movies unlock new potential. That movie did something exciting when it brought all these corny elements and predictable arcs to a somber climax, one in which the Avengers didn’t save the day, in which the series’ most driven character turns out to be the villain and his drive allows him to win not only over the heroes’ reality but, in my opinion, over their nostalgia as well.
As a result, I was more nostalgic going into Endgame for Thanos, more passionately responsive to his needs and goals, than to any of the Avengers. The reason is not that I “agree” with a mass murderer, but that he has passion, passion which cost him something, and a personal goal to do right by his universe despite being a messianic sociopath. That’s the kind of character that interests me because it isn’t easy to like or dislike him: he challenges you, in the way that Darth Vader does. Endgame only challenges us once, at the beginning, when the heroes do a last-ditch effort to defeat the bad guy and it just doesn’t matter. I absolutely love that. My first problem with Endgame is that it spends the rest of the time trying to undo it.
It reverses my amazement by ultimately saying that those other movies, the ones that were alternately entertaining and mediocre, the ones that trucked along in the service of inching the bigger plot forward and teasing the next installment, were the entire point. Infinity War, not our expectations, was the thing that the script of Endgame set out to undo. Hemsworth fist-bumping a new character because Disney needs one of the original heroes to endorse her is the same old corporate story. Thanos killing half the universe and making us wonder if it’s in its best interest is giving this cinematic universe something it has never had. It gives it insight.
I’m saying that Infinity War was my endgame. I would have been satisfied with the destruction of the universe being something that we just have to deal with. For me, the revelation would have been moving on in this universe without trying to reverse it using the same old action hero shtick.
Act One: Values
I love the idea that we can keep going with these people, and see how they deal with their new world. The first act of Endgame makes me believe that its people are still worth watching. I would have loved a Black Widow movie where she goes to Japan to track down Hawkeye, who’s become a true Avenger, killing those he believes should not have survived Thanos’ life-destroying snap in the name of those who didn’t deserve to die (and it gives us an excuse for a samurai duel). I’d have loved to see a movie about what happens to Captain America when he’s just a guy helping people get through their trauma, how that challenges his patriotism, his ego, and his faith, or how Ant-Man reconnects with his daughter after losing his lover, or how Hulk uses this tragedy to solve the problems within himself. These are scenes in Endgame that I would have watched whole movies about. Imagine the series continuing from there.
Endgame ultimately isn’t challenging or insightful like Infinity War because it subverts its own insight in exchange for more action hero plots. These things that I love, so I’m told, are less valuable than the series’ status quo of action, references, and sequel bait – Thor: The Dark World isn’t something to let go of, but something to aspire to get back. People die in this film – some would say that’s a subversion in itself – but they do so in a calculated way, a way that doesn’t seem to lead to serious consequences but just to a roster change; it lacks the humanity of the sacrifices in Infinity War and Logan. Endgame was made as a reward for the fans, a fireworks show at the end of a lot of walking around the Disney parks.
Yet, it has the decency to make its references to the series loadbearing, at least in terms of the plot, if not in terms of character. I fully expected this movie to be like a graduation slideshow of things I recognize from the other movies, and despite being full of callbacks, they are done mostly to enrich the atmosphere of Endgame with the proper feelings: of nostalgia, reverence, and passion for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In that sense, and for most people, Avengers: Endgame is a total success.
What if I expected more, even just based on the first act of this movie? What if Infinity War made me think that characters’ relationships would no longer be merely referenced to elicit a response, but truly harnessed and developed? What if I expected its story to bear the load, not just of a zany plot, but of my empathy?
An emotional reaction is not the same as an empathetic one. The difference is that anyone can tell you that you’re supposed to feel something, but the only one that can tell you to care enough about something to relate to it is yourself. Being told to believe that Pepper and Tony, or Captain America and Peggy, or Black Widow and Hawkeye, or Captain America and Falcon, have had a real relationship develop over these movies is manipulative on the part of the Endgame screenplay. Their relationships are intentional, but not real. Endgame expects a lot of emotion from us for drama that has never been developed or challenged all that much; people who have that emotional response anyway (I read about people needing to be hospitalized for breathing trouble during this movie) need to ask themselves where it’s coming from.
As an example, when Tony Stark lays dying at the end of this movie, would the emotional chemistry have been significantly reduced if the person holding his hand and weeping over him had not been Pepper, the supposed love of his life for twenty-two movies, but Nebula, with whom he’s had only this one film to interact with? I would argue that the emotions might have been even greater. Their one or two scenes at the beginning of Endgame were arguably more loving and poignant than anything I’ve ever seen him do with Pepper, who hasn’t been a major character in any of these movies for quite a while.
Empathy can come that easily: just from teaching a lonely soldier who never had a loving family that life is okay, because sometimes people will play paper football with you and tell you that you did a good job. You can see in her eyes that it was probably the first time anyone ever told her that. It had more love in it than a kiss from his true love’s lips because it was an earned emotion, no matter how small, which found empathy in the human things, rather than the ones mandated by a franchise’s intentions.
Here’s another example: Captain America passes his torch to Falcon at the end of the movie in a scene of belabored reverence. Not only did I have to remind members of my family who Falcon was, despite the fact that they’ve seen all the films, but I couldn’t explain to them what, exactly, their relationship entailed. I know they’re army buddies; they had a thing going on in The Winter Soldier. But after that, Falcon has just been showing up to these parties; occasionally we cut to him leaning against a wall in the background with a drink in his hand. He’s never been that important.
This is not Endgame’s fault. This is the fault of the whole schematic of the MCU, of every film that decided that it would get to the relationships in a later film, and just do the action for now. The buck has been passed for ten years and now it’s too late: Endgame had to forge ahead and just assume that these emotions existed. Since so many people are willing to take a company’s suggestions of what to feel as their reality without thinking about the movies themselves in context, it worked. I can’t comment on how those emotions work. Instead, I’m going to break down the movie’s plot to explain to you why it didn’t work for me.
Endgame starts at a place I could inhabit for many movies’ worth of drama: the first hour of this movie is humane, subversive, and unabashedly wonderful. The Russos don’t film for art – Endgame doesn’t have the sense of creative shot structure or blocking that Danny Boyle had in the apocalyptic imagery in 28 Days Later, for instance – but they make being “workman filmmakers” seem like a good idea. They make this movie communicate as much information to you as possible, and in this first hour, the information is all character.
Robert Downey Jr. earns his millions when he sits sunken, hooked into a fluids bag, reaming Captain America as a reminder to the audience that these guys fought about something and it may have cost them half the universe. He looks truly shot. For a guy that plays every movie like he’s selling himself, he’s been broken from bearing himself too long when this movie starts up. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) reminds me why I’m going to miss him: she jokes with people, not as though the jokes tell us something about her ego, but as though they don’t deserve her scorn. Her humor is the true self-exaltation that the other Avengers accuse of Tony. But we’ve always known – the Russos know it better than anyone – that Tony’s humor is a form of grief. Every joke reminds us that his heart is his literally fatal flaw.
The imagery of the world is like him: being itself has become a burden. People no longer collect the trash or clean themselves; the world is half as dense and twice as heavy. The beauty of their first final confrontation with Thanos is that not even Captain Marvel’s extravagant laser body can defeat someone with that much drive. Thanos wins by changing the universe in a way he believed in, and by giving his life to making it stick. I’m not saying I agree with him, but that I agree with the premise of writing a villain that makes sacrifices. The Avengers have nothing on him; the film’s best scene is when they realize this. They are reduced to terrorists, who take their sworn enemy behind the chemical shed and behead him out of rage. Meanwhile, Thanos’ accomplishment could be attributed to a misguided humanitarian if you looked at his motivation.
There were a lot of important questions to ask about what he did in Infinity War, what it meant to the universe after five years, and what it means to undo it now. Endgame asks none of them.
Image is a screenshot from the film: © Walt Disney Studios
This is where the movie’s message starts to be confusing. From the point that they kill Thanos and it doesn’t matter, the message of Avengers: Endgame seems to be to take responsibility for your mistakes and to move on in the face of adversity. The first hour of the films seems to say that no amount of technology or power can give you an easy way out. It reads to me like truth.
If you’ll remember, this is what Steve was trying to teach Tony back in The Avengers: he made Tony a conscientious hero who takes responsibility for his mistakes and puts others before himself; he taught him “to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” The problem is that in light of Endgame, this lesson seems to be a last resort rather than an actual principle: the reason the characters move on at the beginning of this film is not that they believe in it, but that, for the moment, they just lack the power to do what they really want, which is to keep being superheroes. Even though Tony moved on and built a family, Captain America treats it like Tony’s new version of living selfishly because that’s the only arc they know. He needs him to go through it one last time.
This relationship pulls apart because of how it struggles to maintain consistency between the movie’s message and how it is communicated by its characters’ actions. Maybe the point of the film is that you should never move on from the costumes and plot devices that you love (it makes sense from a business standpoint). Maybe this brief amount of time where the Avengers are humans with limitations and emotions was just my fantasy. Maybe getting them back to being movie superheroes with an endless capacity to, as Steve coldly said of Tony’s ego a long time ago, “always have a way out,” is just what everyone else wants.
This movie bends scientific believability as far as an audience would take it, just to find a way out of being more interesting. Perhaps Iron Man was right when he was proven wrong in The Avengers, that with enough technology and know-how, you can always cut the wire: that’s certainly what the Russos decide to do in the face of Infinity War. They cut the wire of dealing with their actions and of assessing Thanos’ motives. Captain America ends up reversing every shred of development he’s had over the past films, going back to his literal beginning to be with a girl and forget about everything else. The only thing stopping him until now was not the needs of anyone else, not his mission to make the world a better place, but just his inability to travel through time.
If the point is to refuse to move on so that you can fight for what you used to have, then Thor’s mom must be very wrong, because she would tell them to stop trying to force the universe into being what they think it’s “supposed to be,” and make the best of what it is. That would mean living with mistakes, instead of always having a way out of them. It would mean taking the first third of Endgame, giving it a second hour, and calling it a movie. I would have truly loved that movie.
Act Two: Heist Movie
Instead, they try to fix everything. The way they go about it is fun. The middle third of Endgame (it’s like three hour-long movies, each with its own structure and tone) is a heist movie that doesn’t play out as much like an MCU greatest hits album as I’d feared: it takes selective care to recreate old places, plays up the banter that the Russos always like enough to just barely overuse, and creates a lot of memorable running around. But this creates terrible holes in the movie’s emotional structure. No, I’m not talking about plot-holes caused by the movie’s idea of time travel, or the fact that Tony pulls it out of thin air that he can make time machines. Though I believe that the last appearance of Captain America takes the movie’s own theories and shreds them, I’m not going to talk about any of that stuff in detail – it doesn’t matter to me and it definitely doesn’t matter to the people who love this movie. I’m talking about holes in the structure of the movie’s motivation and in the tension it establishes in its overall story.
They set up the plan to travel through time and retrieve the stones as it would be in a heist movie, but rather than explaining the plan and testing it out to us, the heroes do it on the fly. This eliminates the most crucial aspect of this kind of scene in that kind of movie, which is in seeing the perfect plan fail, despite being worked out in all its humorous minutiae. The reason it’s so important to heist films is that when the plan fails because of a tiny mistake, we’re supposed to know how it fails and feel the urgency of being forced to improvise it from this point on. That’s how you create tension with this concept. But since we don’t know the plan in Endgame (we’re given only a montage of the characters thinking really hard about it in office chairs), we’re never sure what’s part of it and what’s improvised.
All of that is in service to moving it along with a great sense of impending adversity. The problem with this part of the script is that, if you think about it, there’s really no rush. At all.
The entire middle third of Avengers: Endgame is working on artificially created adversity that doesn’t exist in the movie, and it stands in for my problem with the entire series, which is that you feel what it tells you to feel. There’s no time limit in either the present or the past to account for their extreme haste, no villain taking chase (that they know of), and no impending doom. Since the movie writes off the possibilities of time interference or paradoxes, the very worst that could happen in any of these scenarios is that the heroes might be trapped in a comfortable, extremely familiar time period, no more than five years in the past, with no worry of damaging anything.
In reality, they could take as much time as they needed to get the stones: the convenience of writing off changes in the timeline also accidentally gets rid of any sense of danger. The only limiting factor seems to be that they don’t have enough of the particles that allow them to travel; when someone suggests they go to a time where they can get more of them, I was thinking that the smartest people in the universe should easily have thought of that first. There’s really no rush, but by making it seem like they’re in a great hurry, the Russo brothers omit the best opportunities for well-constructed suspense.
For example, if it had been planned out for us, Nebula might have told them about what you have to do to get the Soul Stone. That might have created a seriously dramatic situation (who’s the one who has to give up the thing they love for this mission?). Instead, these guys fight for the life of everyone in the universe on the fly, with the reverence of people picking up their dry-cleaning. Two dramatically relevant people accidentally get assigned the Soul Stone despite everyone brushing over it. Throughout this middle third, it’s really hard to figure out if they remember how important all this is. What if Ant-Man and Rocket Raccoon had ended up with the Soul Stone mission?
Once they acquire the stones, Tony builds a gauntlet to wield them and Hulk uses it bring the universe back. He can’t bring Black Widow back because, as the movie says, she was sacrificed to acquire the stone. I’m sure someone out there is miffed that Infinity War spent so much effort explaining that a gauntlet capable of harnessing the stones was crafted by the ancient dwarven forgers in their sun-powered anvil in the farthest reaches of space, and Tony builds one just as good in a cave with a box of scraps, but that person isn’t me. I have something more pressing to talk about.
When Hulk tries to bring Black Widow back, the movie is choosing to ignore the fundamental values at stake in its universe, which ultimately leads to my biggest problem with Endgame: the devaluation of Infinity War.
Remember that Black Widow wasn’t killed by Thanos; she was killed on an Avengers mission to undo what he did. The movie explains that she can’t be brought back because of some reason pertaining to the stones. But should she have been brought back, even if it were possible? With so much power, Thor could have brought back his mother, and Tony could have saved his parents, and Captain America could have brought Peggy to the present day. Other people who are murdered every day, could be brought back. They say that they’re only reversing the snap, but they never really talk about it, and when it’s an issue whether or not Black Widow can come back, they should have, rather than spout a conveniently written logistical reason why it’s not possible. This kind of writing is convenient for the author, but not meaningful to the audience. I have no problem with rejecting understandable science for the sake of fun, but the only reason to ignore science, and tempt the entire internet to poke holes in the movie, is to give up logic to focus on values. And Endgame doesn’t.
Bringing back someone just because you love them would be playing god, and the Avengers didn’t sign up for this mission with the intention of doing that. Their goal to reverse the one thing Thanos did is already uncomfortably close to what Thanos did in the first place, which was to decide that some people should live and others should die. The script for Endgame never approaches this like it’s an issue because, in its mind, it isn’t. The reason is that this script killed the idea of Thanos way before it killed his body.
Thanos in Infinity War was a man who believed that he could save the universe despite his evil methods. He believed it would cost him everything, and he did it anyway. He’s a version of a superhero that accepts the cost of his idea of "virtue," who knows that doing what you think is right won’t always make you a celebrity that signs t-shirts or someone that history will remember fondly. He believes that a healed universe is its own reward. In spite of unconscionable methods, having a goal made him a different breed of villain. He was more like a hero willing to take responsibility for it.
This was shocking to me. The price he pays in Infinity War for his beliefs, is more than any of these heroes have ever paid. I’m supposed to feel something very deeply when Black Widow kills herself for Hawkeye, but nothing matches when Thanos kills Gamora, not because he’s a villain with a cruel heart, but because in that moment he’s a man with a human one. Notice that Hawkeye doesn’t have to give up Black Widow when she kills herself, though to get the stone she must have been his true love. She does it for him, without his consent, and this is a huge problem.
If you can only get the stone by giving up what you love most, does this mean that Black Widow is her own true love? Or is the intention of the scene supposed to be that she technically gives up Hawkeye by killing herself? I’m still not sure. Hawkeye is excused from changing or being challenged, and Thanos doesn’t have it so easy. He tells the Avengers that he’s “inevitable,” not because he believes that he’s that powerful, but because he believes that what he does is that important. He believes it enough to make sacrifices, something which the Avengers are only willing to do when it suits them. This is because the script won’t allow it: Hawkeye doesn't have to give up Black Widow for a higher goal. She (or rather, the director) makes the call for him.
In Avengers: Endgame, Thanos is exactly what I thought he was going to be before I saw Infinity War. He’s another bad guy that wants to blow up the earth and even says that he’ll take pleasure in it. He has been stripped of his ideology so that our heroes would not have to face it. Cities that were once crowded and disgusting were roomy for a few years. The world was quieter and the water was cleaner. Captain America and Black Widow talk about it over peanut butter sandwiches, the most intimate scene in the film along with Nebula and Tony’s. But we never see it because it’s scary. It’s scary for Thanos to have a point. By not seeing these people, we never know what’s at stake. We are never shown the values of anyone’s beliefs, or the cost.
Bringing back half the universe is only a good thing, according to Endgame; the movie ignores those that moved on in those five years and now have to awkwardly reverse their lives, or reacquaint their new children with their old spouses, or move out of the nice house that they could now afford and go back to their ghettos, and give up their jobs to the people who used to have them. It ignores the emotional context of the human race, as though the sheer population count of the universe is the only thing that matters. To the Avengers, this whole ordeal is just about bringing back the Avengers: it’s obvious to them that playing god is the right thing to do because some of the people who died still have movies to make. If Endgame cared about anything else, about any of the people who have lived five years in a different universe and now have to go back as though everything is perfect again, we would see them.
Endgame didn’t want to take responsibility for the cheesy concept of traveling back in time to “undo” the snap, Back to the Future style. But no matter how convoluted the solution turned out to be, without the context of the universe’s people who are affected by what the heroes do, that’s what it feels like they did.
That’s the disconnect I feel with this movie: despite bombarding us with information for three hours in a way that’s almost clinically plot-centric, Endgame never finds time to remember what issues are at stake, or what exactly it means for people to do what they do. The main reason, as it has always been with the MCU, is that fan service comes before story service.
Act Three: For the Fans
Consider that when Tony Stark wields the stones and says with labored intensity, “I ... am … Iron Man,” that’s supposed to be the closed-circuit on ten years of filmmaking. That’s the announcement that he’s exactly what he’s supposed to be for all of the fans that want him that way, and you’re supposed to cheer. But is that really what belonged in this movie? After all this time, is that what he is? Isn’t he something other than “Iron Man,” the corporate entity created for our pleasure, or, the entity he created as a rebellion against his corporation? I thought he was a husband and a dad, and I thought of that as his greatest achievement in a long line of laser manufacturing and McGuffin synthesis. Everyone in the end restrainedly stops all their development in favor of old lines and familiar toys, as though the characters were getting so real and so good that the writers feared that it would make us stop reading comic books if they didn’t end on something predictable. He’s Iron Man, to his dying breath, because that’s all he can ever be to us.
Endgame is a conclusion to a lot of movies, and I don’t underestimate the task of writing or directing that. But Markus/McFeely write the big moments for people who don’t want to be challenged and just want to be pleasured. It makes me feel like Infinity War is all I’m ever going to get.
For instance, every Captain America fan has wanted to see him lift the hammer. But has anything happened to make him more worthy of it now than at any other time? Does any movie in this series ever explore what, exactly, makes someone worthy of it at all? Don’t you find it a little odd from a writing standpoint that no one knows what makes someone worthy of the hammer, and yet the theater roared when they saw Captain America pick it up? The entire MCU assumed that the next movie would take care of it. Lifting the hammer probably represents the will to put others before yourself, the desire to do right by as many people as possible regardless of what happens to you, something like that. Endgame doesn’t think about it too hard so it can give us big moments of fan service.
But consider the incredible power of the reality of their own previous film that the Russos could not accept, something that would have been a true showstopper in this cinematic universe: that by every standard we know, Thanos could probably lift the hammer of Thor. That would have been a scene that made me excited. That would have put values back into play.
Not unlike The Hobbit films, Avengers: Endgame ends with a big battle that doesn’t really have a point beyond animating things we’ve seen before. We know the Avengers will win and it takes almost an hour for them to do so; not doing this is what made Infinity War special and Endgame obligatory.
Like other fantasy battle films, Endgame has a ton of endings after that fact. One involves Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man, promising to look after Tony’s daughter after he’s gone. The emotion was solid but the corporateness was distracting; Favreau, in spirit, is babysitting the offspring of his own art. It’s a little weird. Thor joining the “Asgardians of the Galaxy” is just about the most awesome promise I can think of, in anticipation of Gunn’s third film. Thor is the best character in Endgame because he deals with something, which in his case is the depression of finding out, not that he isn’t good enough to be Thor, but that being so doesn’t automatically make everything okay. When he finds out that he’s “still worthy,” I got pretty emotional for him, and more still when he realized that there’s more to being worthy than just that. He found out that there’s more to life than being THOR. I’m excited to see more, even though I know it will ultimately be played for a laugh.
Then there’s the very end, which is Captain America’s. You get the feeling they wish they’d started this series with him. It’s a loving tribute to a simpler time and I’m a sucker for Helen Forest and Harry James. But is that really the ending to the movie that precedes it? Is a slow dance for a soldier returning home from war an earned emotional beat if the war was an hour-long tirade of lasers, pegasi, witches, aliens, robots, dinosaurs, spaceships, ninjas, magicians, mutants, giants, and Vikings? Am I supposed to be warmed by that trumpet, after all this post-traumatic Battle of the Five Armies stress?
The Russos give us so much information to satisfy and engage us that they forget to refine it. They forget that a little scene with a guy and his daughter or between two weary soldiers stranded together is way more important than more visual information about a battle of cosmic keep-away. Imagine if instead of Captain Marvel, these movies were tied together with a two-hour captivity film about Nebula and Tony on that ship for a few days. It probably would have been my favorite film in the entire series. If Avengers: Endgame was supposed to be a continuation of the Infinity War problem, it doesn’t make it, or at least, it gives up after an hour.
Instead, here's a tribute to the people who love this series of movies for reasons that fit on the surface of a birthday cake. In being so, it doesn’t tribute but abandons the reasons for which I personally had grown to appreciate it. After Infinity War, I didn’t think I’d see another big villain with a big bomb or another samey, drawn-out battle that didn’t really know why it was there or what was at stake. I should have realized that it was inevitable.
Images are screenshots from the film: © Walt Disney Studios
Cast & Crew
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (characters)
|Tony Stark/Iron Man||Robert Downey Jr.|
|Bruce Banner/Hulk||Mark Ruffalo|
|Steve Rogers/Captain America||Chris Evans|
|Peter Quill/Starlord||Chris Prat|
|Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow||Scarlett Johansson|
|Dr. Stephen Strange||Benedict Cumberbatch|
|James "Rhodey" Rhodes/War Machine||Don Cheadle|
|Peter Parker/Spider-Man||Tom Holland|
|T'Challa/Black Panther||Chadwick Boseman|
|Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch||Elizabeth Olsen|
|Sam Wilson/Falcon||Anthony Mackie|
|Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier||Sebastian Stan|
|Hawkeye/Clint Barton||Jeremy Renner|
|Drax the Destroyer||Dave Bautista|
|Scott Lang/Ant-Man||Paul Rudd|
|Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel||Brie Larson|
|Pepper Potts||Gwyneth Paltrow|