I’ve tried to make this as spoiler-free as possible. One paragraph talks – in the vaguest of terms – about non-specific character fates. I’ve placed the offending sentences within [ ] if you’d rather not take your chances.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Stars: Karen Gillen, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans
Problem #1. You’ve made a 21-part cinematic universe and you’re going to draw a significant line under a large part of that with your 22nd entry. In order to build up incredible anticipation and suspense for this finale, you’ve put a cliffhanger in place, thus ensuring whetted appetites. If nothing else, your audience (which has grown significantly over a decade) will want a resolution to your dangling narrative. BUT, you’ve overplayed your hand. You’ve gone too big. The press juggernaut for future installments undermines your present. Your audience knows what you’ve done will – somehow – be undone. You’ve raised the stakes, but your cliffhanger is cheap.
Problem #2. Your franchise is incredibly vanilla, aside for one or two notable exceptions. However, while the overall colour palette and approach to elements like visual effects is consistent, the separate entities have become emboldened by pushing out tonally. Characters who exist in giant space operas have become (or always have been) jolly and ridiculous. Your earthbound heroes, meanwhile, are more serious and reserved. Your big finish collides these groups. What kind of tone do you choose?
Problem #3. In the last couple of months you’ve belatedly introduced a character far more powerful than the rest of your superheroes combined. In fact, this problem has been recurring throughout your run. How do you now implement this character or excuse their absence when it could alter the outcome of a scene in – forgive me – a snap?
And Problem #4, which is very much my problem: How on earth do you write a critique of a movie without actually talking about it? Honestly, it’s verrrry tempting to just give you the score without context and have done with it.
Avengers: Endgame. Awaited with bated breath by many. Darling of the critics already. A billion dollar blockbuster in the making that’ll challenge Avatar for its ungainly title as the world’s most profitable film.
It just isn’t very good…
…depending on who you are.
For the majority of Marvel fans – both hardcore comic collectors and those won over by these movies – Endgame will be great. It does what these movies do. Alan Silvestri provides a rousing score, brimming with heroism. The VFX teams who take up half of those endless end credits knock it out of the park. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely know this universe inside out, and so – this being the big finish (but not really) and all – as much as a third of Endgame‘s three hours is pure fan service. Callbacks, cameos, references, nods to camera, you name it. They’re all in there and they’re generous. The intention is celebratory.
All of these things are positive, on the one hand.
On the other they’re boring. The music is too intrusive. The VFX suck the humanity out of the thing. The amount of fan service is grossly pandering and indulgent. It’s a coin toss and one that’s very difficult to look on dimly, mainly because nobody likes a buzzkill. But I’m afraid that’s my take.
It starts out strongly. In fact, most of the first hour of Endgame is top-tier Marvel, precisely because it does what the series doesn’t often do. It slows down for character. It contemplates failure and loss. Following Thanos’ fateful fingerwork, the MCU now more closely resembles an episode of HBO’s The Leftovers (said network’s greatest creative triumph of the decade I WILL FIGHT YOU). The world is plagued with introspection. It has, in a sense, ended. Our survivors are at their most vulnerable and human. Even when they’re a raccoon-thing. There are quiet scenes here. And more than that, scenes that remind you that the MCU has snared some of the most talented actors in the business… and then largely squandered them. Props to Scarlett Johansson, Karen Gillen, Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. especially, for really going for the meat of these scenes.
But then the Ragnarok problem disrupts the thing. Taika Waititi’s hugely entertaining flick reconfigured Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It was a much-needed overhaul, but that sensibility is completely at odds with everything else that’s happening here. That, coupled with the main narrative drive of the entire second act, changes the game (so to speak). If you allow yourself to be taken out of the film (which I did, alas), its very difficult to pry your way back in. You’re stuck on the outside, looking at one of the silliest storylines you’ve ever encountered anywhere. This followed by – I’m sorry, okay! – one of the ugliest Big Battles™ in film.
This itself is on the Russo brothers, who have had tremendous success with Marvel through playing it safe. The awkward truth of it is that they’re not particularly inspired directors of action. And when Endgame flexes these muscles, it’s just not interesting. That aforementioned fan service gets in the way, too. Jumping from one location to another to breathlessly deliver wry nuggets is all well and good, but at this velocity there’s no time to appreciate the sentiment. It becomes like all that nostalgic soup in Ready Player One; a wall of noise.
In spite of its expansive three hours, there’s just not enough time here. Several Earthbound characters are thrust into intergalactic intrigue without the time to process this monumental change in dynamic. The film cheekily addresses this as an issue… but doesn’t do anything to solve it. And this is endemic of a larger problem here. Endgame is everything, all at once. Imagine going to a food court and having a bit of everything. Thai. Italian. Fried chicken. Burgers. Sushi. Indian. Mexican. All on the one plate. Now imagine having to ingest it all as fast as possible. But. For. Ages. The wonderful slowness of the start of the picture only compounds the issue later. Even more rushing is required.
There’s heart here. There are big moments. There are galactic plot holes. Endgame is a convoluted, wobbly, implausibly ambitious beast. It’s a massive, weird, stumbling hulk of a film. It has as many endings as Return Of The King and that’s not a bad thing; they’re all earned. Like they were in Return Of The King. [And some characters who may never return are given superb send-offs that fittingly complement their character arcs. Serious hat-tips on that score.]
But there’s that disingenuous problem again. It’s not the end. There’s a new Spider-man in a couple of months. And there’ll be a new Black Panther. And so on. There is no end game.*
This isn’t the review I wanted it to be. Early consensus seems to be that this is the best thing ever in the MCU. Which makes me feel like one of those angry nerds, yelling on Twitter about how The Last Jedi sucked. I went in with middling expectations but buoyed by optimism. I came out exhausted. Not liking Endgame isn’t a cause, or an axe to grind. It’s just where I am.
Sorry, I guess.
*And not nearly enough Captain Marvel.