|Original caricature by Jeff York of the characters from AVENGERS: ENDGAME. (copyright 2019)|
Keeping ahead of the fanboys and pundits online is a ceaseless task. When Marvel Studios decided to split its concluding AVENGERS opus into two parts, it was a Herculean one. Not only would they need to deliver two incredible films after such hype, but they’d need to keep all the spoilers a secret by keeping the gossipers, fanboys, and trolls at bay in the year between chapters. Thankfully, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) head honcho Kevin Feige and crew have not only managed to deliver two accessible and thrilling epics back-to-back, but they’ve kept most everything very close to the vest. Not only is AVENGERS: END GAME a fitting conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, but it’s moving, profound, and filled with unexpected twists and genuine hilarity.
The MCU has always ensured that their stories are character-driven. Stan Lee and Bruce Kirby laid down a template that no matter what incredible powers the superheroes they created had, they were even more fascinating as people behind the masks. And vulnerability is the key to ensuring that, providing an ironic counter to their out-of-this-world abilities. That’s why Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) is so stubborn and egotistical. It’s why Captain America is so idealistic, almost to the point where you’d want to jam his shiny, white teeth down his throat. It is why the Guardians of the Galaxy resemble a group therapy session more than a band of planet savers. They’re all relatable people.
In AVENGERS: ENDGAME, the film succeeds mostly because we care about those vulnerable heroes as they try to restore goodness to the universe or some sense of purpose to their lives. It’s not easy, what with the world falling apart with 50% less to occupy and take care of it after the villainous Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the galaxy. How these heroes succeed or don’t succeed is what gives the film its power and most of the surprises. It starts right off the bat with a malnourished Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) lost in space, adrift in a spaceship with Nebula (Karen Gillan), the only other remaining survivor from their battle on Titan in INFINITY WAR. It’s a very dark beginning, and the film actually gets darker from there. Sure, the movie balances it out some with overt hilarity and exciting adventure scenes, but make no mistake, this film has a real edge to it.
(NOTE: I will reveal some plot spoilers in the next three paragraphs, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you likely expected them. Still, if you don’t want to know anything, skip ahead.)
Not that it’s much of a surprise, but Stark’s ship is rescued by the most logical superhero to pull off such a stunt, you know, she’s the one who can fly through space all by her lonesome. But from there, the first big shocker in the film is in how quickly the team heads out on their mission to avenge what happened in INFINITY WAR. Most of the online chatter expected such a set-piece to be held more towards the climax of the film, but the bold folks at MCU throw it in after just 30 minutes. From there, many more rugs are pulled, and part of the delight is in how shocking most of them are.
Did anyone expect that the narrative would continue after a title card announces “Five years later”? Indeed, that’s what happens, and even more shockingly the world has gone to see along with the team. There’s few to pick up the refuse in the world, and even fewer evil forces to fight. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) keeps going through different hairstyles, likely thinking that the change will do her good, but the effects of Miss Clairol are only a temporary boost. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) quietly seethes, lost in his own past and regrets. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has finally managed to live with his Hulk side daily, but he’s kind of a buffoon. It’s not a good look for him in either way.
Meanwhile, the lack of Captain Marvel’s presence in the narrative is another big surprise, let alone her new short ‘do which coincides with the character’s comic book look. She’s needed elsewhere in the universe, and it’s a bit of a letdown on how little screen time Brie Larson has in the role. Was that a miscalculation on the executive’s part at MCU, a bet hedged if her film leading into this one wasn’t a blockbuster. Something similar happened with BLACK PANTHER, as those characters were quite peripheral in INFINITY WAR, but no matter, Captain Marvel isn’t around much until the end.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up, and that time travel will likely play a crucial part in correcting the universal landscape. However, at every point, the film zigs when it would have probably been fine to merely zag. I won’t give away any more except to say that Karen Gillan’s Nebula is the key female character here, and she’s terrific in the part of course, and to inform you that Chris Hemsworth steals the film. He’s one exceptional comic actor, and Thor has quickly become a standout character that hopefully will continue on and on in the MCU.
The film manages to blend in serious, moving moments buttressed right up against LOL lines and thrilling set-pieces. This all occurs while the story keeps its eye on questions about how one can change their world, no matter if they’re a superhero or mere mortal. Certain characters find out that they can’t go home again, and others realize that they can. It’s instead a profound film in what it has to say about loss and the real winning being found in how we handle it. Sometimes, having a silver hammer or an infinity stone doesn’t make one bit of difference.
As if all that isn’t entertainment enough, the film continues to traffic in sly little Easter eggs and inside jokes that weave into the mix without ever becoming obnoxious. Specific quotes from the 20-year oeuvre return, as do several characters who are more than welcomed back onscreen and off. Two of my favorite Easter egg-y bits include a spoof of Michael Douglas’ hair and running style from his 1970s resume, and the fast-talking debate about time travel in films. The discussion hits upon a dozen or so cultural references, but they may have missed a golden opportunity to have Gillan’s Nebula character reference her old stomping ground – DOCTOR WHO.
Yes, the inevitable ‘all-hands-on-deck’ set piece is a given, and it’s not too surprising what happens there. Equally predictable is the return of various characters that we know already sequels already in the pipeline. The best surprises are the return of some folks that weren’t predicted (Yay, Hawkeye!) One could also quibble with a second act mission turning on suicide that is a bit too macho for its own good, and additionally, some of the time travel logic doesn’t stand up. Doctor Strange’s prophecy from INFINITY WAR is given a quick glance, but not much in the way of thorough explanation. Still, these are not deal breakers. The film exceeds expectations, they were pretty high.
So, where do the Avengers go from here? A new team, the new batch, perhaps? The MCU could take a stab at getting the Fantastic Four on the right path, or maybe they’ll get ahold of the X-Men franchise and straighten that all out. Yet if this is indeed the end of a so-called era, so be it. It’s been one helluva run, and those tears in your eyes will be from all the laughter and all the goodbyes.