AT THE MOVIES
The Avengers Find a Worthy “End”
By Noah Gittell
Over the past eleven years, I’ve had my share of doubts about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although I’ve liked many of the films themselves, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the mark in some long cross-promotional con, in which each work had no meaning unto itself except to be a bridge between the films that came before and after. It was a perfect corporate scheme to sell tickets. These films talk a lot about the concept of destiny, and I always just assumed mine was to keep buying tickets for them until I die.
With the release of “Avengers: Endgame,” my cynicism is waning. The final film in this phase of the MCU is just that good, and more importantly, it is committed to its finality. All of the deliberately loose threads from previous films are wrapped up tightly in an exhilarating story designed to satisfy casual observers and superfans alike. It’s so good that it makes me grade the previous films higher in retrospect. It’s the new platonic ideal of blockbuster filmmaking.
It starts, of course, where the last one left off. Half of all humanity has been wiped out by purple supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his magic glove. Among the living are the original Avengers — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — plus Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). After a grueling opening sequence in which they briefly reunite to find Thanos, only to once again have their hopes extinguished, we abruptly cut to five years later, with all of our beloved heroes having moved on. Tony Stark has a family, Cap is hanging out at support groups for the bereaved, and Black Widow is dutifully but unenthusiastically continuing to fight bad guys.
It’s a dour beginning to this final chapter, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who helmed three previous entries, have a plan. Things lighten up considerably when Ant-Man arrives on the scenes with a scheme to travel through time in order to reclaim the Infinity Stones and reverse Thanos’ decree. I won’t spoil too many details here, but it involves revisiting some iconic moments from previous films, a trick Robert Zemeckis invented in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, which, furthering Marvel’s commitment to pop culture savviness, is referenced here.
Post-modern gags are a sugary treat for the audience, but they aren’t what elevates “Endgame” to the best of the franchise. Rather, it’s that for once its talented actors are allowed to really show off their chops. Downey is likely to receive the MCU’s first acting Oscar nominations for his poignant, perhaps final performance as Stark. Once just a “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist,” Stark has now grown into a husband and father (and father figure to Spider-Man) with much to lose. In many ways, this is his film, and Downey brings a complexity of emotion that stirringly encompasses the character’s experiences over the last decade.
The rest of the cast comes off just as well. Oscar nominees Ruffalo, Johansson, and Renner finally feel unshackled from their costumes, and less-heralded talents Evans and Hemsworth both rise to the singular occasion and do their best work yet. Still, Rudd might be the stealth MVP of “Endgame”, filling the role of audience surrogate with enthusiasm and wry humor. I’ve been waiting for years for some character, when the Avengers are rambling on about Tesseracts and Infinity Stones, to say something like, “I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” and Rudd finally gets to do it here. The line gets an enormous laugh that was a long time coming.
Put simply, “Avengers: Endgame” has everything you want from a superhero movie: laughs, tears, surprises, callbacks, balletic fight scenes, explosive battles, and, most importantly, a sense of resolution that makes its victories and defeats feel like they actually matter. Notably, there are no post-credit scenes in this film, reminding viewers that, although there will certainly be more Marvel movies (two are already scheduled for this year), “Endgame” truly represents the end of a journey. It makes this once-cynical moviegoer wonder: Did the superpowers-that-be over at Marvel always know they were building to something this great, or did they perfect the formula as they went along? It hardly matters. When a movie is this good, you can just assume that it was destiny.
My Rating: See it in the Theater