“Avengers assemble” is a stupid line. Actually, it’s a stupid line when spoken out loud. In comics it’s a great line. You’ve got the alliteration of the two As lining up in print. It rolls across the eyes when read and you can do some great stuff with fonts, sizes, and design when it’s written in a comic bubble. It really works in print.
But, man, when its said out loud does it ever hit with a thud. If there wasn’t decades of history behind that line it wouldn’t work at all. You’d scratch your head and wonder why the writer chose such an anti-climatic phrasing. Assemble? Are we all going to the gymnasium in grade school to duke it out with Thanos? I mean, I can come up with a whole host of more bad ass things to say at any given moment. It’s really only a functional line because it was established as one over years and years of comics and continuity.
Avengers: Endgame is much the same. It is functional only because it is built on ten years of MCU content (and because the Russo brothers are masters of editing and plotting construction). This movie, without the emotional and historical build up that the myriad of Marvel films brought before it, would simply be a better directed Justice League. With it, and it physically can’t be viewed without that context, it assembles in ways that are truly magic.
Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
Release Date: April 26, 2019
You’re not really here to know if you should go see Avengers: Endgame or not. Chances are you’re going to go see it or, if you aren’t, you already weren’t. The culmination of the MCU’s ten years of existence isn’t something that people are looking for a recommendation about. They’re either in or they’re not. No, you’re reading this simply because you can’t see the movie yet and because at some point you’ll want to yell at the film critics for getting it wrong or feel good that we got it right and you did too.
The thing is there may not be a wrong or right here. The film’s very existence is good. We run into a problem with evaluating Marvel movies. I’m going to call it the Pixar Problem. All Pixar movies, so far, are good. When you evaluate a Pixar film you’re grading it on a different scale relative to other Pixar films, not relative to the rest of the animated film world. The simple fact is that Marvel’s movies, much like Pixar, are varying degrees of good. It’s pretty astonishing that over the past ten years Marvel hasn’t released a single true dud. There have been varying degrees of quality, but nothing truly bad. Decent is our bottom line here.
It is more than the Pixar Problem, though. The MCU is something that has never been done before. What’s the basis to review a film that’s the culmination of ten years of interconnected cinema with so many characters and stars that actors whose names are usually listed above a movie’s title aren’t even mentioned until 20 rows down in the end credit scroll? No one has done this before so it’s hard to say that something is flawed in some way because it’s quite possible that it was the only way to get it done. The mere fact that Endgame even functions and exists is kind of a cinematic miracle that can not be ignored. The conclusion here is that, of course, Endgame is good because it exists at all. It works. It is. At some level that is enough.
Thankfully, Endgame is also much more than enough.
Ten years ago as part of a teaser at the end of the credits of Iron Man, a movie that had every reason to fail, Marvel Studios, a studio that was one film away from collapsing, had Robert Downey Jr., an actor who had already failed multiple times, listen to Samuel L. Jackson talk about the Avengers. A lot of plot has happened since then, including last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, in which the bad guy won and killed half the living creatures in the entire universe. Endgame picks up directly after that in an opening sequence you will not see coming, that feels more like the continuation of the previous film than the start of a new movie. It’s honestly a bold statement of how your expectations are going to be subverted in many ways as the film plays out while dishing out fan service left and right.
The movie is as much a conclusion to the plot of Infinity War as it is a celebration of the MCU over the last ten years. The story allows for so much fan service it would feel like pandering in any other film that hadn’t earned it with a decade of build up. There are fan service moments here that would be eye-rollingly annoying in their desire to please the crowd if it wasn’t an MCU movie but because it is, and because we’ve all been along for the ride, they feel immensely powerful instead. It’s the kind of stuff that would be torn apart outside of the context of what Marvel has done but inside it feels like a deserved pat on the back and, honestly, it’s really awesome to watch.
This is also a Marvel movie through and through. If you’ve got issues with “Marvel humor” or the “sameness” of all the films in the MCU then Endgame isn’t going to change your mind. There’s nothing groundbreaking here in its presentation or style; it is the Marvel formula writ large. It works really well and it works even better when it’s on a massive scale. The jokes land, the big moments are massive, and the emotional punches come hard. People were audibly crying in the theater at points. The Marvel formula works even if it is a formula.
Endgame isn’t even the best implementation of the formula. It easily ranks in the top ten of Marvel’s movies simply for its scope alone, but it has its issues. It is front loaded with exposition and plotting. There’s ten years of story lines to unfold and the Russo brothers show absolutely no shame in unfolding them, focusing heavily on character and not action. I actually applaud them for the bold decision, but it does mean that the first half of a three hour film feels more like the middle of a six hour one. It is, to put it simply, slow. It’s not that slow doesn’t work but given expectations it’s definitely a hard mental shift to get yourself into. I wonder how the two films will function when watched all together and if, upon second viewing, the first half of Endgame will seem a bit less cumbersome.
There’s also some odd character decisions going on. Thor’s story line is especially hampered by what feels like an early site gag that the screenwriters and directors couldn’t get out of. I applaud the efforts to bring everyone — and I mean everyone — back in one way or another for a final celebratory round but that fan service does come at a bit of a plotting price that means some characters’ stories, like Hawkeye’s, don’t get the attention they deserve. There are wrap ups for characters you don’t care about and dangling threads for characters you do.
Some characters are wonderfully implemented and unfold brilliantly, though. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, for instance, is at his best in Endgame and if you had told me that Karen Gillian’s Nebula was going to be one of the most powerful through lines of the Avengers saga when the original Guardians landed I would have laughed at you for a week. These inconsistent story lines are simply the nature of the game when you’re dealing with so much. The first half of this film is a perfect representation of the aforementioned issue of having no basis to judge. This very well could be exactly what needs to be done in this situation, we’ve just never seen this situation before. I don’t know how you could have solved the issue.
That second half, though. When things get going, things just go. You’re about to be hit in the face with awesome. The Russos are such masters of weaving together massive, complex, multi-character, storytelling that it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to handle so much going on. While Infinity War had more complex story tracking with characters in multiple worlds and battles, Endgame is still a master work in film construction. It is a lesson in how to convincingly construct a film around a lot of checkpoints so it doesn’t feel like that at all and then dump in every damn bit of fan service you can. There are moments so wonderfully executed that you can’t help but feel giddy, and seeing them in a theater, full of rabid fans, is the kind of endorphin-inducing moment that movie theaters were made for. Whatever price you pay for admission, and I highly recommend seeing this in the best damn theater you can, it will be worth it.
Someone in the near future is going to write a book about these films and that is where we’ll all be able to see a total deconstruction of every actor’s performance, but lets just take a moment to appreciate what Robert Downey Jr. has done. His Tony Stark is the most developed, nuanced, and interesting character in all of the MCU and half of that is his performance. What he brought to a role that other actors might just play straight is striking and Endgame gives him a chance to deliver his best performance. The reason we are here is because of him and the filmmakers know it and let him deliver on it. His performance and Iron Man’s story is truly fan service that, if unearned, would feel cheap, but because he is so good and we are so connected to him it hits every point it should.
There is a lot left to say. You could deconstruct every damn superhero in this movie for pages and then hop on over to Thanos for 50 more. I, in fact, haven’t even mentioned the mad Titan, which might seem strange given that Infinity War was a movie about him. But as much as Infinity War was Thanos’ film, Endgame is the Avengers’. It is a literally heroic send off dedicated to the heroes the world has come to love and a franchise that has captured the zeitgeist of pop culture. If it does absolutely nothing else, it concludes in epic fashion a historical, groundbreaking, and industry-changing series in a satisfying way. That’s no small feat. Avengers assemble, indeed.