Wednesday, April 24, 2019

'Avengers: Endgame' (2019) Movie Review

captain america grimacing

With Avengers: Endgame, Marvel manages to both take their expansive, episodic superhero saga in a direction I did not see coming, but also plays it out in entirely predictable, familiar fashion. At three hours, this movie is a lot, and it falls into some of the typical MCU pitfalls, but overall, it’s a blast, serves as an end point but also a beginning, and will more than satisfy fans who have devoted ten plus years and 20 plus chapters to these tales. At this point, Marvel knows their fans and what they want, and there’s going to be plenty of tears and cheers in the audience.

Just FYI, if you haven’t watched Avengers: Infinity War, one, why are you reading this? And two, don’t read any further. I plan to keep plot points to a minimum, but it’s impossible to discuss Endgame in any way without talking about the end of Infinity War. Be warned..

thanos' armor

At its core, Endgame is about the past and fighting to move on, in whatever form that takes. In the wake of Thanos’ snap, those who remain are left to cope with the past. It’s essentially a world with PTSD, coping with massive, unimaginable trauma, and barely clinging to itself. 

Maudlin and broken, the remaining heroes contend the best they can. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) steps up and runs the remaining Avengers to continue protecting the world’s status quo. Captain America (Chris Evans), true to form, runs a support group to help people come to terms with what happened. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes off the deep end—the less said about him, the better, but he provides many, many highlights. Industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) of all people, finds a kind of peace and purpose he’s never known. Everyone is damaged, but some are broken beyond repair. And we get answers to many lingering questions about those who were lost.

hawkeye looking sad in the rain

From this vantage point, the story forces characters to confront their histories. It also provides the MCU the opportunity to glance back at and revisit previous films. Through the course of Endgame, everyone looks backward and has the opportunity to face their past, both literally and figuratively—much of the marketing strategy makes a great deal of sense in retrospect. Some of these moments hit like an unexpected punch to the gut that forces all the air out of your lungs. But for every devastating, powerful moment, others land with much less impact. 

It’s not that they’re bad, but in contrast to the times where you hear the entire crowd sniffle or the whole audience erupts as one, they stand out as just kind of okay. The emotional beats that really get me tend to be the unanticipated ones—everyone expects Cap and Tony or Natasha and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to have theirs, but one quiet shot between Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) damn near killed me.

thor looking sad at avengers hq

Part of the issue is there’s simply so much going on. After an extended, maudlin opening act where the characters mope about the fallout, they jump into action and execute a crazy plan, essentially a galaxy-spanning heist to set things right. Various teams split up and embark on various missions, each of which is tailor-made to make them to revisit painful memories. These often even split off into smaller sub-missions. 

And as we track certain threads, others fall by the wayside for long stretches. To the point where it’s easy to forget what the hell is even going on over in this region of the universe. Because it leaps form one to the next after lengthy asides, it impacts the pacing and there’s a jerky, uneven flow in the middle, something largely avoided in Infinity War. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo want to give each storyline the space, especially because this represents a culmination of so many things, but it gets bumpy trying to provide each character with their moment, more than a few of which drag on as characters indulge in long soliloquies. (That’s my fancy way of saying it gets real talky-talky.)

iron man's helmet

Visually, Endgame falls into that common Marvel trap where everything is flat and bland. Even in deep space or on fantastical worlds, scenes look like they were filmed in a parking lot. For the most part, it’s unobtrusive, but early on, when the film hammers home the sad, gloomy tone, it’s all a flat, blue wash that almost comes across as under-lit. Please, turn on a lamp.

That said, the big climactic battle—you know there’s a big climactic battle—exceeds expectations. Probably my biggest issue with Marvel movies—and superhero movies in general—is that so often the ultimate superhero clashes resemble massive CGI smears that look only slightly higher quality than videogame cut scenes. I’m thinking Civil War, Infinity War, Black Panther. The Russos do a fantastic job building up to the conflict, of ratcheting up the emotional stakes to almost unbearable levels, to the point where the audience is so tense they’re about to snap.  

iron man shields hawkeye from danger

Given what usually follows, I was prepared for, not a letdown, but something familiar and standard, something we’ve seen before. But that’s not the case. This particular battle has scope and scale that matches the sweeping, epic nature of the story. The action is crisp and clear and delineated, there’s always a sense of who is where and what’s going on. They weave in individual threads and emotional moments, but not in a forced way that’s out of place amidst the swirling chaos, and not in a way that’s detrimental to the flow. This is huge cinematic spectacle done well.

Marvel head Kevin Feige recently said that Endgame isn’t the actual finale for the MCU’s current phase and that Spider-Man: Far From Home will wrap things up later this summer. This, however, feels like the end, or at least an end. It is, in fact, the curtain call for a number of characters, though not necessarily the ones fandom expects nor in the way expected.

black widow grinning

Honestly, as the credits role on Endgame, it’s difficult to imagine what comes next. The studio has set up newer, continuing characters, and they obviously have a plan. But if they never make another movie, this would serve as a satisfactory conclusion to the adventure in almost every way. With few exceptions, the bulk of the characters we’ve spent the last ten years with, tie up their arcs. It’s similar to the season finale of TV show when they’re not 100% certain they’ll be back next season. And isn’t this essentially just one ongoing, multifaceted narrative? 

Though there are seeds planted for future stories, I’m curious where Marvel goes next. Not even from a plot perspective, but from an overall approach. Endgame is so immense, so sprawling, and they go so big, whatever comes next runs the risk of feeling small, minor in comparison. Granted, they have decades worth of comics to mine for content, but it’s hard to envision anything more grandiose. Maybe they’ll steer into it and go small, telling more intimate stories. Perhaps things will go straight-up galactic. Basically, after watching this, it’ll be intriguing as all hell to see where Marvel goes from here and what choices they make in terms of scope and story and character.

brie larson smirking

Avengers: Endgame delivers what most fans, both the hardcore and the causal, want to see. It’s definitely too long, allows certain scenes to drag, and is an exhausting marathon in many ways. But while there are a few ho-hum moments, there are equally stunning, stirring, triumphant ones where it’s damn near impossible not to cheer.

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