After 11 years and 22 films, the ongoing saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to a turning point. Avengers: Endgame serves not just as the conclusion to the story started last April in Avengers: Infinity War, but it also works to wrap up character arcs and story threads that began seven, eight, or even 10 years ago. That it does so successfully, in a massive, incredibly entertaining epic that is as emotional as it is spectacular, is due to the craft, world-building, and devotion to character empathy and development that has marked the best efforts of this franchise.
As one might expect, there is no easy way to summarize or explain the plot without delving into spoilers, and make no mistake, there are spoilers around almost every corner. But the gist of the story is simple enough and pretty much accurate to what has been shown in the trailers: after Thanos (Josh Brolin) has cut the population of the universe in half with a snap of the Infinity Gauntlet, the surviving Avengers — the original six plus a few remaining allies — immediately deploy a plan to find the Mad Titan, wrest the Gauntlet from him, and undo his monstrous actions.
Naturally, more than a few obstacles are thrown in the path of our heroes, forcing them not just to reconsider their options but to re-examine the choices they’ve made along the way and the paths their lives are taking now. The most surprising thing about Avengers: Endgame is its structure: unlike Infinity War, which sped along on a constant stream of high-octane action sequences, Endgame’s first hour contains few pyrotechnics by comparison, and it’s a testament to how involved we’ve become with these characters that the viewer doesn’t care and the time flies by anyway (except for the first few scenes, as the picture starts up, the movie does not feel like three hours at all).
Those who were disappointed that some of the original Avengers were either short-changed (or missing entirely) in Infinity War won’t have any complaints here. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are front and center, with each of them facing decisions and actions that in some cases have roots going back to their very first screen appearances. Also playing important roles are Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), while Brolin’s Thanos is as menacing and imposing as ever — if a tad less complex than he was in Infinity War.
That and a few other flaws do take a little of the gloss off this otherwise sumptuous and exhilarating adventure. While the pacing is fine for most of the movie, a handful of sequences feel a bit rushed; one in particular, a real crossroads moment involving two characters, mirrors a similar scene in Infinity War but doesn’t seem to get the same space to breathe and be as emotionally impactful as it should. A few developments for certain characters happen offscreen but could have perhaps benefited from a little more exploration. And some of the mechanics of the plot, without getting into spoiler territory, may benefit from a second viewing if they hold up at all (but given the nature of the story, that material was always going to be tricky anyway, a point that the film even sort of acknowledges).
As for the common objection that one hears from critics of the MCU — that the viewer will be lost if they’re not up on a good chunk of the previous movies — the only answer to that now is “too bad.” Perhaps more than any other MCU film, it will be pretty damn hard to walk cold into Endgame and fully grasp what’s happening — not just in its relation to Infinity War, but with regards to the many callbacks to earlier moments in the other 21 movies. But frankly, if you’re walking into this movie without having seen “enough” of the others or at least being versed in what has come before, then what the hell are you doing there? After 11 years, Marvel Studios has earned the right to operate on its own terms, and is long past the point of coddling the paying customer.
Avengers: Endgame is the pinnacle of that, a three-hour celebration of everything that has come before and a deep dive into all-out fan service that doesn’t feel forced. Sure, there are little in-jokes and references (to both earlier movies and the comics themselves) that are going to fly over some viewers’ heads, but the overall warmth, humor, and emotional connection that has helped almost all these movies work so well over the past decade also go a long way here. With the sense of finality that pervades the movie, there are also moments that will have fans on the edge of their seats, expecting the worst — and in some cases getting it.
The final third of Endgame is simply overpowering, a senses-filling extravaganza that pays off the build of the first two hours and fully embraces the comic book origins of the MCU in a way that surpasses the visual cues of the films that have come before. By the same token, the movie opens the floodgates once and for all in the MCU in terms of what kinds of stories can be told, and how: nothing is ever going to be too weird or cosmic or “out there” again. Marvel’s careful, gradual cultivation of the many bizarre corners and aspects of its realm has now allowed the studio to make almost whatever movie it wants to.
Kudos are due to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for their (in this writer’s opinion, underrated) ability to juggle a multitude of characters and plot strands while keeping their eyes squarely on the characters and how their actions drive the story, and to directors Anthony and Joe Russo for putting it all on the screen in an often beautiful and panoramic vista that bounces from images of almost poetic power to searing explosions of comic book insanity. After four movies in a row, one almost wishes this quartet would keep hanging around the MCU. Overseeing them and their always magnificent cast is Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who has shepherded this universe to the screen in a way many didn’t think possible, and seen it through to this culminating moment with few missteps.
Of course, more Marvel movies are coming. And some of the many characters in Avengers: Endgame will appear in them. But even for a franchise that seems comfortably able to go on and on as long as the audience keeps showing up, Endgame does pull off the feat of feeling remarkably like a finale, and even the most casual fan may feel the emotional tug of those moments. For long-term, fully invested Marvel fans, Endgame will be both devastating and life-affirming, a story of sacrifice, memory, guilt, and loss that is also a mind-bending superhero blockbuster and a poignant exploration of what it means to be a hero. As Iron Man himself says, part of the journey is the end…but the end is also a new beginning.
Avengers: Endgame is out in theaters.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye