What is an epic? To silence any doubters, Avengers: Endgame features a grand sequence modelled on one of cinema’s most iconic and revered scenes. A man wearing a red cloak commands torrential waters to make way, unmistakably invoking Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. And even this massive shot is easy to miss. Capping off 21 films of varying quality and candied spectacle, Endgame feels monumental. This is the big tent, the big finish, the Cecil B De Marvel. Thou best not blink.
Even from the House Of Ideas, this feels preposterous: An interconnected ‘cinematic universe’ spread across more than ten years and double that many films, tying into one another regardless of aesthetic/genre/protagonists, hurtling toward the same conclusion. The lazy comparison parallells the Marvel films to a 22-episode season of (monstrously loud) television, but the truer one is that of a comic-book crossover event, where different artists and writers grapple with varied characters across surroundings, style, and many, many books, to build to the same glorious splash-pages. The ambition is daft, given how promptly, and inexorably superhero movies can crash. And it is mad-scientist crazy to start with Iron Man, a hero barely known outside the pages.
Yet here we are. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Endgame is a triumph of storytelling that not only sticks the landing, but makes the journey worthwhile. The mastery lies in the way it makes all the films before itself count. All of them.
I detested Avengers: Infinity War. It was relentlessly dour, lacked imaginative flair, and tried to manipulate the audience’s emotions in the most blatant and soap-operatic of ways. The final moment — where half the universe’s population crumbled to dust with a snap of the fingers — played out like a gimmick instead of the elegy it deserved to be, because we saw characters ‘die’ while knowing they would get their own movies next summer. As a film, it rang shallow, exploitative of its now-hardcore audience. The gasps felt as canned as a laugh-track.
It may now be said Endgame almost required Infinity War to be mediocre — a tedious assignment comic-book writers fight not to get, one they have to get done with before the final push — because all that portentousness needed to be out of the way. It has been given meaning now. Quite simply, Endgame shows how little it matters if we, the viewers, consider The Snap to be inconsequential, a mere sleight of cosmic hand. What matters is what it puts the characters through. As with affairs of the heart, the wrung mean more than the wringer.
Endgame opens with a minor hero who sees his world vanish, and we see the consequences of that ghastly snap ring out across the world. Families and futures, loves and lives have all been halved. Solemn tributes to those evaporated in the event stand like monoliths in city centres, like bricks turned on their sides, looking like a cross between the Holocaust memorials in Berlin and the freestanding blocks of Stonehenge.
The Avengers are not as we know them. Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow, sobs into hastily made peanut-butter sandwiches. Thor’s ethereal kingdom of Asgard is now a fishing village. The gloss has fallen off the world.
Yet the Marvel spirit lives on, indomitably. For a movie this emotional and with stakes so towering, Endgame is astonishingly thrilling and clever. It is dead serious, even profound, but irrepressible and witty, propelled by the buoyancy of the very best comic books. And by an abiding love of the movies we have held all these years. This feels as if it was made by people who care about the characters as much as we do.
This is Marvel proclaiming that ‘fanservice’ is not a dirty word. Loyalists are rewarded for their attention. Endgame repeatedly harkens back to the films that have come before — sometimes predictably, always affectionately — even looking back at some clumsy, unloved ones. There are self-aware nods to the comics and intelligent shifts in perspective: for our heroes, yes, but also for us. One scene, for instance, takes us back to one of the grooviest Marvel music moments, but lets us witness it from afar, showing a self-declared hero groove to a track he can hear but others can’t, making him look as silly as he is. This may be a film about Earth’s Mighty Avengers, but its heart and its heroes, as one character is derisively called, are regular-sized.
The actors are key. Over the years, some of us have groaned at seeing the finest actors end up in Marvel movies, consigned to spandex and silliness instead of worthier drama, but this is where it pays off as these extraordinary performers demonstrate just how much they have made us care — and how much they care. The core Avengers performers Scarlett Johannson, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo do the lifting in Endgame, and while one would usually complement them on making it look effortless, here it works the other way around: it is impressive how heavy they make it feel. We knew there would be many moving pieces, we didn’t realise they’d be this moving.
Has satisfaction ever seemed this exhilarating? I can’t remember when a film felt this larger-than-life as well as this personally crafted, like a film made exclusively for my truly believing self. I imagine this may have been how Star Wars fans felt watching The Empire Strikes Back the first time, every box ticked, every desire surpassed. I teared up half a dozen times, and not because of sadness, but overcome with the contentment of a comic-book moment done immaculately, goosebumpily right. Remember when The Joker did that magic trick with the pencil? Or when Mary Jane Watson told Peter Parker to go get ‘em? This may not be Marvel’s best film, but it boasts of more Moments than ’em all.
Here’s the thing: I knew what would come and guessed who would leave us, many of us did, and yet Endgame makes the audience feel fortunate. As viewers gratefully watch this film over and over, I hope it makes some of them realise how little spoilers matter. (Remember that the comic-books where Superman died were advertised, loud and proud, as the comic-books where Superman died.)
There is much to discuss and even debate about Endgame — not least its problematic desire for catharsis bloodlust, with an iconically friendly character disturbingly activating ‘Instant Kill’ mode on his suit — but this is a review without spoilers, and there is only that much nudging and winking to be done around details. There will be another piece in a couple of days where I dive into plot and character specifics, and I must compel myself to stop for now. I can do this all day, you know.
Rating: 4.5 stars