Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War was as finely calibrated a piece of action cinema as you’re ever likely to see, with a vast host of characters taking their turn upon the stage. There, each one generally did something awesome during their moment in the spotlight and passed the metaphorical baton gracefully to the next comer. You might expect more of the same in the Endgame that now follows, but this time Joe and Anthony Russo have delivered a stranger, scrappier beast. This deals with the messy business of emotional fallout and character development. The trick is that it does so in a way that’s equally satisfying – and that the action, when it comes, is less precise but far more impactful.
Marvel fans won’t be surprised to learn that most of the clips you’ve glimpsed in the trailer come in the first 15 minutes of the movie and were given to you a little out of context. But virtually everything that you haven’t seen in that 15 minutes will surprise you, and that’s just the prelude. This entire first act is primarily about coping with grief and loss, and the many different forms that takes. All five stages of grief are here somewhere, though no one has made it all the way through depression to complete acceptance. As Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) said even in the trailers, “Some people move on. But not us.”
Nothing is safe until everything is safe; nothing is over until it’s really, completely over.
They’re struggling – even those whose lives and families were ostensibly left untouched. Steve may run to a returning Tony’s (Robert Downey Jr.) side, both united in failure, but there’s still bad blood between them, and Steve’s attempts to hold up everyone else’s morale are clearly paper-thin covers for his own vast despair. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) may still crack wise, but they’re barely functional without the support networks that once sustained them. And Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is taking out his fury at the universe, and at an unreachable Thanos, on any criminal who had the temerity to survive when his family did not. There’s alcoholism, depression, drastic lifestyle changes and simple avoidance of things too painful to face.
So yes, expect metaphorical gut punches galore in this early section, before they come up with a plan that just might work to put things right and deliver a satisfying gut punch to the purple bastard who ruined things. But it’s surprisingly funny even in its darkest moments. “I get emails from a racoon so nothing seems crazy anymore,” says Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) wryly. Tony and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) crack wise dependably, and one character delives a piece of, er, call it physical comedy that subverts expectation brilliantly and offers one of the biggest laughs of the entire franchise.
If the theme of the last film was “We don’t trade lives, Vision” this one is all about responsibility, and self-sacrifice, and being willing to do “whatever it takes” to win the day. It’s a battle between the past and future, and an argument about which one we should do more to protect. Here, nothing is safe until everything is safe; nothing is over until it’s really, completely over.
This is not just about getting the gang back together, but taking the time to share knowledge, form a plan and work as a team in order to do some actual avenging for once. It’s a long film, but it doesn’t feel it even with all these talky scenes. We get a steady stream returning characters – and not just heroes – that ensure your interest never has a chance to wane: the cast of this film is a indie director’s fever dream, an embarrassment of riches that is well invested at key moments. Inevitably a few characters are underserved, with Rocket, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and maybe even Natasha short a scene or two while others get far more than before, but it’s hard to see what else could have been cut without losing something important. Cap, in particular, becomes the heart of this film in a big way. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely came up through his films and let the love show here, though to be fair this is a film that trips back through characters, moments and lines from the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe back catalogue.
Then there is the action. There are a few feints early on that skew far from the expected template, but the big brawl that finishes – that had to finish this – is one for the ages. The action sometimes moves a little too fast to really grasp, but there’s so much to entertain that it seems unfair to complain. It’s punctuated by moments of pure, giddy delight that put Thor’s arrival in Wakanda into the shade, and moments of emotion that hit hard; if this is fan service (OK, it’s definitely fan service) it’s exceptionally well deployed. Except, maybe, for one nod to grrrl power that is uncharacteristically clumsy.
That moment doesn’t drag it down for long; there’s too much else happening that is awesome. Sure, there’s a touch of Return Of The King syndrome creeping in at the end. Sure, the plot has a particular breed of logic hole that you could drive a bus through. You won’t care. We’re never going to object to another five minutes in the company of this company.