Avengers: Endgame   (2019) dir. Anthony & Joe Russo Rated: PG-13  image: ©2019  Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Avengers: Endgame (2019)
dir. Anthony & Joe Russo
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2019 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Those of us who didn’t grow up reading the source material, who can’t recite chapter and verse the labyrinthine backstory for the dozens of characters integrated into the MCU, can sometimes feel like outsiders. As one of those outsiders, my first instinct is to focus on these films’ over-reliance on Earth-in-Peril (and more increasingly, Universe-in-peril) scenarios, the deadening effects of pixelpalooza CGI battles, and the constant hype machine always building towards the next movie.

While the criticisms are valid – especially in the weaker MCU entries like Avengers: Age of Ultron – they cause me too often to overlook the moments of emotional resonance that these movies contain, and the connection that their most loyal fans have to the characters. With Avengers: Endgame, the grand finale and culmination of over 20 Marvel movies spanning more than a decade, it’s impossible to overlook the emotional resonance. Screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and sibling directing team Anthony & Joe Russo made a film rich with human drama.

They eschewed much (but not all, this is an MCU movie) of the city-wide/planet-wide/universe-wide battles in order to let the characters reflect on the personal costs of everything that’s come before it. The 180-minute runtime breaks neatly into three sections, each lasting approximately an hour.

In the first, our heroes, along with the rest of the world, are dealing with the aftereffects of villain Thanos’ victory at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos achieved his goal of using the six Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe’s population in an instant, restoring, in his warped view, a cosmic balance to a finite cosmos that was overpopulated.

This first hour feels thematically and tonally akin to the critically acclaimed HBO television series The Leftovers. That series focuses on how the world copes with a Rapture-like event in which two percent of Earth’s population suddenly vanishes. In Endgame, the devastation is even more acute with a full half of every living thing having crumbled to ash. Markus and McFeely take the time to explore the anguish with which those left behind must cope. The Russo brothers set a mournful tone that gives an emotional weight to these events.

The screenwriters don’t make everything doom and gloom, though. Endgame marks a full half-dozen MCU films on which the pair have worked. They know these characters, and have always infused a healthy dose of comic relief into the pathos. So, while we feel the agony of Thor – the hardest hit of all the Avengers because he had the best chance to stop Thanos – his suffering does come with some light-hearted touches. He has become a recluse, playing video games with his friends Korg and Miek. The physical gag of seeing Thor (and, by extension, star Chris Hemsworth) with a massive beer gut and a wildly unkempt beard never quite gets old.

As you might expect, the second hour of Endgame kicks into “the plan” mode as one character who never appeared in Infinity War resurfaces. Fortuitously, this character has an idea about how to fix Thanos’ coup de grâce after learning all the particulars. There is a lot of time travel hokum involved here, and while there is a healthy dose of just-go-with-it-ism, Markus and McFeely are self-aware enough to poke some fun at it. Just about every time travel movie you can think of is name-checked, with special attention being given to the Back to the Future trilogy.

As I stated above, one of my biggest beefs with the MCU movies is that they are always building towards the next installment. While I’ve never thought any of them as egregious in this respect as something like the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which is essentially a two-and-a-half hour long commercial for the third movie, what I’ve termed the franchise’s “frenzy of anticipation” strategy has worn on me. Endgame isn’t THE end – the money to be made when Marvel mounts a new MCU saga makes its certainty inevitable – but it is AN end. Endgame is the conclusion of the Infinity Saga, and the picture spends much of its second hour looking back at what the franchise has done instead of forward to the next big event. It was a welcome surprise to me how satisfying that was.

The time travel aspect of the plot, which includes elements of a getting-the-band-back-together movie as well as a heist movie, lets the characters and the audience revisit the MCU’s exploits with the benefit of hindsight. It’s a fun and exciting mode for the movie to shift into after the somber tone of the hour that precedes it.

Because there are certain expectations with any tent-pole action blockbuster, let alone a Marvel movie, the last hour of Endgame does include the inevitable battle sequence. As these things go, though, it’s a relatively restrained affair. The Russo brothers keep things moving during the climax, which can’t be said for the whole of Endgame, since I felt every bit of its three hours.

It’s not surprising that in a movie juggling this many central characters not everyone will get their full due. For the most part, what I expected was what happened: the characters we see little or none of in Infinity War move into the spotlight for Endgame. Still, the way they shortchange a few of our heroes is baffling. Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) shares every bit (and perhaps more) of the responsibility for Thanos’ victory at the end of Infinity War, but the character – and his presumed guilt – go largely unexamined in Endgame.

While he had almost nothing to do in Infinity War, Black Panther also gets short shrift in this movie, too. The chronically underused Black Widow remains frustratingly so for this last chapter of the saga. Even Captain Marvel, who was teased, with seismic fan reaction, in the post-credits sequence of Infinity War and starred in her own movie last month, barely registers as a blip in Endgame.

I haven’t seen every one of the MCU movies. In a happy ending version of the classic Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last – the ending that all of us entertainment junkies dream of, where we never break our glasses – I would go through every last one, in the proper order. As it stands, I’ve seen enough to feel connected to these characters. While conventional (and business) wisdom says people show up for the awe-inspiring spectacle of those earth-shattering battle scenes, I don’t think that’s quite right. The packed crowd I saw Endgame with seemed to enjoy those moments, but they really came alive at moments when beloved characters made their entrances, or a surprise character trait was revealed.

Endgame lets the characters, and the audience, sit with the consequences of what’s come before it in a way the franchise has resisted in the past. The saga up to now has felt a little too calculated and corporate at times, but this is a fitting, if slightly long-winded, way to say goodbye to the first iteration of an epic new mode of storytelling.

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Why it got 4 stars:
- One of the things I praised about Captain America: Civil War was it’s willingness to deal with real human conflict, not just buildings getting blown up. Endgame takes that strength to a new level. The characters deal with loss and grief in a mature way. It’s a very emotionally satisfying finale to the saga.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Bearded Captain America (and/or Chris Evans)>Clean-Shaven Captain America (and/or Chris Evans).
- I’ve been astonished by the ability of CGI to turn actors younger. What they do with Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man movies is incredible. These effects do have their limits, though. In Endgame, they try to turn back the clock on Douglas by about 40 or 50 years and it is…unsettling. It looks really creepy, and not like a real person at all.

Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- It was a packed house (shocking, I know). The crowd was very much into it, and there was much clapping and cheering throughout the movie.

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