Time to got to work: Avengers: Endgame caps off a 22 film series
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Evans (Steve Rodgers), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Don Cheadle (Rhodey), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Rene Russo (Frigga), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Tilda Swinton (Ancient One), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Tom Vaughen-Lawlor (Ebony Maw)
So this really is it. For now. As Dr Strange says at one point “we are into the Endgame now”. Avengers: Endgame is Act Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ten-years-in-the-making finale. It’s also a sequel that, for me, enriches and improves the “bangs before brains” Infinity War. Where that film played too hard to the fanboy wet dream of seeing X teaming up with Y and lots of bashing, Avengers: Endgame focuses more on the intelligent character work and decent acting and writing that has underpinned what has turned what used to be the preserve of geeks into a franchise now almost universally beloved across the world.
The film picks up almost immediately after über-Baddie and misguided-humanitarian Thanos (James Brolin) has successfully used the powers of the infinity stones (a series of mystical macguffins that have been omnipresent in the series so far) to wipe out half of the population of the universe to save it from overpopulation, including dozens of our heroes. Those that remain – predominantly the original roster from the first Avengers film – must work together to find a way to overturn this destruction that Thanos has wrought. But more sacrifices are inevitable along the way.
Avengers: Endgame is a film that the less you know about where it is going, the more you are likely to enjoy its twists and turns. Viewers who may have been anticipating a series of increasingly brutal smackdowns between the Avengers and their nemesis Thanos will however be disappointed. This is not a film of acative avenging: it’s a film where our heroes cope with the burden of unbearable failure, survivor guilt, PTSD and are desperate to try anything to try and make amends. Surprisingly, for the biggest budget entry in the whole cannon, this feels like a smaller-scale, character driven film which carries far bigger (and realistic) stakes than several films earlier in the franchise.
For the opening two hours of this three hour epic, there is actually precious little in the way of action. Instead we explore individual reactions and struggles of each of our heroes. Some have slumped into depression. Some are struggling to move on. Others have shut down and focus on their work. Some have managed to put their past failure and loss behind them to rebuild their lives. Others have embraced the darkness altogether to extract a revenge upon the world that they feel has taken everything from them. It’s a real change of pace from the high octane action and smart banter of the first film. This feels more earned, more invested and more designed to engage our brains and emotions rather than pound us into joyful submission with its bangs and crashes.
In fact it builds back into what has made this franchise so successful and so beloved. It turns these heroes into people, rather than just monoliths of action. Way back in the day, when making the first Iron Man film, Kevin Feige said if they got the film right the name “Tony Stark” would become as famous as “Iron Man”. It sums the aims of the franchise up – that these should be real people to us rather than just comic book cartoons. If we think of Chris Evans, we think of him as being “Steve” not Captain America. Jeremy Renner is as well-known as Clint Barton as “Hawkeye”. If Scarlett Johansson is addressed as Natasha we don’t blink an eye in the film, in the way we would if she was called “Black Widow”. The Hulk can be calmly addressed as Bruce or Ant Man as “Scott” and we never think it strange. In fact it would feel odd to have them calling each other by their cartoon names. It’s normalised the personalities behind the badges and masks.
And that works so well because the writing, when it works, focuses on making these characters feel real – and the actors they have brought on board to fill out the roles have excelled at adding depth and shading to the roles. Chris Evans will probably forever by the noble, dedicated humanitarian Steve Rodgers and rightly so as he has turned this potential stick-in-the-mud into a person we deeply respect and love. He’s terrific here, marshalling a plot arc that brings his time in this crazy franchise to an end with a neat bow that feels fitting and fair (even if it’s got some logic gaps).
Robert Downey Jnr also does some excellent work in his final sign off from the series. The role here plays to all the strengths Downey Jnr has brought to the role: the smartness, the intelligence, the slight smugness, the charisma. But also the vulnerability and longing to be genuinely loved and to build a family around him. The desire to protect people. The nobility under the off-the-cuff exterior. Downey Jnr’s departure was well advertised and again it works a treat here.
But then the whole cast are marvellous. Hemsworth gets to stretch his comic muscles even more than his regular ones, and balances marvellously a plot about a hero who has lost his way. Scarlett Johansson gets some of her meatiest material as Natasha, unable to fully take on board what has happened but determined to make amends. Jeremy Renner has some of the film’s darker material – and confirms that he has always been the heart of the team – with a plot line that hinges on the loss of his family. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is presented in an intriguing new light that both delights and feels like a real rounding up of his character arc.
The eventual plan to underdo the work of Thanos revolves, it’s not a spoiler to say, around Time Travel. With a run, jump and leap the Russo Brothers acknowledge every cliché of time travel lore from dozens of films (Rhodes and Lang at one point hilariously name check virtually every time-travel-based film ever as back-up for their concerns about the mission) before basically throwing it all out of the window by making up its own rules (since, hey, time travel is impossible anyway so why not say all that “you could kill your own grandfather” stuff is bollocks?).
The time travel allows us to fly back into the plots and events of several other Marvel films, principally the first Avengers film, Guardians of the Galaxy and (hilariously considering it might be the worst one) Thor: The Dark World. This flashback structure works extremely well, with our heroes woven neatly into the events of films past – as well as allowing for “unseen” moments from those films to be staged here for the first time.
For a film that, up until now, has dealt with the pain of loss it also makes for a playful series of missions (or at least until one of them turns out to carry huge personal cost) that contrasts really well with the first half. The missions focus on a “heist” structure also gives us the chance for our heroes to work through the demons, often with the help of several (deceased) characters from past films living again (Rene Russo in particular gets easily her best ever scenes in the series as Thor’s mother in the past urging her son to come to terms with his guilt).
All this intelligent and emotional character work, mixed with sequences that are focused less on action and more on adventure and capery means that when we get the inevitable battle scenes at the end of the film – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say most of the film’s final act returns us to the action beats that governed Infinity War – actually feel really earned. Having reminded ourselves why we loved many of these characters in the first place, seeing them fight for good and do incredibly cool things while doing it suddenly feels both really earned and also hugely entertaining. Investment in these action scenes grows from the detailed work earlier.
It’s also a testament to the Russo Brothers direction. I will say right away that while I found part of Infinity War lacking in personality and identity behind the camera, I think I massively overlooked how effortless the Russo brothers make balancing all these plot lines, characters and events seem. Never once does the film seem to dip or droop the ball, and I don’t think there are many directors who could even begin to manage what they achieve here: a fusion of popcorn action with character study, which juggles 20-40 characters at various points. My hat sirs.
Avengers: Endgame is a delightful film. I went into it sceptical after Infinity War left me a little cold, but I needn’t have been so concerned. This is a film that, on its own merits, is almost a sort of masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film that juggled so much – not least the crushing expectation of its fans – and delivered so superbly? Chalk that up as another success for the Russos just turning in a film that the huge fanbase loved. Avengers: Endgame isn’t Citizen Kane – but just as the Russos couldn’t make a film as great as that, you can’t imagine Orson Welles would ever have managed to direct a film like it.