Avengers: Endgame review: the finale these heroes deserve

This spectacular, time-travelling conclusion to the Marvel superhero saga has a surprise or two up its sleeve and delivers a fabulous climax that finally brings closure to the troubled protagonists.

Kim Newman

from our forthcoming July 2019 issue

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

In one single snippet of the deft symphony of action and character beats that ends this epic-length Part Two and therefore also a range of storylines carried through multiple films since 2008, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), aka the Scarlet Witch, deploys considerable psychic firepower against cosmic megalomaniac Thanos (Josh Brolin, augmented via CGI). She complains, “You took everything from me,” in reference to the death of her android love interest Vision in last year’s Avengers: Infinity War – only for Thanos to snarl, “I don’t even know you!”

Her comeback (“You will!”) is suitably defiant – if lifted from another universe (it’s a key Batman line in Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, sadly thrown away by Ben Affleck in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). But Thanos won’t be the only one who has a problem keeping up. Several old friends and foes definitively killed in previous films pop in for cameos that require an acute memory of what went down in Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – all before mass resurrection gets the entire orchestra back together for a last-reel battle that pretty much has to be the most satisfying superhero movie set piece of all time, delivering the multiple closures this long-in-the-telling saga needs.

The reason for the villain not knowing his own backstory is that, at this point, Wanda is facing Past Thanos, who has hopped to a time after his death to get his derailed universe-triaging scheme back on track but has only fragmentary knowledge (from one minor player’s point of view) of what the hell is going on.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / Hulk and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes / War Machine

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / Hulk and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes / War Machine

The downer ending of last year’s Infinity War, where the bad guy gets his way and sits happily in a field after wiping out half the universe, is obviously going to be unpicked – Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) said as much then – so the suspense of Endgame is in how long the big comeback can be delayed and who’ll sacrifice themselves along the way. For a while, the film genuinely doesn’t do the expected. The villain is surprisingly easily defeated early on, but too late to save the day. A five-years-later plot-jump makes a whole section play out like a secular version of the Christian End Times-themed Left Behind franchise, as Captain America runs a self-help group for those bereaved by ‘the snap’, and ace archer Hawkeye turns vigilante in a crusade against all the evil people left alive when his family were taken.

A longstanding problem of series fictions is that characters can only seem to change. For decades, the likes of Superman and Archie stayed the same age. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics had Peter Parker graduate from high school and start growing up – but, after a decade, the company froze the situation and everyone has been running on the spot ever since. Of course, film franchises are stuck with actors who age – though CGI helps several here appear younger or older – and so have to mark the passing of time in a way that drawn comics don’t. In Endgame, Thor, the Hulk and Tony Stark, affected by their losses, are transformed in unexpected ways, affording stars Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr the chance to break with their established performances and try new readings – a gone-to-seed Thor nicknamed ‘Lebowski’, a mellow Hulk embarrassed when circumstances require him to smash something.

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark / Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark / Iron Man

There is so much story – so much character – to unpick here that three hours doesn’t seem unwieldy, even if the time-travel sequences fall back on the long-out-of-fashion plot structure associated with the early days of superhero team books. The big cast breaks up into smaller groups for individual quests (in the 1940s Justice Society, different artists handled each chapter) before reassembling at the conclusion. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely embed even large-scale action sequences with moments where characters connect (the down-to-earth Spider-Man is always useful for this). Sometimes, what might have been entire movies are compressed into single shots, such as the turn of battle that aligns the female characters into an incarnation of the comics’ modish late-60s one-off alternative to macho hero groups, the Lady Liberators.

It’s testament to the film’s sure hand with cosmic soap opera that scenes between characters who don’t really belong together – the Hulk and Dr Strange’s mentor the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) – are as affecting as the moments where heroes reconnect with dead parents (there’s a lot of that going about, as in almost all superhero stories). A key punch-to-the-heart scene, cannily mirroring a plot turn in Infinity War, hinges on a relationship established in comics in 1964 but only now getting real airtime in the movies. Perhaps remembering how the last reel of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) ran on and on, this sticks with one big celebratory coda and a time-meddling twist to give key players the endings they deserve.

 

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