By Preston Wilder
If war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, then Avengers: Endgame is the continuation of Comic Con – which took place last weekend – by other means. It’s not just the fact of being a comic-book movie, it’s also the emphasis on camaraderie and the sense of the film as a Big Top, housing an assortment of different acts. There’s a lengthy bit in the middle where the Avengers split up and we cross-cut between three teams, wandering between different planets and indeed different times – not unlike a happy nerd at Comic Con, wandering from the cosplay contest to Artists’ Alley to the gaming section.
The film, like the rest of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), is also the continuation of TV by other means. It’s no secret that the small screen now eclipses its larger cousin in the pop-cultural discourse – and Avengers: Endgame illustrates how the two are coming closer together. As on TV, we’ve had a cliffhanger ending (the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, with half the Avengers – and indeed half the world – turned to dust by the ruthless Thanos) and have waited a year to find out what happens. Hysteria over spoilers (because Avengers movies have soooo many plot twists) has been as intense and, well, hysterical as for the year’s other endgame, the eighth season of Game of Thrones. As with TV, brevity is not a priority, the film clocking in at a hefty three hours. As with most TV, visual pizzazz is also not a priority (the exception here being the special effects, which look suitably spectacular). Above all, as on TV, the main attraction isn’t the plot of any particular ‘episode’ but the warm fuzzy feeling of watching the adventures of characters we’ve gotten to know – and, hopefully, love – over many years.
To be honest, one might legitimately ask whether anything has been gained (apart from billions of dollars, of course) by taking all this time to expand the ‘universe’ beyond the core Avengers team, given the marginal role played by the newcomers. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) turns up briefly, seeming much more cocksure and arrogant than she did in her own movie. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns up even more briefly, refusing to be drawn on what should be done to save the world and unhelpfully noting that “If I told you what will happen, it wouldn’t happen”. (They should call him Doctor Annoying.) The role played by Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is almost insultingly cursory, given how successful the movie was. The bulk of Endgame goes to the usual suspects, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), anyone of whom might’ve borrowed Thanos’ repeated proclamation: “I am inevitable!”.
Characters are everything here. The pacing is fine, apart from a gloomy sluggish section early on, and the plot is perfectly adequate though it only has one Big Idea and proceeds in the usual way: challenges followed by bigger challenges, things going wrong, solutions found in the nick of time, then a humongous battle at the end. But it’s really the Avengers (and the actors who play them) who make Endgame soar. Banner seems to have fused his two personae, creating a more polite version of The Hulk (at one point he makes an effort to smash things up, even while politely noting that it “seems gratuitous”). Thor is even more changed, having given in to despair and become bushy-bearded and beer-bellied (the credits amusingly include a separate “Chef for Mr. Hemsworth”, whose job presumably was to ply the actor with a constant diet of beer and pizza). Hemsworth is doing his own thing here, playing the part with a hilariously plummy accent that recalls Errol Flynn – but also finding some legitimately anguished, poignant notes when the hammer-throwing hunk reunites briefly with his long-gone mother.
That’s the way it goes in Endgame. Thor confronts the memory of his mum, Tony Stark confronts the memory of his dad. (“No amount of money ever bought a second of time,” muses the billionaire superhero, wishing it could’ve been different while the dad was alive.) The MCU, too, looks back on its own past, literally so with clips from the first Avengers movie from 2012 – though in fact there’s no surge of nostalgia (at least I didn’t feel any) since the franchise has always been emotionally weightless, a jolly game of superhero quips and fan-pleasing Easter eggs. Even the battles are weightless, mostly because they lack killer blows: combatants get felled with punches and smashed with giant hammers but quickly get up again, like the cartoons that they are.
This whole bouncy film is a cartoon – and of course it’s frustrating that cartoons dominate the list of the most successful films of all time, but that’s the world we live in. (Given what else is going on in that world, can you blame us?) Avengers: Endgame is a guaranteed hit, jam-packed as a Comic Con and an equally painless use of your three hours. As for what happens next, I wouldn’t worry too much about that title. Endgame isn’t really the end; Marvel’s flagship franchise will continue, by other means.
DIRECTED BY Joe and Anthony Russo
STARRING Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
US 2019 181 mins.