(The second half of this review contains SPOILERS. If you're not emotionally prepared to know how Nick Fury's cat defeats Thanos* or that Doctor Strange is actually a time-traveler from 3024*, please stop reading when you see sparkly magic flying out of Benedict Cumberbatch's fingers. *Fake Spoilers).
You don't have to see all 21 preceding movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to enjoy Avengers: Endgame, but otherwise, you won't fully appreciate the overarching plot symmetry, emotional depths, and the pleasure of Avengers poking fun at their past selves. You simply wouldn't be watching the same movie. In three seamless hours, Marvel concluded its 10-year-long emotional affair with cinephiles and comic book lovers alike. The screenwriting duo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America films, Avengers: Infinity War), learn from their worst mistakes to subvert the cringey superhero tropes we endured early on in the MCU (these guys wrote Thor: The Dark World, but Endgame earns them forgiveness; it's that good).
Despite being the longest movie in the MCU, Endgame maintains an impressively balanced tone between cynicism and optimism, comedic and devastating. The film clearly evolves from the self-serious bluster and cloying self-righteousness that made the first batch of the MCU's 21 films laughably bad. In other words, the Avengers are more human these days.
After their defeat in Infinity War, each hero struggles to cope with the loss and sense of worthlessness that followed their first major failure. Half the world's population being gone means that half the world is in mourning. They want to help humanity cope, but the crushing guilt they carry is debilitating. While the psychology of the 10 surviving Avengers can't be explored in equal depth, the character explorations of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Captain America (Chris Evans) are masterful. They've been deeply changed by the events of Infinity War, but they're not out of character; that's just what loss does to people. As Steve Rogers tells Natasha Romanoff, "I keep telling everybody that they should move on. Some do, but not us."
As for the good stuff (i.e. special effects, battle scenes, dramatic music cues, and capital-H Hero moments): YES. Again, the subtle slights of hand and subversion of expectations ("wait, so-and-so lost a fight to so-and-so? And those two failed in their mission? And so-and-so dies?") speaks to the film's creativity. More than that, the layers speak to the screenwriters and co-directing Russo brothers' full awareness that Endgame essentially ends Phase 3 of the MCU. Accordingly, the film is full of the gravitas, self-referential humor, and respect that Marvel's legions of fans expect in order to properly say goodbye to the Avengers who die in the film.
Endgame puts three characters' story arcs to bed. While each of the surviving Avengers is given a standout heroic moment, Black Widow and Iron Man sacrifice their lives to make the world whole again. How?
Well, we knew there'd be time travel. What we didn't expect is Thanos to die within the first 15 minutes of the movie—and all six infinity stones to be destroyed. Then there's a time jump five years into the future. In 2023, we see the true havoc that Thanos' Bitch Snap™ has wreaked upon the world—and the Avengers' mental and emotional states. They reassemble with a wild, unlikely, and desperate plan to travel back in time and collect all six infinity stones from past encounters with them. If they survive, the plan is to reverse the Bitch Snap™ and then travel through time again to return all stones to their original places, therefore not completely screwing up their reality and 21 movies' worth of plotlines.
That's how we find out how Captain America spends his final days. After surviving a second battle with Thanos (but it's Thanos from the past, who hacked into the Avengers' time travel abilities to jump to 2023; yes, it's confusing), Steve Rogers goes back in time to spend his life with Peggy. We see Chris Evans aged to be over 100 years old, as the last scene shows Rogers reuniting with his friends after living peacefully and in secret for over 70 years. The elderly Captain hands the resurrected Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) his shield and dubs him the new Captain America. In truth, this hardly makes sense for Steve Rogers as we've come to know him, but it means we finally have a black Captain America (and gives Mackie a healthy career to look forward to in his upcoming Disney+ series)
Chris Evans hinted at the Captain's fate last year when he posted his goodbye on Twitter: "Officially wrapped on Avengers 4. It was an emotional day to say the least. Playing this role over the last 8 years has been an honor. To everyone in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the audience, thank you for the memories! Eternally grateful."
Here is the greatest problem with Avengers: Endgame. After Thanos dies, the following two hours and 45 minutes of the film have to do with Ant-Man and the Wasp and Thor: The Dark World. I'm not kidding. Two of the worst Marvel films are moderately to heavily involved in understanding what happens in the majority of Endgame. One of the Avengers' tasks is to go back in time to the events of The Dark World; the universe literally depends on what happens in that terrible movie.
As our very own deeply torn Marvel fan, Dan Kahan, said the day before the film's release: "I didn't see Ant-Man and the Wasp. There, I said it. I'm a giant fraud, and I'll be watching Endgame this weekend with only 21/22 pieces of the necessary information. I really messed up, okay, I admit that. I should have seen it when I had the chance and now it's too late. IT'S TOO LATE."
But it gets worse. Dan desperately asks, "What are the chances that the events in Ant-Man and the Wasp will heavily factor into Thanos's affairs?" To that I say: DAN, PLEASE WATCH ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. I don't mean to outright spoil anything, but I strongly suggest you and everyone in your situation watch Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Dan continues, "Does Thanos even care about Ant-Man? Thanos is a space titan with the power to bend time and space, and Ant-Man is just Paul Rudd in a dumb suit. Ant-Man is a pretty lame hero, honestly." To which I say: FIGHT ME, DAN. The spoiler here is that Ant-Man is the one who knows how to save the world. He comes up with the idea, and he puts everything into motion. FIGHT ME.
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