Review: Endgame

I didn’t really like Infinity War. I had some not-too-kind things to say about it and the state of the MCU at the time. If my neighbor hadn’t asked if I wanted to join him for Endgame, seeing the sequel to a movie I so maligned wouldn’t have been a priority, and certainly wouldn’t have happened so relatively soon.

But I’ve seen Endgame, only a week late to the conversation, and I found that I mostly liked it. It was a satisfying cap to not just Infinity War but virtually every MCU film that came before it. It provided a swan song for the original Avengers team, and it was a promise for new generations of heroes and new iterations of heroic legacies. And it tried its best to patch up some of my biggest complaints with Infinity War. The single biggest improvement: this film finally allows for genuine dramatic stakes with permanent repercussions. We see a lot of Infinity War‘s bullshit cliffhanger ending undone, though not so cleanly as I had thought, and not only do the characters deal with a lot of trauma and change, but not all of them make it through–and there shouldn’t be any redoes this time. (It’s refreshing to see that the MCU is finally doing what the comics won’t, acknowledging the passage of time and actually allowing an ending for at least some characters.)

Best of all, Endgame offered the best performances to date for the core Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic and really leans into the grief, trauma, and heroism of his role–though his characteristic snark seldom departs him. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner both pull everything they can out of the platonic bond of soulmates that their characters share; frankly, I’ve never cared much for Renner or his character, and yet Hawkeye’s arc in this film was one of my favorite things about it. Mark Ruffalo expresses a smug confidence that was so uncharacteristic and reflected how much Bruce Banner had changed between films. Chris Evans is sterling as ever as the always optimistic, pure-hearted Captain America. And Chris Hemsworth brings a lot of quirky neuroticism to the role of Thor, to mixed results, but my qualms are more with the script than the acting.

The movie was a whirlwind of an experience, and it was surreal to realize that three hours had passed as the credits rolled. I was engaged from start to finish. I can’t say that this would necessarily be a good movie on its own, but as heavily as it relied on the decade-plus of Marvel movies, and as many characters and events as it referenced, I never felt lost or confused. The payoff found in this movie was definitely earned. And while I was incredibly annoyed by the end of Infinity War, I loved how heavily the film leaned into allowing the characters to experience and process grief (well, almost all the characters–as I mentioned, Thor got a bad deal in his portrayal).

I do have some complaints, but to get into them, I have to discuss plot beats. I imagine anyone reading this has probably already seen the movie…still, SPOILERS FOLLOW.

 


 

First and foremost, I really didn’t like that the Soul Stone once again claims a female sacrifice. I actually thought that the tender moment between Hawkeye and Black Widow was lovely, and the fight to see who could self-sacrifice first was a fascinating way to work out the deep love and protectionism both characters share for each other. But first Gamora, and now Natasha. And both of these deaths are quite permanent.

Relatedly, while I liked that Gamora came back in some form, it felt like a cheap workaround of the permanence of death associated with a Soul Stone sacrifice. I’m not too bothered by it, though–a past version of Gamora on the loose in the present galaxy, with her sister and her lover holding feelings for her that she does not share in return, offers some interesting narrative possibilities down the line.

I also really didn’t like the depiction of Thor. I think this Tor essay by Sylas Barrett sums it up better than I ever could, but I didn’t like that his grief and trauma, and his associated weight gain, were used as recurrent gags. The other heroes all seemed to be annoyed by his mental illness, as though they felt that he should just man up and tough it out, as though everyone processes things the same way–as though Thor hadn’t lost all his family individually and then failed in stopping Thanos in such a way that he could feel directly responsible for it all. If nothing else, I’m frustrated that Marvel can’t seem to figure out what to do with Thor, and all the great character development and tonal shifts of Ragnarok continue to be undermined by what has followed. Still, I’m excited to see Thor join on with the Guardians of the Galaxy; his interactions with them in Infinity War were a highlight, and the quirky and colorful space opera of Ragnarok shares more than a little in common with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

To get really petty, I thought it sort of pathetic when, in the final battle, Marvel shows a shot of the female superheroes all rallying to help Captain Marvel get across the battlefield, only for their plan to fail in a couple minutes. It felt like Marvel desperately crying out, “Oh we have female characters, lots of them, we care about women for real!” And yet over Infinity War and Endgame, they killed present Gamora, past Nebula, and Black Widow, and they didn’t really give any of the female characters much to do. (Captain Marvel was great when she was present. Scarlet Witch had an excellent five minutes against Thanos. I’ve already mentioned how Black Widow shined in her scenes with Hawkeye. Nebula had a great heroic arc, even if she didn’t get as much focus as many of the other survivors. But for the most part, this was a movie focused on men.)

Finally, I found some of the patches for Infinity War to be rather weak. I know that Infinity War mentions that half of Asgard was killed, implying that half survived, and I’m glad to see that most of the characters I loved in Ragnarok made it through, but how exactly did that work? Weren’t all of the Asgardian refugees on board the ship attacked by Thanos? How come we saw no indication that they escaped when the ship exploded? Where did they go? If there were escape pods or something, how come Thor didn’t look for them? How come the Guardians didn’t detect them? And how did the refugees get to Earth? So it’s nice that many of them made it after all, but there’s no effort to explain exactly how that happened. That’s nothing compared to my frustration with Doctor Strange’s decision to turn over the Time Stone. Okay, so it leads to the only path that he sees where they win, and it allows for the Ancient One to trust the Hulk when he travels in time to collect it. But how, exactly, could that be the only way to victory? If Strange had let Tony die, and kept the Time Stone tucked away in whatever pocket dimension he held it, how exactly would Thanos have acquired it? Okay, so Tony gets five years of marriage and a daughter. But he still ends up dead in the apparently only win condition, and a lot of people suffered for those five years, and a lot of people will find themselves displaced after winking back into existence after five years. Just in general, the time travel mechanics and alternate realities rely on the audience trusting the filmmakers and putting doubt out of mind, not scrutinizing anything too hard, and I wasn’t willing or able to do that.

On the flip side, there were a lot of things I loved. I loved the arcs for Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. I loved Rocket’s reunion with Groot on the battlefield, as he dives on top of his newly recovered friend to shield his body from the falling missiles. That scene, along with Tony’s death and funeral scenes, brought tears to my eyes. I loved the arrival of all the heroes, old and new, on the battlefield. I loved the passing of the mantle from Steve to Sam, I loved Pepper in her own Iron Man suit, and I loved Black Widow’s time as the head of an Avengers team consisting of (if I recall correctly) War Machine, Okoye, Rocket, Nebula, and Captain Marvel. And I loved that most of the characters got at least a couple good moments in the film, even outside of the core cast of the original Avengers plus Rocket and Nebula plus Ant-Man.

This film was fun to watch and offered a final, and mostly satisfying, conclusion for many of the characters who have been around for the longest. It also offers the potential for a lot of exciting new stories to tell. I hope that we now see Marvel movies take more risks and break away from the Marvel formula (though of course, we already have examples like Guardians of the GalaxyAnt-ManBlack Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and even Captain Marvel that offered something different). Time will tell if Marvel follows through on that potential. For now, we’ve reached an Endgame.

Phase Three Fatigue

I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.

Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.

This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.

These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.

There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.

The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).

But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.

And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).

Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.

Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.

Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).

In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.

The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.

Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.

Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.

But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.