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.

Review: Arrival

Another recent sci-fi film that I missed out on in theaters, another film that I can now check off my list of movies to see: Arrival.

Arrival is an absolutely beautiful film. It’s so riveting from beginning to end, and it is artful in inducing a series of disorienting and authentic perspective shifts for both characters and audience throughout its duration. Plus, the core cast is great: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker each deliver excellent performances.

Dr. Louise Banks is a linguist brought in by the U.S. military to attempt to communicate with new alien arrivals, aliens with technology far beyond our understanding. She must attempt to find out their purpose on Earth–before the military of the U.S. or any other visited country gets too jumpy and sends the world into international (or maybe even interstellar) war. While the linguistic challenges are fascinating in and of themselves, the truly remarkable feat of the film is to tell a story with events from various points in time occurring (for the viewer and eventually for Dr. Banks) more or less simultaneously and influencing events out of chronological sequence. With the addition of some very bizarre dream segments, we’re not sure if Dr. Banks is losing her mind or on the brink of a colossal breakthrough in perceiving time through alien influence until the climax.

Big spoiler: we are introduced to Dr. Banks through her memories of her deceased daughter, but we ultimately learn that these are scenes from the future. Framing Dr. Banks’s motherhood and loss as a past series of events, with her daughter’s death not just a memory but the event that narratively kicks off the film, makes real the nonlinear approach to time that the heptapod aliens perceive, and which Dr. Banks eventually perceives. And it says a lot about how we perceive the universe and how we can find meaning in it that isn’t quite spiritualist but nonetheless feels true and good. To remove the linear perspective to time makes each moment significant and infinite and never truly gone. There’s a little bit of Christian mysticism and Buddhism and a little bit of Slaughterhouse Five in there at least, I think. (The film is written by Eric Heisserer and based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang–I haven’t read anything by Chiang, but I’d like to at least read this story to see what he did with this and how compatible the film’s plot and themes are with its source material.)

Despite attempting to realistically portray a military response to an alien arrival–despite attempting to portray the world’s reaction in general to an alien arrival–I appreciated (a) that the military’s efforts did more harm than good, without ever having any clear villains (everyone, including the Colonel and the CIA officer, the Chinese General Shang, even the idiot soldiers who decide to bomb the aliens after listening to too much of an InfoWars knockoff, is acting from a place that seems rational if considered from their point of view, and no one is purely bloodthirsty); and (b) that the film becomes increasingly surreal in its composition as we are exposed to ever more alien images and ideas. To elaborate a little more on that latter point: the realism of the initial setting makes the bizarre and magical events that increasingly consume the narrative feel grounded.

Wonderful cinematography and score tie together to create a sense of unease, tension, and disorientation. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Bradford Young as director of photography and music by Jóhann Jóhannsson. They work well together to pair image and sound in support of theme and mood. The music swells with unusual sounds and pulsing tension; sometimes it sounds part of the alien ship itself, sometimes it sounds more organic or more artificial, and in the climactic moments it becomes eerily human with the presence of almost unearthly a capella vocals. The weird view angles when initially crossing the gravity-defying entry tunnel of the alien spaceship, or the initially divided and distant shots of aliens and humans, kept far apart across a great space, help us feel what the characters are feeling in the moment, in a way that simply presenting the events from a greater remove could never do. Despite the disorienting perspectives, the camerawork itself is always solid, with typically excellent composition and a clear sense of flow. I could always tell what was happening, no matter what was happening.

Arrival makes me think a little bit of Interstellar. Both initially seem like hard sci-fi, confronting a bizarre and reality-bending event that pushes the edges of our understanding with technologies that seem magic. But Interstellar cracks in the final act, becoming quantum theology and feel-good spiritualism. Arrival is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming (how fitting–the audience, hopefully, embraces a holistic view of all moments past, present, and future just as Banks manages to do), and it certainly offers a perspective that could be used in support of a spiritualist message, but it never gets soft or cheesy. You might be more or less willing to accept how Dr. Banks gains this new perspective, but fundamentally the film only suggests that we humans have a limited and linear view of time because that’s what our perception is limited to, not that it is the only way to conceive of time.

The stretching of linguistic theory makes the story work. I’m not a linguist, so I was willing to accept how far they took ideas about perception being influenced by language. Maybe linguists felt differently about the movie–though still, I’d bet any linguist would still love to see someone in their profession centered as a hero in such a slick film. And sci-fi fans everywhere can rejoice in a tense story of alien first contact that doesn’t quickly give way to interstellar conflict.

Having a complete view of the film’s plot, I feel that further rewatches would be rewarding to further recontextualize certain elements. Which is a reminder that film and literature give us the opportunity to perceive events through temporal non-linearity on a regular basis, even if we rarely stop to think of it that way.