Warning: This review is as close to spoiler-free as possible, but if you’re going to get mad at a slip, don’t read!
We’re experiencing a lot of endings this year. We’ve already said goodbye to Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and You’re The Worst, Jane The Virgin’s season 5 ending is looming, Veep’s series finale is a month out, and Game of Thrones is four episodes away from its hopefully satisfying conclusion. We’re learning to say goodbye to characters we’ve essentially grown up with — there one moment, and gone the next, never to return again (probably — franchises die hard these days).
In that sense, it’s not hard to make the mental leap required to fully commit to the grief and feelings of deep loss central to Avengers: Endgame. Sure, Thanos didn’t snap his fingers and end half of all living creatures in an instant in our reality, but living without Jaime Lannister will be be painful, too.
I tried really hard to temper my expectations for Endgame. Just this morning, before leaving for the press screening, I told myself I shouldn’t hope for too much. How could the co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo possibly tie all these loose ends in a way that would be A) narratively satisfying, and B) didn’t require a PhD in Marvel Cinematic Universe? But Endgame is truly a masterful piece of storytelling, which both goes exactly where you expect it to, and not at all. I audibly sobbed at several points, literally screamed with glee multiple times, and mostly just sat with a lame embarrassing smile. It’s a sendoff to 11 years, and 22 movies of Marvel storytelling (launched with Iron Man in 2008), but also the launch of a new, exciting chapter. In the words of House Greyjoy: “What is dead can never die.”
The film picks up right before Thanos (Josh Brolin) does his thing, with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) practicing archery with his daughter. His wife (Linda Cardinelli) calls lunch, he turns, and suddenly, they’re gone. It’s a very Leftovers set-up (I half expected Max Richter’s piano theme song to start playing), but an effective way of dropping us back into the devastating context in which we ended Infinity War — half the universe’s population has vanished, leaving the other half to try to pick up the pieces.
By the end of Captain Marvel, it seemed clear that Thanos had met his match in Carol Danvers and her energy-beam fists. Endgame leans into that, but not as a total deus ex-machina safeguard. In other words, it’s not at all clear what the outcome of all this will be.
The Avengers franchise — especially in recent installments — hasn’t been afraid to go dark, and that’s certainly the case here. It’s clear from the very beginning that this isn’t going to be an easy do-over. In fact, there’s even a five-year jump, which forces our heroes — and the rest of humanity — to grapple with the consequences of losing the people they love. Some cope better than others: Captain America’s (Chris Evans) leading a church basement support group; Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) getting his Hulk on; Rhodey (Don Cheadle) is trying to find a rogue Hawkeye; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is drinking heavily, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) have done what movie women do in times of crisis — they’ve changed their hair. Still, it’s a stereotype I’m able to live with given the massively epic lady superhero moments this movie dishes out.
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely does a highly skilled balancing act, weighing the levity we’ve come to expect from these characters (there’s a great Captain America butt joke) with the gravitas required by the stakes at hand. As in Infinity War, it’s a ton of fun to see characters we’ve never seen interact finally meet. But this movie takes the crossover conceit to the next level, playing on a decade’s worth of accumulated material in inventive way that plays on old assumptions, but also winks at our knowledge of this complex and intricate universe. Rather than sit around the fire and reminisce, Endgame prefers to show us — it’s just as nostalgic, and far more effective, especially with Alan Silvestri’s score, which leitmotifs each of the individual melodies we’ve grown to love.
With a budget of nearly $400 million, Endgame is one of the most expensive movies ever made, and it shows. The production design is vibrant, recreating a myriad of worlds that we’ve spent time in over the years, the special effects are terrific but not distracting, and certain sequences requiring complex editing are seamless. But ultimately, what makes Endgame work is the real commitment put out by its actors (I won’t go into specifics, because who knows who’s really in this movie, anyway). All are aware that this is, in many ways, the last stand. And boy, are they ready to sell it.
I won’t tell you who, if anyone, lives or dies. But you can expect a series of wonderful cameos, surprise pop-ins, heartfelt family conversations, unexpected twists, and one particularly committed bit.
At three hours and 58 seconds, this movie should have felt interminable. But maybe I was watching from the quantum realm, because it went by like that — as quickly as a snap of the fingers.