Review of Avengers: Endgame (Spoilers, assemble!)
One of the things I loved about devotedly following every month’s adventures in dozens of different comic books which, thanks to a shared universe (generally Marvel or DC), had interrelating or at least tangentially connected plots, was becoming attached to characters and watching them grow and develop and change over time (part of why I so dislike reboots, that erase such evolution)…and every so often there would be a giant summating moment. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was really the first (and arguably still the best) of such grand convergence moments, but Marvel really was the master of them. Secret Wars, Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, Onslaught, Age of Apocalypse, Civil War. Superhero movies, I thought, simply had no way of replicating this sort of phenomenon, as a limitation of the medium. I mean, you only get 2 hours, right? What are they going to do, have two dozen interrelated two hour movies?
Well, now we do. Watching both Infinity War and Endgame, I realized we had finally arrived at that moment when cinema could replicate the thrill of a giant arc like this, and the catharsis of its resolution. I felt I had traveled a distance with these characters and their stories, and these films delivered on much of what these characters deserved. In that way, ironically, they even surpassed the original comic book crossovers in the 1990s of Infinity Gauntlet/War/Crusade, which honestly at the time felt like cheap, poorly-plotted attempts to monetize the “crossover craze.” Thanos in those books was an annoying “emo” who kept whining about how Death wouldn’t date him, Nebula was a one-dimensional megalomaniac, the heroes and battles were interchangeable, and the stakes so ridiculously overblown (ok, I get it, the Infinity Gauntlet is badass, but by the third time Eternity and the Celestials and the other cosmic beings get smacked around by it, it’s no longer interesting) that I just didn’t care.
But the movies’ Thanos is by far the most compelling character of the storyline, and one of the strongest and most nuanced characters in the entire MCU. You can empathize with him, pity him, and hate him all at once…and the story is as much about his evolution as that of the heroes. Add to that the post-Joss-Whedon balance of pathos and humor and you find yourself laughing, cheering, crying and being on the edge of your seat, all within a given 20 minute span.
Ok, on to the movie itself, which probably ran longer than it needed to be…quick-and-intense start, followed by an introspective period that dragged a bit, followed by a super-intense crescendo third act. At its worst moments, the film was “pretty good,” and at its best moments it was amazing. Infinity War was amazing all throughout, but Endgame was satisfying in different ways…the plodding second act did give us some great meditations on grief, guilt, trauma and how different people handle those emotions.
Iron Man and the Hulk find ways to move on. Cap wallows. Widow is in denial. Thor falls apart. Hawkeye turns passive into active in a deadly way (honestly, this movie transformed him from one of my least favorite characters to one of my favorite). When Ant-Man reappears, he becomes the comic relief simply by the fact that due to his “time suspension” (and, importantly, to the fact that he didn’t lose any family members in the Snap), he’s the only one NOT grieving. He thus becomes the avatar, the entry character, for audience members who, face it, didn’t live through the Snap ourselves. Ant Man has more in common with us.
Whereas our heroes? They now have more in common with THANOS. Remember, his whole character was driven by grief, the loss of his entire homeworld (compounded by the later loss of his daughter Gamora). For a guy who spent the whole of Infinity War kicking ass, he always looked incredibly sad, pained, and weary. When the heroes find him as “farmer Thanos” in the beginning of Endgame , he’s resolved his arc. He’s at peace. THEY’RE the ones acting like savages, literally tearing him apart. It’s the classic trope of, “if you strike me down, you become me.” (It’s no accident that several of our heroes literally end up being antagonists to their past selves during their trips back in time). The whole rest of the film, one could argue, is their quest, in their own way, to NOT let their grief turn them into Thanos.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Tony Stark. At the start of Act Two, he IS “Farmer Thanos”…he’s resolved his arc (seemingly), moved on, started a family, appears content, and though he’s haunted, he can live with it. He’s got things, people, to live for.
But then he faces the most climactic and important decision point of the entire film; as his fellow Avengers point out, Stark ended up lucky, but tons of people weren’t as fortunate. Is he willing to risk that happiness…risk the very existence of his daughter…to put things right for so many others? When he decides the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, this is a heroic triumph of the very highest order, made even more remarkable by the fact that Tony started off in the Iron Man movies as the most self-centered bastard around. Yes, yes, the movie lets us have our cake and eat it, too (the vanished people get restored, AND Stark’s daughter gets to live, hurray), but Tony didn’t KNOW that would happen. There was the risk she could be gone. And he took it.
Yet in the end it is Stark, and not his daughter, who is sacrificed. In a moving reversal of the scene in the previous film when Peter Parker dies scared in Stark’s arms, Stark dies at peace in Peter’s. BECAUSE THIS IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE. The old dying to make way for the young, not the other way around. Thanos killing his own daughter demonstrated the perversion of the natural order that he represented. The fact that Thanos, by his own admission in Endgame, DID NOT EVEN ANTICIPATE OR CONSIDER that the people left behind after the Snap would be grieving and vengeful, rather than thankful, shows how little he understood those basic rules of life…and his solution — wipe out everyone and start over so no one will grieve the lost — shows he still doesn’t get it.
Because loss can, and should, MATTER. How we react to it transforms us, defines us — that’s what this whole film’s about. Loss can even, when we choose to give up ourselves — as Stark and Black Widow do — save the day for others in a way that Thanos’ attempt to “save” the universe was just mere mockery of. Even Captain America’s decision to sacrifice his youth in order to live a full life saves himself, and his passing on of the shield to Sam is another one of those “the old pass so the young can have their day” reminders.
Tony’s last words: “I am Iron Man” — are not just the perfect quip to counter “I am inevitable.” It’s also an inversion of the final lines of his first film, where he says the same words to flippantly reveal his identity, showing how little he cares about consequences. Here, he says it knowing that he is paying the ultimate consequence for his actions, so the universe can live. Awesome stuff.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete review without some gripes. I really only have two — Time Travel (which is kind of impossible to not screw up), and Gender Roles (which are easy to do right and so unforgivable at this point that so many movies keep doing it wrong).
First, Time Travel. It made no sense. Supposedly you couldn’t change the present by changing the past, yet the Ancient One says removing the stones would “create an alternate reality” where exactly that would happen. When Thanos-from-2014 comes into the present and gets killed, how does that NOT create a temporal paradox, since now he never did the Snap and so the heroes wouldn’t have gone back in time to fix it and lead him into their realm to begin with? If 2019-Nebula shoots and kills her past self, how the hell can she still exist? If they can go back and bring past-Gamora into the present before her death, why can’t they do the same with Black Widow? (For that matter, Bruce’s “I tried to bring her back with the stones but couldn’t” line is bullshit…Thanos did EXACTLY that with The Vision in the last movie, albeit only to kill him a second later). I know, I know, the only way to actually handle Time Travel in any way that doesn’t fall apart is to, as the Doctor says (Who, not Strange), just hand-wave it as “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, stuff happens.”
But although I am willing to do that, I am less forgiving about the lack of hints as to how Earth (and presumably every other planet) is going to deal with the massive psychological and economic f*ck-up that is bound to happen when, after 5 years of adjusting to half a population and presumably re-tooling society to compensate, suddenly the other half comes back. With no memory of having been gone. The chaos and conflict that is going to cause will simply be…aw, f*ck it, it’s a superhero movie. I’ll just enjoy the cool epic battle ending.
The only thing that just will not stop sticking in my craw is gender roles. Come ON, Marvel writers. Black Widow, a hardened, no-nonsense spy, spending the whole damn movie crying her eyes out? WTF? It’s like she couldn’t get a sentence out the entire film without choking up.
And our only other alternative female characters are equally one dimensional at the other pole: Ass-kicking badasses. That is ALL Carol Danvers is. She’s basically a weapon, with all the depth and characterization of an ICBM. So’s Okoye. So’s Valkyrie. So’s Scarlet Witch (I mean, she has that one line about her grief, but mostly she’s just another living weapon, one of many to beat the crap out of Thanos with). When Hawkeye becomes a ninja badass, he gets depth, characterization, conflict, layers…but no luck with the ladies. Pepper gets to do a bit of ass kicking in armor, and then some mommying at the end (soothing Tony as he dies).
Yes, Black Widow chooses to self-sacrifice, but because all she’s done the whole film is cry, and because the previous films barely developed her, he death carries none of the weight that Tony’s did. I just didn’t care. Even THANOS’ death moved me more, for chrissake, and he didn’t even have any lines as he died…but that look of disillusionment, of despair, of grief and loss…once again, you can’t help but feel a little for the same guy who two minutes earlier you were cheering to see get smacked upside the head with Thor’s hammer.
Thanos, Tony, Cap, and Hawkeye all got depth and nuance in this movie. For Chrissake, Marvel, pretend you’re writing a male character, give them depth, and then give them long hair and breasts. It would be a start. The female characters in Endgame were basically cameos or extended cameos, possible exception of Nebula. Her evolution, her troubled and evolving relationship with both her father and her sister, were compelling. Nebula’s shooting her prior self was incredibly symbolic, and it would have been interesting if she really had then cancelled out her own existence…it would add a couple of new dimensions to the theme of sacrifice.
Anyway, despite its flaws, Endgame was well worth the money I paid, it did not feel like a 3 hour 5 minute movie (except during some of the draggy parts in Act Two), and I walked out of the theater feeling as if I’d read a very satisfying comic book. Coincidentally, my son and I ended up at a local comic book store today, and there was an extra amount of pride I felt in continuing to introduce him to some of the classics.
BTW, my daughter, who I later told the movie’s plot to, immediately wrote a sequel in which Tony Stark’s daughter gets the Infinity Stones and basically takes over the universe.
Cycle of life. Here’s to the next generation, y’all.