Remember “Iron Man”? The 2008 film seems, compared to the movies currently produced by Marvel Studios, rather quaint. After all, the central conflict—in which industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) struggles to end his company’s role in arming both sides of the war on terror—is incredibly insignificant compared to the battles fought in more recent Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) outings. Nowadays, the fate of all of humanity isn’t even as high as the stakes can get. One of last year’s MCU flicks, “Avengers: Infinity War,” ended with half of all life in the entire universe turning to ash. The squabbles within “Iron Man” are frivolous by comparison.
Yet, the newest addition to the MCU, “Avengers: Endgame,” is as much about the fate of the universe as it is the fate of Stark and the other early Marvel Heroes. “Endgame,” serves as a quasi-conclusion to the MCU. The franchise will go on, given that it regularly rakes in billions on an annual basis. But this incarnation of the series has come to a close; think of it as the season, but not series, finale of a TV series. It’s a deeply flawed movie, but a fitting send off.
I won’t spoil much about the plot (as even the first act of the film has plenty of terrific surprises), but “Endgame” picks up in the immediate aftermath of “Infinity War.” At the end of that movie, Thanos (Josh Brolin, giving an impressively nuanced performance shaped by some even more impressive special effects) succeeded in his plan to obtained all six of the infinity stones (the titular plot devices), and wiped out half of all life in the universe. The Avengers lost, not just the battle but their fellow fighters. At the start of “Endgame,” the Avengers almost immediately begin plotting how to undo Thanos’ destruction. The surviving Avengers, including (deep breath) Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and new addition Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), embark on an adventure that will consume the span of an entire three-hour (and one minute)-long movie.
One of the most impressive feats of the film is that, despite the staggeringly large cast, each actor gets a moment to shine. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely succeed in letting their large roster of characters grapple with both the larger battle against Thanos, and their own internal conflicts. Downey Jr. is the film’s true standout, giving his best performance as Iron Man yet. The best elements of the character—namely, his blend of arrogance, anxiety, and an obsessive desire to be the hero—are on full display here. The same can be said of the other Avengers, as both the screenplay and the actors are able to fully realize their characters. Gillan is the other standout, as she’s a talented comedic actress who’s only just given substantial screen time as Nebula.
The film is tasked with more than just balancing a series of great performances, and its these other areas that the movie becomes more of a mixed bag. This is an elaborately-plotted movie, with a lot of moving parts that manage to stay in harmony. But it’s also a film with numerous plot holes and contrivances; it establishes strict rules only to break them moments later. There’s a final battle which is spectacular to watch, but feels narratively unnecessary. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are occasionally over-indulgent, letting comedic bits and other scenes drag for longer than need be. Perhaps the film’s biggest problem is that, despite this struggle being a fight over the entire universe, there are long stretches in which the film lacks any real tension.
The storytelling is a lot looser here than it was in “Infinity War,” (made by the same writers and directors) but it’s hard to say which film is better. “Infinity War” had more satisfying moments and a tighter narrative, but its pacing was so relentlessly fast that watching it feels like being on a two-and-a-half-hour roller coaster; watching “Endgame,” by contrast, gives breathing room. But the two films complement each other nicely, with narrative and thematic parallels that work effectively. The two halves make a satisfying, but uneven, whole story.
That’s the case of the entire MCU, really. Its films vary wildly in quality, and the movies don’t always successfully work (the aforementioned infinity stones, for example, are an extremely dull plot device whose appearances have been the low point of several Marvel installments). Within this absurdly ambitious franchise is a relatively satisfying, moderately unified story, one which appropriately reaches its finale in “Endgame.”
The stories of the original Avengers come to fitting, though occasionally unsatisfying, ends. Each of the original Avenger’s personal conflicts are concluded in a manner that seems retroactively inevitable; their stories could not have ended any other way. Some of those endings aren’t particularly gratifying, but only because not all of the MCU’s characters are all that compelling. A few periphery characters were never fully defined, and consequently, it’s hard to get too wrapped up in their grand finales. A great conclusion cannot make up for a middling beginning and middle. Thus, ultimately, “Endgame,” cannot undo the mistakes of its predecessors.
Fortunately, the MCU has enough great characters to make up for the weaker ones. More than seeing how all its various narrative threads tie together, the true source of satisfaction of the MCU has been its flawed but heroic leads. Stark’s arrogance and self-sacrifice; Captain America’s relentless determination to fight the bullies; Thor’s solid stature and quivering insecurity; the heroes of the MCU have been defined by their mix of grandeur and flawed humanity. It’s these personalities, and their respective overarching conflicts, that have made the franchise so successful over the years. Any fan of the MCU will be more than satisfied in seeing how these weary heroes finally find peace. “Endgame,” is an imperfect film, but a perfect conclusion.
Henry Spiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.