Review contains spoilers
Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste. No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work. And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do. Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.
Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year. That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy. That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more. It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie. Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.
At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out. To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead. I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through. In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that. It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it. It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings. Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.
That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.” I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character. Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome. You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability. Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer. Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters. Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation. The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence. Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.
Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie. There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie. That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to. I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be. I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off. Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.
I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula. Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them. Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story. Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones. One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before. It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible. All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative. The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.
***1/2 out of Five