21 films over eleven years. Marvel wants us to remember this. A narrative they had set into motion with ‘Iron Man’ back in 2008 has built itself into a franchise of staggering proportions, and with its twenty-second film, that narrative is now drawing to a close. At the end of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018), the Marvel Cinematic Universe made its boldest move. The villain had won, the heroes had lost and the cost was enormous. With ‘Avengers: Endgame’, that move has to be resolved and all the many threads thrown to the wind over the last decade brought back together. The stakes, both for the characters and the franchise itself, are incredibly high. This just makes it all the more frustrating how much of a disappointment ‘Endgame’ ultimately is.
I won’t go into plot specifics so as not to spoil any surprises, but there are two tasks to be fulfilled: deal with the aftermath of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) Snap that wiped out half of all living things, and find a way to reverse its consequences. Compared to ‘Infinity War’, the narrative structure of ‘Endgame’ is a lot clearer, and the solution to the latter problem is surprisingly elegant, making for the strongest section of the film. The problem is that, even with that clarity, ‘Endgame’ still doesn’t know how to handle the emotional journeys of its characters. This has always been a problem with the MCU, but any hopes that they would be able to pull it together is dashed within the first hour. We’re given almost no time to see the emotional fallout of the Snap on the survivors, and what we are given is rudimentary and unexplored. The same applies to the world at large. We’re told that the universe has descended into chaos, but apart from two or three establishing shots, we’re never shown this, so that we never get any indication of the impact of that loss on the Avengers and the world around them. It all makes for a dour opening with lots of empty dialogue, and any potentially bold narrative moves are never taken full advantage of. It makes for a dour opening with lots of empty dialogue. The handling of survivor's guilt, depression and PTSD for comic effect also leaves an unsavoury aftertaste, one that persists for the entire film.
When a possible solution is offered, thanks to the sudden reappearance of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), the film is suddenly given a sense of purpose, and its here that both screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo give the film a sense of play and energy. Suddenly, we’re exploring these characters and their relationships through action rather than monologue, and the entire breadth of the MCU begins to pull together almost effortlessly. For a series that has distinguished itself as a lot of mess and noise, this middle act of ‘Endgame’ offers consideration and clarity, giving the sense that this all might be wrapped up and a solution found to its central conflict in a surprisingly satisfying way.
However, in the last act it all falls apart, and ‘Endgame’ ultimately becomes a final portrait - not of what is best about the MCU, but its persistent and major flaws. The film descends into thunderous chaos, a finale that’s both too big for this series and not big enough, the MCU still insisting it can do "epic" even after failing again and again. Rather than striving for something new and unexpected, many of the final beats of the film are derivative variations on those in ‘Infinity War’, but the second time around, they don’t have the same impact. It’s here that the lack of care in the opening act has serious consequences for the emotional potency of the final act, in that none of the emotional beats feel at all earned. The film assumes you will be emotionally invested, but it has done nothing to earn any such investment, and moments that should have been given the gravitas they deserve end up falling completely flat. There is certainly loss in ‘Endgame’, but that loss is there to serve plot, not character, and as such, are nothing more than mechanisms to keep the story moving. One moment in particular is so shockingly mishandled, especially in relation to the character it affects, as to be insulting.
The film also acts as a culmination of the artistic vacuum that has become the defining visual and aural texture of the MCU. There’s nothing distinct about how this film looks or sounds. The cinematography is still flat, over-lit and obnoxiously colourful, the visual effects have no texture, and the score is even more forgettable than usual. The directorial flair that the Russos had shown in their ‘Captain America’ films - and even in ‘Infinity War' - is gone, purely serviceable and without consequence. It also overstays its welcome, not uncomfortably, but it spins its wheels for far too long. ‘Infinity War’ may have been a bit of a mess, but what made it work was a sense of tension and purpose, a drive towards something. ‘Endgame’ lacks that drive, and the clearer structure only emphasises both how unnecessary so much of it is and how much attention was needed in other areas.
Ultimately, the thing that makes ‘Endgame’ such a disappointment is that, after so many films and so many years, it still sees the MCU making the same frustrating mistakes it has always made, and never learned from. None of its significant emotional beats are earned, but played with the expectation that they will just work without putting any effort in, that you’ll react how they want anyway. It takes a fascinating villain and reduces them to a standard Big Bad, stripping him of his moral complexity. The women are, without exception, woefully mishandled, reduced in every instance to a prop for the narrative with the paltry screen time they have, and made worse by a perfunctory moment in the finale that feels utterly contrived and built solely to win them brownie points. It further proves that Marvel are willing to make the gesture of diversity initially, as they did with ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’, and then never actually follow through on that gesture with any substance. They can’t even seem to handle the definitive exits of some of their major characters with the kind of emotional or narrative gravitas that they deserve. I’ve made my criticisms of the MCU clear over through the years, but I really did have high hopes that, especially after ‘Infinity War’, they would make good at this last stretch. The fact that they fail to do so in such a lacklustre way makes the disappointment all the deeper.
‘Endgame’ ultimately becomes a final portrait, not of what is best about the MCU, but its persistent and major flaws.
And now that this first volume of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to a close, it’s hard to see what the point of the whole endeavour was. As a series, it proves to ultimately have nothing to say, even though its characters and source material offer so much possibility. An ending should leave an audience with a sense of emotional or thematic completion, but ‘Endgame’ doesn’t offer that. It left me feeling empty and let down, that a universe of such possibility and characters of such potential could have, with a handful of exceptions, been wasted so carelessly. One could argue that they’re just for entertainment, that they’re just there to make people happy, and that’s a thoroughly legitimate argument. For me though, I look at the resources at their disposal, the material they have to work with, the incredible artists they call upon, and wonder, why not make something that will truly last? Why not aim to create modern classics, films we’ll be talking about for decades to come, not because of how many there were but how great they were? Marvel has sold us this series based on a collection of statistics, this many films in this many years, this much money in this period of time, a first for this and a first for that, but quantity does not equal quality. They have aimed to create a franchise that they expect will sit beside ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ and assumed they’ve done so, without earning or achieving it. This series seems to care more about its fans than its characters, and that kind of approach never works. It’s all just sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I hope I am proven wrong, and that in fifty years this will be seen as a great achievement in popular cinema. Perhaps they’re just not my kind of films, as much as I’ve always hoped they might be. The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe though have distinguished themselves for over a decade by being nothing more than okay. Some have been better than that and some worse, but rarely anything more. ‘Avengers: Endgame’ had the opportunity to be more than fine, it had the chance to bring it all together in a big, thunderous finale, but in the end, fine was still all it could manage. If only they’d aimed for something greater.