AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
This review will contain mild spoilers, but no specifics
The world was very different when Iron Man premiered. Bush was still in the White House, David Tennant was Dr Who, and the team that’d become Horror Cult Films were still nerds duking it out on the Empire forums. 11 years and 20 other films later, Marvel has spawned the biggest, most consistent film property in the world. Now, with Phase Three reaching a close, Anthony and Joe Russo bring us Endgame: a watershed moment for the franchise which aims to round off over a decade of stories.
As per Return of the Jedi, Endgame picks up from a point where it looks like the bad guys have won. At the end of Infinity War, my pick for the all-time greatest superhero flick to date, arch-enemy Thanos clicked half the life in the universe into oblivion. Among others, the vanished included Spiderman, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and all of the Guardians of the Galaxy except Rocket Raccoon. This left the original Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow and The Hulk), an absent Ant-Man and new arrival Captain Marvel – who is underused – to right Thanos’ wrongs. With no clear way to undo the disappearance, and no sign of their big purple foe, you could be forgiven for thinking this would make for a tragic, melancholic coda. Yet from early on, Endgame is among the funnier Marvel outings. Yeah, there’s the aforementioned small thing of half the life in the universe being dust, and public morale stooping to a point where the living envy the dead etc. But then you got quips-aplenty, The Hulk posing for selfies with kids, and an unrecognisable God of Thunder taking to flame-wars with gamer-trolls.
The hearty tone undoubtedly makes Endgame’s bloated running time comfier on your arse, but it also means it fails to establish a sense of real peril until the last act. Admittedly, there are dramatic events early on, plus the movie is bookended by quieter, more intimate character moments. Yet, once its fairly streamlined story gets going, the comedy-heavy approach and its chosen McGuffin means the stakes stay low, with the biggest risk being something which has already happened stays happened. The chosen plot-mechanism, some may dismiss as cheap, also means there’s also no ticking clock, or impending doom, to add a sense of urgency. Heck, there’s no active threat for the strong majority of its running time. This is not a bad thing per se, as the same could be said for a few other past entries that worked. Although being that Endgame is tasked with the non-enviable goal of underlining the canon so far, it’s different.
It soon becomes jarring to see such an important film take such a relaxed approach. For instance, the biggest ethical dilemma (and maybe the most interesting idea in it) is introduced and waved away with a few lines and a pretty visual display. There are still individual standout moments, with a two-person duel of sorts providing the dramatic highlight of the first two hours – along with the only two serious lip-quiver for me (the other involves a moustache – you’ll know it when you see it). There’s also enough self-congratulatory call-backs and cameos to satisfy hardcore fans, so it should just about hold your attention for its duration. But when the film stops in its tracks to reflect on past glories, instead of upping the ante, it strikes me as a poor creative choice. Particularly as in the place of Infinity War’s fun combos (especially Starlord and Thor), the reduced roster means we’re seeing the same core-group having the same rows they’ve had several times before.
Then, like Thanos’ snap last time around, it all changes. It’s only in the film’s third hour that the potential of its premise is fully realised as the Russo’s build to a truly epic finale. Perhaps the most notable quality of the Marvel Universe back-catalogue is how comfortably each movie integrates the characters’ emotional arcs with the action. This is something even the lesser entries, like Guardians of the Galaxy 2, get right. Luckily Endgame is no exception. With a budget bigger than that of the Dutch government’s annual spending, the directorial duo give us one of the most impressive, and powerful, battle sequences of any film to date. In terms of sheer scale, Return of the King has nothing on this. At one point I even felt like clapping – it was that well done. I don’t doubt our less reserved cousins in the States will regularly burst into spontaneous applause. Though after a bum-testing 2.5 hours it still felt too little and too late in the game.
Maybe I’m massively in the minority here. Personally, I like but rarely love Marvel films. I’ve watched almost all of them, Iron Man 2 plus Ant-Man and the Wasp aside, though tend not to rush to see them or watch them more than once. As such, I appreciate I am out of sync with others. I suspect I’m wanting Marvel films to be something they’re not and hold Infinity War in such high regard because it’s an exception to the lunchbox friendly take on these superheroes, and the versions kids want to play at. Endgame has got very positive reviews the world over, including one from our very own Jim (see here). Yet I don’t think it lived up to Infinity War. Where its predecessor was genuinely unpredictable, this was formulaic and left me impatient for the third act to start. For many, this will be the jewel in the series’ gauntlet and set a new standard for the sequels still to come. With the roster of entries already scheduled, including another Spiderman, more Guardians of the Galaxy, a further Black Panther and a few spin-off shows I can see it going a long time yet. Perhaps this is less a finale than it is a new beginning. Not a gamechanger for me, but far from game over.
If you’ve somehow missed it, Avengers: Endgame is at cinemas now.