The highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame is finally here. Join us in this (spoiler-filled) examination of whether or not it lives up to expectations both as the ultimate MCU film and a conclusion to one of the most impressive sagas of mainstream cinema ever produced.
Warning – This discussion includes mild spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. If you have not already seen the film, proceed at your own risk!
The value of a movie is more than just how much it makes at the box office. The value of a movie is the way it entertains, teaches, and inspires us. When we think of our favorite films, they are the movies which have impacted our lives the most. And for every person sitting in the audience at your local theater watching Avengers: Endgame (which is close to everyone), the movies (and aspects of movies) they value the most are different. For every single person, a lifetime of interests and experiences has impacted their selection of favorite films, and vice versa.
And so, the process of determining the value of one film is not an easy thing to do. Especially when that one film is Avengers: Endgame, which was saddled with all sorts of grand expectations even before it was written.
Regardless of your own individual movie taste, there was surely something you found interesting about the MCU films so far. They have been so varied and well-made, it would be difficult for even the most stubborn film snob to not admit one measly redeeming quality about the franchise. Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of all of what has come before it. A figurehead to represent everything audiences have been through on our 11 year journey. This means evaluating the film on its own doesn’t really do it any justice because Endgame’s real power comes as a conclusion to a grand saga.
The actual ending was never really in doubt. Even if the MCU has strayed from its paper bound inspirations, we knew the good guys would win. We knew there would be struggle along the way. We knew some of them would die. Like the rest of the series leading up to this point, we expected both laughter and tears. That’s entertainment, that’s the movies. Thus, the impact of Avengers: Endgame isn’t necessarily about what happens, but how it happens.
Avengers: Infinity War left us with the mother of all cliffhangers; half of all living things were dead, and many of our favorite characters had disintegrated into dust. Viewed for the first time, it was shocking. The heroes aren’t supposed to lose in big budget cinema. The emotional foundation of the franchise is not supposed to be cast away. Bad guys aren’t supposed to win.
Endgame mostly undid all of this. “Mostly” because this reset button was not without its casualties (you didn’t really think the Avengers would get through this entirely unscathed, did you?). The biggest casualty of all is the feeling of shock left over after viewing Avengers: Infinity War. Now that we know how the pieces go back together, the initial shock of seeing humpty dumpty falling off the wall is not so horrifying. The emotional effect of the cliffhanger ending was only going to last the year between release dates. The writers knew this, and so Endgame had to have enough of its own punch to overcome it.
What is most successful about Endgame is what has made the MCU success until now. We get an action-packed roller coaster executed with technical proficiency. The saving-the-world story line is always a hit, especially for a blockbuster film that has to be as palatable as possible. Our favorite heroes are back in action (but some of them are on the sideline) and the stakes are as high as ever. The franchises’ ability to extract meaning out of CGI-fueled adventure is impressive, and the writing is a salivating combo of sweet and salty.
Fittingly, the plot of Avengers: Endgame is essentially all of the MCU movies we’ve seen already, but repeated again. It is a abbreviated do-over to try and prevent the mistakes our heroes made in Avengers: Infinity War. It is a nostalgia trip through the last 11 years and 21 films of Disney’s sprawling jewel of a movie franchise, and it is an opportunity for audiences to reflect upon everything they have seen so far.
Seeing any film the second time through (or in this case, parts of various films) naturally invites reconsideration. Think about seeing a film you’ve already seen in a new place/setting, or with different people – the experience can be remarkably different than the first time. In Endgame, revisiting the franchise’s past is an opportunity to re-evaluate everything both our heroes and ourselves have been through on the journey to get where we are today.
The plot of Endgame is a clever blend of the films that have come previously. There is the overarching MacGuffin hunt for the Infinity Stones. The film is a heist like the first Ant-Man films, and requires on-the-fly technological development a’la the Iron Man films. There’s swashbuckling in space like Guardians, and that sense of duty and moral motivation from Captain America. We get to visit Asgard one more time, and Dr. Strange plays a major role in the overarching story line. Where each of the previous Avengers films felt like an original adventure, this one is more like a hodgepodge of everything that has come before. It works as a kind of reminder of everything the series has done already, leading up to a final climactic battle.
This makes Avengers: Endgame both a recycling of the past, and a glimpse towards the future. A definitive end to the Thanos problem which lurked in the shadows of the franchise before rounding into final form in Infinity War. A nod to exciting new characters and their potential for us to explore this fascinating universe along with them. Endgame leaves the audience in a place where we feel like only a fraction of what is possible has been examined. The fact that the franchise has gotten better with age only makes us want to believe in it even more. Gone are our initial doubts about whether an entire expensive tent pole franchise could exist consisting of trope-prone superhero movies. But above all, more than just a conclusion to this part of the MCU, Endgame is an end to an important chapter in cinematic history.
The MCU was a grand experiment in the realm of big-budget movie making. Disney invested heavily on the superhero sub-genre to bring us a film property unlike we’ve seen before. This franchise had long term goals, unlike most which spurt out sequels as long as there is enough success at the box office. It had Easter eggs to tease the next installment and keep us hooked, a wider cast of characters with important stories than ever attempted before, and crossover films to tie such vast styles and plot lines back together. Everything was planned in advance, and we the audience were taken on a thrill ride without equal. There were ups and downs along the way, but no moment was dull and no opportunity wasted to craft a bigger picture.
Looking at the ridiculous box office proceeds so far, Endgame seems like a no brainer. But it didn’t always seem that way. Since this was a new way to base a big-budget franchise, there were risks. How would audiences respond to big budget superheroes once again? Every other major superhero franchise besides Nolan’s Batman trilogy has had significant issues maintaining success for the long run. Endgame’s mere existence is proof that Disney has been able to push the right buttons over and over again. It is unprecedented, a proof of concept but also a showcase of the importance of listening and responding to audiences with continuous improvements. Sure, Disney had substantial resources to put behind its superhero project, but it has nonetheless created a blueprint for success in today’s movie marketplace.
If we zoom-in our focus a bit to examine Endgame on its own, it is adventurous, exciting, and inspirational. But if this was the only MCU film you had ever seen, it wouldn’t have seemed like the ultimate crossover film, the zenith of palpable franchising. That’s the trick. Like any of the individual Avengers characters, they are interesting on their own, but better as part of a team. That is why it doesn’t really matter if the methods used by Endgame to achieve its lofty goal were actually a bit messy and short sighted. Isolating the qualities of this film on its own, it is therefore a mixed bag.
We always assumed time travel would be part of the plot, and its addition to the MCU is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it is sort of fun to revisit scenes or moments we’ve seen before. There’s jokes to be made about how far we’ve come, and new wrinkles in the timeline to explore. But doing things over again is exactly that. It is wasted opportunity to see something new, and it perhaps downplays the past. It feels like when your favorite sitcom does a clip show for their 100th episode. It’s kind of a cop out.
But the big problem with the introduction of time travel into any film is the complications associated with it. If a plot involves time travel, the writers have to think carefully about how they are going to deal with it. They have to establish rules of what is or is not possible in this iteration in order for the film to pass the logic test. Unfortunately, this is a place where Endgame struggles. It wastes dialogue trying to figure it out, but ends up just making things more murky. A crossover film on this magnitude is already going to struggle with the complexities associated with such a huge scope, time travel just makes it even more so.
Time travel is a useful tool to undo things that can’t easily be undone. In this case, one could argue, it was the writers’ only option. Perhaps that is enough of a reason to accept time travel, with all of its potential hiccups, in the MCU. On one hand, it exponentially increases the opportunities for future adventures. Current characters can visit time periods which have already passed. But at what cost? With so many films and so much time having passed between them, it is already difficult enough for the typical MCU fan to keep track of it all. If anything, it is just a word of caution for Phase 4.
But in the grand scheme, as a conclusion to a 22 film journey on which we have all been a part of, Endgame is more than just the sum of its parts. It carries over our own individual experiences from the previous 11 years. It manages to remind us of those moments that inspired, entertained, and taught each of us. There’s nostalgia in seeing some of the past again, and empowerment in seeing our favorite characters in action when it matters the most. They may not be at their best, the franchise may not be at its best, but it doesn’t have to be because we’ve each already taken from it what was of the most value to us individually. It may sound cliche to say, but it’s not about the destination – it’s about how you got there. Endgame is a fantastic reminder of how the MCU took us on one of the most impressive cinematic journeys of all time.
Upon walking out of the theater, you’re not sure if you’re happy that you have experienced something so grand, or if you’re sad to see that it is over. Perhaps the emotional tone leans towards sadness because even though the franchise will continue for the foreseeable future, you realize this version of it is over. I for one don’t think they’ll be able to do it any better than they already have, but hopefully they’ll prove me wrong.