Movie Review (Sort Of): Avengers: Endgame (Spoilers)
I wrote "Sort Of" at the top because if you've invested at all in this franchise, you're going to see this movie no matter what I, or any one else, write about it. Also because, this movie is more than of itself. It's part of an 11 year, 22 movie saga, so I am reflecting on that more than the movie itself because as a movie, it's hole-y and a mess, but as a piece of a story, it's wholly one finale.
So, if you want to know my opinion "spoiler" free, Avengers: Endgame is incredibly satisfying as a capstone to this gargantuan, behemoth of a franchise and I'm incredibly delighted by them pulling it off. To reiterate, don't go in cold. This is strictly a movie that ties up loose ends of the previous 21 films and is unsatisfying for the casual viewer. If you still want to watch at least the last 10 before going in, you'll have a decent idea of what's going on.
Now, from here on:
There, I've alerted you properly.
There are times when the MCU felt incoherent and far too adherent to the necessity of building this universe. The MCU a collection of films made by filmmakers attempting to tell their own stories within this universe that's hamstrung by a great feeling of corporate synergy. Some of the individual movies suffer greatly from this need to exist with other properties. The individual is subservient to the collective. The same thing happens in the comics that birthed these ideas. There are line wide crossovers that interrupt and upend individual story lines. The stories became a little less of what we came for and a little more about the bigger picture and can struggle to pick back up on that steam. The prime casualties in the meddling have been Thor and Captain America, one forever tied to the main through line of the universe and one adrift in an inconsistent cosmic morass.
The character Thor in Endgame is very different than the Thor in Thor. I would argue that this isn't just because of the character growth through that and the Avengers films, but also because he has three wildly different interpretations under his belt. The franchise seems to have had a hard time with Thor and threw things against the wall for the character until they found what stuck, the goofy, fun-loving god, playing to the actor's learned comedic strengths. There is no defining voice behind Thor, Captain America is Captain America, but who is Thor. This nebulously large universe doesn't require a singular vision for the solo films and so they can meander and only remain important for the broader themes they introduce. Yet, on the other side of the coin, when one thinks of the Guardians of the Galaxy they call to mind James Gunn. He and a few others have become definitive voices within the glut of films.
Gunn has been the mainstay of the cosmic chunk of the universe (and now with a corporate change of heart will remain until the completion of that trilogy in 2020 or 2021) and left his stamp on it. It's the way Ryan Coogler is leaving his stamp on the world of Black Panther and Wakanda and the Russo brothers who helmed two Captain America solo films and the last two Avengers films have reshaped what things are important. These creators are synonymous with those films in the way that the producers likely hoped Joss Whedon would be the guiding voice of the entirety of their Avengers slate, but Whedon, while he has his own style, was nothing like Gunn, Coogler or even Taika Waititi and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
The brunt of the MCU is built on the backs of the journeymen like Peyton Reed, Scott Derrickson, Alan Taylor, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Jon Favreau, John Watts, and Shane Black. Directors who can do the job well, but aren't the directors and collaborators we see as visionary. I think in the wake of Gunn and Coogler, the MCU is attempting something like a loosening of their rigidity in form and concept. The people behind the scenes of the MCU still have a great deal of work to do, but Endgame is a step in the right direction.
There are two scenes in Endgame that I hope the producers take real heart and action with and one of them comes in the final battle as Captain Marvel takes the glove with the Infinity Stones from a shellshocked Peter Parker. Peter remarks and I'm paraphrasing, "That's a lot to go through alone," and just as he says it, the women of the MCU come to Captain Marvel's aid. I can't remember who says, "She's not alone," but it's said and it leads to a glorious ass-kicking scene. This is the future. This is the scene that needs to carry into however long this franchise can (and let's be honest, will) last. A group of women working together, not needing anything more than themselves and their own wits to tackle the problems in front of them. This is the future we need.
The other scene is the scene I hoped for years after there was a comic story line that included it. The scene is of the aged Steve Rogers as he passes on the shield and mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson, the Falcon. This is the future. For so long our popular culture has been dominated by an idea of what a superhero looks like and who can be one, but there's not just one way we all look, there's not just one way we all think, and Captain America is an idea, not a person. Another prominent black superhero added to this lineup is exactly what's needed and exactly the right message to send. This is the future we need.
Yet, while I have loved what has been set up for in the future, I have only slightly appreciated the common decency of giving the women mentors of the MCU a little more credit than they had previously received. I was going to write about this when I reviewed Captain Marvel, but scrapped most of my thoughts, so I'm glad it came up here. The Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme before Stephen Strange, and Frigga, Thor's mother, are just two of the women mentors, cutdown or shifted aside for the sake of story. They get a little of their due in Endgame as they are encountered during the time heist sequences. They of course reinforced their men with high praise, but they also showed their power and their strength in a way they were never given full range to do in the solo films in which they appear. I was appreciative of that small part and closure. What I wish for is more women mentors that last, that are able to do more than bolster a man. I feel I shouldn't have to write this, but make them people like the men are written to be. Captain Marvel is a good start, let's get more dimension added into all of the others as well.
Though, we have glimpsed the future, what Endgame does best is it wraps up the crazy continuity, the lingering storylines and it lets characters go. Steve Rogers got the ending he always deserved, to be an old man, to die naturally (I assume). Clint Barton and Bruce Banner gained the peace they deserved, one with the people he loves, and one with both sides of himself. Thor got to do as he always wanted, to relinquish his throne and adventure in the galaxy.
It was heartbreaking to see Natasha, Black Widow, die as a sacrifice, but even in the uneven writing her character has had to endure, it made sense for her to see it as her only way to redeem anything she had done in her past. Her arc played out heavily in the Avengers franchise, like Hawkeye, having no solo feature of her own (I guess the recently announced solo feature will be a prequel?). She could have been the greatest leader of the team or at least a uniting force between the old and the new.
Then there's the man who kicked it all off. Tony Stark was the ego-driven warmonger ("Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.") who turned ego-driven hero. The end of his arc really means the end of the era. Eleven years ago, Robert Downey Jr. breathed life into a C list superhero you had only sort of heard of. The smartest person in the room, the quickest wit, but always the tragic figure who held onto his demons and took the world onto his shoulders. The phrase that launched this universe is the same phrase Tony uses to save the world, "I am Iron Man." Poetic in its simplicity.
What does an MCU without Steve Rogers and Tony Stark look like? Well, it's a lot weirder, more diverse, bigger, less tethered to Earth and could be integrating a merry band of mutants and a cosmic ray empowered super family in the next few years. It doesn't show any signs of slowing down and maybe I'll meet you back here in another 11 years to discuss that capstone, where the universe is, and what worlds it has yet to explore. There have been highs and lows and an irreparably irreversible intellectual property boom that has changed the idea of cinema, commerce, and studios, but I can't lie, I'm excited to see what's next.