Even at three-plus hours, the gargantuan Avengers: Endgame is light on its feet and more freely inventive than it needed to be. Given the year-long wait, its audience — Pavlovian dogs, myself (woof!) included — would have salivated over less. It’s better than Avengers: Infinity War, which was better than Avengers: Age of Ultron; and it is, for a change, conclusive. My 16-year-old daughter regretted having put on mascara prior to the screening because, by the end, it was all over her face. Even in Franchise-Tent-Pole-Universe land, some superheroism is finite.
A spoiler-free review of such a secrecy-shrouded blockbuster would consist of a star rating (or, shudder, a grade) as well as a cautious dramatis personae — though even here there might be trouble, given that Marvel doesn’t want you to know every character who’ll pop up and in what context. Recounting the very premise is problematic, beyond the heroes’ obvious determination to reverse-disintegrate (re-integrate?) the 50 percent of the galaxy wiped out in Avengers: Infinity War by the Malthusian colossus Thanos. What form will their improbable quest take — and which characters will lead the charge? At this early stage, I must resist the temptation even to hint at momentous events. Although it was nearly 50 years ago, I remember the childhood friend who emerged from The Poseidon Adventure and yelled to everyone in the long line, “Shelley Winters dies!” Nowadays he’d need to go into Witness Protection. Inevitably I’ll tell you things you don’t know but promise not to tell you that Shelley Winters dies.
The beginning of Avengers: Endgame reminds you that Marvel is run by very clever people — or at least people who know enough to hire very clever people. Tonally, they change course frequently. Avengers: Infinity War ended with a noisy and tumultuous super-battle, so Avengers: Endgame begins with something quiet and down to earth: You could almost be watching a “real” movie. Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter how to line up and shoot an arrow. Tending the grill, his wife asks if they want mustard or mayonnaise on their hot dogs and father and daughter bond over the ridiculousness of mayonnaise on a hot dog. Their little son calls for ketchup. And then — poof — Barton is alone. The music comes in so softly that you barely hear it over the flickering Marvel panels. Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.) is discovered floating in a ship in space, his oxygen dwindling, his only company that reformed “blue meanie” Nebula (Karen Gillan). Downey looks gaunt, ravaged, his face finally denuded of all baby fat. (I would fear for the actor’s nutrition, but the credits include the name of his private chef as well as Chris Hemsworth’s. I don’t mean to mock them — though I applaud their co-stars for making do with craft services — but I’m constantly amazed by how detailed closing credits have become.) A close-up of Downey lasts a while, the directors (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo) stopping time the way the makers of the last Game of Thrones installment did — mercifully forestalling the horrors to come.
Earth a la Thanos is full of fascinating contradictions that the Russos don’t fully explore. For example, Tony Stark no longer lives in a high-tech fortress. He lives in the woods. He grows things. His now-wife, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), reads magazines about composting, perhaps the latest iteration of Goop featuring designer worms. We’re told that fewer people means fewer ships means cleaner water. Far, far away, Thanos (Josh Brolin plus CGI) has a little farm himself. A Malthusian who believed the galaxy would be better off with a fraction of the inhabitants, he is apparently a Luddite, too.
The surviving Avengers — the core group of Ironman, Hawk, Thor (Hemsworth), Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), plus Rocket the space raccoon (the wiseass voice of Bradley Cooper), Nebula, and recent arrival Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) — are discovered some time later, in mourning. Serious mourning. No self-respecting superhero could live with that level of failure. The rift between Iron and Cap has gotten uglier. Beginning with Captain America: Civil War, one of them came down on the side of civil liberties and the other on the side of security at all costs — though I keep getting mixed up which is which. (Oh, now I remember: Cap is for civil liberties and Iron for security at all costs, though this still strikes as off given that Stark is a free-market inventor and Rogers a consummate soldier.) Downey’s Stark is fed up, tired, eager to leave the field and start a family. It falls to the Widow — in her mopey, desultory way — to keep the Avengers going. (I will always be Johannsen’s number one fan but I do miss the witty and agile Widow of the first Avengers movie.)
Thor and Hulk are different from what you remember. (Is this a spoiler? I can’t tell anymore.) Thor is fat, hairy, and alcoholic — the Internet, taking its cue from a Stark wisecrack, has already dubbed him Lebowski Thor. This is welcome, given that the Avengers have a ramrod hero in Captain America and Hemsworth is livelier when he’s self-parodic, as in the game-changing Thor: Ragnarok. The new Hulk strikes me as more problematic. Ruffalo is charming and funny and the damnedest sight but the Hulk was born — like the archetypal werewolf, Mr. Hyde — from the idea that humans’ dual natures cannot be reconciled. A medium-sized, rational Hulk is what all of us strive to be, really, as we learn to adopt more mature defense mechanisms. But without an internal struggle, Banner ceases to function as a dramatic character, let alone a dangerous one.
The happiest surprise (that’s a spoiler phrase right there!) is that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have shaped Avengers: Endgame as a time-travel heist picture. The nature of the quantum realm is more sophisticated than in, say, Back to the Future (which gets a razzing, Stark preferring the theories of Planck and contemporary egghead David Deutsch), but the film echoes Robert Zemeckis’s farce in how characters encounter their former selves from previous films. (They beat themselves up emotionally and literally.) Not to endorse Thanos’s homicidal ideology, but fewer people in the movie means richer, more fertile scenes. Evans bears his emotional weight with eloquence, Cooper’s rat-tat-tat delivery is gangbusters, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang/Ant-Man has the kind of crack timing that doesn’t just get laughs but moves the plot along lickety-split, and even Paltrow rises to the occasion, transcending her goopy baggage. Gillan is outright marvelous, her near-monotonic rasp carrying just enough half-tones to make you feel Nebula’s inner struggle, her patchwork Borg-like physiognomy the closest thing in the film to Greek mythology. This Nebula is the dramatic equal of her father, Thanos, rendered brilliant by an army of artists and sound designers. But it’s Brolin who gives him the voice — and soul — of a philosopher gone rancid. He embodies the Dark Side better than many of his Star Wars counterparts.
For all the hoopla of her entry, Larsen’s Captain Marvel brings little to the party — perhaps, to be fair, because it’s really not her party. I missed Benedict Cumberbatch’s high style but not Chris Pratt’s stumblebum antics (what there is of Pratt is enough). Two supporting actors return with their faces de-aged by computers. It works out okay for one of them, but the other is the stuff of nightmares: His head looks melted out of shape, like a Star Trek teleportation accident. There is, as you’d expect, a colossal battle sequence but I wouldn’t dream of telling you who pops up and when, except to say that the Women of Marvel get a mighty, crowd-pleasing shot. I’ll also say that this is the sort of war film in which the good die well and not at the hands of enemies. Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock would nod with approval — and even find his human side stirred.
In the days to come, the components of Avengers: Endgame will be analyzed and its “Easter eggs” enumerated. Its actors will give interviews meant to seem giddily spontaneous but (to one degree or another) shaped by highly-paid publicists at the behest of corporate masters. Although it will need to make room in the collective psyche for Sunday’s “Battle of the Dead” on Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame and the blockbuster HBO show will together reinforce the idea that mass hypnosis is possible even in our supposedly fractious and polyphonic pop culture. I regret this on many levels but am not so hypocritical as to tell you I’ve risen above it. I had a good time and my daughter had a great one.
That said, this kind of success is always a mixed blessing. How soon before Disney stockholders will ask, “When’s the next HUGE one?” I hope not for a long while.
[SPOILER ADDENDUM: DO NOT READ BEFORE SEEING THE FILM. My daughter wondered about the effect of 50 percent of humanity returning five years after they’ve disintegrated as opposed to, well, not disintegrating in the first place. What about the people who did, indeed, “move on with their lives”? They have new relationships, kids, houses maybe… It’s bound to be an emotional shitstorm that dwarfs anything Thanos could come up with. A TV series, maybe?]