The Marvel Cinematic Universe has glistened as much as any of the Infinity Stones in its eleven-year existence on the blockbuster scene. However, its Achilles heel comes from replication of its source material in being an ever-expanding bubble, that with each passing year, steamrolls into inaccessibility with a seemingly never-ending narrative. Despite not being as thematically rich as some of the previous instalments, Avengers: Endgame does what few of its genre brethren have dared or even hope to accomplish, which is providing a satisfying sense of finality to its overarching story.
Picking up immediately after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame is about how our scattered heroes deal with the aftermath of half the universe being wiped out. When a previously thought dead Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns to present day, via the Quantum Realm, the remaining Avengers hatch a plan to collect the six Infinity Stones (elemental gems that grant its wearer various abilities, such as turning back time and manipulating the environment) from the past and place them within a newly constructed Infinity gauntlet, once they do this, everyone who had previously crumbled into dust will come back.
As much as Endgame has been hyped as a culmination to a decade long storyline, it also represents an ending to the Russo Brothers’ tenure as Marvel directors. Starting with Captain America: The Winter Soldier: the directing duo introduced a real-world political thriller ascetic, amidst the backdrop of a serious and earnest hero whose optimism shone with the brightness of a full moon.
As their films have worn on, they’ve become much more fantastical space-faring adventures, balancing genuine dramatic pathos with comic book inspired action sequences. In Endgame, there is an attempt to bridge the gap between the intimate stakes that graced Winter Soldier and Civil War with the universe-spanning consequences of Infinity War.
These two facets come together in the first quarter of Endgame that feels like a riff on Watchmen. The who watches the Watchmen theme is illustrated through a ghostly existence for many of the heroes, whose lives have become empty, due to the nature of the changing world that they could not prevent. At the same time, the deliberately paced section engages as a counterexample to Thanos’ belief that wiping out half of life would mean that the remaining people would prosper, due to easier access to resources. Instead, the depiction of a post-snap world shows people leading timid lives. Standard choices that were once taken for granted now become life-affirming moments, akin to steps people take when processing and attempting to get over the death of a loved one.
In this stretch of the film, Scarlett Johansson particularly impresses in a performance that subverts how we usually see Natasha Romanoff. Johansson has always played Natasha like a poker player whose constantly focused on adopting a neutral emotional state for pure survival. In Endgame, Johansson embodies the broken spirit of the team, with a subtle emotional performance, that still hints at the former spy, working to portray a sense of light relief in the face of utter hopelessness. Equally, as captivating is Mark Ruffalo, who injects Bruce Banner’s new form with the comedic import of the jolly green giant and an encouraging football coach.
Despite containing many jokes that riff on the nature of time travel, Endgame does morph into Back to the Future Part II for much of its running time. The present-day Avengers have to shadow their past selves in moments from previous Marvel movies. The funniest of which is a silent point of view of Peter Quill’s dancing entrance in Guardians of the Galaxy that culminates in an amusing physical comedy gag that would make the Three Stooges proud.
At worst, these sequences feel like the film is indulging in an elongated victory lap. Most of the moments of the past are rubber-stamped in neon pink with- remember this great moment, although some of the scenes have a sly sense of irony. A mundane scene that takes places in the aftermath of the first Avengers film frames an elevator scene with Captain America and Shield bosses as ascetically similar to a tense scene in The Winter Soldier. The sequence is amusing in its diffusion of this set up ascetic tension with a fast-talking Steve Rogers, who has to retrieve a briefcase with one of the MacGuffins.
Ascetically, the film has some beautiful moments, particularly one extended scene with Ronin (Jeremy Renner) that feels like it’s been lifted from a Japanese cop drama with its mixture of moody atmosphere and natural light of Toyko’s nightlife. But Endgame’s direction is at its best with small camera movements that speak volumes. One such scene comes at the end which pans from a message written on a box to every person amongst a large gathering of people. The shot feels like it belongs in a Wes Anderson film. It speaks to a community that was touched and united by one soul. But, in a metatextual sense, it acknowledges the legacy of said character who is the architect for the tone, comedic sensibility, and brand of heroism that defines the entire Marvel cinematic universe.
And the closing moments with its nostalgically warm and radiating natural light imbues a simple gesture with an emotional pathos that has come to define the entire project. At its best, superhero fiction makes our striving for normalcy all the more resonating because it’s filtered through the prism of extraordinary beings, whose responsibility and personal hangups make it hard for them to achieve a semblance of ordinariness. The fact that Avengers: Endgame understands this idea, as well as any movie within the genre, is why it soars.