All Good Things...
Warning: This review contains spoilers. Not that it matters because you’ve seen it anyway.
Here it is, then. The culmination of an unprecedented run of rapid release blockbusters – 21 films over 11 years, scooping $20b at the box office. A feat, in franchise terms, that’s never been bettered. What was the model for this boon for the film industry? Episodic television from a less demanding age; a paradigm that once adopted boxes in movie studios and reduces risk taking in the long run. Thus, Avengers: Endgame is an illusion worthy of Doctor Strange. It appears to be a high watermark for blockbuster filmmaking, whereas in truth it’s the point said water breaks and rolls back; a staging post to a dry and dispiriting 2020s, when the best new movies will be on streaming services watched alone and naked by attentive cineastes.
This requiem for movies is a lament for another day, however. We must hope the gargantuan cast of the MCU dust off their funeral apparel and turn up, as they did for Tony Stark’s send off (which doubles as a goodbye to the series’ only real charismatic character). For now, let’s talk about how good Marvel’s endgame is. Is it a worthy cap, pun intended, on a decade’s breezy and colourful storytelling? No. Does it encompass the series’ strengths and weaknesses? Yes. Overall, are we entertained? We are, but not as effortlessly as we might have hoped.
The MCU has always been one generation’s tribute to the genre filmmaking of their youth – the movies of the long 80s (1977- 1991 or thereabouts) from which they’ve robbed iconography, plot points and story ideas. Endgame is bold enough to acknowledge this fact. After the Avengers find Thanos and learn he’s destroyed the infinity stones, they kill him and endure a barren a five years in which the world mourns its dead. Scott Lang, Ant-Man to his friends, emerges from his quantum limbo and learns of the apocalypse. His survival suggests a solution – time travel using the quantum realm. How will it work? No one, including the filmmakers know, but thanks to Pym’s knowledge of Back to the Future and other useful reference points, he’s got a few preconceptions – ideas Stark, Banner and the like shoot down.
This, it turns out, is the point the movie turns from an emotional and compelling spectacle; the bedrock of an engaging first hour; into the worst kind of schlock. Later, we lament characters rubbished the likes of Back of the Future and Bill and Ted, because those movies had the intelligence to establish clear rules on the use of time travel and stick to them; a pre-requisite for using this particular and potentially problematic storytelling device.
One piece of time travel storytelling cited by the filmmakers, but not the characters, is the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale, “All Good Things” – a story centred on visiting the past to save the future. But there too, despite it being a tale, like Endgame, built on technobabble, was a clear set of parameters that structured the plot. There’s no such clarity here and the result is a messy middle section that fulfils the corporate check list requirements of referencing past films and allowing key characters to be reunited with lost loved ones, but kills the movie stone dead.
Back to the Future made it simple. You don’t overwrite previous movies – they’re banked, so just work around them. Endgame botches its opportunity to make a clear set of dos and don’ts, perhaps because writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely couldn’t work out a way to reconcile the story’s audience pleasing requirements with its storytelling complications.
Thus, it should be a problem that Thanos is killed in the overwrought climax, because this is a past iteration of a character who will die later in said character’s chronology – in fact the entirety of Infinity War relies on him doing so. It should be a problem that Karen Gillan’s Nebula kills her past self, as this would surely wipe out her present self? Gamora can be saved from her fate by pulling her into the present from the past, but poor Black Widow is irretrievable. And that’s just the rudiments of the plot. We won’t talk about the technobabble inelegantly cited in a bid to hold it all together – the equivalent of taking out an airplane’s jackscrews and replacing them with chewing gum.
It’s a shame the movie’s bogged down with this head scratching and terminal abdication of storytelling responsibility, because it makes what should have been a rousing final third senseless; just white noise. Amongst all the sound and fury, Robert Downey Jr says goodbye to the series that revitalised him, and may need to again someday, and Chris Evans retires. In other news, and perhaps the one light at the end of the tunnel, the newly restored Guardians of the Galaxy – just don’t think too hard about how they’ve been restored – are joined by Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, who in one of the movie’s best choices, has been temporarily transformed into an all-powerful version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski – paunch, beer, grey sweater and all.
Whether this is the MCU’s peak or not will depend on how risk averse it is going forward. Endgame tells us that the more bogged down the filmmakers get with character crossovers, the less focused they become. Story, not atmosphere, should be Marvel’s focus in their next phase – and original stories please, not those half-heartedly reheated from the VHS collections of the eager directors-for-hire.
If greater heft and consistency is achieved, the franchise may yet prosper while all around it – you know, movies for adults – turns to ash. If not, now would probably be a good time to say thanks for the gags and the distraction, but goodbye.