As season finales go, Avengers Endgame is a cinematic achievement. Don’t believe me? Just look at the evidence. Eleven years and twenty-two films – without even batting an eyelid, that’s an incredible record to fulfil, and in terms of scale and execution, it has been an epic journey that has already reaped the global awards at the box office. For a generation who have grown up alongside the franchise, it has (over time) re-energised popular culture in the modern era. Outside of Game of Thrones, Star Wars or even a Christopher Nolan film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has weaved a ‘cinematic event’ format into its visual vocabulary which has fuelled universal excitement and engagement. One way or another, we’ve all found a connection that has resonated from the experience. Quoting the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, “for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”
However, it is not without contradictions and mixed emotions. As previously mentioned in my Infinity War review (where I covered a lot of ground on this subject), it’s not without the sacrificial trade-offs. For example, it still relies on the heavy use of fan-servicing and being personally invested in the characters to make moments feel whole and complete. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) fractured relationship and reunification would have resonated more had the ending of Civil War been more decisive instead of an ‘olive branch’ moment. Even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes conflicting steps in his journey between realising he’s more powerful than his hammer (Thor: Ragnarok) to spending most of the ending re-building a new weapon (Infinity War).
While finales will never completely satisfy everyone, why Endgame works is because of something I was looking for that Infinity War lacked – a conclusion. Whilst that does sound like a ‘well…duh’ moment, it’s important to reflect on this journey. It’s has been action-packed, fun, and entertaining, defying expectations in its world building. We’ve seen this franchise test the boundaries of human endeavours (Iron Man) to the psychedelic reaches of outer space (Guardians of the Galaxy). There’s a good feeling about finality – it closes the door on one chapter and introduces a new one. But to cement its legacy, the sacrifice had to be worth it. As predictable as some of those elements were, I would be lying if I said that this film did not emotionally affect me. Make no mistake, The Russo Brothers navigated a difficult and near-impossible job, and as a ‘back-to-back’ experience, Avengers Endgame is worth the praise.
“It’s not about how much we’ve lost. It’s about how much we have left.” – Steve Rogers
One of the striking aspects of Avengers Endgame is how time is entwined throughout its three-act narrative.
There’s an emotional benefit that comes from the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. With a literal army of MCU characters under its belt, if there was a downside to Infinity War, it was that ‘channel-hop’ sensation between all of our established favourites. Of course, it got better on repeated viewings, but Endgame (at least) allows for the founding members of the Avengers to take centre stage. By all means, it’s not perfect – if you’ve come this far into the journey, you’ve accepted all the flaws, frailties and missed opportunities. But for the first hour, it represented some of Marvel’s best work as a brutal and profound display of expectations.
Right from the trailers, it’s almost as if Marvel, Kevin Feige and The Russo Brothers anticipated our anticipation. Steve Rogers sums up the audience mood brilliantly – “let’s go and get that son of a bitch!”. However, it’s a mood that quickly evaporates, and the idea is over before it started.
Similar to my thoughts on the mechanisms of grief, time becomes an exploratory measurement of loss. Genuine game-changing moments within the MCU have been fleeting opportunities, but at least this was an opportunity to let that reality stick for a while instead of pretending it never existed.
In its eerie, grim, post-apocalyptic gaze, our favourites are forced to put their armour down and accept a new version of reality like a microscopic tribute to The Leftovers. They all go through various coping mechanisms – Steve becomes a grief counsellor (a nod to The Winter Soldier), Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) manages whatever is left of the Avengers, and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) found a peaceful co-existence. It would seem the only character to have found a benefit from surviving is Tony Stark, finding a quiet, idyllic home alongside Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his daughter Morgan (Lexi Rabe).
Thor’s physical transformation was generally played for laughs (in a tribute to The Big Lebowski), but it doesn’t take away from the obvious and depressive guilt that radiates. Seeing the Asgardian warrior as a broken and unworthy man without hope or purpose fits in with the poignancy of the beginning. Similar to Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant performance in Creed II, crippling effects don’t have a set plan, knowing something was lost within you. It wasn’t about Thor’s physical appearance, it was always a mental battle, and this case scenario, he used humour to deflect from responsibility and found substitutes (gaming and alcoholism) to mask the real cause of his pain.
But it’s Clint/Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) journey that is the heartbreaker. His family vanishes due to the snap and ventures across the globe as his alter-ego Ronin to punish those who still lived. It’s an extreme transformation in contrast to his role in Avengers: Age of Ultron where the value of life has now succumb to being a destroyer of one. It wasn’t addressed to a conclusion, but time will tell whether there are repercussions from his side-hustle.
By Endgame standards, it offers a lot in its opening. You still know that this won’t last, but in the grand ambitions of its story, it’s a visual statement to ground these characters.
“You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.” – Thanos
There’s something fascinating about the concept of time travel/alt-dimensions in popular culture. From Doctor Who, Men in Black 3, Looper to Hot Tub Time Machine, almost anything and everything has delved into the sub-genre format.
Star Trek, for instance, has become ‘Time Trek’ as it has been joked about in some quarters – less about science and more emphasis on plot-driven MacGuffins. Under JJ Abrams, the film franchise established the Kelvin timeline to distinguish the original legacy of series and films with an alt-universe using the same characters. Weaving its way into Netflix’s Star Trek Discovery, its latest season uses the concept to entertaining yet mixed results. Season two served up large doses of fan-servicing, reversing character arcs (and deaths) previously established in its first season, rushed character development and introduced time crystals to explain ‘The Red Angel’ phenomenon (yeah, let’s not go into that one).
LOST season five was another classic example, embarking on a consequential journey after Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) turned the frozen wheel, leaving two factional storylines – flash-sideways (where survivors managed to make it off the island) and a time-travelling adventure to 1977 for the remaining groups on the island.
Game of Thrones was not immune, as The Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) and Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) ventured into the past to discover the origins of the White Walkers and the real truth behind the union of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen.
Not technically correct but you can consider elements from the Star Wars universe as an unconventional exploration of time travel. Designed to slot in between the latest episodic instalments, Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story was an exploratory journey into the past, revealing insight on how the plans for the Death Star was obtained to how Han Solo got his name and reputation.
In extreme circumstances amongst the heightened culture of nerd outrage and divisive entitlement, ‘time travel’ has been a figurative device used by fans to completely re-write scenarios for their immediate liking, from launching a Kickstarter to remove a rat from Scorsese’s The Departed, angry YouTube videos driven by click-bait algorithms or launching a website to ‘remake The Last Jedi‘ (which I won’t share that link because they still don’t deserve your time). If it’s not the actual Infinity Gauntlet we possess, then we’re certainly creating a snap with our keyboards.
What is the point of all this? Well technically it can be considered a criticism, but it is worth acknowledging its frequency and at times, the repetitive overuse of the concept in recent years. Of course, the enjoyment is still based on execution, but because everyone is ‘doing it’, then it has become a validated yet convenient method in Hollywood to get characters out of sticky situations in an attempt to fix reality.
Frankly, it was inevitable that time travel was going to play a factor, and Endgame‘s execution was as smooth as it could be, riffing off various time-travelling films to comically highlight how different their version is from favourites like Back to the Future and Terminator. But it was the least appealing aspect about the film, often turning the opportunity into a gimmick (or ‘Time Heist’ as its called) where the film runs the gauntlet of victory-like cameo appearances and familiarised jokes, therefore losing some of that engaging spark that was built in the first half.
No matter how much you define the logic behind time travel, it can be productive and also counter-productive. In Endgame‘s case, it kindly left backdoor entries for characters to escape their fates. I won’t be surprised if Loki (Tom Hiddleston) escaping 2012 ends up being the explanation to his show on Disney’s new streaming service, but it robs a reflective emotion that would have continued to have existed if he wasn’t given the option to live again, reinforcing my point about death and consequential finality in my Infinity War review. Whether intentional or unintentional, it also has a knack of leaving unkindly discussions about continuity and whether something is a plot hole or not. Captain America may have gotten a heroic and beautiful ending for being ‘America’s Ass’, creating a circular loop on his journey (if you believe he was Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) off-screen husband all along), but it still doesn’t take away the fact that he kissed his relation Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) in Captain America: Civil War!
You see time travel can do that to you! It can be ugly and complicated which something that Endgame doesn’t spend enough time reconciling. The why is understandable, but where it restores its emotional confidence is when Tony and Steve take a detour back the 70s aka the birthplace of Captain America.
Ignore the cameo appearances – on a separate level, it identifies how far these characters have come. 2008 Tony was selfish, arrogant and cocky. 2023 still has his quips, but there’s maturity in his reflection of the past, knowing he has a wife and daughter. The same occurs to Captain America, a soldier ‘out of time’ displaced from the past into the present, destined to fight the ultimate war and then presented with an opportunity to live a life once the mission was complete. Even Thor gets in on the act (and somewhat justifying Thor: The Dark World) when reconnecting with his mother Frigga (Rene Russo). If Endgame does achieve something telling, then it is the reinforced persuasion they’re worthy, a title they individually fulfil, or in the case of Steve Rogers, passing the mantle of ‘Captain America’ to a deserving character in Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
Female characters during this saga have mostly been sidelined or given limited screen time (we’re given one hero shot towards the end), but it’s Nebula (Karen Gillan) who got the sounder arc in Endgame. Her subtle yet layered path was fixed firmly in redemption and reconciliation, not just to prove her worth just to the Avengers in the aftermath of the snap, but to herself – her literal self- coming face to face with her past. In a mirrored juxtapose, it’s a small undertaking of hero-building, understanding her value besides being a ‘punishable pet’ child for Thanos. Similar to Gamora (Zoe Saldana), their quests provide both Infinity War and Endgame with a personal, grounded journey amongst the traditional melee of ‘it’s the end of the world’. Thanos takes an understandable back seat, not as fully formed by Infinity War standards, but for Nebula, a character who went from villainous understudy to empathetic hero, some of the smallest, yet underrated moments from Endgame belonged to her.
“I love you 3000.” – Tony Stark
It’s a poetic, dovetail ending with Tony Stark as a literal metaphor for the Avengers’ beginning and end (of this phase as we know there’s more to come). Death may have felt inevitable, but Endgame became a tribute to the character.
The best way to illustrate how integral Tony Stark/Iron Man has been to the role is to go back to the first Avengers film. Directed by Joss Whedon, Rogers openly questions his valour – “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Not only is it a small tease of Tony’s eventual fate, but a character arc that came full circle.
Fans have often derided Iron Man 3 for various reasons (mainly focused around The Mandarin), but as a personal favourite, there’s an unprecedented amount of character development, distinguishing the man outside of the suit – a tact used only a year before its release in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a rare occasion where you watch a film that openly acknowledges his ‘brush with death’ in Avengers Assemble, examining the spectrum between his panic attacks, ‘inviting death’ (aka terrorists) to his Malibu home and his growing paranoia and control which fed into the themes of Whedon’s Age of Ultron. Throughout these significant transitions, is a migration of personalities, slowly shifting away from the self-centred, egocentric genius to someone constantly adapting to the ‘bigger picture’.
Within the enjoyable cohesiveness of Endgame, the emotional conclusion is the self-evident reward, thanks to Downey Jr.’s outstanding performance over the years. It’s hard to imagine what Avengers would have been like without his presence. He certainly changed the game, setting a standard for what we see today with the franchise, even down to the textbook quipping that has transcended from film to film (e.g. Doctor Strange). Even in bit-part roles, Stark was the essence of a ‘best friend’ in the MCU – he was always around. But the eventuality is handled with a dignity that cements the legacy of a well-beloved character.
Like all things, time will be a measurement of its achievements once the ‘hype bubble’ fades and our attentions are naturally grabbed by other mediums. It may not overtake personal favourites (The Winter Soldier and Black Panther), but as an experience, Endgame recognises the journey as a celebration in its triumphant third act.
As a mechanism of time, Endgame looks back at the journey fondly, know that each film played a vital role. At times, it wasn’t perfect, but as a farewell to the past and a new beginning (a female Avengers please), then it’s a remarkable achievement. When it mattered, the Russos delivered a balance of humour and plot-driven exercises to a satisfying conclusion.
Endgame is nothing short of a deserved send-off to the Infinity Saga, stamping an impressive mark on the cultural psyche. It has been one hell of a ride.