Monday, April 29, 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME puts a thrilling period at the end of a 22-film sentence

Note: mega-spoilers abound. This is your on warning.

After 22 films in 11 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches a climax with AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Though plenty of the films in the series are completely inessential to most continuing arcs and each other, this is the film where everything is brought to bear and it's a clear finish line for many elements that have defined these movies to this point.

I apparently didn't write a full review of last year's AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, though I remember at the time saying that it was a perfect adaptation of the company-wide mega-crossover genre of story, with all the good and bad that implies. I have a hard time rating it as a movie because it's almost impenetrable to anyone who hasnt' seen any of the other films. It's a big season finale and that's very much how I'd describe ENDGAME. I don't thing either of these are the best MOVIES Marvel has to offer, but they're certainly the MOST movie.

ENDGAME picks up in the aftermath of Thanos's victory in INFINITY WAR. As promised, he wiped out half of all living things in the universe and what's left of the Avengers sets out to... well... avenge. Twenty minutes into the film, they catch up to Thanos and learn he's destroyed the Infinity Stones along with any chance of undoing what he did. Thanks to Thor, he's given an execution so swift and brutal that there's almost no satisfaction in seeing him taken down. And at this point I realized 90% of the trailer shots had already occurred and I had NO idea where the film was going from here.

I managed to go in almost entirely unspoiled and I encourage most viewers to do the same. There's a lot of fun in the discovery of where our surviving characters have ended up following a five-year jump into the future. Whatever issues I take with some of the plot logistics - and there are plenty - the film rises above them because of the emotional investment it builds for each character. There's an advantage that the audience has spent a decade with many of these people, but ENDGAME isn't lazy about earning the emotional stakes facing each core character.

And that is the real success of these films. I see naysayers often sneer that these films "never take any chances." Listen, bub, in 2008, it was an insane risk to launch an entire cinematic universe on the back of a C-list character played by an actor with several well-publicized falls from grace and already on his (at least) second comeback. Further, the idea to do a movie that combined ALL of these B & C listers was also a huge gamble. If it tanked, it could have taken down multiple franchises at once. Then in Phase Two, we got a film that tried to inject politics into this superhero verse, a film with a talking tree and raccoon, and another film that leaned more heavily into Norse mythology.

Not every big swing has paid off, but there's a pretty high quality average and the good films have been REALLY good. To pull off that kind of consistency with so many different films released in such a short time is nothing short of astonishing. The fact they've made it look so effortless that people can claim, "They don't take any chances" is nothing short of remarkable. Marvel has learned from its early mistakes (IRON MAN 2) and corrected them going forward.

A big part of Marvel's secret sauce came from creating compelling characters on screen that the audience became invested in. I’m a DC guy, barely read the mythos of the players who made up the core MCU, and the films work because they make you love these people. You don’t have to have spent 30 years buying the MCU characters books to be able to appreciate the movie incarnations. These aren’t movies made for “the fans,” they’re made for EVERYONE. To achieve that when starting with traditional B-listers is, well, a marvel.

And that is why ENDGAME works, because it's not trying to be some profound meditation on power and mankind, with its players merely acting as organic position papers. It's about people with real emotions and personalities coping with fantastic situations. Even in its more deliberate moments, the pace never drags and the character journeys drive the story forward.

It delivers on the big moments too. The last 45 minutes or so over the film feels like it could have been related in an issues worth of those double-page spreads with a thousand characters drawn by George Perez. To see every heroic character rally for the final fight, taking their positions for the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of superhero movies is just one of those powerful wish fulfillment moments that the best of these movies thrive on. We've followed the Tony/Pepper relationship from the very first film now, so it was very hard not to stand up and cheer when Pepper joins the final battle in her own Iron Man armor.

It'd be easy for this review to turn into gushing about all the little moments in this final battle, but suffice to say everyone gets their moment. My only quibble is that the fight is staged in such a visually uninteresting locale.

But the back and forth reversals of that battle are beautifully done. Even before the battle's scale expands we get the pleasure of seeing Iron Man, Captain America and Thor working together to take down Thanos in one of the best examples of super-teamwork put on screen. One payoff in here is one of the film's biggest applause moment.

There's a real risk that Captain Marvel could have come off as a convenient late addition that tips the scales and overshadows everyone else. Was her rescue of Tony and Nebula convenient? Maybe a little, but I like the staging, with her hovering before a near-death Tony like some kind of beautiful angel. As a fan of Brie Larson since UNITED STATES OF TARA, I love what she brought to the part - confidence without cockiness, just complete self-assuredness that she's seen more than her new teammates can understand. I wish we'd seen her clash more with Tony and she had all too brief chemistry with Thor, but it probably was wise the film establishes her as a player, then sends her off long enough for us to forget about her until she shows up as the cavalry to the cavalry. The staging of that entrance is great too, with Thanos's ship realizing it has a much bigger problem than the armies and demigods fighting on the ground.

But it would have been a cheat for the new toy who was only established one film prior to end up as THE key player in the battle. She comes in, gets her moment, but the filmmakers don't overuse her. That said, I can't help but wonder if she would have been able to better handle the strain of using the Infinity Gauntlet.
And it all ends the way we probably expected it to - with the death of an Avenger. Tony Stark sacrifices himself using the energy of the Iron Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and his army. Everyone was expecting Cap to call back to "I can do this all day" while making a last stand against the mad god, but no one expected Thanos's final words "I am inevitable" to be match by Tony's "I am Iron Man" right before he unleashes the battle-ending power.

Tony's sacrifice is well-foreshadowed and gives the finale of the movie its necessary emotional heft. It's a good death and the mourning is given its necessary due. There truly is a sense that everything has changed for the MCU going forward and the only issue with Tony's death is that it overshadows the mourning for Black Widow too.

Enough about what worked, what doesn't work?

"Your plan is based on BACK TO THE FUTURE?" The film's approach to time travel is frustrating. With the Infinity Stones destroyed, the plan becomes to travel back in time and borrow the stones so that everything can be undone in the future. It's not unlike BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II where Marty has to run around the events of the previous film to retrieve the almanac. Most of this conceit works, particularly when Banner gets a lecture about how removing the stones from their place would create a branching, alternate timeline. To prevent that, Banner promises the stones will be returned to the instant they were taken from.

Well, that's all fine and good except during Tony, Steve and Banner's trip to the aftermath of the Battle of New York, Tony slips up in getting the Tesseract and also inadvertently frees Loki. This lets Loki flee the scene with that stone and therefore cause a major divergence in the timeline. Weirdly the film brushes past this and I think having a major paradox go uncorrected here means that when an even BIGGER paradox results later, it really adds to the feeling that actually none of this should be able to happen.

That bigger paradox? With several Avengers sent to 2014 to retrieve two other stones, Past Thanos learns of this when he captures the present day Nebula, who's part of that team. He realizes he won the first time and then places Past Nebula in her place so when she returns to the Avengers's present day, she's able to open a doorway for Past Thanos and his army to arrive and decimate the Earth. This brings a lot of time travel problems with it, particularly when it seems they're all destroyed rather than sent back to the past. With Thanos removed from 2014, none of what happened in the previous movie should come to pass, but the film straight up ignores this implication.

Like I said, if that was the only abuse of time travel logic, it would have been easier to swallow.

Captain America's fate - Steve Rogers's destiny carries similar issues. Post-battle, Steve is charged with returning the Infinity Stones to the past and also making sure everything plays out as it was meant to. (So maybe we should presume HE takes care of Loki?) Once he does that, rather than return to the present, he goes back to Peggy Carter post-WWII. The next we see of him is as an old man in the present, explaining to his friends that he opted to stay in the past and get married.

It hits the right emotional notes but leaves some lagging logical ones. Steve has been a man out of time for much of the series, so him getting a second chance isn't off-base as an ending. Peggy has been consistently played as his true love, so returning for her wouldn't be so bad... but for the fact we know she had a husband, a family and a life that - until this film - presumably didn't include him. There's something selfish about Cap knowing this and going back to take this man's place.

Sure, there's some wiggle room for us to assume this was "meant" to happen and that husband was always a time displaced Cap. It gets more complicated when we realize all that Steve knows about the future and all the things he had to stay on the sidelines for and "let" happen in order to be with Peggy. He's okay with leaving Bucky to be brainwashed as the Winter Soldier? To let him murder dozens, including Howard Stark and his wife? He never says ANYTHING to Peggy about the fact that the secret agency she's building is being infiltrated by Hydra spies?

I'm willing to meet the movie halfway here, but there's a huge can of worms that gets opened. It's another point that works up until you give it much scrutiny.

The Death of Black Widow - I'll admit, when it was clear that Hawkeye and Black Widow were being sent for the Soul Stone, I was sure I knew how this would play out. The two would battle over who got to sacrifice their lives for the cause, with Barton eventually taking one for the team and Natasha mourning her friend. That assumption was based on the fact that it feels like no one has EVER known what to do with Hawkeye. He spent 2/3 of the first AVENGERS under mind control and was so under-developed that that second AVENGERS could introduce an entire family for him and we were able to just shrug and go, "Yeah, I guess that makes sense." After that, he was basically another body in CIVIL WAR and I bet you barely noticed he wasn't in INFINITY WAR, did you?

So yeah, it seemed pretty clear that he was a safe kill for the film in that someone who seemed to matter could meet their end without disrupting the narrative. If I'd been thinking about it differently, I'd have realized that OF COURSE meant that Natasha had to be the one to die for any emotional resonance. Barton's biggest emotional tie on the team was her, while Natasha has close ties to Bruce and Steve in addition to Barton.

For the character's sake, I'm glad her death happened in a place where the movie could breathe and let the impact set in. This wasn't BUFFY killing off Anya in the heat of battle and having to move on. Her teammates are given a moment to mourn, though I feel Tony's death and funeral end up stealing the spotlight away from that completely by the end of the film. (The Hulk/Hawkeye scene was a nice effort at showing the movie didn't totally forget about her, but there was still something missing there.)

Important stray questions:

- The Ancient One makes a BIG deal about the fact that bad things happen if the Infinity Stones are removed from her timeline so, uh, should we be concerned that from the start of the movie onward, Thanos has completely destroyed these important universe-binding things?

- Where the hell was Katherine Langford supposed to fit in?

- I know poking at this paradox is a fool's errand, but if Past Nebula is dead even before Stark snaps Thanos's army away, how is Present Nebula still there at the end?

- That shot of everyone at the funeral was TOTALLY stitched together from green screen shots of the various clusters, right? And very interesting that Carol stood so apart from everyone.

- But seriously, who was Katherine Langford going to play? I know the internet lost their minds speculating she was Kate Bishop, but I feel like there's room to speculate she was playing an older version of Morgan Stark, maybe in a deleted post-credit scene flash forward? I could see a sort of "next generation" moment with her building her own armor.

In the final analysis, this is the kind of superhero spectacle that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. To pull of something of this scare while juggling a number of emotional balls to every actor involved, along with writers Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus and directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.