Marvel’s "Avengers: Endgame" Mostly Sticks Impossible Landing

For all the things “Avengers: Endgame” is – a state-of-the-art thrill ride, the conclusion to the first twenty-odd films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a three-hour tailbone-punishing monstrosity – it certainly isn’t anything close to accessible or even coherent. The number of filmgoers who’ve paid moderate-to-strict attention to the MCU is considerable, but anyone else looking to get swept up in a pop culture moment – or anyone in search of a master class in blockbuster filmmaking – should look elsewhere. The movie is a sprawling, silly mess, rebuffing the operatics of last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” in favor of something feverishly esoteric.

The good news? The payoffs – including the end of the road for several major characters – are damn satisfying. And that’s enough.

With half of all living things snapped out of existence by the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), it’s left up to the remaining Avengers to soldier on. And that’s all they do for the first third of the film, first having their revenge and then carrying on with their lives – for five years. It’s not until the accidental return of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) from the mysterious Quantum Realm that undoing Thanos’ work even becomes a vague possibility.

From here, time travel becomes an inescapable, at times nonsensical component of the narrative, with the longest-standing team members (Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) grudgingly uniting one last time, Ant-Man, Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket (voiced, as always, by Bradley Cooper) in tow. Oh, and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel occasionally pops in for an assist.

The death of half this universe’s characters proves a nifty way of ensuring enough screen time for the characters on their way out and the few who’ll remain fixtures of the MCU. Downey Jr. – in what’s almost certainly his curtain call as Tony Stark – notably leaves it all on the field, clearly aware of the significance of his performance here. As the beating heart of the MCU, Iron Man and the completion of his arc is unavoidably the crux of “Endgame.” It works and then some, ending up the movie’s strongest component, threatening to overshadow the other send-offs.

Plenty of other elements work, though. Fans should delight in the idiosyncrasies drawn out of these superhuman (and super human) protectors here, even if baldly at odds with the gravitas of “Infinity War.” Hulk and Thor are written even more comedically in “Endgame” than they were in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Take, for example, a shot of “Professor Hulk” (Hulk but with Bruce Banner’s mild manner) offering tacos to Ant-Man. It’s a sublime slice of absurdity that feels outlandish given the circumstances. And hilarious all the same.

It’s hard to tell if screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo are purposefully using “Endgame” as a counterpoint to the seriousness of the last film (both were shot back to back) or if it’s all a (mostly) happy accident.

But the omnipresence of wacky humor is neither boon nor bane to the pic’s ultimate task of fan service. Fan service not in the way of JJ Abrams essentially remaking a classic under the guise of a sequel or Steven Spielberg making a movie out of pained pop culture references, but lovingly revisiting important MCU signposts via time travel and seeing off a handful of beloved characters with the appropriate reverence. The specifics won’t be mentioned here, but allusions and callbacks to at least a dozen previous films are clever without being too slick, sentimental without being sappy.

Although far from the finest the MCU has offered to date, “Endgame” does bear bits and pieces that stand up to – and perhaps top – its best movies. No sequence is a better analog for the pic’s ups and downs than its climactic, supersized fight scene, one that amazes one moment and baffles the next. It’s possible that given the scope and sheer number of characters, the culmination of twenty-one films couldn’t be anything but an overstuffed, occasionally wondrous grab bag, sure to please anyone with skin in the game.

If nothing else, its send-off of the MCU’s original player, Tony Stark, is nothing short of breathtaking. Four words already destined to echo indefinitely in movie history, “I am Iron Man,” now reverberate louder still.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: April 26, 2019
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Josh Brolin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language)