By Karen Gordon
Marvel wraps up its Avengers series – and an entire act of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - with Avengers: Endgame, a glorious epic-length movie that indulges the series’ deepest themes without skimping on action. In a word, it’s terrific.
In 11 years and 22 movies, the MCU has become the highest-grossing franchise-factory in history, weaving together characters, storylines and a concept that comes to fruition here.
This isn’t the end of the MCU by any stretch. There are more movies to come, including a stand-alone Black Widow movie, more from Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and television series. But until now, The Avengers has been the beating heart of this entertainment powerhouse.
Marvel’s team has been very careful about the way they’ve developed stories, creating full bodied characters, each with their own path amid a series of complex interrelationships.
Ruffalo, along with Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, formed the core of the Avengers, along with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Non-Avenger supporting stars Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange and Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One greased the acting wheels, turning the legendary comic book characters into equally pop culturally impactful movie characters.
Granted, not all 11 movies have been terrific. But they’ve all been building towards the story that started in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Endgame is a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, and although I will try to go light on spoilers, be warned that the following assumes you’ve seen Infinity Wars,or don’t care if the ending of that film is revealed.
Endgame begins with a reminder of what was lost in the previous film. There’s a homespun family picnic at Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) house in the country. The family is enjoying time together while dinner is laid out on a picnic table. And then in a flash, Hawkeye turns around and the family is gone. All that’s left to confirm that they were there a minute ago are the fixings for a summer dinner.
They’re representational victims of Thanos, a brutal psychopathic, alien warmonger. Over the course of the film series, Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in acquiring all six of the “Infinity Stones” in the universe, each representing an aspect of existence and giving whoever holds it powers. With a snap of his fingers, he’s destroyed half of all living beings, including a number of our fictional friends.
It’s a strangely socially and eco-minded move from this brute.
In his mind, we’ve overpopulated and he believes his is a righteous act.
Endgame picks up five years later. The team members have attempted to move on with their lives. But they’re all haunted by their failure. Things change when Scott Lang/Ant-Man, (Paul Rudd), who was trapped in the quantum realm at the end of 2018’s Ant Man and Wasp, is zapped back out by a quirky happenstance.
Sussing out past events, he seeks whoever is left and finds Natasha and Steve Rogers. Lang’s time in the quantum has taught him a few things about alternate time lines. And he has a plan that is risky, of course, but could give the team a way of defeating Thanos by finding the infinity Stones in the past.
The three of them set out to reassemble the core of the Avengers, and their whereabouts are playlets of humour and pathos. The Hulk has made peace with his giant green self as a celebrity - an easygoing, kid-friendly giant in a handsome cardigan, happy to pose for photos with fans.
Meanwhile, after Thor: Ragnarok (and the destruction of Asgard) Thor’s people have resettled in a Norwegian fishing village, where he’s regressed, holed up in a boy-man cave, living like an out of control frat-bro, hanging out with a couple of buddies watching TV, playing video games and drinking to excess. The mighty Thor is a drunk, 30 pounds overweight and looks like he badly needs a shower.
Tony Stark, on the other hand, has fled city life and other people, and retired to a beautiful country home with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is raising their daughter. Retired is not quite the right for the edgy Stark, who even at ease is always at odds with something.
So yes, the endgame in Avengers: Endgame is time travel, with our heroes divvying up the past between them like chapters in a history book. The time lines provide an excuse to revisit scenes from previous Marvel movies, in some cases altering the events we remember.
But as Tony Stark notes, you play with time, time plays with you. And Thanos is there, sometimes.
Avengers: Endgame is, (allegedly), the final movie in the Avengers series. And in a series that has drawn millions of fans across demographic lines worldwide, that presents a real challenge.
It’s about pulling together all these various storylines to make something coherent as a single movie, one that finishes off a story set up 11 years ago, without loose threads (fans are sticklers for these things). In many ways saying, ‘This is the end,’ is a declaration to the fans, that this is a kind of pay-off for their investment.
So, will they go out in a blaze of action? Or will the end represent something deeper?
In Avengers: Endgame, the filmmakers opt for a movie that satisfies the demand for action. But it really underlines the larger themes that have been present in the Avengers series.
Marvel has succeeded where DC hasn’t at building a massive industry based on fantasy ideas from comic books.
It’s done things right, from the casting, to the meticulous way it’s integrated storylines and threads. Marvel has taken chances, giving Thor: Ragnarok to the comic sensibilities of writer director Taika Waititi.
And it’s also had its finger on the pulse of social and cultural changes over the last decade. Black Panther was not only an effective hero movie, connected to the Avengers series, but it will go down in history as a significant cultural moment in the history of race in the U.S.
Choosing to go with a female Captain Marvel was another choice, connected to the cultural zeitgeist - a confident statement born in a #metoo decade.
It’s also a very American product. Tony Stark, with his brilliant mind, entrepreneurial instincts and drive, is a classic American archetype. He’s also a rebel by nature, a cynic, constantly questioning himself, and certainly the status quo.
If he’s the putative leader of the Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America is its soul, guided by an unshakeable moral compass, a reminder of America at its best (something the filmmakers clearly felt was worth reflecting on in the Trump White House era).
But beyond all of this (the superheroes, the fighting, the infinity Stones, the secret subversive societies, etc.) the Marvel movies have always come down to the characters. And in this final Avengers movie, that’s what’s at the core.
There are themes of loss, failure, looking for strength under extreme conditions, finding connection, love, friendship, and family (conventional and unconventional).
Avengers: Endgame asks, “What does it mean to be a hero and to feel heroic? Can you get up again, and what does that look like?” These big questions are answered, I’d argue, lovingly in this film.
If you must say goodbye, what a way to say it.
Avengers: Endgame. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson. Opens wide, Thursday, April 28.