“You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.” ~ Thanos
“Who hasn’t been to space? You’d better not throw up on my ship.” ~ Rocket
“If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen.” ~ Doctor Strange
“What I’m saying is… time works differently in the quantum realm. I can’t stop thinking about what if we could control the chaos and navigate it.” ~ Scott Lang\
“If we do this, how do we know it’s going to end any differently than it did before?” ~ Bruce Banner
“Because before, you didn’t have me.” ~ Carol Danvers
“Natasha, you know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve become.” ~ Clint Barton
“Well, I don’t judge people on their worst mistakes.” ~ Natasha Romanoff
“Maybe you should.” ~ Clint Barton
“You didn’t.” ~ Natasha Romanoff
“I can put a pin in it right now. And stop.” ~ Tony Stark
“Let’s kill him properly this time.” ~ Thor
“We lost. All of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves. This is the fight of our lives.” ~ Steve Rogers
Avengers Infinity War ended on a stunner, with the villain triumphant and wiping out half of everything in existence with the snap of his Infinity Gauntlet toting fingers. Just like that, endless beings were turned into dust before the eyes of friends and loved ones, the heroes were shocked, and the villain was satisfied with what he deemed a job well done. And of course, unless you want to torture the fan base forever by leaving it right there (imagine the psychological damage of Marvel Studios saying that’s the end of the line with this nihilistic ending), of course there had to be a follow up. And so we have Avengers: Endgame.
The film opens in a tranquil way, with the former Avenger Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, making a welcome return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Hawkeye) at home with his wife and family, still under house arrest but living peacefully. All of that is shattered when he finds himself completely alone. He might not understand what happened, but the audience does- their existence has been wiped out. And so the surviving heroes of the last film hunt down their adversary Thanos (Josh Brolin), but find themselves unable to set things right.
Five years pass by, and the world’s a darker place. The loss of loved ones have left their mark on people the world over. Things are becoming overgrown and neglected. Heroes have found themselves struggling with despair in different ways. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has retreated to a life in the countryside with his wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and their daughter Morgan. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has settled a number of Asgardian refugees in Scandinavia, but has taken to drinking himself into oblivion and getting out of shape- all while looking like The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has found a way to make the Hulk less of a problem and more part of the solution by merging his intellect with the Hulk’s brawn. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are managing their surviving teammates in dealing with various issues, but both are strained at the edges. And into the mix comes the Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who spent five years in the Quantum Realm as seen at the ending of Ant-Man & The Wasp, though for him it’s been much less time… and he might have a solution that can set things right.
The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely picks up where their last screenplay left off. The pair are more than familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by now, having had done the same for Thor: The Dark World, all three Captain America films, and Avengers: Infinity War. This time they weave in elements like time travel, heists for Infinity Stones in the past, despair and renewal, sacrifice, loyalty, emotional closure, and empathy, using them in different ways among the protagonists. Their story ultimately brings together a huge cast of heroes and villains- more than the last film, with the return of Hawkeye and the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), as well as a few surprise faces in cameos here and there, but for a good part of the film their focus is on the surviving heroes as they try to set back the clock and save the universe.
The dynamics that come out during that are interesting ones- the common bond between Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who both live with broken bodies. Thor and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) bantering and bickering while covertly making their way around Asgard during the events of The Dark World, and Thor finding his way in the most unexpected of ways. Scott coming back to a world where he knows something has gone horribly wrong and knowing that it has to be set right. Bruce as Hulk trying to reason his way with someone whose worldview is entirely different from his scientific rationalism. The deep friendship between Natasha and the emotionally wounded Clint, and their inherent trust in each other. And Steve and Tony finding their way past their falling out to trust each other again.
The Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, return to helm the film as directors, following up the last one, and they too are familiar with how the Marvel Cinematic Universe works, having had also worked on the second and third parts of the Captain America films. Their work on this one follows that pattern of excellent work, with CGI never overwhelming the film but serving the story. They can mount epic action sequences and yet keep the audience from getting overwhelmed and lost in it all. Mostly they keep the story grounded in their characters and in the actors. A couple of moments show that- Thor getting closure with one character (and thus finding his way out of his own torment), or Scott’s interlude with a passing boy- whose silent expression is all the answer to his question. A different director wouldn’t dwell on such moments, but the Russos let the characterization govern the film.
Much of what we see in the film have been places we’ve already seen in previous films, but the fantastic settings of distant worlds and deep space are well rendered, as well as Asgard in its glory. The same applies to the Quantum Realm, already seen in the two Ant-Man films but providing a vital element to the story this time out. This being a story about time travel, we see aspects of previous films from different angles, and nods to the plotlines of earlier films, and yet the attention to detail is such that things don’t appear out of place when we see our heroes in the past. Set construction and costuming allows for that, but so does CGI as needed- a scene with a young Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) comes to mind.
The cast of course is epic in scale, with many of the actors reprising their roles from earlier films before it’s all said and done, but the focus of the film is on one antagonist and several survivors. Josh Brolin was well chosen as the nihilistic Thanos, who sought to wipe out half of existence to balance the scales, as it were. Having had succeeded in his quest, there’s not a lot for him to do, or so it seems, as time travel plays into the film and we’re not quite done with him. Thanos acts because he believes he’s right, but it’s not personal… at least until late in the game when he decides it should be. It’s a good take on the character, a ruthless force of nature that Brolin brings out the best in. I can’t imagine anyone else playing him.
Karen Gillan, playing his adopted daughter Nebula once again, gets a lot to do. First introduced as a villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy (and in fact we see some of her at that stage of her life as we get Nebula at two stages of her life), the character evokes sympathy, especially now that we know that she has been tortured and abused by the man she only wanted approval of. Her allegiances have shifted, and the actress plays to that, taking the role and making the most of it. Bradley Cooper returns to voice Rocket, the talking raccoon (just don’t call him that) with an attitude and an engineering savvy to match. This time the character finds himself in an unlikely spot, having to be tough with a god of thunder whose mind isn’t quite on the ball, all while keep check on his own grief for the Guardians, the only family he had.
Brie Larson, having had made her debut in Captain Marvel, turns up here as a force to be reckoned with. Carol Danvers has become a hero, but her area of responsibility spans far beyond the Earth. She’s direct and forceful as she needs to be, calm in the face of adversity when she wants to be, and continues to invest the character with the right kind of spirit. I like Thor’s reaction to her- as well as a moment late in the film between her and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). She’s all confidence, and that’s how Larson plays her. Don Cheadle has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for quite some time as James Rhodes, aka War Machine, Tony Stark’s best friend and a military officer. He’s always given the character the steady hand that you’d expect out of an officer, as well as the temperament that one would have to have to deal with Tony Stark on a regular basis. The character pushes back against what might be the instinct to despair because duty requires him to do so.
Gwyneth Paltrow has said this will be her last turn as Pepper Potts, once Tony’s assistant, now his wife. The film gives the two characters a good deal of time, as well as a personal stake- their daughter Morgan, entirely too cute. She knows her husband well, knows that once he has an idea in his head he won’t let it go, and so instead gives her blessing. The film gives her more to do, including a suit of armor, a nice touch as the film gets into epic mode, but it also respects the character and lets the actress bring out the sympathy, resolve, and strength that she’s shown before in the part. The character has drastically changed since the beginning of the film. Paul Rudd, having had played Scott Lang in three previous MCU films, is familiar with the role and his place in things. The standard humour of the character is underplayed given how dark things have become, but it’s there, and Rudd also brings a sense of direction to the others as he provides the one ray of hope for making things right. I like how Rudd works with the other actors, even if their characters haven’t been in the mix before, and the film gives him a lot to do before it’s all said and done.
Mark Ruffalo actually spends a good part of the film as the Hulk, in a version we haven’t seen before in the movies. This Hulk combines the intelligence of Banner and the power of the Hulk, and it’s Banner’s voice talking- and in fact this version of the Hulk has a closer look to Banner’s face. Part CGI or motion capture by Ruffalo, the effect is seamless. It’s odd, but funny, to see a Hulk sized Banner cheerfully interact with fans, and we get a bit more humour in seeing an earlier version of the Hulk unappreciative of what’s a standard part of highrise infrastructure. For the most part, however, Ruffalo’s take on the character has new touches. Banner is initially resigned to how things are, has changed his approach to viewing the Hulk not as a problem, but as a constructive solution, and experiences grief as the story develops. It’s a sympathetic take on the character building on what has come before.
Jeremy Renner’s return as Clint Barton was overdue, and quite welcome. Opening the film with him and his family turned out to be a wise way to do so, and what happens informs everything he does from that point on. Five years pass and the character is a shadow, exacting a personal war on crime across the world, taking no prisoners, channeling his grief into his mission. His look has changed, evoking his Ronin look from the comics. Clint is a broken man, refusing to allow himself to hope, and his journey involves his grief, guilt, and finding his way back to trusting others again. Renner plays to that throughout.
The other half of that equation is the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff. She and Clint have long been partners, have had each other’s backs, inherently understand each other. She seeks him out because she still deems him her friend, because he’s saved her and she knows she must do the same for him, lost in his own pain. Scarlett Johansson plays off that in her interactions with Renner, and it’s good to see that partnership and trust come back. Her Natasha finds herself at a difficult time early on, keeping herself working more to keep herself from dwelling on what’s been lost, but also investing the character with a strong sense of responsibility. And yet with all the gravitas around her, there are moments of levity- I particularly enjoyed a threat of a tossed sandwich at a colleague.
Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, aka the God of Thunder, aka the King of the Asgardians, aka The Dude, aka The Big Lebowski. In the wake of the events of the last film, Thor has given up on everything, spending his days drinking himself into oblivion, getting himself quite out of shape, and looking like Jeff Bridges in that aforementioned cult classic film. Hemsworth actually gets to bring out a lot of the humour of the film in his drunkenness, but the character’s binges and I could care less attitude conceals his own wounds and despair. It’s a good touch for the character, who finally finds his way back to himself through the intervention of the one character it makes the most sense to have doing so. In finding his purpose again, the character’s journey is one that brings him back to resolve.
Robert Downey Jr. started the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first Iron Man film, in which his Tony Stark found his life changing because of the sacrifice of one unlikely fellow prisoner who told him to make something better of himself and the world. That has informed the character throughout his travels in the franchise ever since, as even under the snark and sharp wit of the actor there’s been the underlying theme of a man seeking to make things better. Tony has given up in a different way from Thor’s way, but the result is the same. He’s hidden himself away from the world, seeking solace in the quiet countryside with his wife and his child. He feels deep guilt about the teenaged Peter Parker he mentored and then saw turn to ash. But the Stark mind is still the same, and when presented with a challenge rises to the occasion. Downey’s take on the character remains emotionally invested in his family, while understanding that he must make things better. Along the way he gets some closure in a surprising way, and gets to restore the rift that’s existed between him and Steve since the events of Captain America: Civil War. The performance turns out to be a cathartic one for the actor and the audience- a brilliant but stubborn man standing up to a nihilistic monster.
Chris Evans also gets closure playing Captain America. The character has from the start been one of courage, resolve, optimism, and strength, qualities that Evans has always played to as an actor. Steve Rogers is a leader, and that shows itself early on as he leads self-help groups trying to cope with the sudden losses of their lives, or the Avengers coping with various issues on Earth and beyond. A man dedicated to duty, Steve has seen the darkest humanity- and beyond- has offered, but it hasn’t broken him. The optimism is there, shaken as it is, seen in conversations with some of his colleagues. And yet when a potential solution is presented, he knows it must be acted on. It’s refreshing to see the fractured friendship between he and Tony restored, which both actors play to. It’s also good to see that steel will and raw courage present itself again when face to face with the being who wiped out half the cosmos. Just as it’s also good to see him get to do something for himself… even if that puts all sorts of theoretical questions into the mix.
Avengers Endgame has the emotional payoff that’s been building for years through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it provides emotional closure and endings for some characters on the one hand, it also tugs at the heartstrings for others. The stakes have never been higher, but the film chooses to find its foundation in its characters instead of letting special effects overwhelm the characters. An epic adventure and a personal tale, the film brings to a satisfying and thrilling conclusion for one era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all while allowing for what is yet to come.