It took me a few months, and a few viewings, but I have to admit a critic’s failing: I cooled on Avengers: Infinity War after my initial screening. Even when I held the movie in good esteem, I recognized that its screenwriters were kludging together whatever they could build against the iron constraints of the story’s massive cast and universe-spanning reach. At the time, I just thought that was as good as could be done to squeeze a comic book crossover maxi-series into two hours and 40 minutes.
After watching Avengers: Endgame, I wonder if Infinity War just took the bullet of being 180 minutes of table-setting masquerading as a complete film.
Where Infinity War had trouble finding time for characters, Endgame is about nothing but character work, the kind that can only work in a narrative as old and wide as an interconnected comic book universe. The film, again by directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, is a giant tribute to those who have stuck with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for over a decade, but a nutritious one, a cunningly crafted one.
Was Infinity War worth it for setting up for Endgame? That’s something I might be thinking about for a while.
[Ed. note: The following contains the mildest of first-act spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.]
The first 20 minutes of Endgame are awkward, plodding along at a clunky pace as the movie struggles to extract itself from the sticky chrysalis of Infinity War. When it finally unfolds its butterfly wings and takes off, Endgame diverges from what I think most fans expect it will be. Each turn is as momentous as Infinity War’s finale.
Avengers: Endgame is a heist movie, and it’s written like one. We know in our comics-trained hearts that our heroes are going to win this one, but a surprisingly tight script does some frankly ingenious problem-solving to raise the stakes over and over again. That logic opens up emotional possibilities for our heroes like no other genre of story can, and while the thrust of the plot is about cosmic rocks, it is hung on a framework of character development and payoff. And there’s nothing Endgame sets up that it doesn’t pay off.
This is the first Avengers film after Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Thor: Ragnarok that really blends all of the genres in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without feeling like three Lego projects bricked up together. The script swims through effortlessly cool Iron Man (2008) and Avengers (2012) bombast to Captain America: The Winter Soldier spy pastiche to the operatic drama of the first two Thor films, and even pulls off some Ant-Man-style slapstick without being hokey.
Paul Rudd serves often as our window character — the average guy who just can’t believe how cool this all is — and his interactions with the other masterful comedic actors in the cast are to be savored. Chris Hemsworth is clearly having the time of his life as a more comedically inflected, post-Ragnarok Thor, who’s been completely blown back by everything that’s happened to him since the destruction of Asgard.
But while Endgame is full to the brim with (deeply character-based) humor, Marvel’s habit of undercutting drama with winks about how it doesn’t take this comic-booky stuff all that seriously is nowhere to be found. In fact, Chris Evans’ Cap and, of all people, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, have some scenes that just might bring you to tears.
All of this character work is done primarily in service of the core Avengers, which leaves their respective supporting casts — some of them as beloved or more so than a few of the more minor Avengers — without too much dimensionality. But I suppose that’s what the TV shows are for.
There are times when Endgame drops back into the bleakness of Infinity War, then rescues itself. There is still no getting around the fact that three hours is too long to spend in a theater, and as with most superhero movies, the final confrontation is a bit of a mess of punching and yelling. But Endgame knows what its audience wants, and delivers that without feeling like quote-unquote fan service.
I was feeling pretty fatigued about the MCU one year after Infinity War, ready for a new start with Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, and whoever would be left (plus the Eternals and Shang-Chi, one assumes). Endgame reminded me that I still care about Captain America and Iron Man, by taking the time to show me why I should.
We’ve talked about the limitations of movies to capture comic book storytelling, and Endgame doesn’t prove them wrong. But it shows that there are some commensurate storytelling elements that films can employ in the genre that the comic books can’t. They can give their characters endings that last, satisfy, and pave the way for new stories ahead of them.
Avengers: Endgame will premiere April 26 in theaters.