There’s any number of descriptors you could attach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney and Marvel’s larger-than-life superhero franchise that has seemingly dominated pop culture from the moment Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark built his first iron Man suit (in a cave from a box of scraps, no less). Perhaps the most apt definition is to call it an astoundingly successful experiment. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny that the thousands of skilled hands at Marvel Studios have done something truly unprecedented: they built an enormous, unstoppable world based on comic books, once a medium largely dismissed as mindless junk food that would never translate well to the silver screen. Against all odds, Marvel made it work. And most surprisingly, they made us care.
Well, at least for a while. When The Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War hit screens a year ago, it represented the very worst inclinations of Marvel’s increasingly tired formula. Infinity War, a bloated, messy act of hubris, felt like a betrayal of what makes the MCU tick. It lacked the character exploration that made us stick with these ridiculous, spandex-clad heroes in the first place, opting instead for a cacophony of uninspired action that all but validated those who initially dismissed these films as million dollar exercises in smacking action figures together. Yet, despite its myriad of problems, Marvel managed to use Infinity War to get its hooks in us once again, all with a single, horrifying scene: Thanos (Josh Brolin), the big purple bad boy of the franchise for the past ten years, turning half the universe to dust with a long-promised snap of his fingers.
The Snapture, as some have called it, was one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of the decade. It’s a shocking turn that sees Marvel backing itself into a corner, simultaneously creating an iconic and impossible-not-to-talk-about bit of storytelling that also sets up seemingly impossible to meet expectations. After a film that spends little time getting at the hearts and souls of its characters, how do you get us to care that they’re gone?
The answer is Avengers: Endgame, a surprisingly touching and immensely superior follow-up that largely proves the worth of the ten years of films that have led to it. Endgame doesn’t rectify the failings of its predecessor, but it astoundingly is all the things that Infinity War isn’t: emotionally resonant, genuinely thrilling, and somehow even more satisfying than you could have asked for. It’s a near perfect goodbye to a generation of films that have undeniably changed cinema forever, somehow achieving the impossible task of living up to the legacy with a single, stunning film.
Picking up where Infinity War left off, Endgame begins with its surviving heroes in dire straights: the original Avengers line-up of Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are all reeling from the loss of their loved ones and teammates and struggling to move on from their failure. Make no mistake, this is a somber, emotionally wrecked film for much of its first hour, largely composed of the quiet dialogue scenes that once let us peek into the minds of these characters. While the ending of Infinity War still feels a bit cheap, you do admittedly feel its full weight here: every character left alive is a shell of who they were pre-Snap.
Before long, however, the film ramps up into a full-blown epic, providing some of the most riveting and well-structured set pieces the series has ever produced. To talk through them in detail would be a betrayal of what makes the film work so well; it’s best to go into this one totally blind. It’s worth noting this is bound to be a punishing film for those not fully cashed in on being an MCU fan. Virtually every single one of the 21 films that have led to Endgame have some sort of payoff in this film, and if you’ve missed any of them then there’s going to be at least a few moments that throw you off the film’s groove.
While that’s partially a critique, it’s impossible not to gaze in wonder at how efficiently the film ties up threads from previous films, even ones you would never expect to be present in this already busy narrative. This is perhaps the MCU film that’s proudest of how complex its own mythology has become, but it never reads as self-aggrandizing. Unlike in the case of Infinity War, you can truly feel the love and admiration the Russos have for this material; every story beat and character moment feels respectful of the choices that made the MCU such a powerhouse in the first place. From the underrated Iron Man 3 to even series low points like Thor: The Dark World, every MCU film feels important in the grandeur of Endgame‘s narrative.
Everything here just soars. The action feels the most impactful it has been in years, the imagery is often stunning, and the performances (particularly of the veteran members of the cast) is up there with the series’ best. With every punch and quip, it becomes increasingly clear that you’d be hard pressed to call the grandest Marvel experiment a failure. This makes the case for the whole grand scheme, adding up to what can only be described as the zenith of blockbuster film making.
Avengers: Endgame really isn’t a farewell, as we know there’s still a slew of new entries in this franchise waiting for us over the horizon. But it’s difficult to see how this bittersweet conclusion will ever be topped, how what feels like a goodbye for the ages won’t be the end. That fact may itself be the most scathing criticism of the Marvel formula: that the studio doesn’t know how to quit when it’s ahead. For now we can at least take solace in knowing somehow Marvel pulled it off, that this ending may the be the best MCU entry we’ll ever get. Revel in that for long as you can, because we may never have the privilege of seeing it again.
Avengers: Endgame hits cinemas worldwide on Friday, April 26th