Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.
Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).
Now, on to the spoilers:
Time Travel, Eh?
The one major part of the movie I’d been spoiled on before I saw Endgame was that it would include time travel. Which immediately made me go, “Nooooooooo!” Time travel is a decent hat to hang a story on, but as a plot device to resolve a problem it kinda sucks. Still, once I saw how they set it up – as the only way to undo what Thanos had done given that he’d destroyed the Infinity Gems – I found I accepted it well enough.
On the one hand I was glad they didn’t go to great lengths to set up tension that they might wreck the timeline, which I think would have been a bridge too far. On the other hand, their handling of time travel was pretty messy, as many people have been discussing. Are there paradoxes? Loops? Forked timelines? Parallel universes? All of the above? (Okay, not all of the above!)
I have fairly high standards for time travel stories, and while there are many tools for stories to deal with their nonsense, I do expect them to deal with it, somehow. But Endgame left a number of loose ends, including:
- Loki in 2012 escaped with the Tesseract, meaning it wasn’t around for Thor to use to get back to Asgard, and everything that happened after. Did this create a parallel universe? If so, how did our heroes get back to their own time in their own universe? It’s been speculated that this will be the branch point leading to the upcoming Loki TV series, and it’s certainly possible that at the end of that Loki might decide to return to his starting point and return the Tesseract. We’ll see.
- 2014 Gamora is running around in 2023, so she’s not around to join the Guardians in 2014. I guess she could make her way back there sometime, now that the time travel cat is out of the bag in the MCU.
- Most seriously, 2014 Nebula, Thanos, and his Black Order are all dead, having been killed in the final battle in one way or another. So basically none of this could have happened. Or maybe it could have, but the film doesn’t explain how.
On the other hand there are other bits which are easy to explain: Cap has always gone back and married Peggy and lived out his life with her. (This explains why she apparently doesn’t see him when he’s right in front of her in her office in 1970 – she knew he’d be there.) This is just a loop, not a paradox. Similarly, Cap returned Thor’s hammer to 2012 when he returned the Aether to Asgard in 2013.
In a way it was a clever writing trick to kill Thanos in act 1 yet bring him back for the big fight in act 3. In another way it felt like a cheat, though. Sure, both Thanoses are nasty villains deserving of having their asses kicked, but it felt not entirely satisfying for the one who actually did the deed to be the one in the fight at the end of the film.
Thanos Sure is Tough, Ain’t He?
If Thanos from 2014 is able to take on Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America – with both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker – in the final battle, one wonders how they gave him any trouble in Infinity War when he had multiple Infinity Gems. He was able to take out most of the surviving Asgardians, too. Of course he was really just a plot device for a giant battle, so he was exactly as tough as the plot demanded he be.
And it made me wonder why Thanos bothered sending the Chitauri to invade Earth in The Avengers, since he already had the Mind Stone, and could easily have just taken the Space Stone (the Tesseract) once Loki had it. Other than Loki, all the villains’ motivations in that film are shaky.
Fundamentally, Thanos’ motivation in these films was pretty silly. He collects the most powerful objects in the universe and killing half of all living things is all he can think of to stave off universal overpopulation? It’s only going to take a generation or two before the population is back where it was. I preferred the more metaphysical motivation of his comic book form, where he’s fallen in love with the personification of death and is pursuing mass murder as a way to impress her.
You Can’t Have Too Much Fighting
The film’s second act ends when Hulk brings everyone back, and the third act starts when Thanos and his dreadnought arrive and blows Avengers Compound to hell. (Amazingly, none of the heroes die in this attack.) The third act is essentially one long battle sequence, albeit with a few small side skirmishes. The sequence is broken up into two parts: Cap, Iron Man and Thor against Thanos, and then everyone else showing up to take on Thanos and his army. There are several fine moments here – Cap wielding Mjolnir (paying off one of the best moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron), Falcon calling in and saying “On your left”, Captain Marvel taking down the dreadnought, and – as someone else put it – Spider-Man swinging through a battle against Thanos carrying the Infinity Gauntlet to a time machine, a scene I doubt any comics fan 25 years ago would believe we could ever see.
But man, it was a lot.
Staging these large battles has to be a real challenge from a writing standpoint, and it has to be just about impossible from a directing standpoint. The Avengers did this really well in its final scene (making up for the awkwardly paced and overly-long sequence on the Helicarrier), but in Endgame it just goes on and on. It could have used some tightening up. I guess in a way it had something for everyone, but did it really need – for example – the Scarlet Witch facing down Thanos one-on-one?
These Guys are a Bunch of Characters
The film had a lot of good character moments, something which was sorely absent from Infinity War. The real payoff of the time travel gimmick was Tony Stark talking to his father in 1970, which helped humanize Tony, who over the last few year – and especially in Civil War – had established himself as the biggest villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The one strong character bit in Infinity War was Bruce Banner acting as the everyman in the story, unable to turn into the Hulk, and spending that film’s climactic battle inside Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. Even in this film, where he’s got Banner’s brain inside Hulk’s body and he wields the Infinity Gauntlet to save half the universe, he seems constantly amazed at everything going on around him, and his big moment is convincing the Ancient One through thoughts and words to give him the Time Stone. Despite being a giant green rage-monster, Banner is the guy viewing all this through our eyes.
Ant-Man shared that role here, in particular his odyssey through San Francisco when he returned from the Microverse – excuse me, the “Quantum Realm” – was a very effective way to show the eroding of society in the five years prior.
One of the best-staged moments in the film was Hawkeye and Black Widow fighting over who would sacrifice themself to get the Soul Stone. I genuinely couldn’t guess who was going to survive, since either way could lead to dramatic moments when the universe comes back. That said, I certainly understand criticisms that the woman was sacrificed for the happiness and character development of the man, and moreover this was a scenario which was deliberately crafted by the writers starting back in Civil War. They could instead have arranged things so that Natasha had the family and Hawkeye was the loner.
The “big two” came off pretty well here. Tony got rehabilitated, and the movie mostly belonged to Chris Evans as Captain America, who has been the strongest character – both writing- and acting-wise – of the entire franchise.
I was much less happy with the portrayal of Thor in this movie, which didn’t ring true to me. If anything I’d have expected him to go off into space and lose himself in trying to do good deeds to the detraction of his own mental health. The comedic turn here was cringeworthy, and I decided go take a bathroom break during his and Rocket’s visit to Asgard in the second act. I don’t feel like I missed much. Anyway, I guess Chris Hemsworth is interested in playing Thor some more, which is why he didn’t get as final an ending as Cap and Iron Man, and it seems he’s going to be one of the Guardians now.
Finally, there are some characters whose presence in the film didn’t seem justified. I kind of get why Spider-Man and Doctor Strange were here, but I don’t think their roles really justified the screen time; it all could have been accomplished in a different way. Captain Marvel was this in spades: As much as I enjoyed her movie (it’s one of my top five MCU films), she had almost nothing to do here, and definitely nothing that needed a whole extra character add to the film to do.
What Could Have Been
I’m still pretty annoyed at the fact that the MCU sacrificed some really strong story elements from The Winter Soldier at the altar of Civil War and Infinity War. Bucky had a lot of great story potential, especially in his relationship with Cap and with Falcon as a counterpoint to that, and all of that was squandered. Sharon Carter was jettisoned. Nick Fury going walkabout after the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. never led to anything. (What has he been up to these last few years? Other than bringing the old Helicarrier out of mothballs in Age of Ultron, that is.)
I wish they’d made space for one more Cap movie to tie up all those story elements, but we’ll never get it, I guess.
An Alternate Ending
One of the weird things about Endgame is that it takes place in 2023, and at the end of the movie… it’s still 2023. Peter Parker has been gone for 5 years and yet we’re going to have Spider-Man: Far From Home later this year in which I guess everything will just go on as normal? There’s a hint in the preview that it might not be completely normal, but I doubt we’ll see any real signs of the 5-year hiatus for half of the universe. All the MCU films will take place in 2023 and later from now on? Weird.
Honestly when Cap was taking the Infinity Gems back to their proper place at the end of the film, I’d thought for a moment that it would play out like this:
Cap instead goes back to 2018 and stops Thanos from destroying half of the universe. Does he use Mjolnir? The Gauntlet? Or does he figure out one change needed to stop Thanos – maybe something involving Captain Marvel and/or the Vision – which just brings his plan to a halt, and then Thor beheads him. I dunno.
Why would he do this? Because he made a promise to Tony, and in his mind Tony dying meant he didn’t fulfill that promise of preserving his family. By going back and changing everything he lets Tony and Pepper get married and start their family after all. Then this Cap goes back and marries Peggy, while Cap from 2018 continues on, confident in helping lead victory over Thanos. Evans and Downey can still step back from their roles in the MCU, not everything has to be about them.
Too implausible? I dunno. Anything can happen in funny books, and I think this would have given the same sense of closure without the bittersweet ending. And if you’re going to have time travel nonsense, at least you might as well have a strong emotional payoff.
And In the End…
Just because the movie had a lot of flaws doesn’t mean it didn’t have a lot to discuss. I enjoyed it, I suspect I’ll see it again at some point, but I doubt I’ll watch it over and over as I have some of the earlier MCU films. And it doesn’t look like they’re going to top the first two Captain America films. And I feel like they could have cut down the 5-1/2 hours of these two films by at least 35%.
The big question is: What will they do to convince me to go to more MCU films, now that Cap and Iron Man are gone?