Sam Hamilton tackles the mega pop culture extravaganza that is the concluding chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
This may be a year of epic proportions. Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Toy Story, How to Train Your Dragon and John Wick may all be vying for your attention. But it’s April, so it’s Marvel time. Thanos is back and he wants your money.
To every story there is an end, to every odyssey a denouement, to every journey a destination. Then, there is the kind of world-crushing pop culture supernova that is Avengers: Endgame, the final(?) step in Marvel Entertainment’s twenty-two-film twenty billion dollar ‘Infinity Saga’ bonanza. Endgame is the brawl to Infinity War’s brains. But that is, unfortunately, in the worst of senses. At three hours and two minutes long, it has a clearly defined three act structure: to beat its audience into submission over a nonsensical plan, to carry out this plan, and subsequently undo the events of the previous film. There is an enjoyable two hour movie in there somewhere amongst the mayhem, but it was lost in pre-production: for when the dust settles, the dots of this film just don’t join up. And while the Russo brothers, so successful last time out, try desperately to inject some humanity into this narrative apocalypse, there is around five minutes of genuinely emotionally involving content to be found, surrounded on all sides by kaleidoscopic CGI chaos and plot threads more akin to Ben 10 than “the greatest experiment in cinematic history” (as put by Marvel). Avengers: Endgame is a cinematic monster of sprawling proportions, nonsensical notions and leapfrog pacing. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding its arrival, Endgame seems an impossible task.
Those good five minutes I mentioned are soothing to no end amongst the otherwise sparse terrain of the film, and made by their actors. Though despite their efforts, this is not a case of small moments that make the whole worthwhile. Essentially these are small moments that make the whole survivable, the only successes in a film otherwise quarantined of stirring emotions and lasting impressions. They are the prologue, in which a society is ripped apart by the decimation of its populus, a moment which really belongs to Infinity War; a brief stirring encounter between time-travelling Tony Stark and his father at the halfway mark; and, at last, the final consolation that stoic Steve Rogers was able to use Mister McGuffin time-travelling device to right the wrongs of time, and return to his darling Peggy in the 1940s to live out the life he always wanted. While the final scene is by its own nature charming, the first two belong to the contributions of their respective actors, Jeremy Renner and Robert Downey Jr., who along with Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Mark Ruffalo belong in a better film.
The sight of Ruffalo as a big green domesticated suited-up Hulk is both disturbing and saddening – almost as saddening as what unfolds over the duration of this movie. This unfold allows us to draw at least one distinct conclusion; there is a bleak contrast in writing quality between Infinity War and Endgame. This time out, where screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus are not deriving from earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe films or cinema at large (although I must admit I enjoyed Chris Hemsworth’s take on The Big Lebowski’s Dude), they are producing incongruent plotlines and sentences abhorrently cringeworthy when delivered with a straight face. “We’re all about that superhero life” stood out in particular. But their main fault, and really the endgame of Endgame, is the lazy time-travelling escapade that takes us from point A to point B plotwise. McFeely and Markus persevere to make the outrageous seem feasible with their own specially concocted brand of ‘science’, purporting quantum mechanics as the key to a quantum realm (ooh, ahh) that enables “GPS time travel”. Even after their own character points out that this is all risible, the writers go ahead with it anyway, serious enough about the legitimacy of this hokum to keep hammering home the pretence, for many tens of minutes, that this is all realistic. Ultimately, due to the film’s goal of overhanging fatalism, the film suffers both from a truth that its notions are crazy and a lack of courage to adopt the bashfulness of earlier Marvel entries and admit that truth.
The interesting part is, the movie all takes itself far more seriously than most of the time-travel movies their characters openly joke about, while most of those same movies do a far more capable job of navigating the intricacies of the concept. And while I enjoyed Tony’s representation of time travel as a möbius strip, his instantaneous ’solution’ to time travel established over a cup of coffee is the most ridiculous display of ‘this guy can do anything’ since Brad Pitt’s turn in World War Z. If the film didn’t take it so seriously, neither would I. Moreover, if you consider this film Disney property, and as such a kids’ movie, you must consequently ask what said kids are taught by Endgame: rue the past, reject the current state of reality, and do everything in your power to change it. This isn’t usually something I consider when watching a movie, but it does put a smile on my face.
Another crucial facet of Marvel movies is comic relief. And while the comedy seemed to be integrated smoothly in Infinity War’s synopsis insofar as the collisions between such giant personalities create a humorous conflict – take Tony Stark and Doctor Strange or Thor and Peter Quill – in Endgame comedy is a lifeboat, where scenes are made to be funny and funny alone such that the audience doesn’t drown in the gobbledygook. Some of them work, some of them don’t. But all of them are extraneous and fail to advance to the plot. In a three hour movie, there are questions to be asked when this is the case.
CGI is Disney territory, so naturally the visual effects team showed up in Endgame. Water is wet. The sun is hot. This $400 million action movie looks good. Canadian cinematographer Trent Opaloch constricts on Infinity War’s wide colour palette to a more constant royal blue that dominates for most of the runtime. But so much of these films are created in post production that cinematography and visual effects are virtually in union. Maybe in thirty years time, when Thanos looks like PS1 Hagrid, we’ll be able to make a more complete distinction. The character introduction of Hawkeye (Renner), a little less than half way through the runtime, was seized impressively by Opaloch in a long and intricately choreographed tracking shot that left me keen for a standalone ‘Renner as Ronin’ post-apocalyptic Samurai movie. The final throw down, on the other hand, was rather more of a cookie cutter Marvel third act, albeit with a few standout moments for Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.
Concluding on the ‘Infinity Saga’ today leaves behind a mixed bag of feelings. We have witnessed a new specimen of studio entertainment develop (with a runtime that makes Lord of the Rings feel like an ad break), and Endgame is its elegy. For me, it is one both good and bad. The movie itself qualifies most of the bad. The good comes from a thin closure that Endgame strains to provide in the completed (given, muddled) character arcs of its two main characters, Captain America and Iron Man – or “America’s Ass” and “America’s Uncle”. Though the means may not be satisfying the end, in a way, is. Most of all it introduces an interesting question as to what respective actors Chris Evans and Downey Jr. will go on to do next.
From a larger perspective of the MCU, and where Studio Head Kevin Feige plans to take it next, the problems arising in Endgame do not make for especially good news. This film marks a conclusive preference for abiding by the status quo rather than boldly averting it as had done Infinity War. Infinity War, in its villain, its menacing sense of dread, and in its courageous character-killing conviction, was an exception that seemed to break free of the formulaic nonchalant comedy club filmmaking that has gripped the emerging ‘superhero genre’. Alternatively, Endgame confirms that the ‘Infinity Saga’ has endured a consistent diminuendo in attention towards narrative strength over crowd pleasing, an attention which even at first was tenuous, and is now virtually extinct. To equate, for example, the reasonably humanised, conflicted, and fleshed-out characters of ‘Phase One’ (Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanoff and Tony Stark to name but a few) to the sugary vacuous cardboard cutouts of ‘Phase Three’ (hello Ant-Man, Spider-Man Lite and Captain Deus Ex Marvel) is like comparing The Dark Knight to Batman & Robin. The prospect of continuation should be cause for concern as to where Feige intends to take us next.
We’re all for outlandish cinema. For elaborate stories. For huge spectacle. But this movie takes all three to enormous proportions, gets lost in the second part, compromises on the first, and relies on the third to salvage what remains. Minor successes do not discount major flaws. So when a raccoon, a tree and a flying woman on fire launch themselves into battle to steal the jewellery off a big purple man and his army of six-legged man-dogs, what’s alarming is not that this entire situation is completely ridiculous, or that the filmmakers have failed to craft a comprehensive narrative justifying that ridiculousness. What’s alarming is the emerging reality that the MCU’s pedigree in modern audiences allows them to get away with anything. This film will easily surpass its box office estimates, the executives will take note, and the die for the next ten years of cinema will be cast with the element of convincing drama established as low priority.
So when I sit here and read that Feige has recently released details of the seven thousand characters that he has rights for and “intends to use”, I wonder: Maybe somewhere among their ranks is Original-Movie Man, who brings down the Studio Empire with nothing but emotionally stimulating original entertainment that is never watered down, never the same as before, never restricted by political agendas and never conforming to predetermined formula. Or maybe, instead, we’ll have a 23 Jump Street, 24 Jump Street, 25 Jump Street rollout of Thanos 2.0 v Iron Lady and Ant Man v The Beatles. Who knows. Time will tell.
Avengers: Endgame is currently out in cinemas. Check out the trailer below: