Avengers: Endgame

3 stars

Time is at the syrupy thematic core of Avengers: Endgame, an excitable epic unenviably tasked with tying together the events of 21 preceding movies while concluding the arcs of the four characters on the original Avengers roster whose initial solo movies were the primary building blocks of the mammoth Marvel franchise. These movies have long served their fans well and this is the excessively indulgent ending they’ve all been waiting for. It’s a nostalgic ode to the entire series and a fondly fuzzy farewell to the past.

In their effort to provide mass amounts of closure, directors Joe and Anthony Russo take a trip through the franchise’s internal history, revisiting previous movies on the timeline, allowing for otherwise impossible reunions, and reflecting on the hours spent with these fictional heroes. Endgame is nothing if not a noble attempt to thank the fans for their lengthy attention spans and unwavering loyalty.

This is as gargantuanly scaled as superhero cinema gets, a bountiful bank of fates and faces and fantasies. The size is appropriate given the magnitude of the mission. But with such sheer enormity comes a staggering unwieldiness. Even at an exorbitant running time of over three hours, Endgame rushes through just about everything as the Russo brothers scramble to pick up the plot from last year’s Infinity War, reestablish the stakes, reference the past, pave the way for the future, and still find time to give each of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America a proper send-off.

Their plate is so full that the whole thing threatens to slip and slide into a state of incoherent messiness, but Marvel is all about smoothing the edges and the Russo brothers have captained ships like these enough times to keep their sights focused on the journey ahead. The problem then becomes one of safeness. It’s an issue that has long plagued the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began as a risky venture to elevate relatively unknown comics properties to A-list franchise status and then quickly became an exercise in perfecting a formula.

These movies work and have worked for over a decade because of their homogeny. They’re umbrellaed under a brand of calculated consistency. While this targets them as heavily engineered corporate commodities, they remain an incredibly impressive representation of a promise fulfilled. No franchise has ever come close to translating the interconnected world of comic book heroes to the big screen the way that Marvel Studios has here.

Considering all this, Endgame is a special movie that definitively closes the book on an 11-year-old saga and still hints at all the blank pages waiting to be filled in the years to come. More than ever, the Marvel formula has proven to be a sterling success.

But the sense of safeness is also more of a sticking point than ever before. Despite being virtually guaranteed a record-breaking number of eyeballs no matter which direction the story was taken in, this concluding chapter is determined to stay cozily within its comfort zone. Endgame takes an easy shortcut to its time travel conceit and provides little conflict along the way because that would distract from the cameos, chance encounters, and general fawning over its reconfiguration of memorable MCU moments.

Even though everything is on the line, it almost feels like the first couple hours are being begrudgingly trudged through, technically necessary and yet treated as mechanical obstacles to be inevitably overcome. For a movie that rewinds and fast-forwards its own timeline, all to depict how the heroes are going to revive the vanished half of life in the universe that turned to dust when archvillain Thanos snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War, Endgame is surprisingly unimaginative.

Being the culmination of more than 20 movies and the conclusion of the conflict that initially arose in the first Avengers movie seven years ago could potentially encourage a densely convoluted plotline, but what we get instead are directly rehashed situations and a convenient loophole to allow for a colossal third act clash that is admittedly fun to watch.

Some characters have to die in the process, of course, since this is a passing of the guard, and the deaths are of a predictably sacrificial variety, one long expected and given all the gravitas the franchise probably owes the character and another that is silly in execution and downright offensive in concept. There’s a lot to criticize in the decisions made here, except the Russo brothers make one thing very clear: Endgame is not about bucking expectations, but rather pandering to them.

Once that’s accepted, the pieces fall into place effectively enough. For all its flaws, this blockbuster is only ever what it always purported to be. This is the opportunity to witness an unprecedented collision of characters from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to say goodbye to one storyline and a portion of the cast while being reminded of all the next-gen heroes that are revving up for their impending solo sequels (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel).

Endgame is not exactly an inspired finish, but it’s certainly true to Marvel form, an extensive extravaganza armed with an intuitive grasp of its audience’s needs and desires. The curtain falls on a storyline that has been carefully cultivated for more than a decade and it’s difficult to deny the immensity of the achievement. That’s the key takeaway here, because this fourth Avengers adventure better highlights an ambitious studio strategy than a vibrant creative vision. Such is the Marvel way. As a proudly packaged product that aims to honour the hours spent with these characters, Endgame sums up that the fan commitment was hardly a waste of time.