SPOILER ALERT: Somehow I made it weeks without seeing any spoilers before I finally watched Avengers: Endgame in the theater. I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for anyone else, but the nature of the film means that any discussion of plot elements will undoubtedly involve some spoilers. If you have not seen the movie yet, I highly encourage you to watch it before reading this review. If you want, you can skip down to the end for a spoiler-free note about the film’s content, but everything else should wait until after you’ve seen the film.
That’s more like it.
I can’t say that I’ve ever been an ardent Marvel fan, but I’ve enjoyed the films even if I’ve often felt that they could aspire for more. Having said that, as we come to the end of the Infinity Saga, it is undeniable that what the team at Marvel has done with the MCU will go down as one of the great cinematic achievements when it comes to epic, general audience fare.
But where Avengers: Infinity War felt like a stepping stone that didn’t have a life of its own, the latest Marvel film is the striking culmination for which we’ve all been waiting.
Even if you don’t want to do a full MCU marathon to prepare for this film like some did, you surely will need a few key films to set you up for where we are in the story. Infinity War is certainly one of those films, and it left our heroes in a place where the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has snapped away half of the world’s population. The Avengers failed, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is left floating out in the far reaches of space without enough fuel to make it home.
But the film actually opens on a different scene, and it is where this epic story chooses to begin that shows the type of character work that will make it one of Marvel’s best films ever. We open with the Barton family picnic. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is helping his daughter hone her bow and arrow skills while the others prepare the meal. But then, just like that, they’re all gone. Thanos has taken the people Clint loves most away from him. Here the scale is not an epic, universal one but acutely personal. Our heroes have not only failed the world, but they’ve failed the people they love the most.
That interplay between the personal and the universal is the heartbeat of this film. Infinity War simply had too many characters and too much ground to cover to have enough time to go deeply into any of them. Here, despite still being epic in runtime and scale, the film is actually much more focused and personal.
Just before Tony Stark is completely out of options, a flash of bright light alerts him to one last hope. Here, we come upon the next MCU film that is required viewing before seeing this one: Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) comes out of nowhere and saves the day for Stark and Nebula (Karen Gillan) and brings them back to Earth just in time to offer a glimmer of hope to the beleagured Avengers who are still left: Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). They all devise a plan to chase after Thanos, use the Infinity Stones to reverse his worldwide genocide, and set everything right once again. But, upon finding Thanos, he tells them that he used the Stones one final time - to destroy them. This cannot be undone, and Thor lashes out and kills Thanos. It is no consolation for the many deaths that have already occurred, though. At this point, the film jumps ahead five years.
Another film you should watch before this one is Ant-Man and the Wasp, because this is the point where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) becomes a key figure in the story. He was in the quantum realm when Thanos’ snap caused Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and half of the world’s population to vanish. He suddenly returns, and with him comes the hope for change.
But convincing all of our heroes to go back to the scene of their greatest defeat will not be easy. Thor is wallowing in sorrow in his own little version of Asgard. Steve Rogers is leading grief counseling sessions. Natasha Romanoff is still keeping watch over earth and the rest of the universe with the help of her friends, but even that is a far cry from the former glory of the Avengers. Now that Tony Stark has been returned, he realizes that he is one of the few who actually has a second chance. He is reunited with his love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and they have raised a daughter together - Morgan (Lexi Rabe). He is reluctant to give that up for a plan that has a small chance of success.
That plan is to go back in time by harnessing the power of the quantum realm from which Scott Lang just returned. Look, any film in this genre is going to ask you to suspend disbelief and jump headlong into the story. If you’re coming to a Marvel film asking for it to be fully steeped in reality, you’re completely missing the point. However, this at least follows the Jurassic Park blueprint of having just enough science to give you an extra permission to suspend disbelief. Quantum physics is such a fun storytelling device because it is still so foreign to us. Though we have learned more about it, it remains mysterious. That is exactly the type of place ripe for storytelling wonder to happen.
It is Pepper Potts who finally convinces Tony that he must go through with this. She asks him if he will ever be able to rest knowing that he could have helped but declined because of his family. Despite the rampant self-interest that has always been a part of the Tony Stark character, we all know what his answer will be. Of course he cannot rest until he has at least tried.
So, the gang gets back together to attempt a time travel journey back to specific moments in time when they know the location of each Infinity Stone. Once they have them all, they will come back and use all the Stones to reverse what Thanos has done.
Except…it doesn’t all go quite according to plan.
As you might imagine, time travel is a tricky business. In fact, some of the film’s funniest lines come from the characters poking fun at this plot device and its similarities to films like Back to the Future. But even in that status of “things not going to plan” directors Joe and Anthony Russo find so much resonance that, again, steeps this epic adventure in the personal.
A conversation between Thor and his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), displays this perfectly and was one of my favorite moments in the film. Thor is still wrestling with his failure to stop Thanos and the difficult loss of those he loves. He cannot equate the fact that he is supposed to be a great hero with the incredible failures he’s had. Frigga gives him the permission to move forward with one of the most powerful quotes in the film.
Everyone fails at who they're supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are. - Frigga
All of this leads us to the film’s climactic battle. While the Avengers are going back in time and attempting to undo Thanos’ actions, the Thanos from the past learns of their plans through his daughter, Nebula. As he races to stop them in their quest, all forces converge in what is not only the greatest battle sequence in any Marvel film, but one of the most rousing battle sequences I’ve ever seen. This scene particularly (as does the whole film, in general) draws heavily upon the pattern of arguably the greatest epic film ever made - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While I am not ready to dethrone that film’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields at the top of movie battle scenes, I must admit that this is Pelennor Fields for a new generation. The awe and wonder I felt at seeing those epic armies converge before the gates of Minas Tirith is what a new generation of moviegoers will feel as they watch these galactic forces converge for the fate of the galaxy.
Here, too, I must praise the film’s cinematography from Trent Opaloch. There are many striking shots in this battle sequence, but none is better than a wide shot showing Thanos’ hordes convergin on our heroes as Captain America stands in the gap. Sunlight shines in on the edges of the darkness, and then portals open through which all of the heroes who have been returned through this time-travel plan begin to emerge. Another connection point between this and the Lord of the Rings films is through Weta Workshop - the massively influential visual design shop created Richard and Tania Taylor. Weta was responsible for the visual effects in the Lord of the Rings films, and Weta’s Matt Aiken served as the visual effects supervisor for this battle sequence.
I’ll save you an specific discussion of the film’s ending. Even with my opening spoiler alert, I’d like to do my best to stay away from overt spoilers in this review. But I will say that the film bears one final similarity to The Return of the King in that its ending allows us to collectively breathe and appreciate this incredible journey. I would also say that, although there are no post-credits scenes (although my showing saved the Spider-Man: Far from Home trailer until after the movie, so you may want to stay to see that), you should definitely stay to at least see the beginning of the credits sequence. They pay homage to the talented actors and actresses who have been the foundation of the MCU by giving each character a solo featured credits sequence with unique visual effects and the signature of each actor and actress appearing on screen. It’s a really nice touch.
There is nothing but praise here for the incredible achievement this film represents. Yes, it is part of the larger achievement that is the MCU, but this film is, itself, an incredible culmination of that journey. It stands on its own as a wonderful piece of art, and it is clearly one of the best MCU films ever made. I see no reason why this film should not be a serious awards contender throughout the rest of the year, and it has already cemented itself as one of the greatest box office draws of all-time. As of this writing, it has reached $2.63 billion in worldwide gross, with only Avatar’s total of $2.78 billion ahead of it on the all-time chart. All signs point to that record ultimately being broken, and it will be just another monumental achievement for this film.
The film ends on another powerful personal note, showing one of our key characters finally happy at last. Others were not so lucky, but the film shows that some sacrifices must be made. Each key character is given profound personal stakes here, and it is that attention to character detail that elevates this film.
Well done to all involved. The journey was clearly worth it.
NOTE ON CONTENT: The film is rated PG-13, and almost all of the content that might be difficult for younger viewers comes in the form of fantasy violence. However, this film is obviously made to cater to a wide, general audience. As such, most viewers should be okay with the film’s content. There is some minor language, but no sexual content to really speak of.