Much has been made of the Marvel/Disney money printing machine; they started with a scrappy set of b-list heroes, co-producing a mixed to positive bag of introductory films with Paramount, and really found their footing with Joss Whedon’s Avengers in 2012. The teamup went better than most expected, both creatively and financially, and since then it seems their 2-3 releases per year are the easiest guarantee that people will put down Netflix and actually get out to the theater en masse. It’s not all a love fest, though; some see their popularity as a death knell for serious cinema (despite an increasingly diverse set of offerings mirrored in the wide variety of Oscar nominees, not to mention the multiple platforms on which serious dramas appear in endless supply), a commoditization of childish nostalgia, and an assembly line style of storytelling. Regardless of the fact that there are plenty strong examples of writer/directors bringing their own unique voice to different properties, from James Gunn’s sassy and surreal Guardians to Ryan Coogler’s whip smart racial commentary in Black Panther, the hate is simple to find in various corners of criticism and internet comment sections. Still, what seems to be missed in the back and forth is that Marvel have crafted an extensive cast of characters that millions of viewers around the world relate to, look up to, and even love. The fights are fun, the effects often dazzling, but viewers wouldn’t spend so much time with these films if they didn’t care about the struggles and successes of the likes of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
Joe and Anthony Russo, and their frequent collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, cash in every bit of goodwill towards these heroes with Avengers: Endgame, the longest and easily most self indulgent film in the much ballyhooed Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tripling down on the notion of fan service, this movie isn’t made for the casual observer or the fly-by film buff. Unlike most of the other stories knocking around in the studio’s catalog, Endgame has no time for catching anyone up on current events. If you’re in the theater, you’ve likely seen every single film that preceded it, and of course are looking for some retribution and healing after the events of its predecessor, Infinity War. That film did a fairly marvelous job of bringing together a vast cast to do battle against the rare compelling Big Bad in the MCU, a mocapped Josh Brolin on a dark, twisted version of a hero’s journey. Our remaining protagonists—the original Avengers all survived, plus a few more good guys to round out the team—are looking for the same things as the audience, but have some competing views on how to go about them. It’s a very different film from a pacing standpoint than Infinity War: A dour, mournful opening, appropriate to the fallout from the villain’s success, takes its sweet time getting to the inevitable action and explosions. But we do get to them eventually, as the Avengers’ plan kicks into action, ostensibly to save the day but seemingly with the primary cause of redeeming a cross section of less than beloved sequels in the canon. It’s a trick that almost works on that front, and of course drives our heroes ever closer to success.
In the interest of skipping the ever-despised spoilers—and yes, there’s plenty to spoil, especially in the third act—we’ll circle back to character. It’s the bedrock of any good yarn, and uber producer Kevin Feige and his many collaborators understand this deeply. Some of these superheroes have only been around for a movie or two, but the main focus is of course on the original team and whether or not they can truly pull off a miracle or two. These are the ones Marvel fans have now spent many hours adventuring with, the characters whose strengths and weaknesses we know the best, the ones who’ve been there since the beginning. Watching the likes of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. rally in the face of their greatest challenge yet feels like a family reunion to those viewers who’ve been with them all along, and while the filmmakers lean into these feelings heavily in the face of some clumsy plot mechanics and pacing from time to time, Endgame does ultimately provide payoffs both surprising and expected to longstanding fans. No matter what defiant detractors may say about Marvel and Endgame, it’s more than likely Stan Lee is nodding down on this capstone to his cinematic empire in gleeful approval.