Friday, May 24, 2019

Avengers: Endgame: Review

It’s a happy coincidence that the final Avengers film is releasing in the same month as the last season of Game of Thrones. Both series find themselves in a similar place, with most of the remaining characters gathered in one place, awaiting a winner-takes-all battle. There’s something of the hard-won nostalgia of the first two Thrones episodes in Avengers: Endgame, as characters who haven’t met in years sit and drudge up memories and regrets. Much of the first half of the Russo brothers’ film is contemplative, even elegiac – which has also been the mood in Winterfell this season.

If these conversations – even the joyful ones – seem heavy, it’s because a seemingly invincible enemy has forced everyone to consider their mortality. But the heaviness is also within viewers: there’s a gnawing ache to the idea that something that’s been a part of your life for years will no longer exist. In bidding farewell to characters you’ve invested in, you are, in a sense, ending a relationship. Of course, there will be a new series, a new franchise, but in that moment of parting you convince yourself that there can never be another quite like this.

The film begins in the immediate aftermath of the Thanos (Josh Brolin) snap, which wiped out half of humanity and a bunch of Avengers. The survivors, among them Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans), are grieving and beaten. Hope arrives in the form of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) – Ant-Man – who’s somehow survived his time in the quantum realm. “Time doesn’t work the same way there," he tells the team, which of course gets Rogers, the one with the trickiest relationship with time, hopeful about the possibility of undoing what’s happened.

This backwards-looking narrative arc allows the series to bid goodbye to itself. Scenes and characters from earlier films are revisited, and some of the encounters are quite moving, not so much for what is said but for the look on the travellers’ faces (Thor in particular is allowed a lovely reunion). Some of it, of course, is fan service: Hulk shaking his head at his angsty younger self, a running gag about Rogers’ (estimable) behind. But you also get a real sense of distance covered. With the jigsaw almost complete, this is the Russos and Kevin Feige showing you the pieces one last time.

For all their formidable planning, I wonder if someone at Marvel will one day admit that they misjudged Carol Danvers’ entry into the MCU. Captain Marvel is too powerful a presence to be there throughout the film – and so she drifts in and out, with the vague excuse that there are problems on other planets as well. There’s another reason: this film is a showcase for the original Avengers team (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is back too). Johansson does her best work of the series, as do a vulnerable Downey Jr and an almost beatific Evans.

After a lot of careful brick-laying for the possibility that someone (everyone?) important will die, the film roars back to life. There’s a sprawling battle which is all kinds of confusing and only intermittently thrilling; not one moment equals the hair-raising appearance of Thor in Infinity War, yelling “Bring me Thanos". Part of the problem in multi-superhero films is the impeccably paired battles-within-battles – it’s always seemed implausible to me that Cap will end up in hand-to-hand-combat with someone roughly his own size while a few metres away Iron Man blows up alien monsters. Why doesn’t giant Ant-Man crush Thanos underfoot? I’m sure there’s a seven-page explanation some fan will have ready, but the real reason it doesn’t happen is because there’d be no battle after that.

After everyone’s done with their catharses, the question will arise: what now? Marvel has several superheroes in circulation, and who knows how many in store. Will they be deployed in another multi-film arc? Has work already started on one? The thought is somewhat exhausting – but studios don’t take breaks, and they don’t change winning strategies. The Avengers storyline ends with grace and feeling, but it took a lot, from us and them, before gravitas could be achieved. “It’s been a long, long time," sighs the jazzy number that ends the film. It really has.

This review appeared in Mint.

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