All Good Things, by Reed Lackey

24 Apr

What Marvel Studios has done in cinema is unprecedented: 10 years, 22 films, and a shared universe that spans multiple franchises, each and all cross-linked and overlapped. This grand enterprise sees its culmination (for now) in Avengers: Endgame, a film which is a direct continuation of the events in Avengers: Infinity War, but also presumes to be the grand finale of the first movement of this expansive storytelling landscape. The sheer anticipation surrounding this film is staggering, and the expectations would be monumental for any film to meet in any context.

It would be helpful to consider Avengers: Endgame less as a sequel to any one or two films in a franchise and more as the finale of sweeping and epic cinematic mini-series. Most television seasons, while naturally lacking the visual scope and budgetary liberties that major motion pictures can operate with, usually culminate narratively in ways which resolve most of the core arcs while a few smaller plot and character threads are left dangling for possible future installments. Series finales, on the other hand, have the added element of also needing to pay tribute to key beats from throughout the series while wrapping the narrative bows just a bit more tightly.

In this context, it feels proper to consider Endgame as the ultimate cinematic series finale, delivering all of the best rewards from when those stories work well while also being slightly held back by many of the same constraints as well. The Russo brothers were not being illusory when they said Endgame would provide pretty definitive conclusions to the stories we’ve seen playing out over the past decade. On both story and character levels, there are multiple arcs which finally reach their zenith in this film, nearly all of which are highly poignant and often bittersweet. And while one or two of our old familiar faces may appear as supporting players in future franchise installments, it feels very much like this first wave of stories is definitively concluded.

But will this conclusion be satisfying to most of the fans, given the magnitude of expectation against it? The answer probably depends on how you’ve felt about the MCU as a whole. If you’re one of the relative detractors who have become weary of Marvel’s formulaic approach to story structure or have grown numb to the action bombast, it isn’t likely that Endgame will make a believer of you. However, if you are a member of the fandom who have been eagerly delighted with each new installment ever since that first post-credits scene at the end of Iron Man where Nick Fury approached Tony Stark to talk to him about the “Avengers Initiative”, you are likely to find yourself in utter awe and gleeful wonder at how effectively they’ve managed to land this sprawling epic tale.

Like all great series finales, much of Avengers: Endgame contains what can feel a bit like perfunctory fan service. There are even clever ways in which Anthony and Joe Russo have managed to display a kind of “greatest hits” from previous installments and recontextualized even the most iconic lines and moments for renewed purpose and impact. It matters very little at this point whether these callbacks feel earned by this specific film or not, because they’ve been earned multiple times over by our recurring exposure to these characters, their flaws, their hopes, their triumphs, and their growth throughout the previous films. Some of these connective callbacks are played for thrills, others for laughs, and at least a couple for devastating emotional impact, summing up to a fully engaging and satisfying menagerie of emotional responses.

As alluded to in the trailer marketing, the narrative of this specific entry is structured very much like a classic heist film, wherein a team and plan are assembled (forgive the pun) to execute a desired victory. Much of the fun of Endgame resides in the shuffling of key players in specific settings to execute this hoped-for victory. What is impressive, though, is how the story pivots our expectations and raises the stakes right at the moments where we feel certain conclusions are all but inevitable. At least half a dozen times, a shocking or impulsive occurrence deters what feels like the most predictable next step in the story, and this helps to keep the audience on their toes in what would otherwise be a very automatic narrative. There are moments of humor, of somber distress, and – of course – of rousing action sequences, and nearly all of these moments work very well.

I wish that I could tell you more about the last thirty minutes of this film, though. The moments are too hard fought for and too well deserving of their imaginative real estate for me to spoil them here, but they are nothing short of magnificent. If you care about these films and these characters at all, it’s likely to take all of your will to stay in your seat during the breathtaking climactic battle. There are some notable pacing issues with the first third of the film, wherein the aftermath of the events of Infinity War are experienced most directly, but the time and attention given to those character connections, combined with the myriad of callbacks and fan service moments I referenced earlier, make the ultimate culminating standoff all the more effective.

Again, Avengers: Endgame may not quite step over the line into making fresh converts out of those who are relatively discontented with the MCU, but I think it would be fair to say that Endgame wasn’t made to justify itself in the eyes of the detractors. It is a story crafted with careful attention to the characters and elements that have made the Marvel films so successful and so effective these past ten years. It not only presumes you’ve seen the films that led us to this moment, it practically insists that you have.

And to those of us who have sat through every episode, whether good, sub-par, or phenomenal, this is a finale worthy of your time and your attention. It is the proper payoff to a mountain of creative output and creative effort; and a grand epic the likes of which the movie-going public has never seen before, and is unlikely to ever see again. It is difficult to imagine any future film endeavor carrying this degree of ambition, or delivering this level of satisfaction.

No matter where Marvel Studios and its cavalcade of stories go from here, it will be difficult for anything that follows to match the emotional resonance and power of witnessing earth’s mightiest heroes waging one final battle against their greatest enemy. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see such an outstanding display assembled ever again.

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