Thu, 02 May 2019
EVEN those among us who’ve looked upon Marvel’s cinematic project with a reflexive scepticism all these years are led to regard Avengers: Endgame as nothing less than a landmark, a sort of ‘omega-film’ tying together the myriad story and thematic threads woven over the course of a decade. Knock the results all you want – and make no mistake, this critic has dedicated untold column inches to rubbishing the cape-and-funny-hat fad, but it represents the most dizzyingly ambitious franchise effort of the 21st century thus far. Though Marvel has plans to expand its Universe indefinitely into the future, this new instalment seeks to bring to a belated close the present ‘era’, encompassing nearly two dozen standalone flicks and countless beloved characters (from Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk). Fans were always going to approach it with a sense of perturbation and even detractors were bound to be moved by Endgame’s manifold spectacles, dramas and tragedies.
The age of the blockbuster, where studios are liable to follow up even minor box office hits with an array of sequels and prequels, rarely affords us closure, that tingly sensation one gets when watching a Return of the Jedi or a Deathly Hallows at the time of their release, as years of dedicated viewing are suddenly thrown into perspective. The fourth Avengers movie IS such an event – for all its adolescent silliness, the stakes are very real and very high this time round, every frame packed with meaning and consequence. This is it.
What’s most immediately striking about Endgame is its sheer mournfulness. Its predecessor, last year’s (passable) Infinity War, hinted very directly at a new soap opera direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a turn merely teased by prior films; Endgame radically ups the ante, with emotional subplots and moral dilemmas lurking around every corner, forcing physical action to the sidelines. This series has always worn its own goofiness on its right sleeve, punctuating full-throttle fisticuff theatrics with wisecracks and stand-up comedy routines (Tony Stark remains a dependable, if vaguely irksome source of such material); it’s proven a winning formula, one Marvel’s rivals have been at pains to ape. Endgame puts all that to bed in a way Infinity War simply couldn’t – it’s a remarkably gloomy finale, with the demons and traumas of their pasts finally catching up with those heroes who survived Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) initial onslaught. Iron Man’s smarmy-macho act is finally crumbling under the weight of his galactic responsibilities; Thor has mommy issues.
Early on, conventional action is (relatively) thin on the ground and this shift in focus is hardly unwelcome – in fact, it does much to resurrect in viewers the giddy kid-in-a-sweet-shop vibe that earlier Marvel outings were possessed of, before the franchise’s overindulgence numbed us to the indomitable novelty of a creative set piece. In other words, it seeks to accomplish with a newfound sensitivity to raw character detail what its forebears did with CG pageantry, and carries it off quite bloomin’ well.
Assessing a new Marvel release has always been an unenviable task, not least because even peripheral entries in the canon are now essential to the overall framework – there’s all too much space for spoilers. Endgame, of course, isn’t ‘just another’ superhero film, but a milestone a whole generation of cinemagoers have – in their own ways – been working towards for a significant period of time now. The less that’s said, the better, so let’s just leave it at this; yes, the last Avengers picture is about as pant-wettingly fatuous as all its precursors rolled into one. Yes, there are large, lore-dense sections which are destined to alienate non-devotees, not least as Endgame races to settle all accounts – the payoff, like a Muse album (remember them?), is purely melodramatic, but all the more splendid and poignant for it. It’s a pleasingly affective climax, one that opens up new emotional frontiers for the MCU (and, indeed, for superhero cinema in general). As for the dead (and be warned, many a beloved character dies), let it be said – they will be sorely missed.