Editor’s Note: No spoilers. I promise. No spoilers, okay? No spoilers.
We did it, folks. We squeezed all of your favorite Marvel characters into a single movie. The movie is more than three hours long and just trying to fit all the characters names onto the same poster looks ridiculous, but thanks to Avengers: Endgame, now we know we can do it. It’s the same kind of revelation you had as a kid when you realized that you can mix all of the watercolors into one super color, or that you can make one super soda with a squirt from all of the different sodas that up until then you had only enjoyed separately. The super color turned out a sickly purplish brown and the super soda was a muddled medicinal sugar bomb surprisingly redolent of Dr. Pepper, but the important thing is that you did it, and you know. That knowledge is power: the power not to have to do it again.
Avengers: Endgame is less a movie than a victory lap, Marvel congratulating itself for making all of these movies while congratulating us, the viewers, for having watched them. I used to think it was the arthouse movies, the films about dyslexic Nazis and bull-riders with AIDS collecting statues at the Oscars that were self-congratulatory. The pulp hits at the multiplex were fun precisely because they seemed to lack that kind of self-regard. Manny Farber famously called genre movies “termite art,” because they kept moving without pausing for self-reflection (insofar as I can ever actually understand what Manny Farber was talking about). With Avengers: Endgame, Marvel has created a towering monument to itself, a movie that seems to pause every few minutes to soak up laurels and applause.
True, it can be hard to judge Avengers: Endgame, the movie, independent from Avengers: Endgame, the circus. Am I even meant to? Some theaters are reportedly staying open 24 hours a day to accommodate the extra screenings and moviegoers. For the press screening, rather than the usual one screening, or a handful at different times and locations, there were four screenings, all on the same day, all on the Disney lot. That’s a three-hour movie at a theater with no concession stand (and no food even allowed, according to the signs). Who were all these extra people? “Influencers,” from the looks of it. Before the movie, a staffer warned us not to share any spoilers. Though after it ended, no one was there to warn us not to sit through the 15 minutes of credits (after holding our bladders for three hours) waiting for a post-credits scene, because there isn’t one.
Junketeers (a separate class of press) had all seen it the day before and as I switched my phone off airplane mode as I was leaving the theater, an email from the PR team at RottenTomatoes arrived in my inbox telling me that “Avengers: Endgame is certified fresh at 98% recommended!” And with only two more press screenings to go that day! Amazing. Yes, everyone is hoping to make money on this movie.
As for the movie itself, it picks up where Avengers: Infinity War left off (obviously), with half of the Avengers (and half of all life in the universe) having just been wiped out with a snap of Thanos’s infinity stoned fingers. I’ll be extremely vague here for the sake of #DontSpoilTheEndGame, but suffice it to say, the premise is like a much less intellectually challenging version of The Leftovers. Where the question is not how do you carry on without the vanished, but how do you get them back. This is a franchise built around giving the fans what they want, and Endgame is the final chapter they demand. (ALL. OF. THE SODAS!) In many ways, it’s the Return of the Jedi of the franchise. Of course, it’s not going to be as good as Empire Strikes Back, but it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle. It’s the tonic note. It’s the part you need even though, and partly because, it’s predictable.
Even in that context, hoo boy, Endgame is a bit much. The plot is essentially a scavenger hunt through the previous Marvel movies, allowing us to relive all the fun we had watching them. It all culminates in a credits sequence so self-congratulatory it makes the Paul Walker tribute in Fast Seven and the Frodo/Sam/Gandalf reunion in Lord Of The Rings seem understated by comparison. Partly it’s the movie it needs to be, the movie we deserve. But why does it seem to want so much credit for that? Are the two billion dollars it will surely earn not reward enough? Isn’t it enough just to win? Do you need to be worshiped too?
For a movie that’s so drunk on its own cultural importance, I also had a hard time divining its moral center. When a “hero” murders a defenseless bad thing out of sheer vengeance and doesn’t get so much as lightly chided for it, what does that say about the culture this movie meant to serve? What exactly is the line between good guys and bad guys in this universe? The dialogue is a weird mix of “shut the front door!” and people saying “shit” where it doesn’t seem necessary (not to mention the Whedon-esque mix of portentous exposition punctuated by snarky LOLcat laugh lines). I don’t find swear words immoral, but the inconsistency of it all is a bit odd. Its morality is like a paraphrase of Aleister Crowley‘s in Satanism: “whatever the fans want shall be the whole of the law.”
Maybe a definable moral center is expecting too much, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the moral nuance of movies in the Marvel universe in the past. There was the poignant riff on mortality in the visually captivating Doctor Strange. Black Panther managed to ponder geographical determinism. The trouble is that all these Avengers live in slightly different moral universes with slightly different rules (as they should). When you try to fit them all together, those rules and morals start to get muddled. That nuance is what makes the individual movies interesting. In having to squeeze them all together there isn’t time for anything beyond the broad strokes — good guys good, bad guys bad. It’s all a bit Calvinist. Endgame‘s is both a moral failing and a totally natural and understandable consequence of the format. There isn’t much time to explore a villain’s motives while you’re trying to juggle 27 cameos. The portals… my God, so many portals.
It’s interminably long and excruciatingly overstuffed, but it does manage a reasonably satisfying ending, which is probably all we really required of it. Avengers: Endgame is the movie we wanted, the movie we needed, the movie we expected, the movie we deserve; for better and for worse. It offers, above all, closure. It had to be done, and now it is. And now we won’t have to try to cram this many characters into one movie again.
At least not for a while.