It's the end of an era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Marvel just about pulls it off. Spoilers!
Avengers: Endgame begins and ends with quiet, intimate moments. And it's that sense of intimacy that makes this galaxy-spanning MCU blockbuster such a triumph.
Marvel's chapter-closing Endgame is in theaters now and already breaking box office records and mobilizing emotional fans. If you haven't seen it, stick with our spoiler-free review. If you have, read on for my spoiler-packed assessment (and check out our CNET crowdsourced review)...
We open in a rural field as a hero loses everything, his family, his whole life, the same devastating loss felt by half the galaxy. It ends in another tranquil countryside as another hero regains the life he lost long before. And he also passes a baton to the future, pointing the way to a new era for the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe .
In between, Endgame tells an epic story. It spans the galaxy, across space and time, and climaxes with a time-realigning battle involving vast armies of superstar superheroes. Yet somehow it seems to maintain that intimate feel for most of its runtime. Sure, we're hurtling to alien planets and traveling in time, but we're doing it in the close company of a crew of friends we've grown to love during the first decade of the MCU.
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The prologue shows us the home life of Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, aka Ronin (Jeremy Renner). His family vanishes in an instant, victims of the cliffhanger from Infinity War that wiped out half the souls in the universe. Where Infinity War ended with the devastating scene of beloved heroes turning to dust, this scene drops us right back in the devastation as real people vanish. With every new Avengers movie, it's easy to joke about Hawkeye's dispensability to the narrative, but -- not for the first time -- Barton is us. Crap haircut and all.
Cut to deep space. We may be floating amid the luminescent magnificence of the cosmos, but Tony Stark and Nebula are bored. This silly game is the kind of thing the MCU has always excelled at -- little moments that make us love the characters as they head into the huge CG battles. The MCU is at its best when its extraordinary situations are faced by, well, not exactly ordinary people, but certainly real people.
OK, this isn't exactly My Dinner with Andre -- although between Thanos' fruit, Natasha's sandwich and Hulk's tacos there's actually quite lot of food on show. But few superhero movies follow through on such emotional journeys for their heroes, with characters like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) plumbing the absolute depths of self-doubt and despair. Although it has to be said Thor's despair makes for some heavyweight humor.
Tony Stark's reunion with his former friend Steve Rogers is particularly affecting -- if anything, the rift between them is deeper than ever. In his swansong as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. gives a masterful performance. The scene where he first returns to Earth and bitterly lambastes Rogers is scintillating stuff.
The MCU began with Downey breathing life into Tony Stark and Iron Man , and this expansive first chapter ends with his last breath. Chris Evans also bids farewell to Steve Rogers and Captain America, and while his character has fewer emotional angles it's impossible not to root for the big lug. Even if he's quitting, his ass never did.
Together they and their fellow Avengers set out to undo the snap that brought worlds crashing down. With a bit of help from new recruit Captain Marvel , they quickly achieve what they couldn't throughout the whole of Infinity War, finding Thanos and parting the mauve mass murderer from his domed head.
Dispatching Thanos so early is an audacious maneuver by the filmmakers, wrong-footing the audience from the start. It's the boldest twist the film makes, however. From then on events could have been written by a committee of fans, as characters have countless crowd-pleasing encounters and conclusions. It's hugely satisfying and you can't begrudge fans or characters their happy ending. Still, a few daring twists would have helped the film feel less like it's proceeding on rails.
Compare Endgame with the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, for instance. Say what you like about it -- lots of disgruntled fans have -- but it wasn't afraid to challenge viewers by exploring the very foundations of the franchise. I'm not here to relitigate Last Jedi, but at least it took chances. Endgame is nowhere near as brave.
It's intriguing, though, that these superheroes face a problem against which their superpowers are almost irrelevant. With Thanos gone, the heroes must deal with something they can't punch or laser-blast. As Steve points out, "The world is in our hands... We gotta do something with it." It's the strength of their character, not their muscles, that counts.
That's a subtext we can identify with. For Thor and Ronin, revenge and violence bring no peace. And in the real world, there are no easy solutions, no colorful cartoon villains to punch back into space -- whether it's xenophobia or inequality or climate change, problems are solved by collaboration, persistence and refusing to give up just because life seems overwhelming.
In a way, the actual filmmaking elements of Endgame are secondary. Things like cinematography, music and production design almost seem invisible, merely a delivery system for the characters we've come to know and love. Eye-popping settings and effects unroll in front of us like Marvel wallpaper. I feel it'll take a second viewing to fully appreciate the film's qualities, when we can see through the tears.
Endgame does have some striking visual flair -- cosmic light playing on Tony Stark's stunned face, a one-shot fight scene inspired by Asian martial arts cinema, or Thanos' menacing space cruiser emerging from a bilious gas cloud. But it's counterweighted by sludgy design that makes assorted settings look the same. Try distinguishing between the final battle at Avengers HQ and the various alien planets, for instance. When the missing heroes triumphantly return, what should be a colorful comic book double-page spread becomes a murky sludge.
Despite reducing the cast to the core crew -- plus Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) providing gags and turning the plot cogs -- there are still a lot of spinning plates to keep in the air. With so many moving parts, the script sometimes grinds along with stuff just happening without much motivation or effort.
Tony Stark figures out frickin' time travel without even meaning to. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is just the Hulk now, so deal with it. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) turns up and saves the day when the plot requires her to, while being absent the rest of the time -- she's just busy, OK? And the entire salvation of the galaxy is predicated on a rat just happening to wander across a button. So that's the future Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) foresaw?
Which brings us to the time travel. I'm not going to get into Loki (Tom Hiddleston) disappearing or Gamora (Zoe Saldana) coming back to life or Thanos dying before he even snaps the snap -- frankly I don't need the headache. Let's just agree that time travel is cheating. It was cheating when Superman wound the earth backward 40 years ago, and it's cheating now.
It's a lot of fun though, isn't it? As eye-rolling as the timeline pseudoscience is, it does set up a supremely satisfying conclusion. Bring in time travel, and you pave the way for a gloriously nostalgic romp through the best bits of the MCU. We'll put up with any amount of quantum codswallop for a crowd-pleasing remix of Marvel's greatest hits.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo pull this off -- just.
For some reason, they opt for more drawing room farce than Mission: Impossible suspense as the fate of the universe hinges on drawn-out gags about swapped briefcases and Hulk not liking stairs. They take us to a bit of the first Avengers movie we didn't even see the first time, to the Thor sequel everyone agrees is the worst MCU film, and to two identical-looking alien planets where very little happens. Oh, and some random never-before-seen trip to the 1970s that has no significance for viewers whatsoever.
But the remix of The Winter Soldier's iconic elevator fight is genius. Captain America fighting himself -- and checking himself out -- is absolutely priceless.
Even when the jaunts through time feel a little off, the character moments save the day. Tony encountering his own father on the cusp of his own birth is a delightful pay-off to his 11-year journey from feckless playboy to husband, father and hero. Upon reconciling with his father, Tony reconciles with himself -- and dies.
So what does this mean for the Marvel movie project? Two of its core stars are gone, but there are legions of replacements. Those that survive switch tracks into new configurations -- hands up who can't wait for that Asgardians of the Galaxy movie -- while the MCU itself is irrevocably altered after the snap and the five-year time jump. Roll on Phase 4...
As so often in this era of sequels and reboots and cinematic universes, off-screen distractions detract from the impact of the ending. Fans will know several of the supposedly dead -- Black Widow, Vision and Loki -- are set to star in their own movies or TV shows on the planned Disney Plus streaming service. So even as the end of Endgame promises a fresh start, we already know in the back of our minds that the finale isn't final after all.
Some people are really gone, and some are just kinda gone.
It might not be perfect, but Endgame is still a towering entertainment experience. It's a genuine emotional roller coaster, delivering a satisfying if safe conclusion for these much-loved icons. Intimate character moments drive this epic blockbuster to its emotional endgame.
I laughed, I cried, I held my breath.
I can't believe this is the end.
And I'm glad it isn't.
Originally published April 26.