WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far. If you intend to watch Avengers: Infinity War blind, do not read any part of this review.
The unthinkable has happened. Thanos the Mad Titan has seized every single one of the six Infinity Stones, thereby completing the Infinity Gauntlet. With a snap of his fingers, half of the universe’s population disintegrated into dust. Countless heroes lost their lives, the Guardians of the Galaxy have fallen, and those who remain face a foe of incalculable power. With the Infinity Stones at their full potential, Thanos has control over all life in the universe, time, and every single mind in existence. Even if they mounted a resistance against him, he could easily stop them before they had a chance to effect their plan. If they were to defy the odds and strike him down, he would simply erase his defeat and respond in kind with a force his assailant couldn’t even dream of standing up to. Even with a powerful reinforcement in the form of Carol Danvers, do the surviving heroes stand a chance against this omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent enemy?
Just before they run out of supplies, Carol Danvers immediately rescues Tony Stark and Nebula, returning them to Earth. From there, the remaining heroes easily track down Thanos and vow to do whatever they can to avenge the fallen. Indeed, to show the audience the extent of the damage Thanos inflicted, the film’s cold open features Clint Barton spending time with his family moments before the Infinity Gauntlet’s power takes them away. Even knowing full well what is about to happen does not rob this scene of its pathos.
In Infinity War, the Russo brothers proved their willingness to play with their audience’s expectations, and this trend continues into Endgame. The first act pans out like a twisted version of the final few pages of The Infinity Gauntlet storyline. The heroes are able to locate Thanos easily enough, and after achieving his goal, he has retired to a distant planet and lives the life of a common farmer. As soon as you see him for the first time, you realize something is not quite right with him. He walks with a noticeable limp and the entire left side of his body is burned and charred. When the survivors break into his dwelling, he barely puts up a fight, and informs them that using the gauntlet nearly killed him. However, it wasn’t the snap that damaged his body; it was what he did immediately afterwards. The heroes discover, to their horror, that the Infinity Stones are gone. His final act to maintain balance was to destroy the Infinity Stones themselves. Nebula assures her new comrades he isn’t lying to demoralize them. The culling is irreversible. Thor decapitates Thanos, but the death is unceremonious, and the vengeance empty.
Even for those who had read The Infinity Gauntlet, Endgame deviates from the famous storyline with a small detail that causes the enormity of the Decimation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hit home. Although Thanos successfully wiped out half of all life in The Infinity Gauntlet, the damage was quickly undone. Sure, seeing many familiar heroes gone was a shock for readers back then, but once the storyline concluded, things were more or less back to normal – as is typical for the medium. This is not the case with Endgame – the very next scene after Thor kills Thanos takes place five years later.
Although it is obvious from the audience’s perspective that many of the people killed in Infinity War won’t stay dead, these scenes make one thing perfectly clear: none of the characters within the film could possibly know this. As far as they are concerned, they didn’t just lose, they have well and truly lost. Even so, the Avengers and their allies have attempted to move on with their lives to varying degrees of success. Steve Rogers, knowing what it’s like to lose everyone close to him, runs grief counselling sessions for the survivors. Bruce Banner has now merged with the Hulk, giving him the best of both worlds while Thor, after founding his own territory in Norway for the displaced Asgardians, spends his days housebound. Having watched his entire family disintegrate, Clint Barton took the Decimation especially hard, and has since become a vigilante akin to the Punisher. He tirelessly hunts down and executes any criminal he can find, specifically targeting cartels and the yakuza, believing it’s only fair that they get to join the half of the world that didn’t survive.
For those who have kept up with the series, one small detail remains unaccounted for: the whereabouts of Scott Lang. He had been performing an experiment in the quantum realm with the assistance of the Hank Pym, Hope van Dyne, and Janet van Dyne. Unfortunately for him, they happened to perform the experiment around the time Thanos executed the Decimation, and Hank, Hope, and Janet all fell victim to it. Through pure chance, a mouse reactivates the generator, bringing Lang back. When he returns, he immediately senses something is amiss. He asks a boy riding a bicycle what happened, but he simply glares at him with a look of silent contempt one wouldn’t expect from someone that young. Since that day, the world has built monuments for the deceased, and Scott finds his own name on one in his hometown of San Francisco. Mercifully, his own daughter was spared, though he had disappeared from her life for five years.
With Captain Marvel having been released earlier in 2019, it’s easy to get the impression that she would play an instrumental role in bringing down Thanos. While she definitely is important to the story, the writers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe effectively performed a magic trick. They kept the audience’s attention on Carol Danvers when they really should have focused on Scott Lang’s plight. Though being trapped in the quantum realm for five years sounds incredibly horrific given and likely to induce insanity, Lang meets up with the Avengers and gives them a piece of information that turns things on their head. To everyone else, he had disappeared for five years, but from his perspective, he was only in the quantum realm for five hours.
This is where the true nature of the film reveals itself. While one could have inferred from the trailers that Endgame was about the remaining forces of good mounting a final counterattack on Thanos, it is, in reality, a film about time travel. Through specific manipulations of Pym Particles, the heroes reunite and travel back to specific points in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones. Infinity War was about Thanos’s quest to retrieve them, so it’s fitting that after his victory, the heroes retrace his steps. Rogers, Banner, Lang, and Stark travel to 2012 during Loki’s attack on New York. The Space Stone is within the Tesseract, the Mind Stone is embedded in Loki’s scepter, and the Time Stone is in the possession of the Ancient One. Thor and Rocket travel to Asgard in 2013 in order to find the Reality Stone, which was in the form of the Aether infecting Jane Foster at the time. Nebula and Rhodes travel to Planet Morag in 2014 to retrieve the orb containing the Power Stone before Peter Quill can. Finally, Barton and Romanoff travel to Planet Vormir in 2014 to obtain the Soul Stone.
What I particularly enjoy about this development is that the writers avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with time travel. To begin with, they firmly establish that what the Avengers are doing is only barely possible. Because Hank Pym was among the Decimation’s casualties, they cannot retrieve any more of the particles bearing his name, and their supply is drastically limited. In effect, this adds a lot of tension to the proceedings. After all, if they could travel through time at their leisure, they would be afforded as many tries as they need to succeed. This isn’t the case here; the stakes are as high as ever because if even one of them fails, the plan is ruined.
Indeed, there are two moments in which the plan does appear to crumble. In their attempts to retrieve the Tesseract, which contains the Space Stone, it accidently ends up in Loki’s hands, and he quickly uses it to escape custody. Because of this, Stark and Rogers have no choice but to go further back in time to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in 1970 in order to retrieve the Tesseract from that period along with enough Pym Particles to make the return trip.
What makes Endgame stand out from its predecessors is that it has much more of an emphasis on adventure film elements. Indeed, for a majority of the film, Thanos is dead. Although the impact he left on the world speaks for itself, most of the plot isn’t being actively driven by him or any other villain. Nonetheless, because it simply wouldn’t do to have a superhero film without a supervillain to fight, Thanos is allowed to make a triumphant return – the version of him from Guardians of the Galaxy, to be precise. This allows the audience to get a sense of how much his daughters’ desertions affected him. The victorious Thanos was affable to those who opposed him, fully understanding their motives. In fact, part of the reason he destroyed the Infinity Stones was a realization that he would not be fit to rule over the universe. This pragmatism made him more effective than his comics counterpart, who would, without fail, subconsciously orchestrate his own defeat every single time.
The 2014 Thanos, on the other hand, will stop at nothing to destroy absolutely everything before crafting the universe in his own image. In a sense, he’s a better version of Ultron. Part of what made Ultron such a disappointing villain concerned his utterly generic motivations. He saw the human race as an inconvenience and wanted to render them extinct in lieu of providing any helpful solutions. Because he was introduced and killed off in the span of one film, he came across as a Saturday-morning cartoon villain. He wanted to destroy the world because it was in the way. Although the 2014 Thanos has a less unique modus operandi, it serves as an effective contrast to the version audiences came to know up until this installment. Suddenly, the vaguely altruistic affectations are nowhere to be seen and we are left with the megalomaniacal tendencies that were boiling beneath the surface the entire time. Part of the reason the heroes are alive is because their Thanos didn’t abuse his power any more than necessary. This Thanos has no such compunctions; if he wins, it’s over.
Tapping into the present-day Nebula’s cybernetic implants, he learns the heroes are in the process of undoing his victory. He thus replaces the 2023 Nebula the still-indoctrinated 2014 one, who, in turn allows him to invade Earth. Just when all hope seems lost, the Avengers receive a slew of reinforcements from an unexpected source. Like a phoenix, those who were culled rise from the ashes to aid them in battle. Just before the 2014 Nebula opened an interdimensional portal for Thanos’s invasion, Banner had used the newly crafted Infinity Gauntlet to resurrect everyone.
The Battle of New York was one of the greatest action sequences filmed in 2012, but I firmly believe this one upstages it. Part of what helps it along is that with a three-hour runtime, Endgame well and truly earned it. Although it’s not impossible make a good film that’s nothing but a single long action sequence, Endgame takes its time getting there. Without the pretense of a big villain to fight, most of the plot focuses on retrieving the Infinity Stones across multiple time periods. This allows for many excellent character moments such as Stark meeting his father in 1970, Rogers seeing Peggy Carter alive and well, or Thor getting an opportunity to speak with his mother once again. Even if there is no one in the past for him to meet, watching Rocket’s arc unfold is a journey as well. Losing the only family he ever had severely affected him, and he is much more serious this time around, though he retains his sharp tongue. Nebula is also forced to confront her past self, and her eventual triumph over her showcases just how much she has evolved as a character.
All of these moments remind the heroes what they’re fighting for, and culminate in an incredible battle for the universe’s future. The heroes must get the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos, but his forces share their opposition’s determination. It is nerve-wracking watching possession of the Infinity Gauntlet switch back and forth between heroes, and it’s especially tense seeing the Mad Titan don it once more. To his surprise, when he attempts to use the gauntlet, nothing happens. He then learns, too late, that Stark had surreptitiously stolen all of the Infinity Stones and infused them into his suit. When he snaps his fingers, Thanos’s forces crumble into dust. Thanos, realizing he has only seconds to live, sits down and waits for his own inevitable demise. Notably, he does not give into rage or show any signs of desperation. He simply accepts his defeat with silent contemplation.
What I feel to be this film’s greatest strength is that, although the plot is built around the premise of bringing people back from the dead, the narrative ultimately doesn’t conform to the comic book standard by rendering death a minor inconvenience. This sentiment is punctuated when Romanoff sacrifices herself so Barton may receive the Soul Stone. There is no coming back from this; even the power of the Infinity Stones combined cannot bring her back. This is reinforced further when the sheer energy unleashed from the Infinity Stones fatally wounds Stark. After watching this character in action for eleven years, Iron Man dies a hero’s death.
For that matter, although the executed people have been returned to life, the universe is not fully restored to the way it was – nor can it be. The Gamora audiences became familiar with in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel is still gone. The one who was brought back is from 2014 before she even met Peter Quill. Vision has also been destroyed, and because the heroes had to replace the Infinity Stones they took in order to, among other things, prevent Dormammu from engulfing the Earth with the Dark Dimension, there is no obvious way to bring him back. Rogers is the one who takes the Infinity Stones back, and once he has completed his task, he stays in the past to remain with Peggy Carter. He then appears before his comrades as an elderly man and passes on his shield to Sam Wilson. Thor departs with the Guardians, appointing Valkyrie the new queen of Asgard. With the original Avengers lineup gone, it is the end of an era – and the beginning of a new one.
After the unforgettable finale of Infinity War, the Russo brothers had to devise a way to metaphorically make lightning strike twice in the same place. To say they succeeded would be a grand understatement. It’s almost difficult to pigeonhole Endgame into a specific genre because it borrows elements from several different ones at once. This is highly fitting given the sheer amount of stylistic ground the series has covered over the years. Ant-Man saw the universe tackle the heist film, Guardians of the Galaxy was a quirky space opera, and Thor delved deeply into Norse mythology. All of these disparate components are combined into this stunning achievement that serves as the perfect sendoff for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What I admire about Avengers: Endgame from a meta standpoint is that it was one of the very few instances in the 2010s in which creators put enough faith in their audience to sit through a three-hour film. Every single journalist and film executive who believed the average moviegoer had a short attention span were then proven wrong when Endgame proceeded to make $100 million within seventeen hours of its official release. This was a mere year-and-a-half after many people, including Ridley Scott, felt Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 dragged on for too long – a film that didn’t quite reach the three-hour mark. However, I have to say that like Blade Runner 2049 and Infinity War, Endgame doesn’t feel like a long sit. In fact, I wouldn’t have objected if it was lengthened by thirty minutes because there are a lot of fascinating story beats and character moments in this film that creators could have easily elaborated on. In any event, Endgame is, in every sense of the word, an epic. Although it does count on its viewers having seen a majority of the films leading up to it, I can safely say that, in spite of the various ups and downs the series has had, the payoff is worth the investment.
Final Score: 8/10