12-months ago, the MCU imploded. Years of world-building and character fashioning were quite literally reduced to dust. The vast, intricate interconnect strand of stories crumbled and fizzled into nothingness, transitioning this decade-long fable into a streamlined entitiy with very little plot threads clinging to its body. Peter Parker (Tom Holland), Star Lord (Chris Pratt), King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Batista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), were all lost in the ether. As well as working to deliver a killer closure to Avengers: Infinity War’s (2018) third act, it’s decision to kill off vast swathes of the MCU’s cast functioned as the reset button. A reset button designed to simplify the Infinity Saga for its planned victory lap.
Avengers: End Game (2019) is just that, a chiselled down story in which the Russo Brothers take their audience on a fairground ride of the last decade of Marvel movies. We get the original Avengers crew gang up buddy up a small cluster of post-phase one heroes – most notably Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) – so they can go on a madcap joyride to previous feature films that have come to pass. This isn’t simply a follow up to Infinity War, it’s a self-congratulatory saunter from Marvel Studio’s hall of fame. A time travel caper in which we fall back into old scenes, character conflicts and lore, all before the ultimate fair well is delivered during its final act.
This is essentially three films folded into one. Film one focuses on removing audience’s pre-established anxiety. Film two is the streamlined joyride mentioned in previous paragraphs, while film three is the grand fair well masquerading as a climactic war sequence. Your overall response to this three-film mashup is largely going to depend on your personal investment with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If followed each film since its inception in 2008, this is going to be a dream come true, if you’ve not seen any of the previous movies, a lot of this might perplex and bore you. Regardless of where you fall on this investment spectrum, however, it’s hard not to admire the sheer audacity of it. For a screwball sci-fi that applauds itself for 10-years of service, this is a remarkably confident film. So confident in fact, it manages to pull off the sheer insanity of what it’s attempting.
Let’s take a minute to examine the first film folded into this three-film epic. Traditionally known as the first act, this opening story works to transition us from a state of scepticism to that of bewilderment. We go into this film expecting a plot McGuffin to come along and undo the horrors of Infinity War. We all known that Peter Parker, Star Lord, T’Challa, Groot and co aren’t all going to stay dead. They have sequels to star in, after all. The belief that they are going to remain victims of Thanos (Josh Brolin) is as absurd as it is unlikely. Which is why both the destruction of the Infinity Stones and the death of Thanos during the opening 10-minutes throws us into a state of shock. That slice of Deux Ex Machina we were all expecting isn’t quite as clear cut as we initially expected. We were all expecting this to be a film in which our heroes hunt down Thanos, snatch the Infinity Gauntlet back and reversing his genocidal snap would be the mission statement of the movie. By murdering the antagonist and destroying the only potential plot mechanic designed to rewind Infinity War so quickly throws us into disarray.
The rest of film one works to continue us down a path of uncertainty. Audiences are whisked five years into the future, where we discover that earth has learned to live with the atrocities of the snap. People have remarried, children have been born, and society has moved on. The race against the clock we were expecting never materialised. Thanos’ actions weren’t a season final horror that was undone at the drop of the hat. His actions have changed the shape of the MCU. It has become a part of the furniture. Even when that unknowing eventual plot McGuffin does come to pass, nothing will ever be the same again.
As the first part gradually progresses to its “final act”, we begin to see an end goal in sight. Only it’s not the one we may have been expecting as we entered the auditorium. Thanks in part to the introduction of the Quantum realm in Ant-Man & the Wasp (2018), not to mention Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr’s) mammoth-sized brain, time-travel quickly becomes an possible plot mechanic for our heroes to take advantage of. It’s a barmy and frankly unbelievable notion, considering we’ve not seen good old fashioned time travel in the MCU up until this point. Nevertheless, End Game somehow manages to make this sudden introduction feel strangely plausible. Perhaps this is to do with that staggering show of confidence I mentioned up top. Maybe all the time travel talk that played out in Ant-Man & the Wasp has helpedcement the concept in our minds. It might even be the fact that the time travel mechanic doesn’t come officially into play until film two begins, making it more digestible by having it belong to a mini-movie separate from the slightly more “grounded” examination of a post-decimated earth. It could also be down to the fact that the MCU has introduced so many fantastical elements over the years – Wizards, Aliens, magic death stones, artificial intelligence and Norse mythology – that throwing time travel into the mix feels obvious more than it does ridiculous. Whatever it is, ending the first mini-movie with this new premise doesn’t cause End Game to crumble into a post-snap heap of dust.
Cue film two, which is by far the most barmy and self-applauding of End Game’s mini-movies. This is the one all about Time Travel. It’s surreal, ridiculous, off the rails and incapable of sticking to any rules it attempts to set for itself. It’s also perhaps the most entertaining of the three mini-movies. None of this should work, except it kind of does. Thrusting our heroes into old Marvel features and have them burgle plot mechanics from these past features makes for some of the most ridiculous yet entertaining fan-fodder that’s ever graced the silver screen. The MCU died in 2018. How are Stark and the gang planning to fix it? By mining from stories told prior to its collapse, of course. What better way to rebuild the MCU by borrowing from past glories.
It’s a massive pat on the back, one that is delivered with such confidence and creative flare, it’s difficult not to love the sheer madness of it all. It’s the sort of stunt many other film franchises wouldn’t be able to pull off. Fortunately, the popularity backing this franchise means audiences are unlikely to get bored by seeing their favourite characters revisit eras since past, particularly if it may well be the last time we’re going to get to visit them before the franchise transitions into something new.
The fact that a majority of characters who survived Thanos’ snap all belong to the original Avengers line up is no coincidence. If we are going to have one last hurrah in the good old days, it makes sense to have it largely with the cast that started it all. This is their victory lap, their final chance to step up to the task and save the day before the new kids take charge. End Game is a story in which past heroes and past stories come together in a bid to save the future. It’s the passing of the torch. The old rescuing the new, the past paving way for the future.
Movie two is an awful lot of fun, particularly if this is a franchise you’ve been invested in for several years, although that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got its flaws. As already mentioned, the inconsistency in its rules toward time travel can be incredibly frustrating. Are our heroes stealing from the same timelines they were apart of all those years ago, or have they stepped into a tangent universe? Early on, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) confirms that they are stepping back into their own fixed timelines, except Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston’s) escape using the Tesseract suggests otherwise. The tangent timeline theory is further cemented when the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) talks of how removing the Infinity Stones from history will create a “dark timeline”. A follow up scene, however, reveals that Loki remains in his prison cell during the events of Thor: the Dark World (2014), suggesting events still play out as intended, despite him fleeing immediately after the events of The Avengers (2012). Finally, the discovery that Captain America (Chris Evans) travelled back in time and lived out his life with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) after the events of this movie suggests it was all a part of the original timeline after all. Time travel never makes sense, seeing as it’s a concept that doesn’t exist in the material world. Porting a character from the present into the past creates an ocean of paradoxes that cannot be explained away. Which is why it is always useful for storytellers to keep it simple and coherent, not over convoluing their narratives whenever characters move through time. End Game fails on this front, refusing to define the plot mechanics of time travel, giving us a story that regularly flipflops between one time travel story to the next at every opportunity.
The third and final mini-movie is an extension to film two, albeit without all the time heist anarchy. Here we have the final battle, the ultimate confrontation in which the heroes of yesteryear save the day and pass on the torch to the new generation. It’s time for the Deux Ex Machina moment we’d been encouraged to stop agonising over at the front end of this feature to work its magic. If you’re going to whack a reset button before closing of a movie, then it’s going to need dressing up as nicely as much as you can, so that audiences don’t feel cheated out of a resolution. In this respect, End Game bats it out of the park. You’ve got conflict in the form of a time travelling Thanos, sacrifice, and an acknowledgment that the damage caused by the initial atrocity isn’t undone in its entirety.
End Game’s final battle is a masterclass in spectacle, delivering one of the most grandiose closures to a Hollywood blockbuster to date. Think Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), albiet with an armada of comic book characters as opposed to Elves and Orcs. It starts relatively generic, with explosions and fist fights to boot, only for it to evolve into something poetic. The moment in which all seems lost, and our heroes stumble in the shadow of Thanos, the film’s money shot bleeds into shot. 50+ heroes, all of whom were deceased minutes prior, step forth from an ocean of portals. This is the culmination of End Game’s purpose, to let off a dazzling firework display commending a decade of storytelling. What follows is a chaotic explosion of character team up and exchanges which pay off years of storytelling, all with sprinkles of foreshadowing included for good measure. In a film that’s just spent the past two and a bit hours pulling off seemingly impossible stunts, the climactic battle takes all that self-applauding fearlessness and dials it up to 11. Once again, your response to this final display all boils down to your investment in Marvel. If you’ve been visiting the theatre to watch these movies for the past decade, it’ll blow you away. If you haven’t, it might give you a headache.
It’s not perfect, of course. For one, the inclusion of a pre-Infinity War Thanos removes some of the emotional investment engineered in the preceding Avengers movie. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Infinity War was its decision to frame Thanos as a protagonist of sorts. Though his actions were insane, the film framed him as a character with a twisted logic to his motives. He had a depth and intrigue most villains of his stature lack. Killing him at the top of the movie made sense when it came to generating audience suspense, but it takes something away from this final moments. The Thanos here is from the past, and represents the moustache twirling iteration of the character we saw all the way back in The Avengers’ post-credit sequence. He wants to destroy for the sake of destruction, is filled with hatred, and doesn’t seem to wield any sort of internal logic as to why he wants to end everything. He’s driven by a hatred toward the Avengers, and although Brolin delivers yet another menacing performance, this version of the character just isn’t very interesting. It’s as though all the efforts of cultivating a remarkable villain in Infinity War are jettisoned in favour of self-congratulatory fan fair and explosive action.
Avengers: End Game is something of a remarkable achievement. It’s certainly not a perfect film in any sense of the word, but that doesn’t take away from the brilliance achieved here. This is perhaps one of the most barmy, over the top and grandiloquent attempts at wrapping up a franchise in movie history. It throws insane new plot mechanics, game changing twists and courageous storylines in at every opportunity. After one of the most dramatic cliff hangers in cinematic history, it manages to conjure up a resolution that both retains the devastation of such an event, whilst resolving it in the most insane manner imaginable. Yet somehow, for all the twists and madness the Russo Brothers hurl at the screen, it works. It shouldn’t work, and often feels as though it’s forever on the cusp of failing to work. But it does. It’s spectacular and fun and impractical in a manner that few films survive. The fact that it does is an achievement in and of itself.
What’s most fascinating, is how the film opts to frame itself. Despite the size and scale of all this, both its opening and closing scenes are remarkably intimate. We open with Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) teaching his daughter how to shoot an arrow, moments before she’s turned to dust with the rest of Barton’s family. Similarly, the movie ends with Steve Rodgers and Peggy Carter dancing alone in a room together. Both of these moments feed into a larger theme that encompasses the entirety of the Infinity Saga; for all the pandemonium and spectacle of this multi-billion dollar franchise, there’s a touch of the personal that makes this series all the more special. We’ve grown up with these characters over the past 10-years of our lives. Some of us were children when it started, and have since become grown-ups. During the good times and the bad times, Stark and the gang have regularly been there for us, introducing us to brilliant new worlds and wicked new monstrosities. They may well be the products from a billion dollar production line, yet there’s an intimacy to them that burrows into the hearts of millions across the world. These stories mean something special to the children and adults that consume them. While End Game is doffing its cap to the spectacle of the last decade, it’s also tipping it to the more private of moments. It’s a heartfelt thank you to the audiences watching, a recognition to those who’ve connected to these stories on a level that stretches beyond the cynical methods of purchasing a product.
End Game is a departure of gratitude. A closure of 10-years of storytelling. While the show most certainly will go on, this is a moment of reflection, a passing of the torch more emotional and heartfelt than anything that came before it. It’s a grand and heartfelt farewell to an era of storytelling that will never be the same again.
You must be logged in to post a comment.