Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
A year ago I complained that Infinity War (2018) was two-thirds of a movie. The heroes are down and out and the situation looks bleak. Structurally this is the moment right before they rally, put their game faces on, and win the day. Infinity War made the “bold decision” to tell a story that’s generally antithetical to superhero cinema. One where the “bad guys” win. But when I left the theatre I felt robbed. I felt I’d only seen part of a movie. A movie full of unfinished arcs and unpulled threads. Much of my issue with this was metatextual. There have been a spate of shows these days where plots and character beats are brought up, toyed with, and then set up for a future resolution that never occurs. This is like breaking a promise with the audience. One dropped thread isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes things get lost in the shuffle. A whole series full of them, however, is ultimately a waste of our time. Plenty of room for vapid thrills, but nothing of real lasting value. Value like the grand arcs, satisfying conclusions, and depth of meaning we’ve been turning to storytelling for thousands of years for. Infinity War felt like it was treading water. A story going nowhere with nothing special to say. The cracks were beginning to show in the Marvel formula.
Endgame (2019) is a bloated, messy, film. It also opens a can of worms so tremendous, it’s almost frightening. That being said, Endgame also offers a few things we’ve never seen before. Novelty can certainly be a big draw. For actors a decade deep into some of these characters it can certainly be an attractive prospect to do something new. Critics of Marvel Studios have also complained of a lack of finality in the products. Such criticisms will surely be assuaged by Endgame which, contrary to my complaints with Infinity War, offers some startlingly definitive conclusions to that film. Ones which, frankly, are still difficult to process.
The incarnations of these characters are ones we’ve been living with since 2008. Characters we’ve experienced in more films within that time than any other franchise in history. * The only real comparison is television. The issue at play here is the entire notion of building to a crescendo. The big crossovers are certainly spectacles but as new characters and franchises, plots, backstories, and macguffins are introduced it becomes like an endless game of juggling. You can’t keep adding balls. You have to find a way to let some of them go gracefully. Endgame certainly does its best in this regard, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something holding Marvel back from really sticking the landing.
Marvel’s obsession with secrecy might be unnecessarily hamstringing the franchise. It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. Secrecy builds hype and prevents criticism. However, it also seems to be interfering with the actors’ ability to provide informed performances. I worry it’s also hampering editorial efforts as, despite accounts of behind-the-scenes camaraderie between directors, the various installments don’t seem to gel together. It’s a beautiful, weird, sometimes glorious mosaic. But one that doesn’t often congeal into a greater whole. Endgame suffers from this problem scene to scene. A lot of that might come from the trailers themselves. Little more than teasers they failed to provide a roadmap for audiences. Left with pure guessing we can only be along for the ride, which is great for a rollercoaster, but not really something which naturally creates lasting impactful story beats.
There’s an element to Endgame which functions as a sort of tribute to the franchise itself. Past scenes and story beats are revisited in surprising ways from new angles. However it doesn’t really seem to amount to anything. This isn’t to say the film isn’t well-made. The action has strong choreography. The jokes are funny. The acting is affecting. But in spite of the spectacle I struggle with three key aspects of this movie.
The first is to answer the “why?” of it all. Why this story and why now? Why these decisions and not others. Yes this is an enormous production involving thousands of people but at the end of the day everything that happens in this movie was a decision made in pre-production, on-set, or in the editing booth. “Why not?” is a great answer for a bit of meaningless fun, but a production this big should be able to account for more than the barest of whims. This is an issue I’ve struggled with before in Infinity War. Initially I blamed this on the direction of the Russos, fearing a combination of factors was interfering with their ability to truly connect with the characters who seemed reduced to playthings in their hands. Thinking back I think it might have more to do with the second problem: The action sequences.
Like a song in a musical, an action sequence is supposed to both advance the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters. In bad theater, a musical number is just a pretty-sounding waste of time. In a bad action movie, an action sequence is just empty spectacle. Marvel Studios plans their big action sequences out in advance which can make the movies feel like jukebox musicals. The plot becomes nothing but a way to stitch the songs together, a thin excuse to get the players into place at the right time and little else. In Marvel’s case it tends to lend the whole exercise the appearance of kids playing with action figures. On their own the scenes look great and are filled with inventive and creative action. But the lack of consistency and the revolving roster of heroes gives it all the veneer and gravitas of a Saturday morning cartoon
The third problem is that I just really don’t like Thanos. Josh Brolin is great but Thanos is a bully who is made arbitrarily powerful as the plot (or rather the action) the demands. I find his philosophy personally disgusting and am disturbed by how interesting the Russos seem to find him given the prominence of his role in Avengers 3 and 4. As much as I aspire to be stimulated and challenged by the cinema I consume I simply find Thanos to be perplexing and groan-inducing. All things considered it’s probably important to take a step back and consider Endgame in context.
It is on the face of it simply astonishing that a film like this exists at all. In 2000, I walked into a movie theater where I saw Cyclops, Wolverine, and Professor X on screen for the first. Sure Gambit and Jubilee were missing but holy cow did it seem like an amazing wonder. A “nerd” revolution followed as film after film, adaptation after adaptation: X-Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019), Hulk (2003), Hellboy (2004, 2008), King Kong (2005), Batman (2005, 2008, 2012), and Superman (2006, 2013) not only came out, but were critically considered and even acclaimed. These films suddenly got a previously fringe aspect of pop-culture considered seriously. It was welcomed into the mainstream. Enough for a B-list superhero like Iron Man (2008) to be considered marketable.
For years fans of these newly mainstream genres remained defensive. Fearing that anything but the most enthusiastic of support would burst the bubble and send it all back from whence it came out of the limelight. Eleven years later those fears seem truly unfounded. Though some of those supporters have turned to gate-keeping and other disturbingly toxic behaviors, it still remains astonishing what’s been achieved in this medium in our time. I have been waxing poetic on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years but I also believe it’s high time to be less precious about these stories.
In many ways Endgame feels like the closing of a chapter. The film itself features extended scenes in which various torches are passed onto, while not quite the next generation, worthy successors. Once these films chafed under the yoke of the Creative Committee, which shackled filmmakers’ abilities to do as they pleased with these characters. Though the Disney empire has afforded Feige and his cohorts a greater degree of latitude, I worry the Marvel machine may become a victim of its own success. The size of the investment represented by each one of these pictures will quickly become a liability should they fail to find their place with audiences. While a committee of short-sighted, artistically conservative, and at-times weirdly misogynistic higher-ups once hampered their creative decisions, the needs of maintaining a marketable presence (and simply breaking even at the box-office) is just as powerful a force when it comes to second-guessing art.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) built his masterpiece in a cave with a box of scraps. Nowadays the whole world is watching. At the time he was fighting for his life but global celebrity is an entirely different kind of pressure to handle. Someone will continue to create these stories but will audiences continue to show up? It can be said we’ve come to take Marvel movies for granted, but perhaps just the same Marvel Studios has come to take us for granted as well. Endgame apparently represents a paradigm shift for the MCU. The close of many chapters, some of them a long time coming. It’s a crazy new world out there, one I’m no longer fully equipped to navigate. Rumored upcoming projects like Shang-Chi and The Eternals are fully outside my wheelhouse and more familiar projects like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man are playing so deliciously loose with the canon that it’s a delightful struggle just to keep up.
Endgame is a dream, fully realized. At times breathtaking, frustrating, terrifying, bizarre, sad, and impossible to explain to someone in the morning. It has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and also there’s no post-credits scene. So you can go to the bathroom once the credits roll.
* At least with regards to modern cinema