This contains spoilers for Avengers Endgame.
When is a movie not movie? This isn’t some kind of riddle, but rather an attempt to figure out how to approach a film like Avengers Endgame, which feels not quite like a motion picture as we define them and more like an event. It’s an experience first and foremost, a movie second… and I wonder how much that matters. How much does it matter that the ending works more as fan service than as logic? How much does it matter that the movie completely betrays Steve Rogers’ character to get to a teary-eyed smile at the end?
Thinking about Endgame I find myself thinking about It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World, the epic blockbuster comedy from Stanley Kramer. It’s stuffed to the gills with superstars, and it was originally bladder-shatteringly long (197 minutes! A comedy!). In terms of things like ‘plot’ and ‘structure’ it isn’t strong, but it makes up for all of that with the charm of Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett and Ethel Merman and Phil Silver. It features a stunning parade of cameos, including Jack Benny, ZaSu Pitts and Buster Keaton It’s not nuanced or subtle, and it’s hugeness and broadness is part of the point; it’s a big screen comedy released at a time when the movies were feeling TV nipping at their heels.
It’s all really familiar.
The thing about It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World is that it’s fun. I watched it on TV in bits and pieces growing up. But it’s not really a great movie in the traditional sense of the term; it’s a blast and it’s a wild experience, but I don’t think it’s much of a ‘movie.’ It’s an experiential event, predicated largely on being familiar with the actors in it and having an appetite for watching them in silly hijinks. I wouldn’t say it was bad, but I also don’t know that I would say it’s good. It’s like… its own thing!
And thus is Endgame. It is completely and totally its own thing. It is not a movie in almost any traditional sense, although I guess it does have a three act structure (not that this is a prerequisite for being a movie). It’s not only un-self contained, it is entirely dependent on being un-self contained to work. It’s absolutely a joy to sit through and experience, but as soon as you begin thinking about it the whole thing starts coming to pieces.
Honestly, even more than it feels like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World, Endgame feels like a Grateful Dead concert to me. If you’re part of the tribe, this is it, man. You’ll be transported and taken away, you’ll be so excited when you hear the opening chords of a song you know the band hasn’t played in fifteen years. Maybe you’ll later enjoy the bootleg tape of the night, although the tape is nothing compared to being in the room with your fellow Deadheads. But if you’re not initiated the whole thing is an interminable slog of noise and shitty dancing, and while you understand what you’re hearing is technically music there’s nothing for you to latch on to.
So which guy at the Dead show is wrong?
I loved watching Endgame. I saw it at the first screening, 6pm on a Thursday. It was a packed house. It was the kind of audience that mass shushed people. The audience got every reference, they cheered at every reveal, some of them were audibly sobbing at the end. This was a transcendent cinema-going experience, pretty much exactly what Steven Spielberg is talking about when he says he wants to save the movies from being devoured by Netflix. You’ll never have this experience live tweeting something, and even a watch party in your living room can’t equal the electric human thrill of being jammed in a room with 200 strangers who are on the exact same vibe you’re on. This is why we go to those live concerts rather than just listen to the records.
But I’m really curious how this movie is going to play to me next year, when I watch it as part of the big Phase Three Blu box set (I have Phases One and Two in the themed box sets, so I gotta finish the collection). I rewatch Marvel movies often, and some of them – especially Winter Soldier and Civil War – really hold up. They play out emotionally in ways that are still effective for me, and the fun of the action remains. The same goes with the Guardians films, or the first Avengers.
I only say this to establish that I don’t think the Marvel movies are disposable trash entertainment. They work, deeply and truly, and that’s why Endgame worked me so well in the moment. This movie could only have been made at the tail end of 50+ hours of storytelling, and only with characters we have come to love so completely. This is a feat, and it should be honored as such. But is it going to hold up as the best of those other movies do?
So we come to my dilemma when reviewing this movie, because I love it as an experience and as an achievement, but I have much more mixed feelings about it as a film. I don’t think I can really understand how this movie does or doesn’t work until some cooling off time has passed, until we’re out of the immediate blast zone. I think back to Avatar, a movie that was also first and foremost an experience, and how people were absolutely nuts for the film… until a year had passed and nobody cared anymore. Now we joke about it.
Endgame won’t go the way of Avatar. There’s more emotional investment in the whole endeavour. But I do wonder how the Back to the Future Part II of it all, the clip show aspect of it, will play out eventually.
Okay, with all of that interminable prologue out of the way, let’s actually talk about this movie. Profound spoilers follow.
The film opens on the new world created by the snap at the end of Infinity War, and it’s a sad one. Everybody who remains is deeply traumatized, society is rebuilding. This is incredibly rich and deep thematic stuff, which has been covered in The Leftovers – which is why Endgame just skipping past it is so weird to me.
Mostly it uses this new world order as a backdrop for how the remaining Avengers – coincidentally the original six – are handling things. Steve Rogers is helping, by leading support groups. Tony Stark has retreated to the woods. Thor is fat and plays Fortnite all day. Black Widow is trying to maintain control over the remains of the world. Hawkeye has become a grim n gritty 90s character. The Hulk has made peace with everything and Banner and the Hulk have been integrated.
Here’s where the Endgame is a great experience/Endgame is a great movie concepts diverge. After setting up these characters and this world, the movie completely abandons them for a very lighthearted second act ‘time heist’ that’s essentially a riff on Back to the Future Part II (despite the film taking a moment to shit on all other time travel movies). It’s the victory lap portion of the movie as the characters, through the machinations of the script, must travel back in time to the other films and steal the Infinity Stones in order to create their own glove and undo Thanos’ snap.
Before I get to why that premise is troubling in general, I want to touch on what makes this time heist weaker than it needs to be. The characters have limited resources to travel in time – they need Pym Particles, and they’re down to their last vial. This already makes no sense, as they could travel back in time and get Pym Particles from any point in the timeline after they were invented, but this is just part of the film’s deeply sloppy approach to time travel.
What kind of irks me is that the characters must travel back in time to the previous films because they want to go to a time and place when they are sure the Infinity Stones are present. Which is… fine, I guess, but a number of these stones have just been sitting around for millennia. Take the Tesseract for example: it was sitting in a Norwegian church for centuries. The heroes should know this because after The Winter Soldier they have all the Hydra files, which would include the location of the Tesseract. They could go back in time to, say, the day before the Red Skull grabs the Tesseract, as they know it’ll be there. The same goes for the Power Stone on Morag – there’s no real reason they need to be there the minute Peter Quill shows up except that the movie wants to take a victory lap.
Why this irks me is because the time heist no longer feels like a real plot point but rather like an excuse to show you the stuff you loved earlier. It functions like a clip show episode in some ways. This could have been an opportunity to forge the new frontiers of the MCU, bringing our heroes to times unseen and having them meet new characters, races or beings, but instead we get a lot of cute machinations.
This really exemplifies Endgame as experience vs movie, because the heist has almost no stakes. Going back in time offers no new insight on the events of past movies, and the film doesn’t even have our characters surreptitiously impact the events of past films, and there’s no threat that they could fuck up the timeline. We’re told that they can’t change the past, but that leaves out the opportunity for the movie to have fun with causality, one of the great pleasures of any time travel story . For example: you could have 2012 Cap about to get shot in the back by a Chitauri warrior in the Battle of New York when 2023 Cap (yes the movie and the MCU now take place in 2023) throws his shield at the alien, taking him out. “You’re not supposed to change the timeline!” Ant-Man would say, to which Cap could reply “But that guy never shot me in the back in the original timeline.” This is shit fanfic, but you get the point – putting our heroes in the past and allowing them to be secret movers behind the scenes in some of the biggest MCU moments would be very interesting and satisfying and would justify the time travel.
But this is an event, and not quite a narrative. So the time heist is not really a story point but rather a moment for the film to give us a bunch of emotional beats that are disconnected from the larger story. There are arguments to be made that these beats – Thor saying goodbye to his mom, Tony talking to his dad, Steve seeing Peggy – speak to the third act decisions these characters make, but they simply don’t feel weighty enough to me. Thor didn’t need to time travel to fight Thanos again at the end. I actually buy Tony’s sacrifice lessafter his moment with his dad. And Steve… we’ll get to that. The time heist is through and through fan service, which in and of itself isn’t bad. It works in the moment! It’s just something that feels gossamer thin.
Weirdly it’s also the most comic book-y thing in the movie. Comic book crossover events have a specific structure – usually there’s one central comic, often a mini-series, and the events in that comic will ripple out to other comics published by that company. The main comic will set up side quests or events that will be explored in the tie-in comics, and those things will often happen in between the panels of the main story. Having the heroes need to travel in small groups to get individual stones feels so much like a crossover event – at the end of Endgame #2 the team goes off and there’s a checklist telling the reader “To find out what happens next pick up Iron Man #347, Captain #66, Thor #209,” and the next issue will begin with the heroes all returned with the stones, saying “It was hairy for a moment, but we got the stone!” There may be an editor’s note that says “See Hawkeye & Black Widow miniseries #3 for the details!”
That, I think, adds to the thinness of the time travel stuff. I know it sounds like I’m complaining (I am, a little), but I spent the whole second act with a smile on my face. This stuff was fun! A lot of it was funny! I didn’t quite have the emotional reaction to some of this stuff that my audience did – it became clear to me that my investment in Tony’s daddy issues are incredibly low, possibly because they’re central to the worst film in his franchise – but I was thrilled at the small moments and the callbacks. I was one hundred percent the guy in the crowd who got amped up when I recognized the first two chords of a favorite song.
But it wasn’t until the Thanos business started that I began to like the time travel stuff on a story level. See, I was bothered by the ease of the heist (all complications were minor and silly), but more than that I was bothered by the movie giving our heroes the permission to just go back in time and fuck with events. When their timey-wimey nonsense started to create complications and have repercussions, then I got into it.
Yet here is where the film’s biggest failing comes into play for me (at least on a non-nitpick level). The story of the MCU has been, again and again, one of failure and consequences. This has been the incredible thing about these movies, that they understand the feet of clay concept that grounds the Marvel comic book heroes and that they use the longform storytelling/shared universe concept to actually examine the consequences of the hero’s actions. It all culminates in Civil War, which I think is probably the greatest achievement of the MCU, a movie that manages to walk the line of trope deconstruction while also centering itself on a deeply emotional throughline.
The heroes of the MCU fail a bunch, and even when they win it can lead to bigger problems. There’s a version of Endgame that is the ultimate examination of this – how do you deal with total, catastrophic failure? – but this is not that version. Rather than accept that they lost and move forward, the Avengers bend the very nature of time and space to undo the L. To say that I hate this thematic idea is to understate my feelings about this. I think this is a profound betrayal of everything these movies have been about.
So when 2012 Thanos comes to 2023 I was hopeful that this was going to be the thematic turning point where the heroes have to accept they can’t always fix what is broken, that they simply must learn to live with it (“We’re doing the best with what we’ve got,” says the crippled Rhodey to the prosthetic-filled Nebula, an exchange that should be the thematic heart of the film). Instead Thanos shows up simply for a (very fucking cool) final battle and our heroes personally change the nature of reality not once, but twice. This is the ultimate act of non-acceptance, and it rubs me very much the wrong way.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the snap should have remained. Half the universe should not have remained dead. But there are options beyond The Incredible Hulk undoing it. In The Infinity Gauntlet, the comic storyline that paves the way for this movie, it’s Nebula who undoes the snap, at great cost. This is a smart move because it unkills everybody without giving the Marvel superheroes power over life and death. Yes, there’s heroism in never giving up, but there’s petulance in never taking a loss. They’re two fundamentally different things, and the reality is that only one of those things are possible for us as humans, so it’s vital to see our heroes deal with it as well.
But here’s the thing: I think the movie’s multiple snaps just speak to a stunning lack of imagination behind the scenes. This is what baffles me the most, as the people who made this movie – the Russo Brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – have shown that they get these characters and this universe. Hell, in Infinity War it seems like they understood the power of the stones. And yet in Endgame they’re either purposefully nerfed or their power is simply ignored.
Here’s the thing: when you have the Gauntlet on, you’re God. With the capital G. You control space, time, reality, souls, minds, and power. You have total control over the universe; at one point in Endgame Thanos finally figures this out and vows to just reboot the whole universe, an act worthy of the combined power of the stones.
But the heroes have absolutely no imagination. Tony Stark wants the dead to return, but without giving up what he’s gained in the previous five years (honestly, this sucks and I’ll get into that more later). With the Gauntlet there’s literally no reason the heroes could not undo the previous five years and bring Morgan, Tony’s daughter, into the new reality. There’s also no reason they couldn’t bring Black Widow back to life, and the way the movie just has Hulk say “I couldn’t do it” is fundamentally unsatisfying and stupid. He has full power over everything in the universe, including souls.
Which is what makes Tony’s sacrifice also so disappointing from a narrative perspective (more on it from a character perspective later). I understand that Tony is in a tight situation and has to make a decision quickly, but he also has complete mastery over time. He could, in that moment, pause time as long as he needs to. He could think this thing through. It would be one thing if getting the Gauntlet had been a surprise for the heroes, but they spent most of the movie assembling it – they never once thought about what its’ powers might be? Tony never spent an idle minute thinking about how the stones work?
But Tony dusting the bad guys has to happen because while this is a comic book movie, it’s still a blockbuster movie, and the ending has to feature the kind of violent finality blockbusters demand. It’s disappointing, because with all the power of the universe at his command Tony Stark opts to mimic the horrible thing the villain did at the end of the last film. Tony Stark’s last act is to kill thousands, or tens of thousands.
This isn’t a minor thing to me. Superheroes don’t cause mass casualties. The idea that killing lots of people with a snap of your finger is only wrong if it’s people you like getting dusted is the kind of moral equivalency that simply doesn’t belong in a superhero story. I am sure that the argument is “It’s okay if Tony sacrifices his life to do it,” but I think that doesn’t hold up. What ever happened to Cap’s argument in the last film of “We don’t trade lives”? As the bad guys turned to dust and my audience applauded I felt deeply uncomfortable – this is the exact same effect we saw presented as a traumatic horror moment in the last film. Now, without any visual changes, it’s a moment of triumph?
But again, this is the nature of a blockbuster movie, and it’s why a blockbuster movie could never capture the weirdness of comics. There’s still more nuance and ethical consideration happening on a paneled page than in all the frames of the MCU. I was hoping that Phase Four might give us an adaptation of Operation: Galactic Storm, an Avengers story about a Kree space war that ends with the Avengers arguing about whether or not to summarily execute the Kree Supreme Intelligence. The movie Avengers would never have that argument – they’d just kill the thing and walk away. That sucks to me.
Okay, now that I’ve done my complaining thing, let me say that the big battle at the end was extraordinary. When Thanos’ army showed up I groaned – great, another CGI army for the heroes to beat up on – but when the heroic armies arrived I lost my mind. This was like Lord of the Rings times a hundred, and seeing all the major factions of the MCU (minus Nick Fury – where was his Age of Ultron Helicarrier?) arrive was incredible.
The individual heroes all got some pretty incredible moments as well (although Dr. Strange probably could have been more useful than acting as the Water Wrangler). Spidey on Pegasus? Yes please! Cap with Mjolnir? I was almost on my feet. And the Ladies of the MCU shot – while admittedly pandering and pointless (yes, Wasp, I’m sure Captain Marvel needs you to run interference) – was fucking awesome and fun. Again, this feels like a real summation of the whole film – kind of thin on reason, very pandering, absolutely a blast to experience.
I criticize all of this stuff because I love all of this stuff so much. The Marvel comic characters are my constant companions throughout my life. I adore the MCU. I think what Marvel has done so far has been astonishing. I think the Russo Brother and Markus and McFeely made some of the best mass-entertainment movies of the decade. These guys aren’t just good – they’re some of the best. And I think they also knew what they were doing; they purposefully sacrificed story logic and themes for emotional payoffs.
But I also have some problems with their emotional payoffs.
I’ll stick to the two main stories that ended in Endgame, those of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Both, in the moment, were incredible. But when placed in the context of the characters to date, and in the larger story of the MCU, I found them, frankly, wrong.
Tony first. The story of Tony Stark has always been about control. From Iron Man on, Tony has been a guy who seeks to control the world around him. It’s how he deals with his trauma, and it ended up in the creation of Ultron and the superhero Civil War, which in turn left the heroes unable to deal with Thanos in Infinity War. Again and again Tony has battled his need for control, has wrestled with his impetus to create a hundred failsafes, to live in constant fear of what’s around the corner.
The aftermath of the snap actually gives Tony the space to let go. He gives up control and leaves the world behind, moving to a cabin in the woods. When the Avengers try to recruit him for their time travel shenanigans, he tells them to accept the loss. It’s very much where Tony needed to get to. But of course that old control freak is still in him, and he can’t resist playing with time travel.
That’s all fine. I’m okay with that. Tony relapsing into being a control freak is fine, and good storytelling. But this feels like a wasted opportunity; at the end of the film Tony has the Gauntlet and thus, complete control over the universe. There’s an opportunity here for Tony to actually do what Thanos just threatened to do – remake the universe in his image. This is a classic cosmic superhero story dilemma, the urge to use a vast power for what the hero perceives as the right thing. Giving Tony this moment, allowing him to imagine a universe where no one can come to harm, where that armor he wanted to build around the world covers every being, and then having him reject it would have been the perfect culmination of Tony’s arc. And it was right there!
The other part of the arc that doesn’t sit with me is having Tony go back in time to make peace with his dad… only to have him decide to let his daughter grow up without a father. I understand the thinking here – Tony learns that even the bad things his dad did were Howard trying his best to be a good father in his own way, and so Tony understands he must also do what seems best, even if Morgan won’t understand it – but it rings hollow coming after Hawkeye is spared death so he can be with his family. I even understand how this decision is Tony throwing himself on the wire, paying off the argument he had with Cap in the first Avengers… except that was already paid off in the first Avengers.
And that arc is drastically changed by the presence of Morgan anyway. Sacrificing yourself is only selfless if it’s not harming others; Endgame recasts Tony’s control freak aspect as a narcissistic martyr complex (I alone can save the world, which is always Tony’s default state), and it’s his daughter who pays the price for it.
That’s nothing compared to how badly the movie bones Steve’s finale. Let me give you a little thought experiment:
Steve Rogers goes to bed on September 10th, 2001 and knows tomorrow will be a terrible day. And that he will do nothing about it.
Steve Rogers sits for dinner with Peggy Carter, home from a tough day at SHIELD, knowing that everybody she is working with is a secret Nazi, and he never tells her about it.
That’s just not Steve Rogers.
The ending of Steve as an old man who finally got to live his life is a good one, but it can’t come at the expense of who this man is fundamentally. He doesn’t like bullies, and I can’t imagine a scenario where Steve spends seventy years with full knowledge of the many bullies to arrive on the global scene and just watches it unfold. Even knowing that he is creating an alternate timeline with his actions, that he’s leaving his prime timeline unaffected, I can’t imagine Steve just letting JFK and Martin Luther King Jr get assassinated. I can’t imagine him allowing Bucky to remain a mind-controlled Soviet weapon.
Speaking of which, did you know that Bucky Barnes was the emotional center of Cap’s previous two films? You might not, based on Endgame, where the two share an awkward hug. Sam Wilson gets to do a great “On your left” callback to Winter Soldier, but Bucky doesn’t get to revisit “Until the end of the line”?
Anyway, we know that Steve changed nothing in the timeline (ie, you can’t say “Maybe 9/11 was way worse before he got involved”) because he shows up on the bench at the end. If Steve changed anything he couldn’t appear in the prime timeline (this is a problem based on the fact that the previous movies seem to have established that Peggy married someone who is not Steve, but that’s too nitpicky for the purposes of this thematic discussion), so that means Steve definitely let every bad event of the 20th century play out. Conceptually this means Steve Rogers could see a kid crossing the street about to get hit by a car and wouldn’t do anything to save the kid.
Perhaps you’re beginning to see the problem.
It’s weird, because this is the same bad ending as The Dark Knight Rises, this idea that our superheroes will retire and just be people. This, like Tony dusting the bad guys, is an example of how comic book movies can never quite capture the proper essence of comic book characters and storytelling. Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman as a job, it’s a calling. Same with Steve Rogers – he’s the guy who couldn’t keep from confronting bullies when he was scrawny, and now we are supposed to believe he’s going to spend 70 years not interfering in anything?
There’s great drama in a story about Steve in the past not interfering, but the movie doesn’t give us that drama. It gives us a cheap “he retired!” moment (that, by the way, is all about Steve’s relationship with Sam and not Bucky) that just skips over all the other business, hoping you don’t notice how badly they betrayed Steve. A simple solution would have been, at some point in this very long movie, to have Steve be forced to lose the Super Soldier Serum, returning him to his scrawny state. That would actually be sweet, having Peggy marry Scrawny Steve, and would sort of explain why nobody notices she’s married the dead Captain America. That would actually help pave over the idea that she married someone else – that someone else was Skinny Steve, not Captain America.
This is the thing in Endgame I can’t get over. This is the cut on the roof of my mouth about this movie to which I keep returning. Steve’s story is so wonderful throughout the films that to see it broken at the last minute – like, literally the last two minutes of the film – is heartrending. Cinematically and emotionally Steve on the bench works, but the second you walk away and think about 9/11 the whole scenario falls apart.
Again, that’s Endgame in a nutshell for me. In the moment, in the dark, surrounded by cheering fans, everything felt right. But the second I began thinking about the story, about the logic, about the themes, about the character arcs, I began to feel disappointed. I’m glad that the movie works as it did, and I’ll probably see it twice more in theaters. But I’m worried that future viewings are only going to amplify these issues.
So in the end it does it matter whether Endgame is a good movie or not? I think it does, because I take these films seriously. I love these films, and I expect a lot out of them. I hold them to a high standard, especially the films made by the Russos and Markus and McFeely.
At the same time I’m glad it worked the way it did. I’m greedy, and I wanted Endgame to work as both event and narrative, but I’m a comic fan – I’m used to events not quite working as narrative but still being a ton of fun. I’ve sat through so many deep disappointments in my time that the joy I felt in that theater, with all of those people, experiencing this amazing event, is in and of itself a special moment in my life.
And you know what? It isn’t all over just yet. These are superheroes, and they rarely stay dead or retired. And there’s a whole new wave of heroes waiting to take over. So I’ll still show up for the MCU, looking to get that exact perfect blend of event and story that I know is possible.