Avengers: Endgame begins where Infinity War left off — half the universe gone, bereft and bewildered survivors trying to make sense of things.
One of them is Tony Stark, drifting through space on a dying ship, short on oxygen, wondering if he’s about to die, using his Iron Man helmet to record a last message. It’s a nifty little prologue, with Tony positioned like Hamlet in the graveyard, his headgear starring as Yorick’s skull. He gives a soliloquy about life and death, a hint of the kind of pop Shakespeare the Russo brothers are going for here in the ambitious and entertaining finale to the long-running Marvel saga.
Will it be comedie, tragedie, or historie?
A lot of each, actually, plus some science fiction. Endgame starts off with recent history, reminding us of the fallout from Infinity War. Bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) scoured the universe for stones of supernatural power, attached them to his special glove, and, using the omnipotence thus achieved, eliminated half the living creatures in the universe (an event known as “the Snap”), including some valuable Marvel intellectual property.
There is a grim and atmospheric first act, which also functions as an imaginative rendering of what the end of the Anthropocene era might look like with half the population eliminated. Our carbon footprint has certainly been reduced, but nobody is celebrating. Survivors are depressed, guilty, confused — there are dramatic/psychological echoes here of HBO’s post-rapture series The Leftovers, and also an Audi product placement that is woefully out of place.
Remaining Avengers react in different ways. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) takes charge of the remaining gang, including Captain America (Chris Evans) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Others have survived the Snap but are missing in action. Without a plan or a purpose — or an intact superhero family — some surrender to self-pity, others take vigilantism to unpleasant extremes.
The hardiest among them wait for some kind of breakthrough — something that will allow them to undo what has been done, although that becomes morally complicated as they start to rebuild their lives and grapple with the idea that trying to recapture what they’ve lost might interfere with the things they have gained since the Snapture.
Once a countermove to combat the damage caused by Thanos has been identified, the movie changes tempo and mood, with let’s-get-the-band-back-together boilerplate as effective as it is formulaic. The change in tone allows Chris Hemsworth to give the kind of comic performance that has made Thor one of the more appealing Avengers, and he’s joined in this by Mark Ruffalo (playing the Hulk) and another actor, whose name I’m not sure I should mention because I’m not sure if we’re supposed to know if he made it out of Infinity War. Anyway, he’s funny. When the material calls for something grumpier, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) oblige.
The Russo brothers do a laudable job of juggling tones and making plot points lucid. They cover a lot of ground efficiently and sometimes even gracefully — the movie is fully three hours long, and I was astonished to find that I did not harbor a secret wish that Thanos would eliminate half of it. (Still looking for an explanation for Thanos’ arbitrary evil scheme, but whatever.)
There is a moment at roughly the two-hour mark, in fact, when it appeared the Russos might resolve all conflicts via story alone, sparing us the 30-CGI-battle slog that so often plagues the genre. Well, fear not, fans of CGI battles. There is one, but Marvel has gotten the memo, and the concluding conflict is crisp, character-centered, and does not overstay its welcome. To say more would be to say too much, but it’s not a spoiler to note that Avengers fans will be expecting a Marvel money shot. It’s in here.
Even better, there is no sedating Return of the King epilogue. Noble sacrifices are acknowledged, legacies conferred, and send-offs handled with tact and brevity.
I wasn’t sure, after the tedium of Infinity War, that Marvel could wrap this up in a satisfying way. Turns out, it was a snap.
Avengers: Endgame. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. With Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Chris Hemsworth, Karen Gillan, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Distributed by Marvel Studios.
Running time: 3 hours, 1 min.
Parent’s guide: PG-13 (violence).