I, much like many of you, watched Jon Favreau’s Iron Man unaware of the cultural reckoning coming. A young(er) college-age Donato had no idea Tony Stark’s origin would become a heralded footnote in Hollywood – er, global pop culture – history. Our on-screen relationship with Marvel’s 2008-and-beyond legacy spans over a decade of tie-ins, recastings, crossovers, and new beginnings, but if you were, like me, underwhelmed by Avengers: Infinity War and critical of the MCU’s inability to establish lasting stakes – Avengers: Endgame came with hesitant hype. Could Joe and Anthony Russo, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, serve an overstuffed roster of superheroes and honor cinematic integrity beyond fruitless fan-servicing? Would even three hours be enough time? Could Marvel finally deliver on so many unfinished storyboard developments and truly bring me into the fold?
Spoiler alert: Yes. Louder than Thor’s thunderclap, more multifaceted than Tony’s gadget-loaded suit, and sweeter than (Captain) America’s ass.
As someone who has frequently and vocally criticized individual Marvel films for being underwhelming but needed connective plot-pushers (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Infinity War, etc.), imagine my shock when I staggered out of Avengers: Endgame sobered and bleary-eyed. Years of meticulous world-building finally culminated in a parade of all-roads-lead-here haymakers, delivering on the Russo’s promise of perfect endings. Has the overall MCU suffered from a syndrome of mass-marketed appeal, interchangeable villains, and general safety in regard to handling dramatic moments? Yes, and I stand by all previous comments, tweets, and articles. That said, full admission, Endgame is the motherload payoff once thought unachievable. I, a former doubter, now write these words as one of the converted.
My intake of Marvel’s blockbuster boom has been that of a knowledgeable outsider without an encyclopedic knowledge. I can name and recognize heroes, villains, archetypes, and common-to-medium level attributes, but never the deepest panel cuts or variant lesser-publicized runs. Robert Downey Jr. is my Tony Stark, Chris Evans my Captain America, so on and so forth. I’ve watched H.Y.D.R.A infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D, the Avengers unite under Fury-ous circumstances, and Thanos attempt to vaporize half of Earth’s inhabitants – but until Endgame, it all (mostly) felt like spectating from afar. Don’t get me wrong, my appreciation for the MCU runs thick as blood for James Gunn’s roguish Guardians to a brimming satisfaction over Wakanda’s representation, but much of the MCU’s establishment hit me on a casual, popcorn-flick level.
That was until the Avengers truly assembled in Endgame.
A daunting challenge, as Endgame needed Stephen Strange’s precision scalpel to dissect and reconnect every MCU throughline left unattended. Even more intimidating, Endgame’s duty to rectify Infinity War’s apocalyptic “Snappening” would be the greatest challenge any MCU director could face – something I didn’t think Infinity War handled all that well. Thanos’ sacrificial offering of Gamora as barter for Vormir’s Soul Stone killed off one of the MCU’s most-needed characters at the worst possible moment, Vision and Loki represented obvious graveyard marks, and then heroes who obviously could not remain dead all turned to dust. A bookmark finale I, someone failed numerous times by fleeting MCU permanence, reacted to with nothing but indifference. I walked out of the theater feeling Infinity War was the setup we all knew was coming to a fault. A watchable fault, but still, “Part I” of the MCU’s shakeup sold nothing more than record on-screen hero totals. Death, as I’ve previously argued, never mattered in the MCU. We’re supposed to view movies from the perspective of characters, and in that sense, Drax or Groot, for example, wouldn’t have known Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 is currently in development. I get that. But alas, how can we – viewers – ignore these facts? Cut to me, unable to meet Kevin Smith’s level of grief-streaked heartbreak during Infinity War’s final scenes.
Now, post-Endgame, I believe this was all intentional. Movie by movie, choice by choice, Kevin Feige’s oversight has always focused on ensuring Endgame would be as epic as possible. Mission accomplished. As I write this, I…am a changed man.
I entered Endgame assuming it would be more of the same. Captain America’s ragtag Avengers scraps would cook up some cockamamie scheme (only 1 in 14 billion scenarios end in victory, forget probability). Cap’s shield finds a new owner, Tony embraces soulful fulfillment, Feige’s deck reshuffles, and the MCU blazes onward into the Carol Danvers era. Par for the course and all.
Ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s me, laughing at myself, the cocky moviegoer who sat between a birthday party of children who couldn’t have attended anything before Phase Two in theaters and a couple who smartly brought homemade snacks in plastic containers. When the house lights dimmed, it became evident by the cheers and hollers bursting with anticipation that I, nestled in for a comfortable watch, was on a lower energy spectrum than those screaming for Phase Three’s climax.
And then Avengers: Endgame opened on Clint Barton’s family enjoying a rustic outdoor farmhouse lunch. He trains daughter Lila in archery while wife Laura prepares hot dogs with either mustard or mayo (I know, mayo is weird, blame one of Barton’s sons). Clint turns to grab one of Lila’s shot arrows, a bullseye no less, and upon spinning back around, notices his family has disappeared. Gone forever, floating away as specs of ash caught in an upward spiral. This was it. The resonance, danger, and consequential density I’d been yearning for in the MCU.
Within minutes, Endgame dives unharnessed into the devastation of Thanos’ planned eradication. It’s one thing to watch Peter Parker dematerialize as Tony sobs, far removed from greater humanity in intergalactic orbit. Clint’s perspective grants us a hero’s view after stashing his costume for a bit of earned leave, unable to stay out of the fray or protect those he loves even by exiting the greater fight. Tragedy, stakes, and choked-back tears within minutes of the Russos’ perfect introduction into Endgame’s severity. Crap. I was in.
As Natasha Romanoff breaks into tears over a peanut butter sandwich, or Captain America heads a post-Snap grief counseling session, or Hawkeye becomes a vigilante killer of surviving criminal organizations, Endgame marks the first time Feige’s MCU embraces vulnerability. Steve Rogers goes from policing teammate language to dropping exasperated “shits” after defeat hardens his do-gooder core. Protectors attempt to find purpose – Stormbreaker Thor at the bottom of endless beer bottles – but openly ache in a way the MCU hasn’t permitted to date. Look no further than Thor’s justified but angry decapitation of Thanos; a God-King who acts on idiotic impulse and rage. Avengers, disassemble.
With fifty percent of the world’s population wiped clean, the Avengers are either granted a second chance or forced to move on. Tony Stark, for example, finally becomes Pepper’s stay-at-home superspouse and father to an adorable daughter. Stark Industry’s playboy and philanthropist transitions into familial tranquility in what becomes one of Endgame’s most fulfilling full-circle arcs. He finally has it all (“Love you 3,000” broke me), but his “Avengers Protocol” duties never grant retirement. When Steve, Scott Lang, and Natasha drop in with the good Time Heist news, we get Dependable Dad Tony. No more reckless endangerment. Lunch will only be served to his guests if they table work talk. Tony’s done with it all – haha, yeah right. Confliction and curiosity lead to his solving of Scott’s Quantum Realm conundrum and own eventual demise for the larger good, but still with a permanently changed outlook. Once the selfish, now the selfless. Feige’s waiting game exposes its LONG long-game masterplan upon Tony’s final “I’m Iron Man.”
It’s not that Marvel films haven’t kickstarted waterworks previously – Groot’s death in GotG Vol. 1 and Yondu’s in Vol. 2 – but the consistency Endgame rides is like Manny Pacquiao punching a speed bag until it deflates. That I could be moved so frequently by an MCU title never crossed my mind, yet my mortal emotions burst out of control. Inconceivable reactions to Scott reading etched names of fallen Snap victims on stone monuments, Thor’s one last conversation with Frigga, Natasha and Clint duking it out over who gets to fling themselves off a cliff in Soul Stone martyrdom (watch and learn, Infinity War). It’s like Feige kept track of every time my reviews questioned if the MCU would ever be anything more than pitstop fillers, shoving all his answers into Endgame like a piñata crammed with the best type of prize – reconciliation.
Beyond bedtime kisses and self-sacrifice, it slowly dawned on me that we’ve – I’ve – grown with these MCU characters. Watched them defend Earth against countless threats. Endgame represents the last time Nick Fury’s roster would ever be on-screen together. I didn’t think this mattered to me one bit, but my muffled sobs begged to differ.
Go right down the line. Dr. Strange and his mystical guard spinning portals that transport every deceased Infinity War hero to Captain America’s side. “Avengers, assemble!” Clint’s handing-off the Infinity Gauntlet to Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel (the new guard). Watching the women of Marvel dig in and go to work on Thanos’ army as Peter’s protection. Hell, even Gamora and Nebula working together or Peter Quill’s reunion with the green space alien he loves triggered something unshakable within me. Do I wish Act III’s warfare lasted longer? Needless to say. Does the combat atop Avengers headquarters rubble work so well it made me retroactively care about plot points I’d once argued against? We live in confusing times, especially when Captain America’s wielding of Mjölnir can officially break my already-softened exterior.
Looking forward, I’m confident that Marvel can rectify how ticking timebombs of the human experience work within the MCU – but execution to come must learn from Endgame. Possibilities are endless, and I get that, but once again I point out a tragic consequence is unwritten by time paradox weirdness.
Still, here’s the definitive truth: Avengers: Endgame pulled off the unfathomable. It proved that I harbored the unforeseen capacity to become virtually lost inside Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Fitting ends and new beginnings finally overshadowed those signature MCU plot tricks we’ve seen so often. For the first time in an Avengers film, or many, MANY standalones, I felt that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had everything to lose despite Endgame‘s clip show formatting. Could I have used some of this consequential permanence peppered throughout earlier Marvel films? Of course. Did the decision to hold every last payoff for Endgame make a most monumental collision of supernova levels of emotional payoff? Considering how I’m still reeling from Endgame’s vast immensity, job well done Russos. I’ll eat my words. I am eating my words. The MCU has more stakes than I ever thought imaginable; patience rewarded with a snap that expunged so many of my franchise worries.