It’s here, and it’s spectacular. This history-hopping culmination of the epic storyline woven through every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date delivers a fitting finale well worth the year-long wait since “Avengers: Infinity War.” It’s not perfect, but “Avengers: Endgame” comes close enough that even the most superhero-saturated, seen-it-all fan will love it.
(Note: Reviewing this film requires discussion of various elements that could be considered minor spoilers, but no ending-ruining revelations are included below. If you want to see the movie without knowing any details at all, however, be advised to look away, as Lemony Snicket would say.)
In last April’s cliffhanger, half of all living creatures in the universe were turned to dust by the massive alien Thanos with a snap of his fingers. The mostly CGI character, well-played by Josh Brolin with a mix of self-righteous dignity and exasperated fury, is hunted down by the remaining Avengers and company in the very first act of this followup, with a genuinely surprising result.
Unexpected-outcome scenes like that are what keep the movie intriguing, even if most of what’s likely to happen is never in doubt. The maxim that comic book readers want the illusion of change, not the real thing, is attributed to Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee. Any developments, no matter how seemingly monumental, shouldn’t permanently affect the status quo. That explains why almost nobody in comics ever stays dead, and why no one believed the heroes who blew away in “Avengers: Infinity War” wouldn’t somehow find a way to return in this sequel.
In both comics and on screen, the storytelling magic comes from making what seems predictable feel exciting, moving, and fun. “Avengers: Endgame” succeeds on all counts. Without getting specific, it actually does contain more than one plot development that looks pretty convincingly unalterable. (Being “go ahead and fool me twice” gullible is strangely satisfying for movies like this.)
Missing entirely from the last installment, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (a stoic Jeremy Renner) is the first Avenger seen this time around, witnessing firsthand the effects of that fateful finger snap on his family. He is soon reunited with fellow surviving team members, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, thankfully clean-shaven again), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), along with Guardian of the Galaxy Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Thanos’ bad-daughter-turned-good Nebula (a scene-stealingly poignant Karen Gillan). Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) also turns up at strategic moments, although she points out that she’s “covering a lot of territory” dealing with problems on other planets that don’t have Avengers-level heroes of their own.
Things start looking up for the aggrieved cast when Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the sub-atomic quantum realm where he appeared to be stuck during the end credits of 2018’s “Ant-Man & The Wasp.” The fact that five years have passed for everyone but him while he was gone leads the heroes to wonder if backwards time travel might be possible there, where “time works differently.” That may be a bit of a reach, but desperate times require desperate measures.
Time-travel stories never make much sense, which is meta-acknowledged by characters humorously listing the titles of several other movies that have used the device with varying degrees of success. The ground rules here involve not altering the established past, but gathering the Infinity Stones that gave Thanos his power, using them to undo his evil deed, then returning them to their eras. No fuss, no muss, no troublesome new branching timelines created.
The plan cleverly allows the cast to revisit scenes from “Thor: The Dark World,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and two previous Avengers movies, enjoyably inserting themselves into the action in classic “Star Trek” and “Back to the Future” fashion. The way things go right and wrong is head-spinningly imaginative.
The plot mixes a lot of heart (sorrow for missing companions, a joyful father-daughter reunion, encounters with dead parents) with plenty of humor (“Have any of you ever studied quantum physics?” “Only to make conversation.”).
Although the movie runs just over three hours, it contains so many colossal action scenes, powerfully heroic moments, and touching character beats that it picks right up again whenever it slows down. At the risk of sounding fanboy frantic, some heat-of-battle highlights are absolutely OMG awe-inspiring.
Remember that “Avengers: Infinity War” showstopper where the revived and truly god-like Thor, with newly forged hammer in hand, joined the battle in Wakanda so dramatically that you felt like jumping to your feet and cheering? Something happens during the cast-of-thousands climax here that manages to be even more jaw-droppingly thrilling—something incredibly inspiring, utterly unexpected, and yet wonderfully, perfectly right. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
This is the 22nd MCU movie (starting with 2008’s “Iron Man” and including 2017’s return-to-the-fold “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), and easily one of the best. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—who wrote all three of Marvel’s Captain America flicks as well as “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Infinity War”—pull off the feat of giving just about everyone in the entire Marvel universe something to do eventually.
As for flaws, the last short scene in the movie feels inconsistent with the time-travel admonishments, doesn’t jibe with what happens in at least one other Marvel movie, and is extremely unlikely logistically. Plus some characters who come forward in time don’t go back to their original era, with apparently no timeline consequences, while a character with a darn good reason to stay in the future apparently returns to the past, despite knowing things don’t exactly turn out well there. See, I told you time travel stories don’t make much sense.
Also, Hemsworth plays Thor as an even jokier version of the dopey bro he became in “Thor: Ragnarok,” only now he’s constantly drunk with a bushy hobo beard, stringy hair, and a potbelly. Ouch. On the other hand, the new version of the Hulk—who still has the green giant’s brawn but with Bruce Banner’s brain—is a treat. Captain America is reliably noble, Iron Man still arrogantly brilliant but bitter, while Black Widow reveals she may be the most committed Avenger of all. In classic comic-book fashion, two characters even get to fight themselves.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo also helmed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” They have said the funny posthumous cameo here for Marvel Comics creative mastermind Stan Lee will be his last, but that they are developing a documentary about Lee’s life and career.
Lee’s greatest monument, however, may be the blockbuster worldwide success of every single MCU movie based on characters he either revived (Captain America) or co-created (nearly every other Marvel movie hero, in some way or another), and this one is likely to be the biggest of them all. Excelsior!