Review by C.J. Bunce

After 21 movies and a decade of superheroics, the end arrived this weekend with Marvel StudiosAvengers: Endgame, already setting new box office records.  Nearly every seat at multiple screenings at my local theater was sold out this weekend, as was the case across the country.  Which means many have seen it, but even more haven’t. You can’t review a film without some details, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor: bookmark this and come back later.  The short version: If you’re a superhero fan and you’ve followed the previous entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you won’t want to miss it.  But re-watch both Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel first.  I’ve no idea how anyone will follow the events in the film without first seeing at least these two films.  Endgame is a good wrap-up to the first major story arc in the franchise and a fine segue into the future of the films.  But it’s not perfect (what ever is?) and I’m going to walk through some goods and bads from the film.

That means “there be spoilers ahead” so consider yourself forewarned if you continue.

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As compared to the cheers and reaction to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, which killed off trillions of lives and half the galaxy and most of the more recently introduced superheroes, my theater was full of audible blubbering and weeping, and a crowd at film’s end leaving appearing even more shell-shocked and quiet than at the end of Infinity War.  Without the rollicking action and fun of the prior team-up and standalone entries in the franchise, Endgame plays more as an imperfect finale to the first long chapter in the Marvel universe, but it does what it needs to do, and hands off the universe for the actors that chose to stick around–and their characters–for the next phase of films.  Disney seems to be establishing a theme recently—as with the recent Star Wars movies, an emphasis on handing off from old to the young, from the past to the future—to ensure future story viability and franchise value for its key properties.

Opting for a quiet first third of the film–dialogue-heavy and directed more slow-moving by Joe and Anthony Russo than what they’ve done before–the film focuses on story arcs for each of the key Avengers, circling back to the first team-up film back in 2012.  Chris EvansCaptain America, Robert Downey, Jr.′s Iron Man, and Mark Ruffalo′s Hulk all come full circle, with less clearly tied-up character arc resolutions for Scarlett Johansson′s Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth′s Thor.  Fun, like some laugh-out-loud scenes peppered throughout, was overshadowed by the audience’s reaction to the gloomy plot, one of despair, death, apocalyptic devastation, and PTSD—not your typical superhero movie fodder (good luck for all those parents explaining this one to the kiddies).  But if you watched Infinity War, some of this was expected.  Triumphs were certainly late-breaking and the bulk of the ride less about hope and more a study of life in a world of doom and gloom.

No single scene matches the excitement of the best scenes in Avengers: Infinity War, like Thor arriving on Earth with Rocket and Groot to (almost) save the day near the climax of the film, or the wonderful team-up of Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, as they tried to save the day aligned with the bumbling Guardians of the Galaxy against Thanos.  An unexpected star vehicle for Jeremy Renner′s Hawkeye and Paul Rudd′s Ant-Man, Endgame should please fans of these characters the most, as well as of Karen Gillan′s Nebula, who is the female lead of the film, appearing in most of the movie, with more to do than Black Widow.  Yet both Black Widow and Don Cheadle′s War Machine had their biggest roles here than in their previous films.  The best step forward in Endgame may very well be the survival of Thor to move ahead after Endgame.  A character that only seems to be approaching the bounds of his potential in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, he was the smartest choice of the Big Five to make it out of this film.  But expect Endgame’s unconventional treatment of Thor’s character, which walks the line between parody and insult, to be a point of contention going forward for loyal Thor fans.

Although the plot was not surprising, the secondary elements made up for it.  De-aging is used to great (special) effect again, with a young Michael Douglas and Marvel Maestro Stan Lee (in his final cameo performance), adding in some good aging for Evans as Captain America.  In fact the scenes re-creating key set pieces from the past films was the absolute highlight of Endgame, although the scenes that seemed included only to allow for spin-off series were a bit forced and contrived, like Tom Hiddleston′s Loki making a quick escape.  Other great use of the film can be found in the introduction of the next generation of superheroes, characters like a female Hawkeye in Clint Barton’s bow-wielding daughter, heir to the Ant-Man suit Cassie Lang, a new Captain America, a new Thor, Stark’s daughter Morgan, all now catching up with the characters as found in the comic books, and led by the young rising star, Tom Holland, back (albeit briefly) as Spider-Man, who may or may not be handing off his mantle to Miles Morales’s Spider-Man at some point after the actual final film in this first long phase of movies is revealed this summer in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The misfires?  Bruce Banner’s reveal of odd, new time travel rules that only apply in this movie (“you can’t change the past”), despite more understandable and logical rules that have been accepted and applied in the past (and only applied here as they fit the story).  Changing any rules in the last chapter is tough to grapple with, like learning midichlorians make a Jedi or Federation starships can swim underwater.  But it was apparently the only way (in 14,000,605 options?) for the writers to change the past and keep in play all the characters they have plans for next.  New rules also applied to the Soul Stone—the film establishes an actual love of Hawkeye by Black Widow, but it also established Hawkeye’s love focused exclusively on his lost wife and kids, and Infinity War seemed to establish suicide couldn’t secure the stone.  So how exactly was this supposed to work?  (Does even Red Skull know?)  A Black Widow solo film was earlier announced to be in pre-production, and the lack of a funeral for the character may be telling, along with Captain America’s Pym particle time travel suit, which did not make an end-of-film reappearance.  The eleventh hour (or 21st chapter?) arrival of superheroine Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) provides perhaps one too many deus ex machina appearances (the Russos didn’t seem to know how to address the enormity of her power).  Paul Bettany′s Vision was not mentioned by name—do we assume there was no effort to rebuild him?  To quote Chris Pratt′s Star-Lord, “where is Gamora?”–she seemed to be there for a Star-Lord confrontation and then… not.  And lastly, behind the scenes, why is Spider-Man: Far From Home now considered by producer and Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige as part of Phase III and not Phase IV?  Each of these questions may, or may not, get answered very soon.  The biggest confusion from the film is likely to be “who in the heck is that kid at the funeral?”  Turns out he’s the grown-up kid from Iron Man 3.

Those twenty or so cameos from past films were great additions (three actors from the series Community was a nice touch for fans of the Russos’ previous work).  The several cameos each contributed to the much needed fun to contrast with the darkness of the story.  But Holland’s Spider-Man, Benedict Cumberbatch′s Doctor Strange, Evangeline Lilly′s Wasp, Samuel L. Jackson′s Nick Fury, Chadwick Boseman′s Black Panther, Letitia Wright′s Shuri, Sebastian Stan′s Bucky, Dave Bautista′s Drax the Destroyer (as in, historically, the destroyer of Thanos)—all got short-shrift here.  Couldn’t the Russos have shored up the first hour of the film to allow for some more inclusion of these characters?  It may be asking too much of them—no other film series except Fox’s X-Men film franchise has as many characters to juggle.  To the Russos’ credit they did not feature these characters in their movie posters or trailers.  Where was Goose, that magic cat from Captain Marvel?  He apparently was displaced by the rat in Scott Lang’s storage unit, the unlikely factor ultimately responsible for saving the galaxy.

For me, I enjoyed Avengers: Endgame, and more than anything I left the theater eagerly awaiting Spider-Man: Far From Home, coming in July, and because of my fondness for Thor, the next “Asgardians” of the Galaxy film, slated for 2022, more than I’d expected.  Wrestling with the pros and cons of a film is part of the enjoyment and appreciation of cinema.  All the crew of the franchise–from the directors and film writers to the late Stan Lee and the actors who played our favorite superheroes–should be proud of the amount of entertainment they’ve shared over the past decade.  Now we get to wait and see what’s next.  At least three new Marvel films are slated to be released each year beginning in 2020.  And we have the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and more to see shuffled in since the Fox merger was completed.

Don’t miss it.  Avengers: Endgame is in theaters now.