Ever since 2008’s Iron Man laid the groundwork for the interlinked Marvel Cinematic Universe, each film in the series (we’re now at number 22) has helped transform it into a kind of rolling superhero soap opera.
Avengers: Endgame (12A) *** (three stars)
Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth How appropriate, then, that this concluding chapter should embrace soap opera logic in order to deliver the requisite gasps, tears and cheers. Once again directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the new film’s central plot conceit is a knowingly goofy riff on a well-worn sci-fi trope, one they’ve amped up with heist movie swagger and heart-on-sleeve melodrama to distract from the fact that the stakes are no longer quite as high as they seemed at the end of Infinity War. It’s the comic book movie equivalent of Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower — designed to get round the fact that Marvel’s own upcoming slate of affiliated franchise releases has already undermined the previous film’s shock ending (sorry, but it’s impossible to pretend there isn’t a new Spider-Man film out in a couple of months).
Not that the film doesn’t have a big impact. On the contrary, it goes straight for the jugular with a devastatingly quiet scene that skilfully pays off the dullest plot turn in Joss Whedon’s earlier Avengers: Age of Ultron (it involves Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) before going out of its way to subvert expectations as the surviving members of the Avengers — along with the recently introduced Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) — hunt down interplanetary reaper Thanos (Josh Brolin). But this being the final instalment — at least for some of the core characters introduced in the first phase of these films — the Russo brothers are in no hurry to say goodbye and perhaps the biggest surprise here is the way they play around with time, slowing everything down after this opening salvo to fully explore the aftermath of Infinity War’s so-called “snap”.
Veering between earnest drama and quip-filled comedy, a large chunk of the film’s three-hour running time is given over to exploring how the Avengers’ collective failure has transformed them individually, with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’s Captain America anchoring the film emotionally, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor generating the lion’s share of the laughs by retreating to somewhere named “New Asgard” (really the Scottish Borders village of St Abbs) in order to drink his bodyweight in beer. Karen Gillan — as Thanos’s conflicted daughter Nebula — is actually the biggest beneficiary of Endgame’s extra narrative space, becoming a key component in the film’s at-times surreal plot, which is simultaneously too convoluted to untangle and too easily explained away by various characters to be truly satisfying (though the Back to the Future 2-style hijinks that ensue when the film revisits earlier parts of the saga are a hoot). In the end, the agnostic will continue to feel the hours (indeed years) spent getting to this point, but for the heavily invested, the Russos have constructed an experience akin to Ant-Man’s adventures in the quantum realm — a grandiloquent spectacle that passes by in what feels like seconds.