Even when you've seen hundreds of movies as I have, it is a rare occasion to sit in a theater with the feeling that you're a part of history. I was too young to recognize that when I was in the theater for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I was on a church mission where we didn't watch movies when The Force Awakens came out. So, for almost 25 years, I didn't really know what it was like to be part of history by watching a movie. Then Avengers: Endgame happened.
(Minor) SPOILER ALERT. Because I'm not a human piece of garbage, I'm going to warn whoever reads this that it contains one spoiler for Avengers: Endgame. While I will not reveal anything further, it simply has to be said that time travel plays a major part in this film. I can't properly talk about this movie without that being known. Now, onto the main course.
What sets Endgame apart, in addition to its sheer bigness-- seriously, there is so much movie here-- is how unprecedented the whole thing is. Nothing like this movie-- let me repeat, NOTHING like this movie-- has ever been attempted in history. What we're talking about here is the culmination of a massive story, a story where 22 films all take place in the same universe, in a single (mostly) cohesive narrative. You cannot, cannot, CANNOT watch this film without watching the others in the series. Endgame had to wrap up the whole narrative after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which had one of the more memorable finales in recent memory. And, on top of all that, Endgame was tasked with the monumental burden of making it all matter; of answering the big "So what?" Now the question is, does it give us a satisfactory answer? To put it simply, yes. Yes it does.
The Not-So-Good is Not-So-Good
When your movie is three hours long, there is a lot of room to screw up. You risk pacing issues, a convoluted narrative, and lack of character development. Endgame's issues, compared to these, are relatively minor. The main issues I have with the film are as follows:
Squirrely power comparisons - Infinity War had this same problem, so I'll just address that as well. People who needed help or protection holding infinity stones can hold them in their bare hands all of a sudden. Thanos gives Hulk a whooping with only two stones in his gauntlet, but is later held back by Cap with five stones in the gauntlet. People who got their clocks cleaned by Thanos the first time around give him a real fight the second time. As far as inconsistencies go, power comparisons are definitely the film's biggest problem.
Bad Editing - The Marvel movies are badly edited. There, I said it. We were clearly too spoiled by the Bourne movies to understand what made them fun to watch. In an age where John Wick exists, and Mission: Impossible: Fallout had one of the best hand-to-hand fight scenes in history, there should not be room for fight scenes where one single takedown necessitates four cuts (looking at you, Captain America: Civil War). Endgame, sadly, succumbs way too often to this modern plague. Much of the action is cut to death and often utilizes shaky-cam, the bane of a good fight scene. For crying out loud, Deadpool 2 had more comprehensible action, and it had less than a third the budget that this movie did! Unacceptable!
CGI - This is something that is a little harder to hold against the film, as the epic climax of the story couldn't be achieved without CGI. You simply can't recruit, pay, makeup and dress thousands of extras to film a final battle. It's not feasible. But here's the thing: your brain can tell when something is real and tangible, and when it's not. No matter how good your CG is, some part of your brain looks at it and instantly sees it as CG. And while the CG on Thanos is brilliant and expressive, the rest of the CG in Endgame is so obviously CG that my brain had a hard time engaging with the battles, leaving more of the load on writing to convince.
Truth be told, the problems of Endgame are the problems of almost every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, except maybe, like, Iron Man. While it is pure wish fulfillment to see your favorite heroes on screen, I wish that we could be satisfied with smaller stories that could be accomplished using more practical effects and less CGI and greenscreen, much like the Deadpool and John Wick movies. Even Mad Max: Fury Road was shot mostly using practical effects. It would just be nice if brilliant storytellers wouldn't have to work so hard to compensate for all the fakeness. However...
The So-Good is SOOOOOOO GOOOOOOD
I know I'm hard on the MCU for bad editing and overuse of CGI, and I should be. We shouldn't let that kind of laziness slide in otherwise excellent movie. But it would be an absolute crime if I went on too much about that, and not enough about what makes this movie a through-and-through epic.
They did it, man! - Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have achieved the impossible: they have taken 21 movies' worth of planting and careful character development, and given it all meaning. In Endgame, a seemingly disposable joke from the first Iron Man film is given unexpected and heartbreaking payoff. Not only are characters' arcs, some spanning 7 or 8 movies, wrapped up cleanly and powerfully, but so are arcs between characters! For all the crap Marvel gets for making Mad-Libs-Style movies (a disease much less present in later films like Thor: Ragnarok and the Ant-Man films), I must also commend the studio and the multitude of filmmakers behind the camera for the vast, interconnected tapestry they have woven. This is paid off, eventually, by a sequence where no less than 29 established characters are onscreen at once, all in meaningful moments for their personal arcs. There's great storytelling here, the likes of which we have simply never seen.
A Funny Time Heist - While I personally would have called this film Avengers: Time Heist, that probably wouldn't convey how bonkers epic the film gets. Still, it would have been an accurate title. I love time travel when it's done well, and I love a heist when it's done well. And while they definitely yadda-yadda some stuff, the time travel in Endgame works to delightful effect, providing a lot of rewarding moments for people who have stuck with this series. Plus, the movie is just flat-out funny, providing a lot of character moments and unexpected situations that mash incompatible characters together. It's a time travel tale that would make Doc Brown proud.
A True Epic - This kind of goes along with the last point, but it's incredible to behold just how big this movie is. Endgame is a BIG movie. It would be colossally idiotic to judge it as a standalone experience, so I just won't do that (would you judge How I Met Your Mother as a series after only watching season 9? Yeah, it would be that stupid.) But anyway, what makes Endgame a true epic is the way it measures the size of the story against its scope. We get moments between characters that are surprisingly intimate in a story with so many moving parts. Chris Evans' Steve Rogers/Captain America is the best he's been as the leader and moral center of the group. Scarlett Johansson is like the group's loving-yet-badass mom or older sister (well, to everyone but Ruffalo's Bruce Banner), always ready to make sacrifices and come to the aid of the people she loves. Josh Brolin's Thanos gets a lot more opportunity to give his villain chops a workout, giving us an even scarier, more sadistic warlord than the one we loved to hate in Infinity War. And Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey, Jr., is more vulnerable than ever, given much more to lose than in previous outings, and it shows in every intricacy of his multi-faceted performance. This movie, for all its spectacle, lets moments land, and that may be its greatest strength.
Higher Stakes Than Ever - One complaint I heard about Infinity War was that it was robbed of the weight of killing major characters, by the sheer reality that there were sequels immediately announced for said killed characters. It's a valid complaint, and one that cannot be levied against Endgame. Without spoiling anything, it's notable that death is given weight in this movie. Characters are made painfully aware of life's impermanence, and every character essentially has it all on the line. Anyone could die, and if they do, that death is permanent this time. That's commendable, and powerful, and gives this movie the tension that Disney and their greedy marketing utterly robbed of Infinity War.
The Lord of the Rings is Strong with This One
It's worth mentioning that this movie steals a lot. It steals from itself, it steals from Back to the Future, and it steals from Peter Jackson. This movie will remind you of Return of the King, and quite frankly, that's totally okay. Return of the King is probably the last movie I can think of that was bigger than Endgame. Both films open on a "split fellowship" of sorts, with a larger group broken into several smaller ones, both have magical macguffins that needs to be destroyed, both have massive battles near the end where the fate of a universe hangs in the balance, and both close off their respective series with dignity and grace, with both also having about a hundred endings each.
But seriously, Endgame treats its characters with reverence, and gives each arc the closure they deserve. And to be clear, an arc ending does not mean that a character dies. It simply means that their story, as seen by the audience, is over. It's finished. They may have won or they may have lost, but regardless, they are done. A lot of stories end here, and just like in Return of the King, those endings mean something, with many major characters finally finding peace in the closing of their stories. At one point, I felt like composer Alan Silvestri was intentionally trying to fool me into thinking "In Dreams" was about to start playing, as I swear he uses the exact same chords. Homage or theft? I don't think it matters. It works, and it's great.
Conclusions on Conclusions
It's honestly hard to write about what makes this film great without spoiling things. When trying to review something like this, you're forced to speak in vagaries. It's incredibly well-acted by both the main players and the supporting cast, the pacing is so tight and efficient you'll swear it's not three hours long, and there are moments that will make you cheer, laugh, gasp and cry. A full spectrum of emotion is present here, and if the wild cheering of my theater was any indication, the moments work. One fight scene involving Captain America is so unspeakably badass that all I can do is order you to go watch it. Now.
While there are many meaningful arcs that are given meaningful closure, this is Tony Stark's movie. It's only fitting that the man who began the Infinity Saga would be the focus of the film that finishes it. Tony's character is treated with love and care by the Russos, Markus and McFeely, and we are richly rewarded for sticking with him for the last decade. We feel feelings of self-hatred, parental issues, and survivor's guilt, right along with him. All of these facets of his character, along with his arrogance and need to save the world, are beautifully resolved in this love letter to his character.
If I may tell one short story before I go back for my second viewing: I remember last year, when I was buying my Infinity War tickets, I was callously chiding myself for feeding more money into the Disney-Marvel money printing press, when I looked behind me and saw something that changed my outlook on this whole franchise. I saw a small child, probably no older than 6 or 7, standing with his mother in line, decked out head-to-toe in Captain America gear. This kid, this little, unironic kid, has been given something special. He's found a hero, a model for courage and compassion, someone he looks up to. And, for better or worse, Disney and Marvel, who are often dragged for being in it for the cash, have given this kid the opportunity to see that hero on the screen. And in that moment, I realized that it really didn't matter whether or not the movie was a masterpiece. It didn't need to be The Godfather. It didn't need to stand the test of time. For a couple hours, children all around the world got to see their dreams play out right before their very eyes. That's why these stories are important. That's why these movies matter.
Simply put, Avengers: Endgame exists, in glorious spite of its shortcomings, as the perfect closing chapter to an unprecedented moment in film history. It exists as the fulfillment of dreams for people young and old the world over. And it exists as a love letter to Stan Lee, to Marvel Comics, and to all the people who have showed up to support this epic endeavor over the years. Endgame exists. And I'm glad it does.