A classic superhero movie said it best: you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. One could say that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the franchise that’s been leading up to Avengers: Endgame. There’s no denying that Marvel Studios’ ambitious idea has changed the face of blockbuster filmmaking—a universe of interconnected movies, crossing over and leading into each other like the comics they’re based on, fleshing out the same overall story. Imitators of this model have sprung up across Hollywood, but they have either floundered or already failed (RIP, Dark Universe). Marvel inarguably remains the strongest universe in competition.
But despite the worldwide community that’s built up around these movies, there’s a villainous side to the whole operation. One year into the MCU’s existence, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. The massively wealthy mouse had been in the business of buying production studios: they now own ABC, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, 20th Century Fox, and many more. This has worked out nicely for acquiring character rights (there’s a Spider-Man in my MCU!) and boosting movie budgets (there’s a lot going on in my action scene!), but it has also involved Disney steamrolling over healthy competition in the film industry. To make room for their big franchises, they’ve even shut down entire studios that were dedicated to producing low- to mid-budget films.
And to compensate, we’ve gotten a slew of passable superhero movies. Some of them have risen above expectations, but more often than not, they follow a formula that concocts little more than a good time at the theater. The catharsis of a grand conclusion, however, has loomed over the proceedings for eleven years—and now it’s finally here. Enter the MCU’s 22nd movie, Avengers: Endgame.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Russo brothers (Endgame’s directors, who have repeatedly warned against spoilers), I won’t be going into plot detail. I will, though, assume you’ve seen Infinity War. Endgame picks up after half of all life in the universe has been dusted away by Thanos, and our heroes are feeling understandably hopeless. Moviegoers know not to be so hopeless, though—it’s public knowledge that many of the dusted characters have sequels in development. The next Spider-Man movie got a trailer before Endgame even released, after all. Thankfully, Endgame doesn’t play coy with its open secret: it only takes five minutes for someone to say “we’re gonna get the Infinity Stones and bring them all back.”
What follows is, quite refreshingly, not what you’d expect. For two and a half hours, Endgame is a methodically paced character drama. It probably sets a record for the longest a superhero movie has ever gone without a major action scene. And thank Odin for that! The movie’s unwavering focus on character turns one of the franchise’s biggest weaknesses into its greatest strength.
For over a decade now, the MCU has survived by leaving character arcs incomplete, promising that real payoffs will come in the next movie. This has resulted in stunted character development over the years—Marvel’s heroes change only incrementally, sometimes remaining static from start to finish of their own movies. Endgame can’t undo all those missed opportunities, but miraculously, it makes them feel worth it.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely demonstrate a deep understanding of the characters that first teamed up in 2012. They’ve clearly kept track of the heroes’ incremental changes, their successes and failures, their dynamics with one another, their fears and their fights and their flaws—and in a remarkable feat of writing, Markus and McFeely craft satisfying payoffs for them all. From end to end, Endgame is an immaculately paced, genuinely poignant, and overwhelmingly emotional piece of character work. Despite its high stakes and huge scale, Endgame restrains itself into a patient, small, personal film. Even during the breathtaking, climactic action scene, it finds time for pathos and swells with meaning. It’s hard to imagine a better sendoff for the Avengers.
I’d be remiss not to wax poetic about the cast: the MCU’s central performers have been a large part of why the universe works. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner all give layered, multifaceted performances that anchor the movie’s interpersonal concerns. They’ve become their characters so well that we tend to forget the acting work on display, but the nostalgic respect that Endgame commands is keen to remind you of their achievements.
On the director’s side, the Russo brothers master the tonal shifts that a movie as expansive as Endgame demands. This concluding chapter runs the gamut from comedic and lighthearted to tragic and heartbreaking, sometimes within the same scene—but the transitions are handled delicately enough to feel natural and considered. The Russo brothers have a keen sense for how to structure story beats, and for the most part, they employ that sense across the board.
There are still imperfections, of course. A few integral character moments fall flat because those characters didn’t receive enough attention earlier in the franchise. Infinity War, for all its messiness and bloat, at least built a philosophically interesting antagonist out of Thanos—Endgame all but abandons that focus in favor of the central superheroes. The cracks in the multi-movie method show, but still, Endgame feels powerful, intact, and above all, earned.
Was it worth tearing apart the film industry? Absolutely not. One excellent finale does not wipe Marvel and Disney’s slate clean. But it does showcase the very best of what superhero movies have to offer: a modern mythology to buoy our dreams, a thrilling end to a story that’s brought us together for years, and the things we can learn about ourselves from the heroes that look and feel like us. The MCU may continue long past Endgame, and maybe it’ll eventually cement its role as the villain of big-budget filmmaking. But as an ending to this era of the MCU, Avengers: Endgame stands tall as a hero.