(Rated: PG [Canada], G [Quebec] and PG-13 [MPAA] for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language; directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Brie Larson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Rene Russo, Tilda Swinton, Jon Favreau, John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Michael Douglas, Linda Cardellini, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; run time: 181 min.)
A box-office marvel of modern filmmaking
By Ted Giese
Note: this review contains spoilers.
Picking up where “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) left off, “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) begins in the aftermath of the mad demigod Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) eradication of half of all life in the universe. The great vanishing has wrought emotional and economic devastation, and while Thanos believed people would be grateful, most are struggling and grieving in the new world.
The remaining Avengers carry on but suffer the added burden of failure. Five years after the tragic event, an extremely unlikely yet possible way to reverse the mass extinction presents itself, so they assemble to pursue it.
A major theme in “Endgame” is failure. Few films in the sci-fi action genre take the time to look at the effects of failure as extensively. After five years, some characters, such as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have accepted what happened, moved on and built new lives. Others, such as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), have doubled down on their superhero roles, as their fellow superheroes were their only family, and losing them removed any other motivation for carrying on.
Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who had stepped away from the superhero life after the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), has not taken the great vanishing well. “Endgame” opens on a tender family scene, with Barton helping his daughter Lila (Ava Russo) improve her archery skills, while his wife (Linda Cardellini) prepares a family picnic.
A world away, Thanos snaps his fingers, instantly turning Barton’s family to dust. Bitter at his powerlessness to save them, Hawkeye turns his anger and grief toward hunting down criminals.
Meanwhile, Thor, the god of thunder, has taken failure like a White Russian on the rocks, spiraling into depression; overindulging in food, drink and video games; and destroying his muscular physique in a seaside shack in New Asgard, Norway.
And while the newly beer-bellied Thor receives a lot of ribbing from characters like Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), his story is as poignant as anyone’s.
In “Infinity War,” Thanos says to Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), “I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless.”
In “Endgame,” these feelings haunt Thor, who may have lost more than any other character in the movie since his introduction in “Thor” (2011). By the time “Endgame” begins, Thor has lost his father, Oden; his girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); his friend, Heimdall; his home world of Asgard; his adopted brother, Loki; and his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo).
Like Barton, Thor couldn’t save his family and loved ones, and in his depression, he wonders if he is in fact worthy of his “hero” title.
While some of the superheroes receive more character development than others, almost all of them receive a chance to express their grief, loss and failure, just as they are given moments to shine and reclaim their tarnished honor. This is a daunting prospect from a writing perspective, as there are so many characters to juggle, but “Endgame” pulls it off. (Perhaps the biggest unsung superheroes are the folks who managed the production payroll, making sure the thousands of people involved in the making of these movies received their paychecks.)
Marvel Studios and Disney have accomplished something remarkable: a 22-film saga with interrelated TV programming that eclipses other venerable sci-fi/fantasy franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings in scale and scope. The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fit together to form a complex interconnected narrative, giving Marvel fans something they might have once only imagined in their dreams: a movie saga as rich as the comic books.
Where it all goes from here is the big question. With “Endgame,” perhaps audiences have witnessed an end to a golden era of modern comic book films.
A story of family and sacrifice
More than any other recent franchise aside from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the MCU films have become event viewing, and unlike “Game of Thrones,” they have a much wider target audience, being appropriate for families. Some of the most emotional beats in the film center on family: the loss of family, the desire to protect family, the need for surrogate family if a person has no biological family to lose or protect.
For many viewers, these characters have become like family. Audiences took the vanishing of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) at the end of “Infinity War” very hard, with many viewers moved to tears. “Endgame” is no less emotional and may be even more so, as it appears that the deaths of some characters are irreversible.
In a climactic scene that recalls his near-fatal last stand at the end of “The Avengers” (2012), Tony Stark makes the ultimate sacrifice in “Endgame,” giving his life to defeat Thanos and bring back all that was lost.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) foreshadowed this sacrifice in “Infinity War.” After looking forward in time and witnessing 14,000,605 possible futures, Strange turned over the Time Stone to Thanos in exchange for Stark’s life.
Strange told Stark that out of the millions of possible futures, in only one would the Avengers successfully defeat Thanos, and his intervention to save Stark from Thanos suggested that Stark would later make the pivotal self-sacrifice.
In contrast to previous acts of self-sacrifice in the MCU, however, it looks like there will be no bouncing back from this one. Stark’s last words before offering himself up, “I am Iron Man,” echo his final line in “Iron Man” (2008), the film that started it all.
But Stark is not the man he was in “Iron Man”; he is a better man. His death triggers a difficult passing of the torch, signifying that while some characters and storylines will continue, nothing will be the same.
While audiences had only just begun to get to know Peter Parker when he died in “Infinity War,” the character of Tony Stark has been the backbone of the MCU since its inception. Just as “Iron Man” ushered in a “new normal” for Marvel and comic book movies, “Infinity War” and “Endgame” have done the same.
“Endgame” also sees the conclusion of Steve Rogers’ story, which ends with Rogers finally having his promised dance with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). These touching conclusions are both satisfying and heart-rending, triggering emotional responses few people back in 2008 would have thought possible for superhero comic book films.
This is the genius of these films: they are more than 3D CGI slugfests populated by two-dimensional characters. Marvel Studios and Disney have earned their emotional payoffs by creating some truly satisfying and memorable stories. The way these two films cap off the previous 20 and deal with their central characters improves some of the earlier films, making them more poignant on repeat viewing.
For example, the foolhardy, insufferable and vain Thor of “Thor” has gone through such a profound evolution by “Endgame” that viewers who may have once been put off by the character’s aloof arrogance can now watch that first film again with more charity, knowing where Thor will end up. And with the way “Endgame” concludes for Thor, viewers can cheer him on all over again, because unlike Iron Man and Captain America, he seems to have more adventures in his future.
Of interest to Christian viewers
Christian viewers will have some things to think about after watching the film. While Tony Stark is no Jesus Christ, he willingly sacrifices himself for the good of others so they can live and be reunited with those they love.
When approached to help the Avengers with their plan to reverse the devastation wrought by Thanos, Stark is initially reluctant to participate. Christians might see here a faint echo of Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
Unlike Jesus, however, Stark doesn’t know that he will die when he rejoins the Avengers. At one point, Stark asks Strange if they are in the one future in which they win against Thanos, to which Strange replies, “If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen.”
Jesus knows what will happen when He goes to the cross. In His humanity, He humbly asks if there is another way, but out of His love for His Father and all people, He obediently takes the one way available to Him.
Another point of similarity between these films and the biblical narrative is the way “Infinity War” and “Endgame” present the sacrifice of Tony Stark as the one and only way to save humanity. The Bible likewise presents Jesus’ death on the cross as the only way that sin, death and the devil can be overcome.
Jesus’s death on the cross was necessary so that Satan, who once overcame humanity and all of creation by the tree of knowledge might likewise be overcome by a tree, the cross on which Jesus died.
In a similar way, the Infinity Stones, which Thanos used to bring death to half of the universe, are used again by the gauntleted hand of Tony Stark to defeat Thanos once and for all.
In the end, Stark, like Jesus, willingly makes this sacrifice, giving his life for the lives of others. But unlike Jesus, Stark has no Easter resurrection from the dead three days later, although he lives on through his legacy, both in the film’s universe and in the hearts of the fans.
While in the Bible, the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present God of the universe allows for time to unfold as it is appointed by Him, the Avengers use time travel to save the world.
Many viewers don’t like time travel as a plot device, seeing it as a cheap way to get out of narrative pickles. Once time travel is introduced into a franchise, it can hollow out the tension of cause and effect.
Overall, the Russos do a fair job mitigating this issue, even referencing films like “Back to the Future” (1985) in their explanation of how the MCU’s version of time travel works. Audiences familiar with time travel films may find some elements of the second act of “Endgame” derivative.
What the time travel plot of “Endgame” does, however, is allow the MCU to run a victory lap, popping back into pivotal moments from the previous films. Because of the rich narrative woven over the last 11 years, this is oddly satisfying, acting as a mirror in which the audience can reflect on just how much has changed and how much the story has unfolded.
This brings things back around to Thor, whose storyline is as problematic as it is poignant. Christians may want to reflect on Thor’s exchange with his mother, Frigga, who, upon seeing her depressed and broken son from the future, says, “Everyone fails at who they are supposed to be. The measure of a person, a hero, is how they succeed at being who they are.”
Thor then holds out his hand to summon his hammer Mjolnir, which can only be lifted by one who is worthy. The hammer comes to him, and a relieved Thor proclaims, “I’m still worthy!”
This scene could be problematic for Christians. On the one hand, it is good for a person to acknowledge that, in his sin and failure, he is not who he is supposed to be. Such an acknowledgment is an essential part of repentance.
On the other hand, the idea that people must simply accept themselves without trying to improve can easily be a fatalistic excuse for nihilism. In a film so focused on dealing with failure, it may also be discouraging to those striving towards virtue. Perhaps this will be mitigated in future films as Thor’s story continues.
For all its seriousness and epic throwdowns, “Endgame” is also a movie with a surprising amount of humor. No fan will feel short-changed but may be hard-pressed to come up with a favorite moment or scene, as there are too many!
Overall, the movie is a sentimental masterpiece intended to strike at the emotions. Because emotions are subjective, the success of such an approach can be measured by any given viewer’s investment in the story. The higher the investment, the more emotional the response.
“Endgame” certainly succeeds in this regard, and the film’s strong emotional impact goes a long way to compensate for the weaknesses of the time-travel plot. That said, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” along with the rest of the MCU films, can be counted as an achievement unlike anything else in the film world today: a big-budget serial film franchise with heart and style to spare.
Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted May 7, 2019