This movie contains spoilers for previous movies in the Avengers franchise, but avoids spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”
The most profitable movie franchise in history began in 2008 with “Iron Man” and has at last ended (kind of), $20 billion of revenue later, with “Avengers: Endgame.” “Endgame,” title notwithstanding, is only kind of an ending, since Marvel isn’t about to stop making movies with these characters — that profit-killing move would be a real plot twist. But “Endgame” does provide some satisfying closure to the stories that have centered around Iron Man, Captain America, and their ever-expanding motley crew.
Since half the universe was killed in a previous movie and this movie constitutes the attempt to get them back, even to mention the cast of this film would be to give away a spoiler. Still, there’s a lot to say: to begin with, if you are anything like the majority of Marvel fans, you won’t be disappointed. The movie succeeds like no other in pandering to its fans at every possible juncture. And, at least according to 90% of Rotten Tomatoes voters, this is just the right amount of pandering.
I ambivalently count myself in the category of pleased fans. After all, I’ve grown up alongside the Marvel movies, so saying I don’t like them would be like saying I don’t like my own hometown. At this point, there is even a pathetic adorer in me who would have been happy just to see the Avengers sit around and reminisce for three hours. Although this movie is much more than that, it does serve as a sort of Greatest Hits album for the franchise by literally revisiting old stories. The revisiting threatens to make the movie feel like it lacks a plot that’s really its own, but on the other hand, the audience’s familiarity with the characters means that this can be a new sort of movie — one that might not need to have its own plot. Plus, using other Avengers storylines gives longtime fans exactly what we want: an Avengers movie about Avengers movies.
I won’t try to convince you to see or not to see the movie. (But if the previous sentence repulses you, you probably shouldn’t see it.) Instead, I’ll unravel one thematic thread of the franchise to try to explain why hordes of popcorn-covered adults around the world are cheering and weeping at the trials and tribulations of fake heroes in stupid outfits. Maybe this will help you decide whether or not you want to join them. Or — alright, whether or not you want to join us.
For one thing, Marvel has long been well aware that nothing tugs at our heartstrings like watching a character sacrifice what he loves for the greater good. (And it is usually a “he” in the franchise.) Of course, tales of noble sacrifice are neither new nor rare — think of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Giving Tree, or Jesus Christ, to take three equally significant examples. But Marvel has ratcheted up the sacrifice game in both melodrama and frequency. There’s actually a scene in this movie in which two characters fight each other on a cliff, not to avoid the cliff but to jump off it, thereby sacrificing their own life for the good of the universe before the other character can do so.
The endless self-sacrificing is so central that it’s what ties together the character development of the frenemies at the center of the Marvel universe — Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man. Christopher Markus, who co-wrote “Endgame” with Stephen McFeely, said in an interview: “In a way, [Tony Stark] has been the mirror of Steve Rogers the entire time. Steve is moving toward some sort of enlightened self-interest, and Tony’s moving to selflessness.”
Captain America is the icon of selflessness who, in his origin story, sacrificed himself for the greater good without even a second thought. Iron Man has never had all that much he didn’t want to lose, and in previous movies he’s risked his life more for glory than for duty. But “Endgame” places us in a time when Tony has a wife and kid — when he’s really tempted to take care of his own and leave the good of the universe to everyone else.
Plenty of art explores the age-old conflict between the love of what’s yours and your duty to the common good, and excellent art does so beautifully. The creators of “Endgame,” for all their virtues, are not so much interested in “exploring” the conflict as they are in using it. At the risk of sounding too harsh, that’s because they don’t seem too interested in making a challenging or novel piece of art. They’re interested in making the best-selling movie in history, and they’re on track to do so by giving adoring fans exactly what we want: a universe governed by the clearly demarcated forces of good and evil, in which the triumph of the good depends on the stirring sacrifices of the heroes we know and love.
Since “Endgame” fits this mold to a tee, the movie feels like it couldn’t have been anything other than exactly what it was. Late in the movie, Thanos delivers the cheesy line, “I am … inevitable.” But at that point, the movie itself feels inevitable. Whether it feels delightfully inevitable or disappointingly so you’ll have to find out for yourself.