It’s official: We’ve been had. Avengers: Endgame is many things. A complex web of interlocking character arcs. A masterpiece of corporate synergy. A box office hit whose take various publications simply cannot stop fawning over. It is not a good movie, or even a passable one. Yet somehow this great yawning bore of a cinematic black hole will end up being remembered as the great smash hit of 2019.
11 years ago, the Marvel/Disney conglomerate cracked the code for mainstream comic-book flick acceptance with Iron Man. Before that, successes had mostly come in the form of directors relaunching familiar superhero vehicles, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-man to Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Those efforts, with their embrace of deeper emotional subtexts and layered characters, gained more attention from non-fanboy audiences. But they still relied on known movie stars, prominent filmmakers, and marquee superheroes (the kind that even people who have never cracked a comic book have heard of).
But when Robert Downey Jr. strapped on the Iron Man suit in 2008, there was no reason to think that the result would be anything special. The star was hardly still a star at that point. Director Jon Favreau was known as Vince Vaughn’s buddy in Swingers and the guy who made Elf. And Iron Man? How many people who never attended a con knew he was a superhero? Still, the fast-paced humor, the topical backdrop of the Afghanistan war and the military-industrial complex, and a star performance both deeply emotive and snarkily self-mocking all clicked together beautifully.
That success set the template which the better follow-ups closely followed. Take risks. Focus on story, writing, and tone. Use hungry directors looking to make a name or vets eager to change things up. Be weird.
Since 2008, the movies have come fast and furious, devouring the multiplex like that inexplicable horde of Orc-ish beasts which occasionally come swarming out of Thanos’s mother ship. (Did he breed them? Hire them out through some intergalactic monster temp agency?) In that time, they changed the moviegoing landscape. At a time when studios and theaters worried ever more about eyeballs straying to phones and streaming shows, there was a reliable stream of movies that could pack seats twice a year. These were not just movies, they were events whole families would routinely show up for.
There has never been anything else like it in movie history. Previous hit series have generally had limitations, being confined mostly to individual characters. The closest comparisons are in fact the Toho studio’s kaiju universe — which centered on Godzilla but left plenty of room for guest stars ranging from King Kong to Mothra, some of whom even got their own standalone movies — or Hammer’s sub-genre of interlocking horror series that mixed and matched public domain characters like Dracula and Frankenstein in increasingly ridiculous ways.
Those franchises, however, did not hide their true status as quintessential B-movie schlock. In comparison, Marvel movies were mainstream hits, practically required viewing. Marketed as a slew of unmissable events more than mere movies, they reliably packed theaters with young and old audiences. They were nominated for Oscars, and occasionally, even inexplicably won a few (Black Panther).
At their best, the Marvel series has shown how pop cinema can thread humor and humanity through fantastical narratives to create ridiculously enjoyable pieces of pop art. Left-field masterpieces like James Gunn’s gonzo Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the manic improv of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok could well stand the test of time and be watched twenty years from now as examples of what Hollywood can do when it throws out the rule book. Even some of the more middling efforts, like Captain America: Civil War, knew how to counterbalance their busy-seeming but nevertheless thin storylines with deftly comic ensemble work.
At their worst, Marvel movies fell victim to the supersizing bloat that started with Joss Whedon’s first Avengers. The more standalone movies that were churned out to feed the primary narrative (Doctor Strange, Ant-Man), the larger and more unwieldy the cast became. And once Guardians dumped another half-dozen or so characters into the mix, the problem metastasized.
The danger was always there that eventually the whole Marvel universe would just turn into an ever-larger pack of movie stars in outfits of varying silliness getting together to defeat some world-threatening villain. After all, that’s the kind of conflict that has driven storylines in a certain kind of comic book for decades. (As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out when he was working on the Black Panther series, “comic books work on violence, and people punching people.”)
But still, the further away the series moved from capers and toward world-ending smash-up fight scenes, the less engaging they became. Even Captain Marvel, a generally lackluster effort saved in part by the laid-back cool of Brie Larson, could look better in retrospect for simply not trying so hard to be everything to everyone. Danvers and Nick Fury take a road trip in the 1990s while No Doubt plays on the soundtrack? It might not be the most original concept but it beats yet another two-and-a-half-hour scamper to grab an Infinity Stone (or, per Bill Maher, “glowy thing”) before another world-killing swarm of something-or-others darkens the skies and Thanos starts going on about needing to kill everyone in order to balance out the universe.
The great culmination of all these blockbusters is in the end just one more blockbuster that has even less to say than many of the links in the chain that lead to it. For many years, Marvel had benefited from being the anti-DC: fun instead of glowering; character- rather than plot-driven; action movies where the heroes’ banter (“Shawarma? Shawarma?”) was usually more interesting than their heroic actions themselves.
Avengers: Endgame takes just about all of that and chucks it out the window. Rather than the culmination of a grand dramatic enterprise, the three-ish hours of resulting tedium are expended on serving as many fans as possible and littering the screen with easter eggs. By the time everyone is accounted for, from Doctor Strange to Black Panther, there’s only time for them to spout off a few lines before receding into the middle background for the big CGI-blowout battle scene to resolve who retains possession of all the glowy things.
Just about the only truly interesting aspect of the busy-yet-bland screenplay is its suggestion of what the Earth was like in the years following the evaporation of half the human race. We see boats clustered around the Statue of Liberty like pups to their mother, neighborhoods overgrown with weeds, and a dispirited crew of Avengers wan and grey-faced with survivors’ guilt.
But the demands of corporate entertainment cannot be ignored. Quickly the enterprise grinds through a wholly unsurprising attempt to rewrite Thanos’ genocidal conclusion to Avengers: Infinity War. Here’s a hint: A giant machine is involved and a history-changing scientific development is managed in the space of a few minutes just to ensure that nothing truly shocking ultimately occurs in this disappointingly safe and small-scale would-be epic.
After all, why would Marvel and Disney risk more than they had to at this point? If they can convince millions that this big bland slab of cross-marketed product is dramatically satisfying, then we likely have many more years of sub-par “movies” to look forward to.
Title: Avengers: Endgame
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana
Year of release: 2019