Perhaps more than any Hollywood blockbuster from the past 50 years, Avengers: Endgame could accurately be described as a “critic-proof” pop-cultural event. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what this writer or any other film critic thinks of the 22nd feature that unfolds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Endgame will make several gazillion dollars at the box office, and it will undoubtedly occupy the geeky pop-cultural zeitgeist for the better part of the year (reluctantly sharing the spotlight with the final season of Game of Thrones). It is a virtually guaranteed hit, not only due to legions of devoted Marvel fans, but also because of the studio’s commitment to a sturdy formula and strict quality control. The MCU includes its share of middling entries, but unlike corporate paterfamilias Disney, Marvel Studios hasn’t (to date) produced film that is both a critical and financial dud (e.g., John Carter ; The Lone Ranger ; A Wrinkle in Time ).
However, the MCU’s seeming imperviousness to traditional critical assessment goes beyond mere assembly-line precision and the sort of “built-in audience” that is the envy of other Hollywood studios. The specific form that the MCU franchise has assumed – a narratively cohesive sequence of feature films weaving together dozens of characters and plots in a shared universe – is something unprecedented in cinema. The James Bond series is the only studio feature franchise that comes remotely close to the MCU in terms of total running time, and the 007 films are a different beast altogether (one hero played by different actors, repeated soft and hard reboots, and an overall disregard for continuity.) As for Godzilla, the King of Monsters remains a durable and adaptable metaphor, but the continuity of the 30-odd features produced by Toho alone is a unresolvable snarl, to put it mildly.
Marvel Studios films are cinematic features in the technical sense, in that they are two- or three-hour slices of entertainment designed for presentation on large screens in public theaters. Yet MCU films are consumed by viewers in a manner that resembles the serial short films that were ubiquitous at Saturday matinees in the first half of the 20th century. Like those serials, the MCU films constitute a long-form story designed to be watched in chunks, with each chapter setting the stage for the next. However, unlike the popular silent- and sound-era serials of yesteryear – Fantômas (1913), The Perils of Pauline (1914), Flash Gordon (1936), Dick Tracy (1937) – each of which comprises a discrete multi-part story, there are no built-in endpoints in the MCU, other than the expiration dates on the stars’ contracts. Nor does the franchise possess the season-oriented framework of episodic television, the other medium from which the MCU features draw some structural influence.
The traditional approach employed by critics – evaluating each feature film as a stand-alone object – is foiled to some extent by the MCU’s sheer sprawl. How does one tackle a 50-plus-hour story? Should it be reviewed film by film? By series, e.g., treat all the Iron Man films as a self-contained arc? As one mammoth work of serialized storytelling? Should one factor in MCU-integrated or -adjacent fare from other media, such as ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series (2013-19), which some fans contend is essential to the “experience”? Given these complications, not to mention how thoroughly Marvel sands down the auteurist inclinations of even its most eccentric and distinctive directors in favor of the studio’s house style, conventional film critics could be forgiven for throwing up their hands.
Perhaps reviewing the MCU and other emergent shared-universe franchises is a task better suited to a new species of critic, one dedicated to dissecting and evaluating these multimedia behemoths. Such specialization is arguably warranted, given that the form is obviously here to stay for the foreseeable future. Marvel Studios’ mastermind producer Kevin Feige speaks of discrete “phases” and whatnot, but the obvious appeal of the MCU to Disney executives and shareholders is that the series theoretically stretches out into infinity. It’s a bottomless well of intellectual-property and box-office gold – at least until the public sours on the franchise after a few abject failures and/or Marvel has given every fifth- and sixth-string superhero their own $150 million epic.
A meta-awareness of the MCU’s potentially staggering lifespan as a blockbuster-generation device is one of the reasons that Avengers: Endgame is such an intriguing departure, in its modest way. The film is less a climax than a self-reflexive summation of everything that’s come before. Although this results in some self-congratulatory backslapping and eye-rolling fan-service, it also finds the filmmakers – directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markas and Stephen McFeely, MCU veterans all – in an unusually reflective mood. That self-conscious pensiveness is an unexpected angle in a film that practically proclaims itself the Blockbuster to End All Blockbusters, featuring one of the most sprawling multi-character CGI battles ever put to film (er, pixels).
Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War discovered some welcome novelty by distorting the Marvel formula, ruthlessly embracing failure and loss in a way that PG-13 Hollywood fare rarely dares. (Never mind the unimaginative naysayers who snark that loss never matters in the reset-prone superhero sub-genre. They could stand to take Orson Welles’ line from The Big Brass Ring to heart: Happy endings depend on where you stop the story.) Endgame proceeds along this same forlorn thematic line, but it also reckons with the past in a manner that the breathless, overstuffed Infinity War never could. The previous Avengers feature was too busy simply fulfilling the promise of 10 years’ worth of storytelling, too preoccupied with its status as a culminating pop-cultural moment. At just over three hours, Endgame is an equally overstuffed film, but it takes the time to linger (often indulgently) on what has come before, both in the narrative and thematic sense. It makes for a sharp contrast with all the other MCU films and their endless table-setting and teasing. (“The Avengers Will Return!”) It’s not incidental that Endgame lacks those coy MCU calling cards, the mid-credits and post-credits scenes. In a franchise that often resembles one exhausting run-on sentence, Avengers: Endgame feels like a welcome period (or at least a semicolon).
Endgame is certainly more narratively stimulating than its predecessor, which for all its sturm und drang was essentially one marathon act about the Avengers’ unsuccessful efforts to stop the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) from assembling the Infinity Stones. Those uber-MacGuffins allowed Thanos – a sort of genocidal eco-terrorist – to snuff out half the life in a universe with a snap of his fingers, erasing trillions of creatures in a puff of ash and thereby relaxing pressure on the cosmos’ finite resources. Never mind that the scheme didn’t make much sense, ecologically speaking; the upshot was a universe-wide apocalypse, albeit one closer to the existential shell shock of The Leftovers (2014-17) than any nuclear-holocaust or killer-asteroid scenario. Endgame picks up a few weeks after Thanos’ snap, with the surviving Avengers – the six OG members, conveniently enough, plus a few B-listers – still reeling from the “Vanishing,” as it’s been termed. With the freshly arrived galactic heavy-hitter Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in their corner, the team sets about tracking down Thanos’ current location, seizing the Infinity Stones from him, and (hopefully) using their power to undo the Mad Titan’s cosmic culling.
That’s about all that can be disclosed about the new film’s plot without delving into some major story swerves – and yet that summary still comprises only the first 20 minutes or so of the feature. Disney’s customary sweaty plea for spoiler-free critical treatment is a bit more defensible than usual in the case of Endgame. This is less about the unexpected guest appearances and inevitable character deaths than it is about the exact shape that the story assumes. While many of the individual elements in the film are well worn – a “putting the team back together” sequence; a timey-wimey quantum-flavored heist; an epic, all-hands-on-deck climactic rumble – Endgame assembles them in a way that feels relatively fresh and unpredictable, especially given the usual consistency of the MCU’s narrative beats. It’s perhaps the first Marvel film where it isn’t obvious where it’s all going at any given moment, and that sense of modest unruliness in the story is a pleasing change. It’s also the rare superhero film where the villain sniffs out the heroes’ plan relatively quickly and works to undermine them, adding some much-needed dramatic tension to a story that might have otherwise played out like a science experiment designed to blithely undo the events of Infinity War.
While Endgame takes pains to touch base with virtually every surviving character in the franchise, Marvel aficionados will be unsurprised that the “core trio” of Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are at the center of the new film’s story. There are plenty of character arcs to go around, however. Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, who was notably MIA during Infinity War, gets a hefty helping of screen time this outing, but the most surprising face pushed to the foreground in Endgame is Thanos’ cybernetic daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Although all the Avengers (and affiliated superfolk) have undergone notable internal struggles and realignments, no one has changed quite as much as Nebula, who has been performing a slow-motion heel-turn from villain to hero since she first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Given its thematic focus on history, warts and all, Endgame makes a fitting showcase for the MCU character who likely harbors the deepest regrets. Nebula is dogged by a thick, clinging shame about her past mistakes, not to mention a lingering awkwardness in accepting the amity and purpose that a surrogate super-family can provide. The events of Endgame force her to look straight into the chasm between who she was and who she has become.
Most of the customary criticisms that have applied to all MCU features also apply to Endgame: competent but unmemorable action sequences; over-reliance on quippy, faux-improv humor; and a propensity for switching up the fantasy and science-fiction rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot. (To be fair, the latter is one of the original sins of superhero comics.) More than any other Avengers film – or even the Avengers-film-in-all-but-name, Captain America: Civil War – Endgame is prone to silly splash-page posing. Too often, the Russos are focused on eliciting easy cheers from the audience, to the detriment of any sort of spatial or narrative sense. At this late stage in the financial (if not artistic) dominance of the MCU over blockbuster cinema, these flaws are perhaps permanent features of the franchise. It’s become as tedious to remark on them as it is to endure them.
What’ refreshing and even kind of admirable about Endgame is how warmly and earnestly it embraces the geeky adoration of MCU devotees. Endgame is flush with callbacks and Easter eggs and droll echoes of past events. (Back to the Future Part II  is explicitly derided for its nonsense physics, then cheekily evoked in the film’s restaging of familiar franchise scenes.) It’s a tightrope walk, but these moments (mostly) come off as joyous, clever hat tips rather than flattering, audience-directed winks. For once, it doesn’t feel like Marvel is doling out a morsel of entertainment while simultaneously teasing the viewer with how awesome the next morsel is going to be. Despite the film’s melancholic tone, the tear-jerking losses, and all the Wagnerian sci-fi spectacle, Endgame feels first and foremost like a big-hearted celebration of the MCU. Look closely and one can discern hints of the Marvel offerings to come – at least one imminent Disney+ TV series is seeded in the film’s epilogue – but the Russos consistently prioritize the past and present over the future. The final half-hour of Endgame feels like a long, grateful exhale after 22 films of hectic stuff, and credit to Marvel for recognizing that its fanbase deserves a gratifying, bittersweet coda to reflect on what a long, strange trip it’s been.