‘I lost the kid,” Tony Stark says bluntly at the start of Avengers: Endgame. We all lost the kid, and miss him: Spider-Man. We miss Black Panther and Falcon and Nick Fury and Doctor Strange, too. We’re missing a lot in this movie. Half of all living creatures were extinguished by the mega-Malthusian Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Picture a global 9/11, 9/11 times a million.
That somber aura gives Avengers: Endgame its gravitas, but the movie is also funny, rousing, and, above all, endearing. Any blockbuster can stage a fight or a heist; this one makes us care about the people involved. Endgame is chaotic yet fond, something like a class reunion staged on D-Day. The love this 22-film series has nurtured for a cast of oddballs from Groot to Captains America and Marvel, together with their quality consistency, puts them on a higher plane than the Star Wars and James Bond sagas. The crowds in China may line up for the digital effects, but the thundering fights are the least interesting aspect of a Marvel movie, including this one.
Endgame brought tears to my eyes more than once, not out of sadness but out of appreciation for how well these heroes have been written, and how well they’ve been played. Even Rocket Raccoon and Peter Quill have grown on me, although it took Thor’s brilliant mockery of them to do it. There is no post-credits sequence, but each of the principals gets to take a valedictory bow in the credits. It’s an unusual and well-deserved honor. What a crew! This might be the most staggering quantity of acting talent and star charisma ever assembled for one movie. I counted 14 Oscar nominees, including six winners, but I may have missed some.
I won’t give away any plot details of Avengers: Endgame or even do that annoying film-critic thing of pretending not to give away any details while actually making it easy to guess what I’m not saying, but this three-hour epic is more or less what we were all looking for. Regardless of whether the Avengers saga goes on, this one satisfyingly closes the book on its first era, eleven years that remade the movies.
If you missed Ant-Man and the Wasp (merely the 16th-highest-grossing film in the set), or even if you walked out when the closing credits started, the joke is on you. That film (which you can queue up on Netflix) contains a key clue to the puzzle of what happened at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. You really can’t miss a moment of this story. Endgame doesn’t just continue the story, it circles back on elements from earlier chapters in a dozen unexpected ways.
“We’re the A-vengers, not the Pre-vengers,” Tony notes. Time to kick Thanos’s butt, then? It’s not that easy. Years go by while the gang adjusts to the new reality of massive loss. In San Francisco, a park is filled with huge slabs listing the names of “the vanished.” New York City is much like what it was in the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks: in a state of dazed mourning, of uncharacteristic stillness and doubt. Now that half the city isn’t there anymore, the New York Mets have been disbanded. (The Yankees, presumably, live on — a reminder that evil is ineradicable.) Marvel producer Kevin Feige has put his two best screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, on the case. Their task is to map a way out of the mess while juggling dozens of characters. Under the expert guidance of the directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who also directed the previous Avengers picture, the way the writers manage to make every superhero important to the story is admirable bordering on ingenious.
The details of the central scheme lead to some clunky bits, so Avengers: Endgame is not as elegantly plotted as the first two Captain America movies, which were also written by Markus and McFeely. (And this, in a movie whose characters are at pains to make fun of time-travel hocus-pocus in previous blockbusters.) There’s a virtual replay of one of Tom Cruise’s silliest scenes, the notorious fistfight with himself in Oblivion, that also harks back to the campiest moments in Star Trek. Nor could I figure out why the women break off to form an ad hoc all-female platoon in the big battle scene, unless Pepper Potts offered them a deal on Goop products.
VIEW SLIDESHOW: Avengers: Endgame Premiere
Still, this Avengers movie is the best of the four, blending the funny and the dolorous without letting either spoil the other. Bruce Banner and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have merged into a single entity, a cardigan-wearing giant in spectacles who might as well call himself The Incredible Geek. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has become a lager-chugging gamer bro. “You look like melted ice cream,” Rocket (Bradley Cooper) tells him. Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Banner/Hulk have put their brains together to crack time travel, though, as Natasha points out, “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me.”
You wouldn’t want a superhero movie to be joyless, but veering from silly to scary has ruined many efforts in the genre (as it did Shazam!). The trick for screenwriters is making sure the characters always take the danger they’re in seriously, yet allowing for gallows humor. The humor should suggest not the superficiality of comics but a sophisticated men-in-arms picture featuring the kinds of wisecracks that might emerge among smart, tough people under pressure.
That camaraderie carries the movie all the way. The closing minutes are some of the most moving of the whole 50-hour opus: Within the Marvel universe there is due honor for sacrifice alongside deep gratitude for what has been accomplished. Out here in the audience, our gratitude doesn’t go quite as deep — Tony and Cap and Hulk and the alien with the antennae and the guy who loves Lite FM have merely entertained us, not saved our world. Still, they’ve brought a lot of joy. These people may not be heroes, but on screen they are undoubtedly super.