Avengers: Endgame is not a movie. Here is where some poor Ringer writer with Bill Simmons looming over their shoulder like Dennis Quaid in that The Intruder trailer would write “it is a Cultural Event” or “it is the End Of An Era” or “it is the high water mark of brand synergy in the IP marketplace” or some such. No. What Avengers: Endgame is is the awkward and over-serious series finale of a long-running television sitcom. It was not made to tell an interesting story of its own, or to expand meaningfully on the themes established in the earlier episodes, or even to reiterate those themes in thoughtful or fun or inventive new ways. To the extent that Avengers: Endgame even has an artistic purpose—to grant that it exists to do more than just soak up another couple billion dollars for Disney—its purpose is to get these actors onto the next phases of their respective careers, and in a way that is gratifying for people who especially give a shit about their Marvel characters.
If you are not someone who especially gives a shit about these Marvel characters, there’s a very good chance you will find this deeply annoying. If, for example, you are someone who has enjoyed the various Avengers movies well enough, for their cool action and quippy dialogue and generally unserious tone, but without investing a whole lot of emotional bandwidth in the question of whether Robert Downey Jr.’s stint as Iron Man is brought to a close with proper reverence, there’s a strong likelihood that you will spend the first two-thirds of Endgame surprisingly fidgety and bored, if not genuinely bewildered by how much this damn movie expects you to care about whether a crudely constructed immortal alien god who expresses anger by shooting lightning from his eyeballs finds emotional closure with a minor character from a movie you half-remember watching like eight years ago. Or the sloppy redemption arc of a guy whose entire moral decline is articulated in one deeply cheesy six-minute ninja fight sequence in Endgame’s endless first-third where-are-they-now phase.
The emphasis on Doing Right By These Tentpole Characters is so overwhelming that for long stretches of the movie it obliterates the conflict that has ostensibly motivated their actions in the plot. When Rocket and Thor find themselves off on a quest that is of absolute importance to the team’s long-shot hope of saving literally half of all living things in the universe, Thor’s angst over his career and lifestyle choices not only diverts his half of their effort, but is given the vast majority of screen time. We get plenty of Thor’s heavy-handed and cliché-laden reconciliation with a cameo performer, while Rocket literally scampers around desperately in a few throwaway cut scenes, actually fighting to save trillions of lives. The only way to interpret this, as a viewer who cares much more about the plot of the movie than about whether Thor will like Take The Mantle Of King Of New Asgard after the movie is over, is as proof that the plot is just a noisy excuse for the filmmakers to establish as much of what comes after it as possible.
That’s just one example. Here’s another: Tony Stark and Captain America go on a similar quest, with the same stakes—succeed or accept the absolute finality of Thanos’s Snap. It’s seemingly a risky gig, too, involving taking a potentially one-way trip to a secured facility to steal top secret shit guarded by armed badge-wearing types. At one point the duo’s attire and demeanor draw suspicion, and some of those armed badge-wearing types are mobilized. Cool! Surely this will raise the stakes—surely now we will get a sense of just how huge and daring and likely doomed this quest is for our long-suffering heroes! And we get the shot of Captain America coming one way through a narrow corridor while some of those armed types head toward him. Uh oh! How will our heroes escape this one?? I’ll tell you how: Captain America ducks into an unlocked office, whereupon those of us who are a little distracted by the quest to bring back to life actual trillions of beings are disappointed to learn that the whole potential conflict with the armed guards of a top secret facility was just a way for the story to force Captain America into that exact office at that exact moment, in order to confront some of his personal baggage. The MacGuffins he and Stark are after aren’t even there to move the plot; they’re there to give Captain America a boner.
And even the eventual undoing of the Snap itself—listen, motherfucker, if you thought they weren’t going to reverse the Snap, I’m afraid you’re just too stupid to watch movies, let alone read about them—is positioned by the story arc as ultimately about prolonging the resolution of the question of which of two central Avengers characters will survive the movie. This is a narrative trap of Marvel’s own making: under no circumstances were the Avengers not going to reverse the Snap; under no circumstances were they going to lose to Thanos. The only thing left to learn is under what specific circumstances they’d reverse the Snap and win. There’s a ghoulish God-view angle to this, though, because inevitably some part of what we are watching is not the development of a plot, but the sensitive extrication of actors and a studio from a project. As much as you may tell yourself that you’re watching to learn what will happen to these characters—or even just to enjoy the thrill of watching them do the only thing they can do, which is win—it’s impossible to ignore the knowledge that some number of these characters must have their stories closed, as a practical matter.
At one point in Endgame Thanos describes himself as “inevitable,” and it’s a little queasy, because as much as he is the author of his own genocidal designs, he is also an axe in the hands of the filmmakers, who simply have no choice but to kill some of these fuckers. By about the 120-minute mark of Endgame, if not far earlier, if not whole actual months ago, you have fully transitioned from wondering which Avengers will be killed by Thanos to wondering which will be killed by Disney. If you are not the sort of person who has invested disproportionate personal emotional significance in the fate of Gun Lady or Arrow Fella (for example) there’s a good chance this grim game of musical chairs will resolve itself in your brain into an uncomfortable and removed analysis of shit like genre conventions, if not brand fatigue and the dreaded IP. So when Gun Lady and Arrow Fella are faced with a terrible do-or-die choice, and the scene quickly evolves into an explicit test of which one can survive, you never quite escape the feeling that the cruelty that has forced them to this moment is less cosmic and more corporate, an artificial Sophie’s Choice being foisted upon the filmmakers, by the filmmakers, with the emotional weight sort of presumptuously passed along to you, the viewer.
The Avengers franchise is only the one-millionth story to run into the problem of how to produce an inevitable outcome in a way that feels compelling and urgent. What makes it a television sitcom, though, is the inevitable outcome they’re stuck producing is external to the plot, and is the retirement of a franchise that is ending for reasons that are arbitrary to the world of the story. There is no storytelling reason whatsoever that the MCU can’t conjure up the next big scary villain and throw these same superheroes in his or her path, in the same way that there’s no particular storytelling reason why the gang from Friends couldn’t continue snarkily hating each other at a coffee shop for another 100 episodes. The MCU movies are episodic, duh, because what makes comic book superheroes superheroes is their supernatural ability to return things to their prior condition in a certain number of pages. Their adventures on the page will quite literally never end, because there will always be someone to draw a new one, and anyway once you’ve gotten readers to accept things like reincarnation and the multiverse, you have permanently foreclosed on the possibility of retiring a character. Ending their adventures will always be a decision; in the movies, those decisions likelier than not have to do with this or that actor aging out of the damn role. Now that Spiderman has made the leap to the multiverse and animation, you can forget about worrying ever again how his stories will end.
So, like, Sauron was never gonna win in Lord of the Rings, but also Samwise Gamgee was never gonna be spun up into like the grim and gritty story of an essentially immortal vigilante Hobbit gardener in order to wring out another few years of summer blockbusters. Peter Jackson never had to devote any of his movies to convincing viewers that the individual arcs inside his movies were actually, really, sincerely coming to a close, and then do the demeaning servicey shit of making LOTR fanboys and fangirls accept that very arbitrary decision without too much moaning. There’s no rule or convention or standard of kindness that says the makers of Endgame couldn’t have made an even vaguely self-contained sci-fi action movie, ended it the way all the other movies ended—with things returning more or less to normal—and then just said “we are now done telling the stories of those characters.” Frankly, that would’ve ruled! Instead they buckled under the wholly self-imposed pressure to like Do Right By Undies Man And Mech Genius In This Hour Of Their Retirement, and the result is a movie where so much of the important and permanent stuff that happens has the impossible-seeming quality of feeling both arbitrary and also inevitable. There are no surprises. Only children and the least savvy viewers will not spot the either-or choices the filmmakers have dug their way into a mile away.
With the actual plot thus encumbered, Endgame devolves fairly early on into a greatest hits reel, and the weight given to some of the character resolutions in the final third is goofy to the point of being unbearable, the kind of shit that could only deserve all its heavy-handedness if you consider Chris Evans as Captain America to be an important part of your childhood. If you’re just a person who thought the Avengers movies were fun and had cool punching and unpretentious dialogue, you may find yourself wishing they’d ended it with all the main characters going to jail. The Avengers movies have never before given me the urge to shake adult human beings and angrily remind them that these are comic book characters, until Endgame. That’s a talking raccoon. That’s a green space alien. That guy shoots lightning. That guy shrinks. Settle down.