22 movies. It all started with Iron Man in 2008, and for the last decade the MCU has been plodding its way towards a conclusion that was saddled with the responsibility of bringing a saga dozens of hours long to a satisfying conclusion. Whether the grand finale that is Avengers: Endgame managed to satisfy you probably depends on how sufficiently obsessed you are with the 21 films that came before.
It’s an accomplishment in serialized film-making that Endgame doesn’t dissolve under its own mythos, and it’s a crowd-pleasing success when it decides to eschew conventional narrative storytelling and just dive into what kept people coming back over the last 11 years. It’s a stupid movie, with a stupid central plot and even worse pacing. It’s also a wonderful goodbye to a pop culture monolith that consumed and reshaped (for the better and, more often, for the worse) mainstream film-making over the last decade.
SPOILER WARNING. THERE WILL BE EXPLICIT, UNMARKED ENDGAME SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT. PLEASE DO NOT GET MAD AT ME IF YOU MISSED THIS WARNING.
Heading into Endgame, the biggest question left of narrative importance was simple: how would our intrepid heroes undo The Snap? Sure, the meta-narrative was all about who would die, but inside the world of the MCU, it was all about turning back time (figuratively, we might have thought, or at least on a surface level) on Thanos’s big Infinity War success. What we got instead was a very quick death for the Mad Titan not even a third of the way into the movie and a lot of questions, answered ably by Ant-Man and the Wasp and its leap into the quantum realm: the Avengers would actually have to travel back in time.
The specifics of the time traveling are stupid, though the film was at least smart enough to try and head off any prolonged head-scratching by making reference to other time travel movies. As Mark Ruffalo’s Professor Hulk (a visually unsettling hybrid of Hulk and Bruce Banner) explains, they are not changing the past so much as they are changing their own future. By bringing back the Infinity Stones from the past, they create alternate timelines, different from the ones we saw in the movies prior to Endgame. The movie mostly avoids falling into paradox fears and discussions over the meaning of time, which is all anyone can really ask for from a film that decides to touch this particular narrative third rail.
More than offering an opportunity to undo The Snap, the movie’s time travel plot allowed for the filmmakers to revisit key moments from the previous 21 movies and provide a reward to the fans who sat through each of those damn things. You can’t make a movie that literally takes viewers back through the last decade of Marvel movies if you don’t trust in those same viewers having a deep appreciation for the original films.
Though one of the time-travel plots (Hawkeye and Natasha’s Vormir suicide escapade) did not directly interact with a previous movie, the others saw a return to The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Dark World, Doctor Strange, and even an echo of The Winter Soldier. This led to fan service galore: the welcome returns of Loki and The Ancient One; the less-interesting returns of Rene Russo and Natalie Portman; the re-introduction of Thor’s Mjolnir hammer (destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok); and a callback to the best fight scene in the MCU: the elevator fight in Winter Soldier (with a “Hail Hydra” to boot).
And here’s where the train begins to go off the rails for anyone who wasn’t already deeply embedded in the MCU. Endgame plays less as a blockbuster event and more like a TV series finale, revisiting the themes and locales of years past to conclude three days worth of films. There are those big set-piece callbacks to movies you may not have seen (imagine how confused you would be by Tilda Swinton’s appearance if you didn’t see Doctor Strange), but there are also character beats and in-jokes that only work if you have obsessively re-watched at least a portion of the 21 films that came before Endgame.
Take for example Captain America wielding Mjolnir. On its own it was extremely badass, if a bit out of nowhere; if you don’t know the comics, it just seems like a convenient way to save Thor from Thanos at a crucial time. And if you haven’t seen Age of Ultron since its disappointing release, you would have missed the significance stemming from that movie’s only good scene:
Thor’s face when the hammer so slightly budges is paid off tenfold in Endgame, with Chris Hemsworth nailing that joyful exuberance he traffics in so well, cackling in the face of near-certain death with an “I knew it!” It’s a small joke and reference that won’t hamper the enjoyment of one of the most viscerally stunning films in the MCU, but it’s one that rewards those who have been paying attention.
Time travel and callbacks are all well and good as an easy if restrictive way of winking at the past, but you can’t “I understood that reference” (hey, I understood that reference!) your way through emotional investment. That’s where the gap in enjoyment between superfans and non-believers will live as more people see Endgame.
Take Tony Stark’s death, the moment everyone was waiting for, expecting, and possibly dreading. Robert Downey Jr. is the most important actor in the entire MCU, because without him, the whole thing falls apart. He is the link to the macho-bro beginnings back in 2008, he’s the leading star of every Avengers installment, as well as Civil War and to a lesser extent Spider-Man: Homecoming. By all reports, Downey Jr. has been itching for the day he can hang up his goatee and tin can suit and stop making these damn movies, so the only mystery remaining was whether Iron Man would simply retire post-Thanos to live with Goop and his adorable new daughter, or if he would actually die. And boy did he.
The movie does a great job in its extended runtime of setting up the in-universe stakes for Tony Stark: yes, half the universe was wiped out, but he finally had a family and a home. Risking all that for something that might not work (though his change of heart happens, appropriately, after he pulls out a “smartest person in the room” and figures out that time travel is actually possible, which, sure) heightens the drama around the whole second half of the movie.
There’s a dread in every Iron Man snippet of the Big Grand Battle at the heart of Endgame, because at any point, he could be offed to throw the movie into emotional tailspin. How it eventually happens sticks with the film’s ethos of calling back to the past.
Back in 2008, Stark revealed his true identity to the world with four simple words: “I am Iron Man.” That’s not a hidden gem in a sea of films of widely differing quality; it’s the first real iconic moment in the series, and one that would get a visceral reaction from everyone watching when Stark says it, a lot more haltingly, before he snaps his chrome fingers and wipes Thanos and his army off the face of the universe. That it comes as a word-for-word response to Thanos’s twice-repeated “I am inevitable,” feels right.
It was always inevitable that Iron Man—and not Captain America, as some believed—would be the one to end this first chapter of the MCU. Without Iron Man, and without Downey Jr., there is no MCU at all. Rewarding fans who first stumbled out of theaters in 2008, wild-eyed and probably missing the end-credits scene tradition that became so ubiquitous in the series, was the smart play and the satisfying ending this series’ first iteration deserved. Would it have meant as much to a viewer who only cherry-picked certain installments, especially as they became weirder and more successful in turn? Probably not.
But that never seems to be Endgame’s goal. It feels strange to say this about a movie that is breaking box office records left and right, but Endgame is the most insular installment of the franchise. It’s the best example of the MCU snake eating its own tail, regurgitating past conflicts and emotions throughout 180-plus minutes. After Infinity War’s dour ending, it switches gears, giving everyone a happy ending: Iron Man dies a hero, Cap gets his time travel love story, and all the dusted people come back to life and set up future installments (the Thor/Guardians of the Galaxy film should, at least, be lots of fun). There’s no gray area here. Thanos was defeated, the Infinity Stones are a thing of the past (literally), and the MCU can move on with a more interesting (and more diverse) group of characters going forward, starting with this summer’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.
These are not things you would miss if you, as two of my friends did, only watched Infinity War recently and didn’t pay much attention to the other MCU films. Both movies, combined, tell a pretty solid story, quests leading the way to big battles and toof toof toof toofs. But it’s a story that you would be joining in media res.
The Russo brothers could have leaned into making this a standalone film that could rope in non-fans and still somewhat satisfy their devoted followers. It probably would have been fine to go halfway. Instead, they leaned all the way into fan service, giving everything that the most dedicated followers of the Avengers saga could have possibly asked for, including two of the original six Avengers dying for the cause and a rousing re-introduction of the dusted superheroes two hours in.
The wide shot of the Avengers, the Guardians, the other heroes, the Wakandan army, and the wizard reinforcements facing off against Alternate Timeline Thanos and his horde works because it’s so overwhelmingly grandiose. It’s a moment that was earned through a commitment as stringent as those made by the longest TV shows.
What Endgame did better than any other long-term film franchise (though there are really none with the scale or longevity of the MCU) is make a decision and run with it. That decision was to put fan service and emotional payoff over drama, subtlety, or even narrative sense. The heroes were always going to win, and Tony Stark was always going to die, so instead of stressing over the particulars, the Russos gave fans a maximalist spectacle worthy of such a maximalist endeavor. The movie works because it’s a dazzling display of blockbuster film-making on its own (even Moonlight director Barry Jenkins agrees that the final battle whipped ass), but Endgame will resonate because it understood what fans wanted from it and delivered. Fan service is usually cited as a negative aspect of storytelling, but when it’s used in the service of rewarding people who have sat through 21 movies, it’s hard to get too bent out of shape about it.