The Avengers—lost and forlorn after the battle in Wakanda—must rally, regroup and reflect on their purpose as Earth's mightiest heroes before setting out on a one-in-fourteen-million adventure, attempting to re-write history.
With moments of cinematic brilliance, emotional character call-backs, comedic winks to a grateful audience and immense action scenes, Avengers: Endgame is a near-perfect epic culmination to the Avenger's arc within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One which kicked off eleven years ago when Nick Fury appeared in the post-credits scene of Iron Man.
*** SPOILERS ***
Endgame opens with a quiet moment, re-visiting 'the snap' from the point of view of Clint Barton (Hawkeye). It's a clever way to let audiences re-experience the horror at the end of Infinity War while calling back to Age of Ultron where we are introduced to Hawkeye as a family man; seen here teaching his daughter archery. Suddenly and very quietly, his family starts to dust.
We cut to Avengers HQ, where our remaining heroes have regrouped and are still hopeful they can find Thanos and reverse the snap. A few days have passed since the battle in Wakanda and the team has been joined by Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), who received Nick Fury's last gasp page during the post-credits scene of Infinity War.
The team is quick to locate Thanos with some vague reference to quakes (or something) happening all over Earth and other planets throughout the galaxy (or was it universe?). When they reach the planet he has set himself down on, they are surprised to find Thanos alone. Confident they now have the power to stop him, they attack and best him quite easily. However, it is all in vein. Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones, and with them any hope of reversing the snap. In a futile act of rage, Thor lops off Thanos' head, which is edited in a way that evokes some unintended comedy. There's no satisfaction in the slice however, despite, "going for the head" this time, Thanos has won.
We jump five years; the quick prologue is important for setting up the tone; an additional emotive note to setup Endgame as a standalone film and Endgame proper begins, in a sombre world where few have moved on. We see some survivors attend meetings held by Steve Rogers (Captain America) to help cope with their loss. As much as they can, The Avengers are still trying to do their duty, but they seem to be going through the motions. Natasha (Black Widow) is perhaps the most loyal to the cause, as they've been the only family she's ever known.
Tony Stark (Iron Man), who we see returned to Earth by Captain Marvel is thankful to find Pepper wasn't dusted and of all of our leads is the one who finds the most peace in the post-snap apocalypse. We see he and Pepper living a simple, remote life and that they have given birth to a daughter.
Suddenly, a new hope comes from the unlikeliest place in Scott Lang. For those following the post-credit setups, in Ant-Man and The Wasp he was trapped in the Quantum Realm when his team is dusted. Scott has lived out the past fives years in just five minutes due to the time differential between Earth and the Quantum Realm. He is retrieved accidentally by a rat which runs over the controls in his abandoned van. It's a silly moment, but it works well enough to set things in motion.
Scott is shocked by the world he finds and hasn't had five years to deal with it. He is motivated and confidant they can reverse things because his recent trip to the Quantum Realm has given him an idea. Though he doesn't really understand how, he believes the time differential can be used as a way to time travel, and has just enough 'Pym particles' to share with The Avengers to do so.
In order to get the science right, the team need Tony's help, who is hesitant due to the slim chance of navigating time accurately, but also because he's enjoying the quiet life. Understandably so, as he has a daughter now and this makes him less motivated to change things and risk losing her.
Without Tony, the team turn to Bruce Banner, the other big brain in the team, and we discover that he's now Bruce/Hulk. Something in between Bruce and Hulk, neither one or the other and not as interesting as the friction between the two. The decision to present the character in such a way sidesteps any conclusion to the arc setup in Infinity War where Hulk becomes gripped with fear by Thanos. Nor does it offer Bruce himself any real character development in Endgame since all this has happened off screen. It isn't earned and Bruce/Hulk serves little but to lighten up scenes and give us some time-travel exposition.
Like Hulk, Thor is perhaps the least well served character. Having first lost Asgard in Ragnarok and failing to stop Thanos in Infinity War, he is now a recluse in New Asgard, a small seaside village, home to the Asgardians who have survived. A once great, powerful and empiric people are now but a small tribe. The last thing they need is an alcoholic king who has put on weight, grown his hair and beard, and spends his days playing video games with Korg.
Used so well in both Ragnarok and Infinity War, in Endgame, Thor becomes the butt of jokes. It's a shame because there was something of substance in the idea of him suffering from PTSD due to his failures which weigh on him, like Mjolnir weighs on the unworthy.
The juxtaposition to Thor's normal god-of-thunder look is however cartoon-ish, clearly achieved with computer graphics. Added to the comical look, the way he interacts with the other characters plays on his physical health rather than concern for his mental health.
Meanwhile, Tony figures out how they might securely time travel and is willing to help, so long as their goal is to bring the dusted back to the present rather than change (or erase) the past five years which includes the birth of his daughter.
Now, with the team back together—except Captain Marvel who excuses herself—and a plan, the second act begins. It's a complex, dangerous and convoluted plan;
The team will use Pym particles to teleport back in time, split up and collect the gems from different places, return to the present, group them on a new Iron Man-style gauntlet (one that conveniently doesn't need to be forged from the power of a dying sun) and snap everyone back.
Time travel shenanigans were always going to be a cop-out resolution regardless of how much they set it up. However, the Russo Brothers where able to use the contrivance as a way to take us on a fun trip down memory lane as the team sets off to intervene in their own previous adventures.
Re-visiting the battle of New York is perhaps the most out and out fun and gives Captain America a good opportunity to look back on a more naive and hopeful version of himself. Bruce/Hulk is sent to convince The Ancient One (who we last saw in Dr. Strange) to give up the Time Stone and he is fortunate she wraps her head around their needs fairly quickly.
While Steve also successfully retrieves Loki's staff and the Mind Stone, Tony and Scott fail to retrieve the Tesseract, and inadvertently allow Loki to escape with it this time around. So, they need to jump further back in time, to the 70s where they know both the Tesseract and more Pym particles will be available. This detour is less about the needs of the plot and more about giving Tony and his father, Howard, a long awaited scene together. It's a good scene yet adds further disruption to the films pacing problems.
Hawkeye and Black Widow meanwhile are on Vormir (before Thanos gets there in Infinity War) where they learn that the Soul Stone can only be retrieved by offering a sacrifice. This scene is important to Black Widow's character resolution, however its a bit contrived. We see it coming as soon as they are sent there since they are the least appropriate duo to send to such a cosmic place and we, the audience, already know the rules laid out in Infinity War by Red Skull when Thanos sacrifices his daughter Gamora there.
The third act of the film is however setup by Rhodey and Nebula's attempt to retrieve the Power Stone, which takes us back to the opening scene of Guardians of The Galaxy where Peter Quill is doing his best Indiana Jones impression. Their mission seems the easiest of all however just as Rhodey jumps back to the present, Nebula is stopped by Thanos and company, including a younger version of herself, still devoutly loyal to him.
It seems that two Nebula's cannot easily exist in the same time and her presence causes a glitch in the younger version which allows Thanos not only to find her, but uncover what The Avengers are trying to do. Realising that his mission succeeded, he must make his math more severe to avoid this outcome again.
By switching Nebulas, when the team have all returned to the present, young Nebula is able to use Pym particles to bring Thanos and his army forward in time. Just as Hulk uses the Iron Man Gauntlet to reverse the snap, Thanos' ship emerges from a time portal and a joy of fan service and action begins.
The final act of the movie is a glorious action set piece, and the best we've seen in any of The Avengers films; jam-packed with great character moments and fun surprises.
The first part of the battle sees our heroes outnumbered and taking a beating. However when Steve Rogers picks himself up, shield broken and looks up at Thanos' great army ready to die; we get the most satisfying moment in the whole franchise. We hear a faint "on your left" from Sam Wilson (Falcon). A great reference to the first time they met in The Winter Soldier. We aren't sure where the voice is from, but we know that the team has successfully reversed the snap.
Suddenly a heap of sorcerer portals being to spin open. From them all the Avengers and their allies come swarming out. Everyone is back and ready to join the epic final showdown against Thanos. With so much to juggle in such a massive battle scene, the Russo's do well to ensure everyone gets a hero shot and there are some amazing moments of fan service which actually fit the narrative too.
Within the battle, perhaps the main inconsistently is the strength of Thanos, as this—sans-infinity stones version—is handling himself against The Avengers just as well—if not better—than the one packing a gauntlet full of Infinity Stones in Infinity War. Saying that, there hasn't really been a clear definition of strength for any characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so why start now. The filmmakers define this as needed, rather than ensuring the stories stay true to what has been defined.
Further to his confusing strength, the main problem with Thanos in Endgame, is that he's not really the Thanos we got to know and love in Infinity War, but rather the computer generated character we saw in short scenes building up to Infinity War. This might seem trivial but the version of Thanos which was so well developed in Infinity War is dead and here we are back to having a black and white, mustache twirling villain version. Therefore when he is finally bested it isn't as satisfying, despite Tony's great delivery of, "I am Iron Man" as he himself snaps his fingers to end the threat of Thanos once and for all.
Following the battle, the closing scenes present moments of solace for each of our main characters, and especially touching scenes for Tony and Steve who really have been the franchise leads.
Endgame is at times hampered by convoluted plot contrivances and glosses over of its own time-travel logic. Yet, while a cleaner, less "reset button" approach to the film's resolution would have made the outcome tighter, the use of time travel offered us a joyful and emotional ride all the same.
So, while open to debate and interpretation, every important moment in the film is earned due to the audience's investment with the characters, if not the prowess of the writing from a scientific (or logical) point-of-view. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to succeed by adapting the comic book characters in ways that make us want to hang out with them, and then used soap opera techniques to ensure we keep wanting to know what happens to them next.
So, on we go; far from home...