Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Reeling from the devastation caused by Thanos, the remaining Avengers and their allies attempt a risky strategy to put things right…
In early October 2019, a few months after the release of the Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, the revered film director Martin Scorsese caused a minor kerfuffle. Asked if he’d seen any Marvel movies, he said, ‘I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’
An array of fans cried foul on Twitter, ridiculing Marty as an out-of-touch old man or a snob or a fool or all three. (Samuel L Jackson, who’d had a small role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas before appearing in many Marvel films, gave a more measured response: ‘That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.’) Scorsese is entitled his opinion. He’s earned that much after a career that has included genuine all-time-great works of the art form such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, even if there’s a certain irony in him evoking the purity of cinema while preparing to release a film, 2019’s The Irishman, that has been funded by Netflix and will be available for people to watch on their phones astonishingly soon after its theatrical run.
Also, as clumsily articulated as his point was, modern, flashy, big-budget, effects-heavy superhero films are undeniably different beasts from, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca or American Beauty. Films such as Avengers: Endgame and its stablemates have a different focus, a different intent. Scorsese’s theme-park analogy actually holds up when you consider that every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is awash with boldly designed visuals intended to excite and thrill, as well as camera movements and rapid editing designed to pull you along and sweep you around.
The problem comes when you assume that that’s *all* they are. To use Martin Scorsese’s logic against him, should we conclude that Mean Streets is not cinema but closer to a videogame because it contains lots of violence? Of course not. The film uses violence to tell its story, and its story is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.
It’s true that the Marvel series is open to any number of criticisms on a filmmaking level. The movies can be cinematographically bland, flatly staged, horrendously over-edited and lit like a game show; the scripts can feel hammered out by a committee and have a sense of explain-everything-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats; occasionally the stories can be undermined by boring action sequences and badly thought-out villains. However, saying they’re ‘not cinema’ is patently ridiculous. And while no one is going to claim that modern superhero films are as sophisticated as Shakespeare, so is implying that there’s no drama involved amongst the razzmatazz. Soon after that Scorsese quote went viral, the writer C Robert Cargill tweeted to say that when he was working on Doctor Strange, the 14th MCU film, ‘the vast majority of Marvel’s notes were about deepening character, strengthening the story, and asking us if we could “make it weirder”. Anyone who thinks Marvel is only trying to make theme park rides is being unjust and cynical.’
That approach is easy to believe when you watch Avengers: Endgame, which is nevertheless the most bombastically epic movie in a serious not short of bombast or epic qualities. The film, all three hours of it, is packed pull of *stuff* and characters and spectacle and action and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent and effort, but its story is still founded on character choices and character reactions. It starts, in fact, feeling less like an event movie and more like an indie drama: an understated cold open shot with a handheld camera shows us Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in idyllic domesticity with his family. But then the mood darkens, as his wife and children fade out of existence thanks to the villainous actions of Josh Brolin’s Thanos as seen in previous MCU mega-hit Avengers: Infinity War.
Endgame is very much a follow-on from that earlier film. In fact, when originally announced in 2014 its title was Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2. However, the script moves events on by five years into a grim, sombre, post-Thanos world where the remaining members of society are trying to deal with their grief and their survivor guilt. Even the mighty Avengers and their associates have been hit hard by Thanos’s finger-clicking carnage. Well, ish… Fifty per cent of all life in the universe may be now gone, but for storytelling reasons the big headline characters who started this series of films – Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye – have all survived the cull.
Character stories dominate. Thor has descended into a overweight drunkard. The traumatised Clint has become a cyberpunk vigilante. Tony Stark has retreated into rural obscurity. Natasha is trying to coordinate the remaining Avengers but is emotionally raw. Bruce Banner has actually flourished, finally finding peace with the two halves of his personality. It’s a bravely downbeat way to start such a film, but a smart one. Martin Scorsese may disagree, but the MCU has always put emotion at the heart of their stories. For all the razzle-dazzle, each film has been about characters wanting things and overcoming hurdles. It’s fundamentally why the series has been so enjoyable. (And why it stands up so well when compared to the rival DC franchise.)
However, the dark mood doesn’t last. Slowly, bit by bit, the film raises its levels of humour and momentum as the characters realise they have a way of righting the wrongs caused by the now-dead Thanos. The surprise reappearance of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who avoided the cull because he was infinitesimally small in the quantum realm at the time, gives the gang the impetus to attempt a plan based on time-travel. The plan dominates the middle third of the movie, and is generally a hoot.
The goal is to obtain a full set of the Infinity Stones – singularly bland plot devices that have recurred throughout this series since 2011’s Thor movie – by removing them from the timeline before Thanos did his damage. We get the usual meta gags about how time-travel doesn’t really make sense (Back to the Future is cited), then we’re thrown into a gleefully self-indulgent tour around the MCU’s own heritage. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Scott Lang travel to the New York City of Avengers Assemble; Bruce Banner drops in on Tilda Swinton’s character from Doctor Strange; Thor and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) head to the planet Asgard at the time of Thor: The Dark World; Nebula (Karen Gillen) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) visit the planet Morag at the time of Guardians of the Galaxy; and later Tony and Steve must also travel to a secret research base in the 1970s where they encounter a succession of younger versions of important MCU characters (Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark). The sequences are riotously enjoyable, blending action-driven plotting and emotion with humour and postmodern winking-to-the-audience. Several times, new footage is stitched into old scenes, a la Back to the Future Part II, allowing both fresh perspectives and a hell of a lot of fun.
The final third of the movie is then more conventional, essentially boiling down into yet another MCU battle scene where thousands of characters are filmed (or created digitally) in isolation and then matted together in post-production. But you forgive it with Avengers: Endgame because the stakes have been laid out so cleverly. And for all its CGI noise and bluster, this climactic action sequence still contains plenty of character moments, comedy and stirring emotions. (Having said that, how you respond to an archly designed moment that features all the major female characters – Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Hope van Dyne aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula – teaming up for *one shot* will depend on your levels of cynicism. Is it a daring, pointed, woke breakthrough? Or a rather silly bit of tokenism? You decide!)
Endgame is well named. The MCU series has continued, with movies and TV spin-offs announced for several years to come. But this film has the real feel of a season finale, an end point, a conclusion. The two biggest, most well-known and most popular characters are written out, while it features the final cameo from Marvel godfather the late Stan Lee. It’s the end of an era. Given how effective the emotional series of wrap-up scenes are, it’s also undeniably the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.
Nine men shouting, ‘Make love, not war!’ out of 10