Avengers: Endgame is absurd. I’ve previously declared myself agog that movie screens are routinely turned over to these vibrant figures that dominated my youthful years, enveloping my fragile psyche in the protection of costumed titans who take the strange misfortune of enhanced physical attributes as a mandate to restore justice to an uncertain universe. A little more than a decade into the cinematic era launched by Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the dazzling showmanship of Marvel Studios is so thoroughly enmeshed into the cultural conversation that the sheer scale of the latest entry in the vast ongoing saga can almost be taken for granted. It is a three-hour spectacle that can be reasonably characterized as three different films stacked upon one another. By one tally, there are fifty-four major performers in credited roles, and twenty-one prior films are drawn from liberally, like a spice rack of superheroes. Completely the circle of excess, Avengers: Endgame has made money faster than the most efficient and well-staffed production facility of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Endgame is, in its simplest description, a direct follow-up to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. As the new film begins, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are distraught in the wake of the successful implementation of a galaxy-wide genocide perpetrated by cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) with the snap of his gauntlet-clad and jewel-bedecked fingers. Grieving for their fallen allies and guilt-stricken over their failure to stop the supervillain, our heroes gradually assemble their might in the hopes of somehow, some way undoing the damage.
The mechanics of the story require the twisting of the known laws of, well, everything, and it’s to the enormous credit of the filmmakers that disbelief is reasonably easy to suspend. Or at least the riotous romping through a sharply, intricately drawn mosaic of established, interlocking fictions is imbued with such a ceaseless sense of joyful inspiration that pulling at stray threads carries the sourness of entirely unnecessary self-inflected spoiling of sport. Where Infinity War was burdened by dour narrative duty curdling into blatant acts of manipulation, Endgame is a cohort-like exaltation of every last thing intrinsic to the superhero archetype — and Marvel’s decades of specific storytelling mastery, in particular — that positioned it to become the inescapable foundation of current pop culture, much to the surprise of people like me, who once hid their colorful comic books in tepid shame.
I don’t intend to absolve Endgame of its flaws, and they are there. In the warm afterglow, I find myself thinking more on the elements that tickle my longtime fandom: the artful ad hoc partnerships between established but previously distant characters, the happy moments of loving fan service, the genial callbacks, and the victory laps for the actors who’ve carried the weighty Marvel brand on their backs for years, practically making service to the cause a full-time profession. As a discerning cineaste, I might quibble with narrative cheats, the fairly pedestrian shot construction, or the lack of thematic heft and insight. As someone who still wants more than anything else to be transported when the theater lights dim, I’m grateful for a myriad of the film’s clicking cogs. There are moments belonging to individual actors (particularly Chris Evans, who merits some sort of lifetime achievement award for the improbably feat of humanizing Captain America, probably the trickiest character in all of the pantheon) and characters that made me beam like a kid before a freshly stocked spinner rack. I acknowledge that Avengers: Endgame is as much machine as film, but, my oh my, it purrs and gleams. Does it ever.