Marvel Reaches a Grand and Thrilling Milestone With ‘Avengers: Endgame’

It has all come down to this. “Avengers: Endgame” makes the bold attempt of combining every element that has turned Marvel into the great movie franchise of our time, in order to deliver a finale both emotional and grand. Last year’s apocalyptic “Infinity War” left the fandom world holding its breath, as doomed seemed assured for our favorite superheroes. But that was merely a first chapter in a monumental showdown. What begins as a return to a ravaged world also turns into a loving homage to a decade of Marvel films, celebrating the closure of one phase and the beginning of another.

The galactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) had finally taken control of the Infinity Stones in the last film, literally snapping his fingers and dissolving half of all living things. Many of the great Marvel heroes were rendered to particles blown by the wind. Left behind were Tony Stark or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner who is also Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and a marooned on Earth Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). As we return to this saga Iron Man is rescued from doom in space by the just-arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and brought back to Earth to regroup with the other survivors. Desperate to stop Thanos, they are led to him by his daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) to a picturesque garden planet where the destroyer has decided to enjoy a quiet existence, now that he has brought what he perceives as a necessary balance to nature via mass extinction. But the Infinity Stones are now gone, and a violent standoff with Thanos yields little hope. Five years later, the remaining Avengers have tried to rebuild their lives in a world of broken souls. Then Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), left stuck in the Quantum Realm due to the events in “Infinity War,” manages to escape and see for himself what has happened. He meets up with the other heroes and proposes a daring idea. If they can find a way to travel back in time and recover the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get to them, maybe the past and present can be saved.

“Endgame” had quite the act to follow. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, had delivered with “Infinity War” a spectacle to top everything that had come before it. They manage to deliver an epic just as thunderous and entertaining with “Endgame,” with a final act that becomes the most titanic battle in the whole MCU.  It works because this team is not so much following Hollywood standards as they are the standards of classic comic book storytelling. In the tradition of the sagas you find in countless multi-issue threads, a sudden cataclysm finds everyone scattered, sometimes lost in deep reflection or sadness before roaring back to set things right. “Endgame” begins somberly, with Hawkeye (who was missing in the last movie), realizing his family has vanished due to Thanos’s cosmic assault. It is a tense, quiet scene that introduces us to a darkened reality. The first act is all about the remaining Avengers broken by Thanos, especially Thor. Even after they find the warlord in a disturbingly blissful setting, like a content fascist picking vegetables, there is no peace. Five years later and Black Widow seems to be the one keeping track of everybody, Hulk has found some kind of therapeutic inner peace that allows him to remain both calm and green at the same time (even taking selfies with fans), while Thor becomes a beer-bellied, raging alcoholic. It is not a joke to consider his hilarious turn as a tribute to “The Big Lebowski.” When Ant-Man pops out of the Quantum Realm, the film then becomes something else.

The whole time travel section turns “Endgame” into an exciting adventure but also a tribute to the MCU itself. Reviewing this film requires avoiding any major spoilers, but the writing finds a brilliant way to send the Avengers off to find the Infinity Stones across time and space while revisiting movies like “Marvel’s Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor.” A near-decade’s worth of material is lovingly given acknowledgement, with one or two favorite scenes making a return. Favorites from the Marvel soundtrack playlist, like Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” make a welcome comeback. All the while the dialogue even has fun referencing other famous time-travel romps like “Back to the Future” and “Demolition Man.” Other characters from recent Marvel films make sudden cameos that are like rowdy reunions with friends we haven’t seen in a while. As always when it comes to the better Marvel movies, “Endgame” also retains a great sense of humor, throwing in a little bit of slapstick and buddy jokes all over the place, sometimes as great tension relievers. Sometimes it’s a laugh as simple as Ant-Man about to munch on a taco before the air of a spaceship engine blows it away.

What the MCU’s key producer, Kevin Feige, and his team of filmmakers understand deeply about this material is that while on the surface it’s all super powers and costumes, the genre strikes a deeper chord with its many fans and even casual viewers. This is because the storytelling is quite universal and even primal. Before “Endgame” becomes a huge action show it’s actually about loss and the world feeling like it’s fallen apart. Ant-Man comes across a vast memorial in a park to those who have vanished thanks to Thanos, Tony Stark tries to live a normal life with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and forget the pain of having seen Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who was essentially his pupil, die off. Captain America doesn’t even have his shield and attends group sessions to discuss what happened. It’s as if these films capture through a pop culture lens the mood of the times. The world feels dark and crazy, and we wish there could be heroes out there.

Once the doom and gloom clears, “Endgame” becomes a gargantuan spectacle as the Avengers steel themselves for their greatest battle ever. There is hope and much danger, and yes, you will see old faces return, yes there will be massive, even awe-inspiring visuals as the forces of evil clash with the last standing army trying to keep all of the cosmos from falling apart. There will also be heartbreak. The final moments of “Endgame” are thrilling but also surprisingly moving. The Russos deliver electric, demolishing battle scenes, and then impressively throw in some real drama where life and death are not treated lightly.

Inevitably this film can get gloriously imperfect as it tries to cram so much into its final moments that even the way time and reality are manipulated will leave some lingering questions. Some characters end up getting less screen time than others. But then again, such is the nature of comics. What we get is a real experience, in particular for those who love this genre wholeheartedly. “Endgame” fittingly closes a phase of the MCU films, setting the stage for the next wave of titles, one of which is already “Captain Marvel.” But let’s not ponder too much what comes after. For now this film delivers the popcorn experience devotees have anxiously waited for. General audiences can also bask in the fun and glory. This is the kind of epic where a snap of the fingers can shatter worlds and yet everything can be made whole again with something as elegant as a kiss.

Avengers: Endgame” opens April 26 in theaters nationwide.