This review avoids serious spoilers about Avengers: Endgame, but mild plot descriptions do follow.
The biggest surprise of Avengers: Endgame may be its leisurely pace. All right, perhaps that’s not the film’s most shocking twist. Considering that the movie is the 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that it purports to bid farewell to at least some of its major characters, Avengers: Endgame has a few bombshells. Given that the running time is a whopping 182 minutes, audiences might go in expecting something that feels like a slog. But the film earns its length not by overstuffing the frame with opulent action, but by slowing things down and basking in the charisma of its ensemble.
In the 11 years since Marvel began its experiment of creating an interconnected world of superhero movies with Iron Man, the studio has assembled an all-star cast of hunks, cult favorites, and Hollywood legends to play its leads, costumed and otherwise. Avengers: Endgame, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, lives up to its promise of providing a real ending for the series’ original crew, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk. But the movie also functions as a brag for how expansive the Marvel universe has gotten over the past decade—a necessary strength, since the broader franchise shows no sign of concluding, just recycling and evolving as the box-office receipts continue to pile up.
After all, the Marvel movies can never really stop. This was a notion that Thanos (played by Josh Brolin), the big bad of the Avengers series, sought to challenge when he showed up in Infinity War, which was released almost exactly one year ago. Thanos, a giant purple meanie from a distant planet that was destroyed by overpopulation, entered this cinematic universe and declared it crowded. After assembling the mighty Infinity Stones, a collection of celestially significant jewels, he set about trying to thin the herd, killing off a few major characters and eventually snapping his fingers and turning half of all living things into ash.
Endgame is set in the aftermath of that devastating Snapture, with the galaxy’s remaining heroes struggling to pick up the pieces. Popular pals such as Black Panther, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and the Scarlet Witch have vanished, and the Russos (along with the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) emphasize just how miserable life has become in their absence. Whereas Infinity War was all chaos, a frantic race to stop Thanos from executing his plan, Endgame is curiously static for much of its running time, thriving more on witty dialogue and the well-established dynamics of its cast than on CGI bedlam.
Of course, the story eventually shifts into epic mode, and the action has the usual bland competence of Marvel movies (something even outstanding entries such as Black Panther struggled to dodge). But all the applause breaks and jaw-dropping developments work only because of the interpersonal bonds that have been strengthened over the years and that Endgame spends much of its time celebrating. After beginning with a mournful tone, the film turns goofier and livelier as the team’s wild gambit to save the world comes into focus; it’s to the Russos’ credit that they manage this transition with aplomb.
Digging into the details of Endgame’s plot is a very tricky proposition. If you’re invested in the Marvel world, it’s best to go in knowing next to nothing at all. One should head to the theater armed just with the memory of what happened in Infinity War, as well as perhaps the briefest of refreshers on the details of the Infinity Stones. It’s not giving anything away to say that the film mostly focuses on the original team that headlined the first Avengers movie, all of whom conveniently survived Thanos’s magic snap. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and, returning from a mysterious sojourn, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all gather to try to undo Thanos’s universe-wide genocide.
Their mission takes them on a winding course that touches down in the furthest reaches of the Marvel realm, referencing the best-loved entries from the series as well as more overlooked chapters. If Avengers: Endgame were, for some bizarre reason, your first Marvel movie, it’d be a miserable experience. But for devoted fans, it functions as a greatest-hits clip-show package. It’s filled with hat-tips and winks to the audience—forgivable pieces of indulgence, given the goodwill the series has built up with millions of viewers. The film works to resolve conflicts beyond Thanos, fights that were first kindled in movies such as Captain America: Civil War (which wrenched Captain America and Iron Man apart) or Thor: Ragnarok (which rent the magic kingdom of Asgard asunder). For viewers, much of the joy will come from watching the movie pull it all off, effortlessly tying most of the series’ narrative threads into a satisfying knot.
The biggest question the film leaves open is whether the Avengers—as a name brand in the Marvel Universe—should continue after this barnstorming ending. The Marvel experiment continues apace, with many (mostly untitled) new editions on the docket, and Endgame will make more than enough money to justify them. But it’s hard to know whether the series will ever be able to replicate the peculiar magic of this movie’s finale, which had me realizing with a jolt, over and over again, how much I cared about the lives of these loud, wisecracking, CGI-bedazzled champions. The newer arrivals to the franchise, folks such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), are similarly lovable, but who knows whether the formula of “heroes assembling again and again until their contract options run out” can be repeated forever. All I know is that Thanos’s demand for a dramatic ending in Infinity War pays off here in all the right ways. The Avengers, as a concept, probably won’t be going anywhere, but Endgame still feels like a proper goodbye.