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.
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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.