And we’re back. We’ve been hanging off this particular cliff for the last calendar year, ever since Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers in Avengers: Infinity War and ended half the population of the Marvel film universe. Waiting this long for the next chapter isn’t exactly unprecedented in movies — the Harry Potter films did more or less the same thing, but everybody who read the books knew how it would all play out. Star Wars fans will also happily remind us that three years elapsed between the releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Yet after watching Avengers: Endgame, I have to say that this series has them beat. No other movie franchise has created this sort of suspense in one film and resolved it so spectacularly in the next. For all the fans who have spent the last 12 months blaming Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), mourning the dead heroes, and savoring the internet theory in which Ant-Man wins by crawling up Thanos’ ass, this is the payoff you’ve been waiting for.
Right after the opening credits, the surviving Avengers locate Thanos, and it’s a big, fat anticlimax, pretty much along the lines of what I predicted in my Captain Marvel review. The bulk of the story picks up five years after the Great Snappening, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) a massive alcoholic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) retiring to a lakeside cabin and becoming a father, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) going berserk after losing his entire family and turning into a gangster-exterminating vigilante. When the presumed-dead Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is accidentally released from the microscopic realm where he was stranded at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, he goes to the survivors and floats the idea of traveling through time to retrieve the Infinity Stones to bring back everybody who was raptured. Tony first laughs at him and then actually finds a way to build a device, but even after the team successfully lays their hands on those glowing magic jewels, they’re still far from out of the woods.
Even with a reduced number of superheroes to work with, this film still suffers from its predecessor’s flaw, a certain balkiness that comes from having the story spread so thin and far. The problem isn’t as severe here, though, partly because the characters are inserted so cleverly into moments from myriad previous Marvel films. Thor meets his murdered mother (Rene Russo), Tony meets his murdered father (John Slattery), one superhero ends up having to fight himself, and a bunch of the heroes wind up in the chaos of the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. The comedy works better here to fill potentially draggy scenes, as when Scott name-checks Hot Tub Time Machine and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is seen wearing a truly unfortunate 1970s hairstyle.
The movie hits home emotionally when you least expect it, too, like when Scott — the center of Marvel’s lightest series — goes back to his house and finds his daughter (Emma Fuhrmann) all grown up. Even here, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) maintains his astringent qualities by reminding everyone that he’s focused on the job at hand even though he’s lost people, too. Later, Scott thinks the heroes have succeeded in their quest when he sees birds flocking in the trees outside the Avengers’ headquarters, a nice touch.
Then a laser blast blows out the window. The massive battle sequence near the end is a veritable orgy of callbacks to earlier films, and if the entrances of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and others are overtly calculated to bring applause, there’s still no denying that it works. The references here bring an uncommon unity to all of the 20-odd films that have preceded this one since 2008, and you need look no further than Fox’s X-Men movies or the Warner/DC adaptations to see just how hard it is to manage an enterprise this big and what an achievement Marvel has pulled off.
Of course, it does help to be able to shake the trees and have myriad Oscar-winning actors available to do walk-on parts. Several cornerstones of the series are definitively written out here, and Avengers: Endgame concludes with a funeral sequence attended by more famous people than will be at your last rites and mine put together. This may be Disney and Marvel showboating for us, but it’s also a sign that when Thor and Captain America and the others resume their adventures, it will not be business as usual. Where some previous Marvel sequels have seen their characters running in place, this franchise continues to evolve in new directions. As long as they keep this up, these films will continue to be the center of Hollywood’s universe.
Starring lots of superheroes. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic books. Rated PG-13.