Because I can’t not talk about this movie, I needed to get some thoughts down while the experience is still fresh in my mind. This will be full of spoilers for all the Marvel movies, including End Game, so if you haven’t seen it yet, please come back and read it later. You’ve been warned.
Here we go. . .
“There was an idea,” said Nick Fury in the first Avengers film. “Called the Avengers initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more.” At this moment, Phil Colson is dead (presumably forever, though that wasn’t to be) and the team is separated, some folks missing. It’s the low point of the movie, but comes in the middle of one of the first big high points for the film franchise, a true cross over blockbuster comic book film.
For 11 years, Marvel (now owned by Disney) has been bringing us these films and trying to show us something more. There are 22 films now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each of them more or less tied together through a shared universe, shared experiences, shared characters, and even one major shared plot thread that finally came to a boil in the last two Avengers films, the third and fourth of these major story beats. And they’ve brought us many remarkable actors in the roles of these characters, from the perfection of Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor Odinson, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, and I could go on for days with the remarkable list of names that Marvel assembled. I have yet to think of a major or minor character who was ill portrayed in these movies with the exception of some of the villains, who often got short shrift despite solid actors in those roles (I’m looking at you, Ronan the Accuser).
Marvel’s Avengers has long been one of my favorite of the series, right behind Winter Soldier. It was one of the first times I can recall a movie bringing together so many super heroes in one movie and having them work together as a team. It portrayed the struggle of having disparate personalities, dysfunctional families that still manage to pull together to do the right things, and brought us lovely fan-service, like “Puny God,”, “And Hulk. . . smash.” And yet it defied us with surprises. “I’m always angry.” Natasha duping the trickster God, Loki. “You’ve got the lightning; light the bastards up.”
Avengers: End Game has far surpassed the first Avengers movie, both in portraying these characters as beings who are flawed and yet still find a reason to climb back up and put their lives on the line again and again while trying to hold themselves together in the face of great personal pain and fear, as well as paying homage to the fans who have for decades made Marvel one of the two great houses of comic book devotion. Indeed, DC has been trying with decidedly mixed success to create the same sort of shared universe that Marvel has produced, and can only sit back and stare with wonder at what has been so deftly achieved over the past 11 years. With blockbuster after blockbuster, culminating in what will now without a doubt be the highest grossing movie of all time (highest opening, fastest to 1 billion, probably clearing 2 billion when the dust settles), Marvel deftly drew us into a shared universe, treated its fans with love and respect, while often usurping our expectations and some of the tropes we wanted. They gave us what we needed, and End Game gave us everything and took as much from us.
End Game opens in the near immediate wake of its predecessor, Infinity War. The snap is still affecting folks, including Hawkeye, who watches his entire family get dusted, leaving him alone. The rest of the heroes on earth are still trying to cope with their loss at Thanos’ hands. Meanwhile, Tony Stark and Nebula are adrift in space, out of fuel and facing death. Tony records a final message for Pepper Potts only seconds before Captain Marvel arrives to save the day and brings the spacecraft back to earth, where Tony and Steve Rogers confront each other for the first time since the events of Civil War, when they fell out and parted ways. And friends, it’s NOT all hugs and roses, but a testy exchange between two men who are sure they are right, extending the ill vibes of their previous encounters. I applaud the writers for this choice, they could have blown sunshine up our asses and made every reunion a lovely thing, but chose the harder path of letting the characters continue down their own arcs.
With Tony emaciated and out of the fight (very nicely done digital effects, by the way, I thought he’d actually starved himself for this scene), the rest of the heroes track down Thanos through a power spike on a planet called The Garden. They rush there to confront Thanos in the hope they can use the stones to set things right. Instead they find a Thanos injured from having destroyed the stones himself to prevent just such an attempt. Thor, bitter and feeling as though he failed, takes Thanos’ head with his shiny new axe. And the audience sat in stunned silence. The easy solution had been taken away, and with no other solution presenting itself, they returned home to grieve and pick up the pieces of their lives.
Time jump to five years later. . .
After those first fifteen packed minutes, the movie slows to a crawl. We’re deep into people still trying to put together what they lost. Captain America is a member of a survivors group who are trying to move forward but find it impossible not to remember the events of the past and cry over them. Natasha keeps the Avengers going, fighting criminals and crime around the world, and she’s keeping tabs on Hawkeye, whose gone rogue vigilante and seems inclined to kill all the world’s villains out of some sense of “why do you get to live when so many good people have died?” This is also when I realized they were going to put Captain Marvel out of the picture for as long as possible by sending her off to help all the other worlds in need. “I’ll be gone a long time,” she says, and Carol is effectively gone for most of the rest of the film. It’s a simple way of handling an overpowered character for the critical scenes that are to come, and deftly addresses complaints I’d heard for months from the small group of rabidly angry fans who are still obsessed with women in starring roles if they don’t conform to a fetish fantasy they have and the actors get “too mouth” (to quote them directly). There’s clearly going to be no way Carol is the catalyst for solving the dilemma. But the film lacked for not having enough of her in it.
Enter Scott Lang, missing for five years, who has been stuck in the quantum realm since the events of Ant-man and the Wasp. In the mid-credit scenes, he’s testing the quantum realm device when Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne were dusted before they could bring him back. With the help of a rat who accidentally sets off the return coding in the van (now locked up in storage unit 616 – a lovely nod to Marvels multiverse in the comics), he returns to a world he doesn’t recognize. Five years have passed for the world, but for him it was only a few hours. And lets pause to imagine Dr. Strange watching 4,000,605 versions of the future, and the only one where they win relies on a rat stepping on exactly the right sequence of buttons in a shitty old brown van (sorry old brown van, I actually think you’re awesome).
Scott is going to play a far greater role, when he realizes the potential use of the quantum realm to play with time. Time travel had to be a major component of these films, we all knew that. And with the stones destroyed at the beginning, it was clear to the audience that the heroes would have to go back to undo what had happened. We just didn’t quite know what form that would take. But before he races off to talk to the Avengers, Scott reunites with his daughter, Cassie, who survived the snapture.
Pause on the story. There’s a beautiful motiff in here that most people recognize, so it’s not strange to stop and point it out. There’s Scott and his devotion and love for Cassie. Soon after we find out Tony and Pepper did finally marry and they have their own daughter, Morgan, a precocious five-year old who loves her dad “3000,” which is a super big and delightful number for a kid to pick (and my own sons would say such things when they were young, and it really hit me in the heart). Clint has his moment at the beginning of the film with his daughter. There’s also Tony’s undying love for Peter Parker, a son in anything but name to him, lost after the events of Infinity War. Love and loss play a particular role in Marvel films, but parent/child relationships are brought to the front in End Game (after playing a major role in Ant-man) and are a catalyst for much of what happens by the end of the film. I loved this touch, this humanizing of their lives. As much as they are heroes, they are parents as well, and that has to rub off on who they are as people. Tony, in fact, is a far different person than he was five years before. He’s grown and changed. Clearly becoming a father mellowed him out, and I appreciate that. His arrogance, though it still exists, is tempered, and he’s much easier to get along with. Also more willing to admit his mistakes.
So Scott runs to the Avengers and tells them about the Quantum realm’s ability to manipulate time. And thus is born the Time Heist, the second act of the story. The heroes need to figure out how to manipulate or travel through time using the Quantum realm, but they need far bigger brains to do it than their own. With Tony seemingly unwilling to give up the family life he’s built and afraid of doing anything timey whimey that would jeopardize it (and through out this part we get a ton of funny pop culture references to time travel movies like Back to the Future), they go for another big brain. A literal big brain this time, in Professor Hulk. Bruce has found a way to meld his two personalities, and is now the Hulk in body, but Bruce Banner in mind. “I wear shirts now,” Banner Hulk – shall we call him Mr. Bulk? – proudly says.
Professor Hulk, though canon for the comic books, doesn’t quite work here. The special effect is a bit off putting, and Banner is completely unwilling to unleash the Hulk side when it’s needed, effectively neutering one of the more powerful characters. It defies his claim that he’s found a way to balance the two and has “the best of both worlds.” In fact, he’s found a way to be in the body of the Hulk without being anything like the Hulk, and is denying that part of himself once again. Indeed, the writers and director seemed to want to take all the most powerful characters out of the game, as we see in the next paragraph, which I’m about to write.
Needing more hands at the wheel – or perhaps just wanting to help those who are still wallowing in their grief, while “putting together a team” – the group of remaining heroes recruit back some of their lost members. Mr. Bulk goes to Norway to visit New Asgard, where the remaining Asgardians have relocated under the guidance of their king, the Dude. No, wait, that was Thor, but it was a Thor much changed after five years of grief. He’s holed up in his house with Korg and Meek, playing Fortnight and drinking lots and lots of beer. So, so, soooooo much beer. He’s gotten fat, hasn’t shaved or probably showered in a long time, and wears pajama bottoms and bathrobes. Chris Hemsworth, after spending Infinity Wars trying to find the axe to save the day and having one of the most painful and beautifully done character arcs – Thor lost EVERYTHING in a two film sequence and Hemsworth was beautiful in portraying that in Infinity Wars – goes full comedy in End Game, channeling The Big Lebowski. There’s still a sense of pathos beneath his happy-go-lucky-drunk exterior, though. Drunk, fat, dumbly happy Thor is a treat after we’ve suffered (happily I admit) through movie after movie of buff, arrogant, braggadocio Thor. Picture him looking and acting more like Volstagg, the rotund member of the warriors three (who were ill-treated at the beginning of Ragnorak and ignominiously killed off) and you’ll have him pegged. Some folks have pointed out this is fat shaming, and I certainly can see that point in hindsight. But it made sense to me. He, like so many, blames himself for the death of trillions. This is his way of expressing it.
Black Widow brings Clint back into the fold, although he begs her “don’t give me hope.” Another poignant and painful moment for a man who lost his whole family, including the daughter he’d been teaching archery to. Father/daughter relationships. . . they really are a hinge in this movie. Thanos and Gamora/Nebula; Natasha not knowing the name of her father; this thread of father/daughter keeps coming up again and again.
With the team assembled, Mr. Bulk tries to get the time travel to work, but fails in some funny ways, at the expense of Scott. It takes the timely arrival of Tony – unable to rest because he’s thinking about the problem and given the blessing of Pepper to go do what he needs to do (and a picture of Peter Parker to remind him of what else has been lost to him and others) – to solve the glitches in the quantum matrix and make it all work.
The Time Heist is on. But where do they go and what do they do? They want to avoid messing up the timeline, so they decide they need to go back and steal the stones from a period when they weren’t used to destroy the universe, then fix everything at the present moment, then return the stones to the precise moment they were stolen. Not go back five years, but move forward from where they are. Trillions will return to worlds much changed since they disappeared, but they’ll avoid nasty plot holes and problems.
Okay, so you can never get around the plot holes in time travel. This is known. Connie Willis writes time travel novels that carefully explore all the ramifications, and in her stories, she makes time nearly immutable. If anything you do might upset the flow of the past, the past itself interferes and puts barriers in your way. Back to the Future did it by having everyone be very very careful and, when things inevitably messed up, they had to go back make further changes. But End Game is VERY specific about the issue of messing up time and branching it into tons of alternate threads and loops. Unfortunately, the movie then goes on to allow the characters to break this supposedly fundamental rule multiple times, leading to only writers know what ramifications. I’ll get to those later.
They target the time periods when they knew where the stones were and could easily get them, and then divide into teams. Tony and Steve return to New York at the time of Loki’s invasion to get the scepter and the tesseract, which contain the mind gem and space gem respectively, and Mr. Bulk goes with them to get the time stone from the sorcerer supreme. Thor and rocket travel to Asgard when Jane was there and filled with the aether, which is the reality stone. Nebula and Rhoddie head for Morag to get the power stone before Quill can snatch it, while, Hawkeye and Natasha go to Vormor to get the soul stone.
Natasha, Natasha. . . why did it have to be you? Hawkeye’s arc was complete, and when his daughter returns she could easily take up the mantle again. There was no reason you had to be the one that sacrificed themselves so they could get the stone. There is no replacement for you. The writers simply messed up here and it was the biggest misstep of the whole movie. I liked that they were fighting over who got to die to save the day, but ultimately the decision to kill off Black Widow was weak. Again, father/daughter relationships, and it should have been the father sacrificing himself to save a daughter.
The time heist is full of hilarious and wonderful call backs to moments in the previous films. We get to see them from new angles, although they clearly reused some shots (notably they reshot Quill dancing from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was pretty obvious). This was entirely fan service, from Tony seeing the show down with Loki in Avengers tower (“If it’s all the same to you. . . I’ll take that drink now”) from a new angle, to Rhoddie watching Quill and remarking “so he’s an idiot?” and Nebula answering “yes.” Nebula, though, doesn’t realize her past self is mentally entangled with her future self through her cybernetic implants, and past Nebula is showing past Thanos what’s going on.
After much problems and many issues, and a heart wrenching moment when future Steve Rogers sees past Peggy Carter and notes she still has his picture – the one of him weak and frail before the super soldier serum made him the hero he became – on her desk, the stones are all gathered back at Avenger headquarters. But future Nebula was captured by past Nebula, who replaced her. Past Nebula gains access to Pym particles in the future, takes them back to past Thanos, and oh my god this is why time travel stories get sooooo confusing.
Tony constructs an Iron Man gauntlet to hold the stones, and Mr. Bulk wields it for the counter snap. Remember, this is five years later. they want to bring people back NOW, not undo what was done THEN, because “it’ll mess up time,” which as we’ve already seen has been messed up completely. Honestly, the time travel parts of this story, though wonderful and funny (“That’s America’s ass”) could have been waved away more easily by ignoring all the talk of “problems” and just going with it. There’s no need to justify the fix if it’s only going to get complicated by the chosen solution.
The snap happens. The unsnap. The snapple? At first, nothing. Then Hawkeye’s phone rings and it’s his wife. That would have been even more poignant if it had been Natasha holding Hawkeye’s phone and now she has to take a call to tell her that her husband is dead, and oh, by the way, you’ve been gone for five years. They did you wrong, Natasha. But maybe Scarlett Johannson wanted to move on after ten years of these films herself. I can’t blame her for that, and that would explain why they killed her off. Then again, I thought a Black Widow film was in the making, so meh. . . I don’t know.
But Thanos has Pym particles. Shortly after, Thanos brings his entire ship – miniaturized of course, but quickly growing to full size above Avengers headquarters – to the future, and rains destruction down on the campus. The final act has arrived. It’s time for the showdown.
Everything that happens going forward is nothing but the most beautiful fan service ever performed in a movie. This was for 58 years of our love and devotion to these characters and the many stories they’ve shared with us. This was for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the legion of people who have worked for Marvel comics all this time. From the start of the fight, with Captain America standing alone on a small rise atop the remnants of the headquarters as the army of Thanos rushes towards him, to that moment a second later when a magical portal appeared and Sam’s voice says “On your left, Cap,” and then more portals and more and more appeared until the world was full of heroes pouring in to stand with Captain America.
“Avengers. . . assemble,” he finally said.
There’s too much going on with the fight to talk about it in detail. I need to see it again to revel in it’s glory. There was Valkyrie riding in with the remaining Asgardians, on a winged Pegasus no less. There was Spider-man activating his “instant kill” mode and going to town on the forces of Thanos. There was the struggle to control the infinity gauntlet as it moved around the playing field, with Thanos trying to get to it so he can snap again. There was Scott as giant man knocking down one of the flying leviathans. There was the assembly of female heroes with the gauntlet in hand, ready to blast their way through an army.
And then there was THE moment. The glorious, beautiful, incredible moment when Thor, as he fought Thanos with Stormbreaker, saw Mjolnir pass by and land . . .
. . . in the hands of Captain America. Who raised it up, and called forth the lightning.
“I knew you were worthy!” Thor screams in happiness, as the audience roared with sheer, unbrindled, unleashed joy. Some of us – many of us – were crying by then. Crying in happiness. Crying in the realization of our 58 years of love for these characters, in seeing some of their most special moments made real. Fuck all those haters who don’t understand. You weep for your romantic comedies, but can’t give us this? We cried, and it was a beautiful thing.
Despite all their best. Despite Captain Marvel showing up to take out Thanos ship and help Peter Parker keep the gauntlet away from Thanos (“I’m Peter Parker,” he said in greeting, and he’s such a wonderful kid, I adores him), Thanos does manage to get it. And this time he plans to wipe out all of life and remake the universe entirely, where he will be its god. He’s knocked down every hero that’s come at him, but one remains to grapple with him as he tries to close his hand.
He gets his hand around Thanos and holds him briefly before he’s knocked down himself. Thanos is triumphant. Thanos snaps. Thanos. . . looks confused. And then he looks at the Stark gauntlet he’s wearing and realizes all the gems are gone. Tony stole them with his own gauntlet while they grappled.
Tony holds up his hand and says the only line he could possibly say at this moment. “I am Iron Man.” And he snaps his fingers, wishing away Thanos and all his forces. They turn to dust and blow away, the mad titan going last as he sits in defeat, watching the end come.
Something came to me just now as I wrote this. Tony’s snap wish could have been “put Thanos and all his forces back in his timeline with no memory of this and fix all our time travel mistakes.” It might have presented as being dusted, but Tony’s wish could have fixed all the problems folks were having with the time travel sequence. That would imply Gamora and Loki are still really dead despite their seeming to have survived due to glitches in time travel, although there are other ways Loki could still be alive (his magic is powerful enough that Thanos thought he was killing Loki, but it was really just a very realistic projection is my best theory). Gamora, though, might be truly dead. If she shows up in a later film, that means I’m totally wrong, which is a shame since its an elegant and simple solution.
This is when all the sads really happen. When we see Tony laying on his back, pale, badly burned by the gauntlet. Peter Parker, his surrogate son, rushing to him, telling him it’s going to be okay, everything will be fine, Peter demonstrably upset. No words from Tony, who can’t even seem to see him. Then Pepper Potts – who had arrived at the beginning of the fight in a suit of armor Tony made for her – comes to him, and his last words are to her, recognizing her, almost breezy in a way. “Hey there Pep.”
“It’s okay,” she says to him through tears. “You’ve done enough. You can rest now.” And he does, and he passes on, and we’ll never be the same again for his loss, or the profoundly sad beauty of his death. I said a similar thing to my brother only minutes before he died. It touched me so deeply that I still can’t really think about it. I’ve been in a bit of a funk since the movie, and that’s a big part of the reason.
But the losses weren’t done yet. We already knew Chris Evans wouldn’t be returning as Cap. Captain America volunteers to use the quantum tunnel to return the stones (which, again, makes no sense since they already fucked up the timeline by killing past Thanos anyway, but there’s something about a time loop and they’ve gotten past it, so maybe that’s the solution). Only he does so with a long, long, life-long detour back to 1940’s, and being with Peggy. He finally gets his dance, and his kiss. He shows up in the present off to the side as they try to pull young cap back from the quantum tunnel. Now he’s a very old man who has lived a happy, full life. And he hands the mantle of Captain America – along with his shield – over to Sam, which I felt was fitting. The best parts of Steve Rogers didn’t “come from a bottle,” they came from “being a good man.” Bucky nods his approval. And now Steve is gone as well.
A lot of folks think that breaks the timeline. I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m positive we never saw the husband Peggy said she married in one segment during the movie Winter Soldier. She said Steve saved him, but. . . never said who it was. Captain America is one possible answer to that mystery. It’s just as likely that he was her husband as anyone else, and she was being deliberately sneaky about it. I choose to believe that, and that he either stayed pretty hidden all those years and took care of their home life, or took on another hero mantle without revealing who he really was. It would be hard to hide that face so much on the screen and in the news during WWII, but after a time people might forget. Who knows. I’m going to run with that.
There’s so much more to say about this movie. About the loss of Natasha and Tony, not to mention Vision who never returns. About all the changes that have been wrought in the MCU forever more. About how they go about showing the folks who have returned after five years picking up the pieces and rebuilding their life. Rebuilding a world. It’s probably going to be mostly hand waved away in future movies. We’ve already seen commercials for Spider-man: Far From Home and everything looks normal there, despite Peter having been gone for five years. But that’s still Sony, not the MCU central, so maybe they’ll be more pointed about it.
But goddamned, you owe Natasha a funeral, Marvel. Tony got his, but she sacrificed just as much to their victory. Even a simple ceremony with Clint and his family would have made it somewhat better. Not right, because there is no right about that choice.
The movie is by no means perfect. From the bad explanations of time travel, to the slowness of the first act, to some of the choices they made in who dies, and their decisions about certain characters and how they would be portrayed, there are plenty of things folks can and will complain about. But for me, this was the perfect coda to the first eleven years, and perhaps an end to the “golden age” of the MCU. However, I remember the silver age of comics, having grown up in it, and it was pretty fucking awesome. So I can’t wait to see what comes next.
To Chris Evans, Robert Downy Jr., and Scarlett Johannson: thank you. Thank you for these movies, for the roles you played in them. Thank you for bringing these characters to life for us, and making them people we could admire, despite all their flaws. Though others may succeed you, no one can ever replace you and fill the huge shoes you’ve left behind. I know you’re off to new things and new roles, and I wish you nothing but the success you’ve earned. Thank you from the bottom of my teary, Marvel-loving little heart.