I’d listen to the words he’d say
But in his voice, I heard decay
The plastic face forced to portray
All the insides, left cold and gray
There is a place that still remains
It eats the fear, it eats the pain
The sweetest price he’ll have to pay
If Infinity War is The Empire Strikes Back of Marvel Movies, then Endgame is Return of the Jedi. This is not meant as a complaint, at least entirely. Like RotJ, Endgame has a strong start where the previous installment’s climax carries over but, as it goes on, it starts to drift back into bad habits from the other movies before Infinity War.
It never veers into territory where merchandising drives the creative decisions like with the Ewoks (who, to be honest, I like…because they eat people) or unwilling to kill off a primary member of the main cast (Harrison Ford hated Han Solo and wanted it to happen), but instead lays on the cheap humor a bit thick in parts to where it got grating as it has before due to how inappropriate and eager-to-please it can be. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becoming a fat drunkard is, while amusing at first, something that remains throughout and became distracting with the obviousness of the fat suit. The worst part being when he summons his armor and his gut looks as if they stuffed some pillows under his shirt. Oh, and did I mention that five years of sedentary gluttony doesn’t affect his combat prowess much? ’Cause it doesn’t. Somehow. I could go on for days about the pointlessly mean-spirited remarks made in Scott “Ant-Man” Lang’s (Paul Rudd) direction too…
The difference is RotJ’s issues affect integral narrative beats that render the stakes tensionless (Stormtroopers being defeated by Ewoks with silly traps is hilariously bad) and the resolution feeling less earned by the protagonists than it should — Endgame’s problems are mostly tangential and make it better overall, but not by much. Though more structurally sound in storytelling, unlike RotJ, those tangential problems start to build up to the point it — like Hemsworth’s prosthetic beer belly — becomes a distraction.
Since I keep comparing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Star Wars, I’ll make one more statement: the film didn’t disappoint me as much as The Last Jedi, with its implied intention to cause a paradigm shift in the conflict, only to revert back to the status quo by the end. A decision made purely for fan service (which further weaponizes a consumeristic audience to everyone’s, especially critics, detriment) and maintain recognizable branding for merchandise. Endgame at least keeps some of its promises, giving a sense of finality and permanence in certain regards, that indicates possible good tidings in the future. The ultimate problem is that leaves a good deal of other promises unfulfilled and myself once again cautious of the franchise’s future. Though I’m still looking forward to Spider-Man: Far From Home while having absolutely no interest in The Rise of Skywalker (easily one of the worst subtitles ever — it makes “Attack of the Clones” sound clever). At least the Marvel movies, unlike Star Wars, have a chance at being interesting.
THE BEST (AND WORST) OF BOTH WORLDS
When the film does keep its promises, they’re still handicapped in execution, and — as the title of the section references this — Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) makes for an illustrative example. He’s my favorite character in the film partly because we’re given pay-off to his arc in the previous one…yet we don’t see it. We’re told it with exposition. The five year time jump was an idea I really liked, as we get to see this half-empty world (reminding me of all those empty city streets in Neon Genesis Evangelion) and how the characters handle the situation for good or ill, so I’d understand why the Russos were hesitant to use a flashback but it means an important character moment happened off-screen (again). It’s explained to us, sure, but it’s dull for Bruce to do so purely through dialogue than with some kind of visualization — perhaps the moment he was finally able to reconcile both halves of himself, to become “the best of both worlds.” There’s no reason to keep it a mystery either, so why not show it? Given the film is already a minute over three hours, I’d be willing to have another (at most) 30 seconds to get that visual along with the explanation. That means you get to see that moment as the audience while the other characters, unaware of such, have it explained to them. It is, however, the least problematic example.
The most problematic one comes in the form of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint “Hawkeye/Ronin” Barton (Jeremy Renner). I must ask: outside of an attachment to these characters’ comicbook counterparts or the actors playing them, how do these movies try to connect the audience to them as people? Even as someone who’s read the comics, I still try approaching these movies from the mindset of someone who may’ve only had a passing understanding of them via cultural osmosis. Telling me a film is “for the fans” is utterly meaningless as a defense because Art is for everyone. These films — which is what they are in form, not simply live-action comicbooks — should still be judged on their own qualities within the medium rather than what studio press releases tell you to think (it’s astonishing how many people mistake such as their own opinion) or to confirm the biases of obsessives as if obliged. My point is that I could tell you why I like Natasha in the comics at length, but I couldn’t do the same for Johansson’s cinematic portrayal. I don’t dislike the latter because I liked the earlier either — a habit that others who both read the comics and watch the movies have, but which I find incomprehensible.
When it comes to Natasha’s comicbook incarnation, she is a vivacious adrenaline junkie that’s slammed ass with almost every eligible bachelor in the 616. She doesn’t do it due to past trauma of lost childhood and forced sterilization (easily one of the most grossly sexist creative decisions made in any of the Marvel movies), but because she enjoys it and lacks any interest in motherhood as it’d get in the way of her lifestyle. Y’know, like a real woman would be — with a semblance of personality. Johansson has been in so many of these movies and, outside of what I referenced (both from the god-awful Age of Ultron), I couldn’t really tell you anything else about her other than she’s a typical action movie hero. Endgame doesn’t bother to shed any light on her background further than her father’s name was “Ivan.” That’s pretty much it and…who gives a shit?
An apologist could bring up the smaller character moments but, similarly to Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his portrayal across all these movies, they’re so inconsistent that they feel random or forced. She’s still stoic 90 percent of the time, with the other 10 percent often coming off as contrived than an organic progression of characterization. It should’ve been the other way around — she starts off as cold and distant, but becomes more open and friendly with each appearance. Hawkeye is even worse since, like her, he’s a typical action movie hero but the only difference is he has a family who’d been taken away in The Snap. We’re introduced to this notion, during the time jump, he’s gone off the deep end as he travels from one nation to the next wantonly slaughtering criminals with no rhyme or reason. My interest was piqued there, for a second, making me think we’d get someone as mentally unstable and desperate as Thanos (Josh Brolin) himself became as one of the protagonists. Except he doesn’t act that way at all — he’s the same stern action movie hero as before. As much as I found Thor looking like The Dude (but even more disheveled) from Big Lebowski annoying, Hemsworth really does a great job of getting across how broken he is as a person and has become avoidant of everything else in his life. There was an opportunity here for Renner to give a new spin with the character, but it’s one that goes untaken.
It makes the scene where Natasha and Clint are fighting one another over who gets to sacrifice themselves for the Soul Stone, a fantastic premise for an action set piece, kind of empty simply due to their involvement. Part of me couldn’t help but think, originally, it was going to be Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) who would sacrifice himself and Stark would attempt to stop him in vain. The reason I make this suggestion is that, given the ending, this would’ve made for fantastic foreshadowing. Instead, we have two characters who — purely in the context of these movies and not elsewhere — haven’t been properly developed enough to make the emotional impact of the scene effective. You really only care if you’re projecting the comicbook version onto the cinematic one or just like ScarJo who, though very attractive, isn’t an expressive enough actress that her crying feels as convincing as crocodile tears. It is, in my opinion, the worst part of the film not due to what it represents in the plot but because of how it was done.
I usually hate time travel in cinema. Very rarely am I ever that impressed by such stories and, when I am, it’s more a case of presentation than a tightly-written script like 12 Monkeys, Looper,or Donnie Darko with one exception to that rule being Timecrimes. Others can be a fleeting amusement but it’s not a storytelling genre I’m all that keen on — which is made all the more strange by my fondness of alternate realities.
Endgame is now one of these movies…and, goddamn, does it never shut up about it. It’s enjoyable when the characters speak of paradoxes, chronal self-correction, and tangent timelines — all an effort to figure out how to do an awesomely high-concept jewel heist with precision — but gets bogged down when characters start name-dropping other films with time travel. If they just began and ended with Back to the Future as their point of reference, then it’d of been a lot less cringey, but they can’t keep themselves from also bringing up Terminator, Bill & Ted, and Time After Time to hit you over the head harder than they already did. Yes, we get it, you’re talking about time travel and thus bring up a movie with time travel, over and over again — rein it in, guys.
It’s certainly not as funny as when they’re testing out their time travel tech, causing Ant-Man to come back as a geriatric and then as a baby, because at least it’s moving the plot forward. It gives you an idea of how important it is to get the technical kinks worked out before doing their continuum-invading caper. Even the scene where The Hulk confronts The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is a lot more interesting than having one character commenting on another’s ass like they’re on some wacky videogame side-quest. Can’t they just take this shit a bit more seriously? I’m pretty sure they’re trying to bring back half the universe yet the only person — other than Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) — approaching it with a proper sense of gravity is The Hulk. Also, unlike his cohorts, he doesn’t screw up his task and requires a risky (as well as contrived) detour.
Thor and Rocket’s segment was probably the worst of the bunch next to the one with Action Hero Man and Action Hero Lady, made depressing by the fact their plotline during Infinity War was one of my favorite things about it. Thor’s heart-to-heart with his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo…who looks damn good for her age), as much as I liked it initially doesn’t ever lead to that moment where he cuts his hair, trims his beard, and burns all fat off his body by bench pressing submarines like a Nordic (but untattooed) Jason Mamoa. Yet another part of me couldn’t help but wonder why Thor, an emotionally and physically unfit mess, was brought along at all other than to talk to his (not yet) dead (hot) mom. There’s also something uncomfortable about Rocket assaulting Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) with a weirdly phallic object to get the Reality Stone…out of her body. How? They never explain nor show it in use but, since it may well’ve been a prop from Dead Ringers, it’s probably creepy as shit.
Now that I think about it, the detour Stark has to make in the 1970s to retrieve the Space Stone just feels like an excuse for him to talk to his (not yet) dead father, Howard (John Slattery). Well, that and Steve Rogers to stare at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through the shades of a glass panel like some lovesick stalker. It occurred to me that so many of these creative decisions weren’t made with narrative structure and themes in mind but for the sake of cheap sentimentality or laughs and fan service. Much like how it didn’t make sense for Thor to go back to Asgard given it might, y’know, trigger him due to his poor mental state — there was no reason for Steve to go back to the events of The Avengers except so there’d be a fight where he literally fights himself (and then ogles his own ass ’cause yuk-yuks). Oddly enough, that fight in of itself showed that which characters went where/when wasn’t thought about much if at all. You’d think Ant-Man would’ve tagged along with Black Widow and Hawkeye since, well, they’re the type of people perfect for a covert ops scenario like that. In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to have it be characters who weren’t already at Stark Tower to stick out less? So, if not Natasha and Clint, you could have James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Okoye (Danai Gurira…more on her character and others, in a bit) go to decrease the risk even further.
Since I mentioned her before (and want this part of the review to end on a good note…kinda), my other favorite part from all the time traveling is where Nebula retrieves the Power Stone during the opening of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. There a great bit of anti-fan service that portrays Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) dancing to Redbone’s (utterly irresistible) “Come and Get Your Love,” if done diegetically, makes him look like a jackass but that they also knock him the fuck out. I also love the Terminator 2 moment when the covering of Nebula’s arm melts away and reveals a robotic skeletal frame beneath. It’s the only part of the heist where time travel concepts are explored further. Nebula’s younger self ends up having her future self’s memories, as they both exist at the same time, that causes a paradox and their minds to fracture as a result — just like Roland Deschain and Jake Chambers in Stephen King’s The Waste Land.
Even better, Future Nebula is captured by Past Nebula and — though dead in Future Nebula’s timeline — a still very much alive Thanos, as well as his other Children, that made me ecstatic about what would happen next. The problem with getting your hopes up too high about something is, when ending in disappointment, it makes that lack of fulfillment feel worse…
COMFORTABLY NUMB & PERFORMATIVELY WOKE
The biggest problem with this movie? Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson). No, not Larson herself nor the character (she’s just been introduced), but the fact that — given both Infinity War’s post-credit sequence as well as her solo film preceding Endgame — you’d assume her participation in the plot to be major, right? You don’t do that much build-up without proper pay-off yet her role here is basically a glorified cameo. The most time she spends on-screen is within the first act and only appears two more times briefly after that.
Um, so…what was the point? Why make such a big deal about a character who’s tertiary at best? Was it just to stave off all the nay-sayers (e.g. me) who wondered why — with the existence of Haywire (criminally underrated), Atomic Blonde (fantastically shot and choreographed), and Red Sparrow (Oscar Bait dreck wasting a potentially interesting premise)— Disney/Marvel still hadn’t made a Black Widow movie yet while Warner Bros./DC actually released Wonder Woman? Okay, yes, I’m glad we got a Captain Marvel movie and that their cinematic iteration is a lesbian (how many kids would refer to their mom’s best friend as “auntie”? Especially back in the U.S. during the 90s? Nota lot!) but that lack of implied pay-off just makes it retroactively hollow as a result. Adding injury to insult, she’s not the only one either.
Since Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) ended up victim to The Snap, leaving both Okoye and M’Baku (Winston Duke) alive, one might imagine those characters may’ve had a bigger part in Endgame but they don’t. Along with Carol, they are kept out of the plot with a couple of throwaway lines to try justifying it — they’re maintaining order in a now half-empty but chaotic world — but that instantly falls apart when Rocket and Nebula, both doing the same thing as them, are brought along on the time heist. Two of them would obviously be motivated to bring back the Wakandans, their warrior-king included, who disappeared in The Snap and the other simply due to being aware of how much damage it caused across the universe (Carol even states such outright to Black Widow). Why would they not take the opportunity to reverse all of that, if told about such a possibility? I’d of liked to have seen them taking part in the time heist since we’d get to know them a bit more as people and it’d make the events more intriguing having these fairly new players around. I’ve been dying to see more of Winston Duke as M’Baku, as I found him underused even within Black Panther (he had some of the best scenes), but now they’ve relegated him to being a non-speaking background character. Much in the same way that Captain Marvel, despite Disney/Marvel’s hype machine saying otherwise, has been greatly reduced in their ostensible importance.
As I said in my reviews of Luke Cage and Black Panther, Disney/Marvel only care about racial and gender diversity insofar as it can make them money. This is reflected in their tendency to pull their punches when it comes to the politics of those characters and I should’ve noticed that in Captain Marvel with its unwillingness to openly admit that Carol Danvers was a gay woman. I assumed it was an attempt at subtlety and that others could pick up on such obvious hints made about it but, after people started ‘shipping her and Thor together because of a single staredown (’cause game recognize game!), it then occurred to me the omission may’ve had to do more with not alienating part of the audience who are homophobic or petulant man-babies who complain about Art “pushing an agenda” (newsflash, you fucking assholes: they all do). The fact they’re willing to make such concessions on their behalf, despite not deserving such consideration, is both troubling and a sign the companies’ progressive cred is purely a PR tactic.
Yes, I know, they all participate in the interminable climactic battle but that was a case of “too little, too late.” Like everyone else in that sequence — they blend into the deluge of fan service-fueled visual clutter.
THIS’LL BE A BEAUTIFUL DEATH…
As much as I disliked the Battle of Wakanda during Infinity War, at least it made sense both in narrative and execution as the armies used actual tactics and one could follow what was happening. The climactic battle in the third act of Endgame, however, lacks both and functions as indulgent spectacle. It’s all quantity over quality.
When I spoke with a friend about the scene, he told me he liked it because he got to see all these different characters on-screen. Y’know what? That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to like it — I’m fond of mix-and-matched team-ups and it’s one reason I enjoyed Infinity War as much as I did. The issue for me (as usual) is there needs to be some kind of meaning behind it to justify their presence. Simply having the characters appear amongst others does not mean anything, when they aren’t significantly contributing to whatever is occurring within the plot. We did agree on one thing though: the bit where all the female characters gather together to do a woefully disingenuous “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” shtick was the cringiest thing ever (yet more performative wokeness from Disney/Marvel).
Almost proving my point, they show Mantis (Pom Klementieff) among them and she looks as confused as I was about her being there. All these other female characters are being defined wholly by their fighting prowess (since no one has yet to figure out the “strong” in “strong female characters” isn’t necessarily physical strength as it is how complex/complicated they are as people…) and she disappears once the combat starts. It all feels like a big step back from the Battle of Titan, which only involved six superheroes taking on a single supervillain, where she actually did something of import and being sabotaged by a fellow teammate was tragic — she could’ve had her moment of glory, pretty much saving the day, but kept from such due to a childish tantrum. Thanos was also more interesting as an adversary there, as he now lacks the Infinity Gauntlet and the heroes just keep hitting him in some way or another. It’s rather boring after seeing him throw a small black hole at Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or using chunks of a moon to crush Tony Stark as he flies about while Spider-Man (Tom Holland…who is just kawaii) swings around to keep others from harm.
Y’know what I’d of preferred? If Thanos didn’t fight them. At all.
There’s a throwaway line (a lot of them are in this movie) where he admits, upon seeing his potential future and unhappy with the results, he was wrong and would rather make the universe “abundant with life.” Prior to Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor showing up he sits contemplatively on a rock that suggests a lack of bellicosity (doesn’t explain why he blew up Avengers HQ though) and, given how much I liked Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) in Captain Marvel, revealing himself to be a now-reluctant antagonist would’ve been neat follow-up in Endgame. Yet Thanos pulls a Kylo Ren (hey, there’s Star Wars again!) where he thinks the best way to do that is to…deconstruct the universe.
One would think, with everything that’s been revealed to him, he’d know that would be impossible to do — his alternate future self makes it clear even destroying the Infinity Stones almost killed him (not to mention his arm being burnt to a crisp making half of all life in the universe disappear). I suppose one could argue that, at that point, he’s so far gone that he’s prone to causing destruction regardless of the reason. Except, to me, that’s a half-assed excuse to make him another bland bad guy who does bad things ’cause reasons at the very last minute. There was obviously more going on with him during Infinity War, beyond causing destruction for destruction’s sake — but that’d apparently get in the way of all the obnoxiously overblown action, the kind fanboys ruin their pants over with a copious amount of watery ejaculate.
If there had to be some climactic battle to end all climactic battles, I’d rather it involve the Children of Thanos — Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Obsidian Cull (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw) — betraying their adoptive father due to his change of heart, then fight the heroes before unleashing their respective armies. They do appear in the final battle but, much like Mantis, you might not notice them under the avalanche of CGI monsters and pacing so fast the whiplash would cause decapitation. Ebony Maw is probably the only one you’ll recognize because he actually gets some lines in a previous scene and shown more prominently on-screen, unlike his other siblings, as the fighting rages on and when it finally ends.
There are a couple of things I liked, however: Spider-Man — living up to his “friendly” reputation — trying to introduce himself to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) among the chaos, as if it weren’t happening, and Tony Stark’s death. I’m not being smarmy on the second point whatsoever. If you’re going to give a character a fitting and heroic end, that was the way to do it. It wasn’t just Dr. Strange reminding him wordlessly of his prediction with a single index finger, but that Stark has been defined by his selfishness as a character and — now being a father — does the most selfless thing ever in his life (“I am Iron Man!” are also great last words as any). Alongside a bittersweet epilogue of his funeral and Steve Rogers retiring as Captain America, it’s like watching the end of Logan all over again and I’m grateful for that alone.
It was a creative decision I was not expecting and was genuinely (as well as thankfully) surprised. I can only hope Spider-Man: Far From Home manages to do such as well but, since this started with an apropos song, I may as well end it with another from Nine Inch Nails off the same album…
Tried to save a place
From the cuts and the scratches
Tried to overcome
The complications and the catches
Nothing ever grows
And the sun doesn’t shine all day
Tried to save myself
But myself keeps slipping away
[Originally posted on 5/14/19 @ Medium.com]