Marvellous stuff: Avengers kick butt to the very end
The last in a series of 22 features is a pop-art triumph
To pinch a sentiment from Samuel Beckett: finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. After the grain-by-grain accrual of 22 features over 11 years, Marvel’s once seemingly impossible heap is now complete, teetering crazily over the contemporary cinematic landscape.
Avengers: Endgame is the final chapter in the upstart studio’s great Infinity Saga, which blended 11 distinct comic-book titles from its parent publisher’s vaults into a splashy pop-art Götterdämmerung, the conclusion to which arrives this week with 50% of the population of the universe at stake.
The shock ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, in which the puce tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin with a CG bulk-up) snuffed out half of all life, including 15 tier-two goodies, with a snap of his fingers, was widely described as a cliffhanger.
In a corporate sense, it just about qualified as such: we all knew Marvel’s parent company Disney has to resuscitate at least some of the casualties in time for the Spider-Man and Black Panther sequels. But in terms of pure plot, the bad guy’s triumph was no grim possibility in the style of The Empire Strikes Back, but a cataclysmic fait accompli.
The last word in the previous instalment went to a battle-weary Captain America (Chris Evans), who looked up from a pile of brown dust that had until recently been his trusty sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and groaned “Oh, God.” For Marvel enthusiasts, of which I count myself as one, that moment felt a bit like seeing your father cry. Now Endgame allows Marvel’s three founding super-dads – Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey jnr, all of whose contracts expire with this instalment – a last chance to set things right.
They’re assisted by a handful of key secondary names, including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Paul Rudd’s tonally invaluable Ant-Man, who’s on hand to undercut the cosmic pomp as and when required.
And however far Endgame stretches to leave every fan exhaustively serviced – there are sequences here that were made to be giffed and memed, and others that look like explosions at memorabilia conventions – the action keeps re-centring itself on its key players, and Downey and Evans in particular: one star the franchise salvaged, and another it forged, both at the peak of their crowd-pleasing powers.
It’s to their credit, and Marvel’s in general, that Endgame remains personality-driven at all times, whether through the collaborative interplay of its numerous heroes in battle (the final clash here goes big on the kind of tag-team tracking shots that were an early franchise hallmark) or the Evans/Downey rivalry that germinated in Captain America: Civil War and provides crucial dramatic sustenance in this film’s admittedly clever but slightly scattershot, enormously pleased-with-itself second act.
Avengers: Endgame was directed by Marvel stalwarts Joe and Anthony Russo, who boarded the series for Captain America 2 in 2014, and whose light touch with ludicrous ensembles has seen them entrusted with the franchise’s crown jewels since.
They’re teamed again with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose own Marvel journey began on the original Captain America, and who have since written their way down the spine of the series: Caps one, two and three, followed by the two-part grand finale.
An alternative title for this one might have been Avengers: Encore, since the film knows its entire audience has been here for the long run – even beside Infinity War, Endgame would be completely impenetrable to a novice. Think of it as a kind of victory lap, in which a decade-plus of painstaking team assembly is rerun at top speed, then paid off with thermonuclear dazzle and force.
Like Infinity War, this arguably makes Endgame less impressive as a piece of cinema than as a bizarre one-off pop-cultural object: it makes a number of honest attempts to move you, but aside from one late Evans moment and a sweet line delivery from Jon Favreau (Jon Favreau!), I was far more consistently tickled and wowed.
Where its predecessor was more or less two and a half hours of continuous climax, this is a blockbuster about blockbusters, and the way the most effective – or most popular, which might be the same thing – can still provide galvanising common ground, even in our splintered cultural landscape. While plotting or even executing their own escapades, the heroes freely reference the likes of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the unspoken implication being: hey guys, here’s a new one for the canon.
In the immediate aftermath of a first encounter, it’s hard to say whether it lives up to that ambition or not, but for all its hasty glossings-over of certain byzantine plot mechanisms the precise nature of which probably qualifies as a (light) spoiler, I can’t recall a film in this cinematic universe or any other that works as relentlessly and ingeniously to keep delighting its audience as this.
If the Avengers are now to be disassembled, let it be said that they went out on a high.
–© Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)