* Spoiler alert *
“That’s the hero gig: Part of the journey is the end,” Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) says in the culminating “Avengers” extravaganza, having spent the past decade auditing a course in Joseph Campbell studies. The wealthy tech wunderkind otherwise known as Tony Stark is the reason we’re here today, 22 Marvel movies deep and counting; thank or blame him as you will. What a journey it’s been — one in which death is impermanent, enemies come and go, and entire nations and planets join the carefully calculated crusade cooked up in Hollywood boardrooms and passed down from one director to the next. Once considered a risky choice to launch an entire franchise, Iron Man’s destiny won him the ultimate prize: eternal fame.
As a reward for being the guinea pig, Downey — an actor whose Marvel affiliation rehabilitated his flailing career — gets to be the one true star of “Avengers: Endgame,” which bids farewell to several company players whose contracts predate Disney’s governance. For anyone paying attention, the departures on which “Endgame” hinges much of its narrative come as no surprise. Everything has been leading to this, a precious handover when the seniors graduate and the juniors take their place. As we go on, we remember all the times we had together.
Is it a spoiler to say that the characters who supposedly died at the hands of the giant purple villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) in “Avengers: Infinity War” can be resurrected to keep the series alive for many moons? No. You already knew that. You already knew, in broad strokes, close to everything that happens in “Endgame,” and you wanted it that way. For fans, this is comfort food, deep-fried and delectable. Does anyone care whether a funnel cake uses the highest-grade dough? What counts is that it’s chewy and familiar. But a little quality goes a long way, and thankfully “Endgame” has it in spades. It’s a satisfying spectacle that justifies its absurd three-hour running time — a feat.
Most films involving at least one Avenger follow the same pattern: exposition, banter, battle, then more exposition, more banter and an even bigger battle, and probably another one after that, and finally a setup for the next installment. “Endgame” understands that combat is not Marvel’s strong suit, even if it dominates the enterprise. (The studio’s action sequences tend to assault the senses with incoherent editing and overblown digital effects, but I digress.) In their latest joyride, co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who have maybe learned a few tricks after making fourofthesesuckers, let the Avengers savor one another’s company.
Particularly in the movie’s first half, our heroes luxuriate in their friendships. Lo and behold, they are real characters. Sure, they have goals to execute in order to restore 50% of Earth’s population, decimated by Thanos in “Infinity War.” But they get time to play paper football, discuss email habits, attend grief-support groups and make “Back to the Future” jokes. Refreshingly, the comedy in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script is a guiding force instead of mere window dressing. Plus it’s fun when Iron Man judges how Captain America’s (Chris Evans) suit makes his butt look.
But of course we wouldn’t have a movie if there weren’t a world to save. After inducting Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) into their clique, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) put their O.G. Avenger creds to work. Their aim is to seize the so-called Infinity Stones needed to reset Thanos’ damage, prompting them to time-travel through the franchise’s greatest hits to pull off various conquests. That takes them back to New York in 2012, where the first “Avengers” entry was set, and to Asgard in 2013 and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” planet Morag in 2014.
Along the way, we’re provided an inventory of Marvel’s payroll. That means cameos galore. Remember when Robert Redford, of all people, was in one of these films? I won’t tell you who else appears for fear of being scolded by the diehards, but it’s rather shocking to realize just how much of Hollywood has been bitten by the comic-book bug. On the one hand, it’s delightful to see so many great actors and actresses in one place; on the other, don’t [insert Oscar-nominated superstars here] have something better to do than appear silently for 30 seconds so we can feel a little nostalgic?
I’m being coy about what else happens in “Endgame” because I’d rather not see my inbox flooded with angry emails. Trust that I’ve only scraped the surface. But know also that even a superhero agnostic like me might be held rapt by what unfolds onscreen — not because “Endgame” is an especially excellent movie, but because its quest to please everyone who purchases a ticket is filled with so much winning humor and pathos. Much like in the new “Star Wars” trilogy or the latest “Game of Thrones” episodes, watching characters meet or reunite after years apart is reward enough. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe was made for anything, it’s this.
It helps, too, that “Endgame” isn’t overly violent. There’s far less action than expected, which gave my eyes and ears a much-deserved rest. Instead, it’s a fairly thoughtful saga about the toils of heroism, what it means to risk your life for a greater good, and how the leadership torch gets passed from one generation to another. Downey is especially good at capturing these struggles; after years on the front lines, he wears exhaustion all over his body. Hemsworth, too, gives a bravura performance, though his is built more on comic tension: Thor has let himself go, looking more like Jeffrey Lebowski than a Norse god.
The rub, and therefore the success, of “Endgame” is that not much of anything is actually ending, and yet we still leave feeling like an era has passed us by. Just like the forthcoming “Star Wars” spinoffs and “Game of Thrones” prequel, there’s another batch of Avengers-adjacent movies simmering right now, including July’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Maybe Downey’s contract has run out, but the franchise will march on — to infinity and beyond, if you will. Call me when we’ve really reached the last superhero flick ever, and we’ll have a lot more to reflect on. But for now, dear reader, I almost shed a tear. Almost.
“Avengers: Endgame” opens April 26.