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Media Review: June 2019

Avengers: Endgame
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Produced by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures
April 28, 2019

Marvel movies are great at managing audience expectations. They know what their fans want, or at least what their fans think they want, and this turns out to be the key to both satisfying them and surprising them. The famous Snap in Infinity War, for example. (See my review: bit.ly/2GY7ksT) Part of the gut punch wasn’t the destruction; it was the hiccup in our narrative expectation: The heroes failed? They did, but the gut punch was tempered by knowledge that the sequel was on the way. How are they going to get out of this one?

In that sequel, I expected three hours of grim revenge bender. Turns out, the movies dispense with that in the first fifteen minutes. Our heroes gather, find where Thanos retreated, and launch to get the Gauntlet back in order to snap the universe back to where it should be. But it turns out Thanos used the Gauntlet a second time, to destroy the Infinity Stones. The heroes can’t use it to fix anything. So they kill him. Thor cuts his head right off like he should have done the first time.

Then a title card reads: Five Years Later.

All of you who wanted consequences for the Snap and didn’t want the damage reversed? There ya go. So now what?

We get a giant cross-time heist film with a cast of thousands. (I suggested to a friend that checking the IMDb cast list for the film would potentially deliver a lot of spoilers. He immediately went to check and reported back: “Everybody is in this. Everybody.” He wasn’t joking.) And it’s almost, almost a comedy. I certainly laughed a whole lot more than I was expecting.

Very nearly nothing I expected to happen happened. My predictions didn’t just not come true, they were pretty much irrelevant. There wasn’t a clever puzzle to solve to put things right. The big gun on the mantle really was Scott Lang and the quantum realm and we really are just going to time travel it all.

The team decides the best way to fix what went wrong is to go back in time and intercept each Infinity Stone before Thanos acquires it. Dear Reader, when the stones appear on the holographic screen and it becomes clear that we really are going to revisit each movie in the series when they appear, I was in awe. The team splits up and actually, physically goes back to insert themselves in previous films, specifically Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers. It turns out, during the Battle of New York, three Infinity Stones were in New York City all within a couple of miles of each other. How convenient! It’s almost like someone planned it this way.

No. Seriously. How far back did they plan this? If you told me that, back when they were filming Avengers, they took time to film the portions of Endgame—i.e. the exact same scenes but from the stealthy perspective of our time-traveling heroes, and a fanfic-level rendering of everything that happened in the immediate aftermath of Loki’s capture, including getting Robert Redford to play Pierce for just a few seconds a couple of years before he plays Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I would believe you. This is the sort of thing that happens in sitcoms or certain famous episodes of Star Trek: DS9, not massive budget film series that have been going for a decade.

It’s like a clip show, but they had to make all the clips from scratch. It’s crazy.

Even with all this, the important thing in this movie isn’t the Rube-Goldberg time travel plot. (“What do you mean time travel isn’t like Back to the Future!” Scott Lang declares, during the explanation that handwaves away any damage our heroes might do to the timeline because quantum stuff, yanno.) It’s the character moments. This is full of character moments. The pairings when the team splits up are designed to give us character moments, both longed-for and unexpected. Tony and Steve finally reconcile. Rhodey and Nebula bond over their broken bodies. Thor speaks to his mother moments before her death, and she immediately understands what is happening and gives Thor the pep talk he’s needed. Tony meets Howard Stark in the past and manages to reconcile with him, even though Howard doesn’t know what’s happening.

Really, this film is all about the fan service. You know, things that make the fans happy, whether or not it has anything to do with the story. This is fan service of the highest order, watching older cynical Cap fight his younger idealistic non-swearing self (“This is bullshit!” future, swearing Cap declares) for possession of the Mind Stone.

Turns out it’s also a pretty good story. The MCU always seems to have its cake and eat it too.

(My very favorite bit of fan service is when Cap deftly takes Loki’s staff from Agent Sitwell, in a recreation of the brilliant elevator scene from Winter Soldier, by leaning in to whisper “Hail Hydra” to him. This is clearly a poke in the eye of the storyline from the comics a few years ago that insisted Cap was always Hydra, no really. Naw, he was just fooling with you.)

There’s a point in the final battle where all the women form up: Valkyrie, Okoye, Shuri, Nebula, Gamora, Mantis, Wanda, Carol Danvers, Pepper Potts in her own power suit, and yes I cheered, even knowing that scene was arranged precisely to get people like me to cheer.

You want fan service? Our heroes get to kill Thanos twice. Time travel, kids!

Time travel means I keep asking the questions, What did they know? How much did they set up? How much of this was preordained? On both a story level and a meta-level, I’m asking this. Dr. Strange knew. He gave Thanos the Time Stone because that steered the timeline toward the only possible route to victory. Dr. Strange gave Thanos the Time Stone because, in a sense, it had already happened. When Bruce Banner travels back to the Battle of New York to get the Time Stone from the Ancient One, he convinces them to hand it over by saying that Dr. Strange had already handed it over. The Ancient One blinks in surprise. Really? Well, all right then, since it’s going to already have happened.

Time travel: Don’t think about it too hard, you will hurt yourself.

About halfway through Infinity War, Captain America states what I think could be the theme of the entire MCU series. “We don’t trade lives,” he says with the flat determination that is his trademark, that should be goofy as hell but Chris Evans somehow makes the character so earnest and believable that we all get weak in the knees and vow to follow him anywhere. The moment you start making those calculations, of how many lives you can sacrifice for the so-called greater good, as Thanos does, you have undermined your ideals and made yourself a villain. But Steve Rogers, Captain America, is wrong. Everybody, every single person in the universe, gets to trade one life to save many: their own.

That’s Thanos’s mistake: He’s never willing to trade his own life because of his own narcissistic insistence that he’s the only one who has the universe’s best interests at heart (one wonders what his standards are). I didn’t predict which ones would make that trade in Endgame. Clint tries, but Natasha beats him to it. Cap already did, back in 1945. And that leaves us Tony Stark, Iron Man, who started out this whole franchise. Who, when we look back, has been trying to trade his life for the greater good all along, he just never succeeded until now.

Dr. Strange saw Tony’s death. He saved Tony from Thanos in order to doom him in the future. Did Tony figure it out? If it was all preordained, can it really be a surprise?

In the same way, Bucky must have known that Steve Rogers wasn’t coming back from that last mission, and I’m pretty sure Steve told him exactly why—he’s staying in the past to make a life with Peggy Carter (SO MUCH FAN SERVICE). Bucky wasn’t surprised, there at the end. Neither was anyone else, when they took a moment to think about it. Steve Rogers himself hands the shield over and anoints the next Captain America: It is Sam Wilson, Falcon, and the moment is full of hope and love and not born from tragedy, which may not be what I expected but is exactly right. A lot of the movie is like that. I really didn’t think Cap would get a happy ending, but he does. And maybe Tony does too. He was never sure what his life really meant. Now he does.

Not satisfying: Natasha also chose to trade her life, and her death feels inevitable but also anticlimactic. And Thor—the series seems a little too taken with the comic doofus Thor of Ragnarok, and we’re missing the God of Thunder who emerged from that story. He’s grown and learned and changed and is generous. But now he’s the big jock who’s abdicated all his responsibility and that doesn’t feel like the right arc for him.

And then there’s the time travel. I’m just not going to think about it because it hurts my skull.

My hope is that the MCU will move forward now, and not feel a need to dip back into these past stories—this movie seems to have pushed that self-referencing as far as it can possibly go. But I think I may be done trying to predict anything.

I suspect we don’t yet have a filmic language to really talk about what the MCU is doing. To be still knocking it out of the park twenty-plus films in means the project is different than simply making a series of movies. The MCU is no longer about creating discreet pieces of cinematic art and hasn’t been for a long time now. It’s about the relationships with its fans, and building up a rabid loyalty in those fans. It’s about becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time in the first five days. So yes, at one level, it’s all about the money.

The miracle here is that the MCU wouldn’t be able to claim those relationships, that loyalty, that box office take, if it didn’t tell such reliably good stories with such likable characters that fulfills its fans’ expectations. Other franchises have tried, but they always fall down on the storytelling. How do we talk about something so blatantly commercial that also has so much heart? The MCU succeeds at everything, it seems. I’m torn between sitting back and enjoying the ride and being suspicious of being so skillfully manipulated.

So what’s next, for the MCU? No more predictions. We’ll just have to see what happens next.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.