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‘Avengers: Endgame’ and the State of the Modern Superhero Movie

With this three-hour epic, Marvel concludes one “phase” of its ambitious experiment and goes out on a high note. Where does the genre go from here?

David Fear May 03, 2019

Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans — MVPs in the MCU's first three "phases.' Photo: Marvel Studios (3)

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You were going to go. Of course you were going to go. Maybe you counted the hours and the days until advance tickets went on sale, and helped turn its opening weekend into a perpetually sold-out, round-the-clock-screening, $1.2 billion global juggernaut. Or maybe you went begrudgingly, complaining that this all seems like such arrested-adolescence hot air and handwringing about how keeping up with pop culture feels like homework. Or you might be one of the folks who, in an extraordinary display of restraint, planned on waiting until the foaming-mouth furor dies down a bit. But at some point, either in the first 72 hours of it hitting theaters or in the near-future — or both simultaneously, if you can pull off a time heist — you would be seeing this movie. Resistance is futile. You didn’t sit through 21 movies and endless scrolling credits of FX artists to catch those post-credit teasers for nothing. You didn’t get pin-cushioned by the slings and arrows of outrageous fanboys just to hard-pass now. This is the Endgame, beautiful friend. The end.

[So listen, it’s the Monday after the opening. This movie made a lot of money, which meant a lot of people saw it. So we’re going to assume you’ve seen it as well, and that you’re cool with spoilers, of which there are many going forward after this point. If you have not yet seen it for whatever reason, stop now. It works better going in cold anyway. No, really, we don’t take it personally.]

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Avengers: Endgame is a lot of things, ranging from the conclusion of the “Avengers saga” (or “Infinity saga”) to a full-circle callback to the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. It fittingly gives the big climactic moment to the guy who started it all, letting Tony Stark repeat his Sabbath-quoting line — “I’m Iron Man” — before he saves the universe and goes gently into the night. (As Slate’s Sam Adams astutely notes, the very last thing you hear before the lights come up is the sound of Stark forging his original suit, sampled from way back in the pop cultural Jurassic period known as 2008.) It brings back virtually every actor who’s appeared in an MCU movie for its big “Avengers assemble!” set piece, which is the closest thing to a moving comics splash page you’re likely to see, and for a funeral sequence that could plausibly double as a S.A.G. meeting. There are thrills, chills, spills, retconned sequences from older movies, laughs, tears, deaths, team-ups, jokes about Captain America’s ass, the all-female superhero group you always wanted to see, a brainy Hulk dabbing in a sweater and a dadbod Thor with a drinking problem. It ties The Return of the King for the most consecutive endings — there are a lot of sunsets to ride into — yet somehow has the beautiful audacity to go out not with a bang but with a slow dance to a swing-jazz tune.

But this fit-to-burst blockbuster also signals the end of a particular era of superhero movies, an 11-year period that turned a subgenre into something that now sucks the oxygen out of multiplex culture — and arguably moviemaking in general. What started as a leap-of-faith experiment by Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige has terraformed the industry for better or for worse. Every other movie now had to have a post-credits teaser. Everybody now wants a multiverse. If the original X-Men demonstrated that superhero films could be serious and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy proved they could be self-serious, the MCU suggested they could be everything: action movies, space operas, conspiracy thrillers, buddy comedies, caper flicks, WWII men-on-a-mission romps, workplace sitcoms writ large, mythology-fueled fantasies, Shakespearean tragedies and more. So long as it all sprang from a single intellectual-property hub, let a thousand supporting-character side adventures bloom.

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And if nothing else, Avengers: Endgame is determined to shove all of those different variations, as well as a lot of narrative history, into one single massive framework. The first half hour feels like a huge feint: The group finds Thanos, the purple-skinned celestial who wiped out half the universe with the snap of his fingers. He’s now living like a beach bum on a distant planet, and discovers that he’s destroyed any chance of reversing the process. One of their members, in turn, destroys him. “Five years later …” — our still-decimated world still turns, and the grieving hasn’t stopped. Some folks have gone rogue, some have procured beer guts, others have settled down and made families. But everyone hurts. Dourness is the name of the game. Then Ant-Man shows up, talking crazy about the Quantum realm and time travel and what if there’s still a chance, guys? Skepticism reigns until there’s a scientific breakthrough, which turns into “we’re getting the band members who didn’t turn into dust back together,” which turns into a series of subplots involving a jaunt through alternate versions of previous MCU misadventures. They’ve got to back and steal the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Gotta collect ’em all.

Remember the shock you felt at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, this film’s dark older sibling, when a handful of your favorite supporting players and a couple of noticeable marquee-name leads disintegrated before your eyes? Do you also recall the cynicism you may have felt as the credits started rolling, thinking to yourself: This is a con. So you really expect us to believe you’re going to just get rid of the second most recognizable superhero ever (especially because they’d just recast the part and successfully rebooted his franchise) and the character that proved diversity could reap box-office dividends? There was a nagging sense that they were scoring easy points via cheap emotional manipulation — that there were no real stakes involved. Someone’s gonna hit a reset button, then everything is back to normal, and we get more sequels and movies, which will further tease more movies and sequels, and they make more money. Long live the perpetual loop, coming soon to every theater near you.

This is where Endgame differs from not just its evil twin but from its whole extended family. Yes, a reversal of fortune is in the cards. But there are stakes this time, the kind that only come when a lot of your talents’ contracts are finally expiring. There are sacrificial deaths that feel permanent, or as close to permanent as possible. Familiar faces return just as even more familiar exit stage left. Torches get passed, both in terms of who’ll pick up the avenger-ing slack and who’ll be the characters to lead whatever Marvel decides “phase four” will be. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo know this world and know how to keep things interesting while keeping things moving; they’re the kind of filmmakers who know how to employ visual wit wisely in the time-tripping sequences and when a simple shot of the cosmos reflected in a human eye says it all. (They haven’t quite mastered the art of making a giant, character-filled action sequence feel coherent or like less of a video-game button mash, but hey, you can’t have everything.)

So you may not be surprised by how Endgame exploits its own history and how it uses its fans’ obsessive knowledge of what’s happened before, and when and where and to whom, for a series of layered in-jokes and Easter egg footnotes. You won’t be shocked that it can be, at times, incredibly unwieldy and prone to tripping over its own illogical, juggled multi-timelines. What may give you pause is how it establishes a very human foundation beneath all the superheroic flexing. There’s a young character introduced into the mix, along with a signature line of sorts (“I love you 3000”), that you know will become a Chekhovian gun in the third act. It doesn’t make it any less devastating when your hunch proves correct. You can’t underestimate how attached you’ve almost subconsciously become to characters, and the actors that portray them, over the long course of five, or 10, or 22 movies. Even if the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t, despite tweetable estimations, the ultimate achievement in Western culture and beyond, there’s something undeniably impressive about how these folks have sustained this serialized “saga” over so many years and all-over-the-map entries. None of these films have been perfect, though one’s come very close. But thanks to the franchise’s cumulative effect and an overall sticking of the landing, the tragic and happy endings all feel earned.

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Which brings us to the moment we find ourselves in now and a chance to look at what the post-Endgame state of the superhero movie is now. This chapter of Marvel’s reign has concluded, having left behind a template for how to translate the agonies and ecstasies of comic-book stories into blockbuster ecosystems. It’s paved the way for varied and more complex uses of the superhero as an archetype — look at Black Panther, or outside of the MCU, Logan and Wonder Woman, three big movies that managed to reflect the world outside the pages from which they sprang and the theaters from which they screened. There are notions about who gets to be the hero, who gets to direct the hero’s story and how such notions of heroism can be tainted that owe their existence to this experiment. They simply would not have existed had the dudes with the mythic hammer, the stars-and-stripes shield and the iron suit not demonstrated that audiences were willing to accept something slightly outside of the comic-canon norm.

And it’s also managed to helped to destroy the mid-budget movie and somehow stunt the blockbuster mentality so that everything now has to be some sort variation of its winning formula. It’s turned the superhero movie into a worldwide pop lingua franca at the expense of almost everything else. Currently, out of the 25 highest grossing movies of all time (sans adjustment for inflation), 11 of those are superhero films. That number will almost assuredly increase within the next five years or so, especially since Marvel movies aren’t going away any time soon — they’ll keep milking this cash cow well into the 23rd century. New Black Panther and Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies are on the horizon; maybe now they can stand on their own and not have to be bridges or feature-length teaser. Other contenders will keep coming for the crown. Some, like the upcoming Wonder Woman sequel and the horror-inflected Brightburn, suggest that there’s more in store than third-generation copies of copies. Like horror movies or the Western or science-fiction films, the Superhero Movie Industrial Complex may be emboldened to color outside the lines while still sticking to the conventions and keeping studio heads happy.

Whether they do or not, you’ll keep seeing those films too, probably. With Endgame, Marvel gives us the end of one thing and the beginning of … something else. It might be an evolution. It could very well be a devolution. But the game is going to change one way or the other now.

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