How do you follow the pop culture event of the decade?
That’s the question that Avengers: Endgame was faced with in the wake of its hugely successful predecessor Infinity War, while also juggling its own story, huge (despite Thanos’s best efforts) cast and an incredibly twisted continuity after over a decade of superhero movies.
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Endgame is hugely ambitious, ridiculous, over-the-top superhero filmmaking and I loved it. And that elusive answer? Well, as it turns out you decide NOT to follow anything – because despite its close connection to Avengers: Infinity War (originally the film was titled Infinity War part 2), the eminently entertaining Endgame is a different sort of movie.
Not completely different, of course – it picks up more or less exactly where the first film left off, features a considerable number of the same actors and has a few key scenes that echo those from the earlier film – but as an artefact, Endgame is a more elaborate and complicated coda to the earlier film.
It achieves this separation partly by refocusing on characters who were either entirely absent or underserved in Infinity War – after his absence was so noted in Infinity War, the very first character we see this time is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye – and partly thanks to its more episodic storyline, beginning with the Avengers’ attempts to undo the actions of Thanos (Josh Brolin) but then veering off in very strange directions, before tailing together again for one final, CGI budget-stretching clash.
And it’s here that we hit some trouble. As ever, it’s difficult to discuss this film without discussing plot elements some might consider off-limits, and this is definitely a movie best enjoyed without too much prior knowledge.
However, I think it’s fair to say that an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel movies will be helpful when watching Endgame, if not absolutely essential.
At the very least, you’ll definitely need to have seen Infinity War, but the first Avengers movie, Guardians of the Galaxy and even Thor: The Dark World have considerable influence on the challenges faced by our heroes this time around, and the emotional beats of the final 45 minutes or so definitely hit harder if you’re familiar with the eleven-year, eleven-franchise build-up.
Sometimes, Endgame hits you over the head with this unique multi-film legacy, stuffing its cast with surprise cameos, callbacks, new takes on old scenes and reminders of what came before, but ultimately it’s hard to begrudge it its tapestry of influence.
What other movie franchise has achieved this TV-like build-up of storytelling, characters and ongoing conflicts? And why shouldn’t they show that off after so many other extended universe franchises have crashed and burned – especially when it’s so entertaining?
Not that the film doesn’t have its quieter moments. After playing (generously) third fiddle in Infinity War, Chris Evans’s Captain America and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow have considerably beefed-up roles, with Evans in particular inspiring some punch-the-air moments that had the crowd at my screening in raptures.
On the lighter side of things, some fan-favourite characters from Thor: Ragnarok make a return, and Paul Rudd adds buckets of wide-eyed enthusiasm as Ant-Man/Scott Lang (who definitely works better in these team-up movies).
Robert Downey Jr, meanwhile, brings some real pathos to Tony Stark (the man who started it all in 2008’s Iron Man) while Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan continues to expand on her murderous cyborg Nebula.
Is the film perfect? Well, no. A comedy side-plot involving Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is played too broad, and some of the team-ups in the final battle feel a bit too much like fan service.
Also, after painting quite a nuanced portrait of Josh Brolin’s Thanos in the previous film, Endgame throws away a lot of this characterisation, making him a far less involved and more two-dimensional threat by the story’s close.
It’s also probably a little too long at a bladder-bursting three hours and one minute. Still, it’s hard to begrudge the Marvel Cinematic Universe getting a little self-indulgent in what largely amounts to a 181 minute-long victory lap.
Somehow, some way, Marvel did what nobody else could and successfully adapted the sprawling, overlapping world of comic-book superheroes to screen. Once, it would have seemed impossible. I was sitting near a 14-year-old fan during the Endgame screening, and I couldn’t imagine how I would have reacted as a teenage comic-book fan to this vibrant, bizarre world coming to life in front of me.
It’s the culmination of so much – and despite a few flaws, it’s an incredibly impressive, nearly impossible thing to behold.
“Everyone is a failure at what they’re supposed to be,” one character remarks at one point during the film.
“The measure of a hero is how they measure against who they are.”
Endgame is not Infinity War. It’s not a perfect film. It’s not anything except itself.
But by that standard, it does pretty well.
Avengers: Endgame is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 25th April