Scalding Hot Takes: Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The biggest movie in theaters right now also happens to be the biggest movie of all time. How fucking crazy is that? Answer: not that crazy, as Marvel cinematic mastermind Kevin Feige has been diligently planting the seeds for the fourth and final Avengers movie to conquer the box office like no blockbuster before since 2008’s Iron Man ushered in the current super-hero boom. And what a boom it has been!
What makes something the biggest movie of all time? The quick, obvious, easy answer is box-office. The top-grossing film of all time is almost by definition going to be the biggest film of all time. The same would seem to hold true of albums as well. For a long time Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the biggest selling, most popular album of all time.
Now that title belongs to The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, and it would be damn near impossible to make a case for that particularly LP as the biggest album of all time. The best selling? Sure. The biggest? It’s not even the biggest Eagles album. That distinction belongs to Hotel California. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is just a contractual obligation from a mediocre band of assholes.
Avengers: Endgame feels at times like a cinematic greatest superheroes compilation from the world-beaters over at Marvel. But it’s also a real movie that earns its status as the biggest as well as top-grossing movie of all time by virtue of its epic, one hundred and eighty-one minute length, its extraordinary scope and the way it’s connected not just to the previous three Avengers movies but all 21 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It does not hurt, of course, that Endgame follows arguably the biggest cliffhanger in blockbuster history, the legendary “Snap” that caused half of the world’s population to disappear instantly, leaving behind a world full of people desperately looking for answers, both in terms of how to undo the terrible damage that has been done and how to survive in a post-Snap universe.
Of course, you don’t have to be a superhero that survived the snap to lose somebody. You just need to live. The older you get, the more people you lose and the more it hurts. Your life becomes filled with ghosts, with memories, with people you love who live on only in your memory. In Avengers: Endgame that loss is global and universal, on an almost unimaginable scale, but it’s also deeply, unmistakably personal.
Fate, through its malevolent instrument Thanos, has wiped out half of the world, including many superheroes. As a result, Endgame opens on a boldly funereal note for an epic blockbuster that would need to be the top grossing film of all time just to be considered a success.
The vibe for many of its early scenes is as eerie and delicate as American life on September 12th, 2001, when we all wondered what life would be like now that everything was different. Alternately, it feels more than a little like life after the Rapture in an Evangelical film, albeit without quite as many heavy-handed admonitions to accept Christ as your personal savior and resist taking on the Mark of the Beast.
With some of the biggest, most commercially viable superheroes out of action we’re left with a strange B-team that combines the heaviest of heavy hitters, legends like Iron Man and Captain America with spunky (relative) newcomers like Ant-Man and Captain America, who receives an introduction befitting an instant icon who captured the imagination of the American people and attracted the unhinged, misogynistic fury of incel neckbeard types like no superhero this side of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Avengers: Endgame opens with evil triumphant. Thanos has succeeded in his nefarious scheme to X out half of everybody everywhere. Of course no tragedy in the world of comic books and superheroes is ever so grim that it cannot be reversed via a little phenomenon known as time travel.
Time travel consequently functions as something of a deus ex machina in genre fiction and superhero movies. One of my first vivid memories of superhero cinema involves Superman using his incredible speed and power to turn back time in 1978’s Superman.
Like most deus ex machina, time travel in superhero movies can feel like a bit of a cheat. For some reason when I thought about how the Snap would play itself out I didn’t consider time travel, AKA option A, B, C and D. I’m not sure why. I suppose I imagined that since this would be such a huge, important and endlessly analyzed and critique movie they would come up with something more inspired and original than going back in time to undo the horrible damage that has been done.
Looking back, I’m not sure why that is. Avengers: Endgame is a commercial enterprise. An ENORMOUS commercial enterprise. A commercial enterprise so vast that if Avengers: Endgame were to somehow fail capitalism itself might crumble. The franchise, and studio, took a massive risk when they made half of their squadron of beloved crime-fighters go bye bye in an instant genocide beyond the imagination of even Neil Breen.
Of course they are going to resolve their big old conflict in the most obvious possible manner, time travel. Besides, Captain Marvel savvily used time travel in a manner that really resonated with me as a nostalgia-addled 43 year old who can imagine fewer places more magical or loaded with meaning than a Blockbuster Video store in 1995.
But it’s also appropriate that Avengers: Endgame prominently involves time travel because, like a young Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield, it’s about time. Endgame is obsessed with the inherently melancholy, inherently bittersweet passage of time. The film’s emotional power comes largely from the time that we’ve spent with these characters. At the risk of being a corny motherfucker, we’ve gone on a journey with these heroes. We’ve watched them grow and mature and explode in ways we never could have imagined.
I couldn’t have anticipate, for example, that Thor, a muscle-bound Norse God type from outer space played by a preposterously good-looking unknown would become one of my favorite aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thanks in no small part to Chris Hemsworth’s genius for sly physical and verbal comedy, and the focus (along with the big green guy) of maybe my favorite Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok.
I could not have foreseen beloved cult auteurs like James Gunn and Taiki Waititi being given hundreds of millions of dollars to make deliriously fun instant classics that reflect their idiosyncratic personalities while at the same time feeling very much like Marvel movies.
Watching Avengers: Endgame I found myself falling in love all over again with Robert Downey Jr. as an actor and as Iron Man. It’s hard to overstate Downey Jr’s importance to the franchise. Before they took chances with Gunn and Waititi, Marvel took a big old chance on Downey Jr., an actor with all the talent in the world but nobody’s idea of a bankable movie star at the time. When Downey Jr. became Iron Man he was still as known for being one of the most notorious drug addicts in an industry overflowing with them as he was his extraordinary gifts as an actor.
Playing Iron Man turned Downey Jr. into the highest paid actor in the world. He’s reportedly going to make 75 million dollars for Endgame. That might seem excessive for any human being doing anything short of curing Cancer or getting Donald Trump out of office but what you need to bear in mind is that Downey Jr. is a very good actor.
He’s the perfect Tony Stark, a heavyweight actor of substance and depth, a real thespian, but also a wonderful comic performer with a sly, self-referential, winking sensibility perfectly in tune with the world Stan Lee created and/or stole from other, less known writers and creators.
This might seem like a weird comparison coming from anyone but me but the emotional response I had to Avengers: Endgame reminded me of the legendary 10 hour, 10th anniversary episode of Comedy Bang Bang.
Obviously, I’m more invested in Comedy Bang Bang than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You could say that PFT, Andy Daly, Lauren Lapkus and Scott Aukerman are my superheroes. Then again, you could also say that Rocket Raccoon, Baby Groot and Iron Man are my superheroes as well. I contain multitudes. I like Marvel and Comedy Bang Bang. And my family. That’s about it.
There’s a cumulative power that comes with being with something over a long period of time. That’s why finales are so emotional: when done well, they allow us to the see the entirety of what has come before in a deeper, more satisfying way.
The Russo Brothers face formidable challenges here. They are crafting an epic narrative about death and loss, the passage of time and the epic battle between good and evil that’s weighty and substantive but also prominently involves a space raccoon who wears people clothes. That’s a tough balance to strike but over the course of their work on Captain America: Civil War and the last two Avengers films, they’ve proven they have a sure hand on this material.
Endgame is full of quietly heartbreaking scenes where the past, the glorious, dark, infinitely complicated past takes on a physical presence but it also has a whole bunch of sweet-ass tableaus that would not look out of place being spray-painted on a sweet-ass van in the 1970s. In that respect, it honors the wonderfully tacky psychedelic legacy of the Cosmic age of Marvel.
Is Endgame perfect? God no. It’s messy and overreaching but fundamentally solid. Thankfully, this elephantine endeavor feels liberated rather than hamstrung by its historic bigness.
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