Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

With almost $20 billion in box office grosses, and the kind of worldwide cultural saturation that’s typically reserved for wars and pandemics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without question one of the most successful ideas in Hollywood history. However, as “Avengers: Endgame” underscores with each of its 182 minutes, this 22-film mega-franchise has always been a portrait of failure. It may be the biggest story ever told about people letting down the ones they love, time and time again, until they start to lose faith in the very idea of salvation.

For all of the power they wield, all of the times they’ve guarded the galaxy from oblivion, the Avengers are really just a ragtag group of humanoids (and one space raccoon) who define themselves by their deficiencies. The more heroic they act, the more harmful they become.

By the time “Endgame” begins, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are convinced that the entire universe is suffering for their shortcomings. It’s Thanos who teaches them otherwise, by showing them that perfection is the real enemy of the good. Thanos may not be the most compelling villain in recent memory — he’s basically just that swole kid in your freshman philosophy class who read one book on utilitarianism and decided to start cancelling anyone who complicated his worldview. But his master plan is what allows “Endgame” to feel like such a fitting resolution to “The Infinity Saga,” and finish off this epic tale in a way that compensates for much of the assembly-line homogeneity that turned Marvel into a monolithic force.

Traces of that idea can be found in films as early as “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but “The Avengers” writer-director Joss Whedon deserves much of the credit for making failure the foundational bedrock of the entire MCU. There’s a reason why, seven years and 16 movies later, Agent Coulson’s death is still the single most pivotal moment in the entire franchise. It’s not because Captain America loses his biggest fan, or because S.H.I.E.L.D. loses their most competent go-between; it’s because of how Nick Fury weaponizes the Avengers’ inability to protect the person who believed in them most.

In a desperate (and low-key deranged) act of showmanship, Fury takes the Captain America trading cards that Coulson kept in his jacket, rubs someone’s blood all over them, and throws them in the Avengers’ faces. He tells them that Coulson died believing in the idea of heroes. In that wild moment, Fury has the wherewithal to recognize that saving a million lives is less of a burden than forfeiting a single one — that success doesn’t make you second-guess who you are — and he uses that knowledge to pierce a hole right through the hearts of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It’s a hole they will never stop trying to fill, and it makes them human.