Avengers: Endgame ★★★★

Sometimes, after writing a review, I remember how much I like a film and make plans to see it again. In the case of “Avengers: Endgame,” I’ve already seen the movie twice before getting to a review. I found it so satisfying and emotionally moving that I wanted to see it a second time on the big screen. Now I need to separate my personal experience of the film, which definitely borders on that of a gleeful fanboy, and use my critical faculties to evaluate “Endgame” as a movie. It’s a difficult exercise, because “Endgame” isn’t like other movies. As the final chapter in a 22-movie saga, you can’t watch it as a standalone and expect to have any clue what’s happening. Whether you’ve seen all 21 of the previous entries or not, this one assumes a certain amount of foreknowledge of the canon.

“Endgame” picks up where 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” left off. Thanos has just destroyed half of all life in the universe, simply by snapping his fingers while wearing the infinity gauntlet. Some of our heroes have disappeared, perhaps for good, and those who remain don’t know what to do. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is stuck in space with Nebula (Karen Gillan) and doesn’t have a way to get home so he’s recording final personal messages for Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). Steve (Chris Evans) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) take over leadership of the Avengers, but remain mired in grief and self-doubt. Other heroes have wandered off to lick their wounds.

Here is where “Endgame” makes the first of two somewhat brave choices: a significant portion of the first half of the movie focuses on the process of grieving. In fact, I’d argue that the reactions of the various characters to the events of “Infinity War” represent various waypoints on the seven stages of grief continuum. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) chooses anger, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) moves into depression, and so forth. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take these reactions seriously, allowing the characters time to work through their pain and feel the effects of the team’s loss to Thanos – and the loss of their loved ones – in an emotionally significant way. This reflects one of the things I’ve long admired about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: its superheroes always have feet of clay. They make mistakes, they bleed, they suffer. And we suffer with them, because we know their pain. They are as human as we are, and we love them for it.

Eventually, circumstances allow the team to pull itself back together and have a shot at redemption. I suspect that most of those reading this review will have already seen the movie, but even so, it would be unwise to discuss too many of the plot points, for fear of offering up spoilers. Suffice it to say, the second part of the movie becomes a sort of retrospective of the MCU to date, allowing the characters to take their curtain calls in the manner of a “greatest hits” tour. It’s cheesy and overwrought at times, but enormously rewarding for dedicated fans.

Eventually a second confrontation with Thanos and his goons ensues and we have a predictable epic battle between good and evil. I appreciate that this combat only takes up 20 minutes or so of screen time, as the massive CGI slugfests are not what I come to these movies for. As my friend, screenwriting professor Sean Gaffney, pointed out in a recent podcast: The MCU is all about character choices, not force against force. When the heroes choose to do the right thing or to be their best self, they win. The day is rarely won simply because someone has the biggest hammer or the strongest armor. “Endgame” does not disappoint in this category. Dangerous choices must be made when the stakes are high. Do our heroes have the moral fiber to do the right thing, even at great personal cost?

The second somewhat brave choice that “Endgame” makes comes from directors Anthony and Joe Russo. In the midst of a complicated plot, large quantities of action, an effects laden script, and a three-hour film tasked with paying off 10 years of plot points . . . they allow the movie to breathe. The directing duo often aims their camera at one of the actors and simply lets them do their thing. The results are excellent as the cast is first-rate (I count eight Oscar winners and another 10 Oscar nominees in the extended cast of this film). Especially on a second viewing, I was able to spend more time focused on the acting and the subtlety that each of these performers bring to their roles. If the joy of a long-running story resides more in the characters than in the plot, these folks pay that promise off in spades.

It’s probably worth noting that the movie focuses on Captain America and Iron Man more than on any of the other characters. Evans and Downey Jr. have already indicated that they’re leaving the franchise, so this film is their swan song and the script gives them the most to do.

“Avengers: Endgame” isn’t a perfect movie. However, given the scope of the task that the Russo brothers and their team took on, it’s a remarkably complete and competent one. Cashing in chips that have been collected over 21 movies and 11 years, they offer a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Rather than an arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, “Endgame” is nothing but a series of payoffs, one after the other. For those invested in this universe and the characters that reside in it, the film can be quite affecting. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried several times – on both viewings. It also provides the sense of closure fans have been seeking. For those less versed in the MCU, this might look like Sanskrit – a series of symbols and images that must have meaning, but which are indecipherable without the correct lexicon.