Stephen T’s review published on Letterboxd:
Avengers: Endgame is basically the film version of Kingdom Hearts III. You pretty much know what you're getting, it will meet exactly your expectations whichever you set them and odds are you have already made up your mind on whether you're going to love it or hate it even before you bought your tickets. It holds virtually no surprises for anyone who even has a rudimentary understanding of storytelling, and it encapsulates everything about Marvel films, both the good and the bad. It is critic-proof, not just because no living person can sway your opinion on it once you've seen it, but because I cannot even begin to understand what kind of critical framework you would even begin to analyse it with.
Last year, I criticised Avengers: Infinity War of being a repetitive, tedious collection of scenes that are poorly edited together without a sense of cohesion or building momentum in place of an actual film. Having just rewatched it pretty recently, I still believe this to be true, with the addition of disliking its final half hour even more than I did before, a dual climax that absolutely begged for some kind of cross-cutting to provide any sense of tension or excitement.
The good news is that Marvel and Disney heard me. As compensation for Infinity War not being an actual film, they made three films in lieu of acts and put them all in Endgame. All three of them have different agendas, and they are completely incompatible with each other. Therefore, I think it's more fitting to review each of these three in turn, and then tell you what I think about the movie as a whole.
FILM #1: The Character Drama
It is the shortest of the three films in Endgame, but it's my favourite. Had they just took this one and filled in the obvious blanks, this would have been my preferred version of Avengers 4. It sets an elegiac tone to its proceedings, and poses an interesting question for the genre, "What happens when superheroes fail...and they cannot change that?" "How can they accept this and move on?" This pushes characters into interesting places (and turns some of them into sight gags.) Watching this, I thought to myself, "Holy shit, this might be the best possible adaptation of Final Fantasy VI."
Sure, the usual pseudo-Whedonesque dialogue that has plagued the franchise (and by extension, the rest of Disney's output) is still here and annoying and threatens to disrupt the mood of the piece. Somehow, magic happens and thanks to some stellar performances, comes tinged with bile and acid. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, arisen from their deep slumber, rejuvenated by the thought of never having to renew their contracts ever again, pull off all the stops portraying heroes who know that they are heroes, and they cannot stop being heroes because that would be against their nature, and they hate themselves for it.
It has everything you could want, the best writing, the best performances. Hell, its very first scene might just be the best scene in the whole damn movie (and at 181 minutes, it's a whole lot of movie.)
FILM #2: Goddamn Time Travel
Somewhere in the middle of the first film, a notion is introduced, like a virus, like a pest. After a good 20-30 minutes portraying people who have acclimatised themselves to the Post-Apocalypse, some in healthier ways than others, Film #2 proceeds to walk ALL OF IT back and say, "Forget about all that grieving and moving on, 'No resurrections this time' nonsense. LET'S UNDO ALL THAT SHIT"
This is my least favourite of the films. It is another goddamn fetch quest involving some fucking Plot MacGuffins, right on the heels of a film about preventing the villain from completing his goddamn fetch quest involving some fucking Plot MacGuffins. And yes, it involves time travel, because Marvel's entire modus operandi is to make movies that introduce mass audiences to comic book tropes in cinematic form, and desensitise them from the shitty ones.
The worst part is not that the writers use time travel as a crutch to explain away shit, while not being consistent with their own established rules on what can and cannot be achieved with it. The worst part is that the writers use time travel to indulge in nostalgia bait. It is here, that Endgame begins its transformation into its true ugly form. Welcome to Fanservice: The Movie.
This is a Very Special Episode, a clip show, lined with cameos from actors who CLEARLY do not want to be there (Hi Natalie Portman!) and some of the better scenes in the franchise. It is calculated, designed specifically to elicit feels from the most diehard of Marvel fans.
Some have come to call it a heartfelt tribute. You can't bloody make a tribute to yourself. Ready Player One the novel is a tribute, a shitty one yes, but a tribute nonetheless. Both this and Ralph Breaks the Internet is on the other hand, is self-serving wankery.
It does some really weird things to characters. Thor somehow develops some mummy issues not even vaguely hinted at in two entire films, solely to justify a cameo from Rene Russo. I don't even want to delve into what it does to Gamora because that is just messed up. There is a Mano a Mano fight which would be neat if it didn't suffer from the same damn choppy editing that plagues every last one of these fights in the MCU.
(On the other hand, Tony Stark fares the best of all the core cast, as evident from the writers' infatuation for him, gifting him the best lines and arc of everyone in the damn movie.)
It also demonstrates that shots that were originally framed in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio look terrible when cropped to 2.35:1 (hence, why you all should see this on the IMAX expanded aspect ratio.) But no one really cares about these things.
By the time the scene where the heroes inevitably collect all the Plot Coupons and return to base, I actually said out loud, "Wait that's it?" There is just no sense of escalation, thanks to some sleepy editing, and writing that won't even make the effort to at least pretend for more than two scenes in a row that the heroes could actually fail.
It is filmmaking by committee, a collection of scenes that have been pre-approved before the first draft is written. They are lensed exclusively in medium shots because the Russo Brothers seem afraid that their big superhero movie might actually have some sense of gravitas instead of just looking like Expensive Network TV.
It is a character-driven time travel heist movie that fails at all three of its elements, because (A) no one seems to agree on what the arcs of these characters are across movies (has anyone seen Iron Man 3 lately?), (B) the time travel mechanics are inconsistent even in its own narrative, and (C) there is no urgency or tension, which are things that heist movies, even the zippiest ones, DESPERATELY need.
FILM #3: The Marvel Ending
Every arm of the Disney Corporation has its formula. Disney has been using its formula for the Princess Movie since 1937. Pixar has unfortunately succumbed to its tendencies to a Third Act Chase in the 2010s. Marvel has one, and it is also related to the ending. It is of course, the Big Battle Where CGI Shit Flies Around and Explodes Right Out of the Sky.
Yes, Endgame does have one of these alright. It is also really fucking long. It has the misfortune of being set in an anonymous CGI grey scorched wasteland, and leached of colour where it absolutely vitally HAS TO BE COLOURFUL.
Because my God, I don't get nerdgasms, but this is the closest I could ever get to one. Suddenly, I understand why the finales of Black Panther and Infinity War have really shitty compositing and visual effects. It's because they sunk all of their budget into rendering this. There is a whole succession of shots that are basically moving comic book splash panels. There are long tracking shots that show heroes working in tandem and apart, occupying the same time and space. The moment-to-moment editing finally wakes up, and there is build up, escalation, and release. There are, thank the Lord and all the saints, actual wide shots.
Is it tense? Hell no. Is it cool anyway? HELL YES. If it is not the best of all the MCU finales, it is because The Avengers all the way back when had better cross-cutting. Is it possible that all this is also bad, ugly CGI wankery in line with Bayformers or Ready Player One if you don't give a shit about any of the characters or what is going on? Damn likely, though it takes an even more grumpy git than me to deny this is some kind of spectacular explosion-mongering. Also, if you suddenly decided that this movie is the one you want to start with in this ludicrous TWENTY-TWO film long franchise, bad news; Endgame would rather have fuck all to do with you.
And then the movie ends.
And then it ends again.
And then it just keeps going on, because everyone saw Return of the King and decided to take its inspiration from its worst element. It has an arbitrary selection of B-roll scenes, culminating in a very arbitrary choice for last shot. I was antsy, I was inconsolable, and not for all the right reasons.
In short, Endgame is just really fucking inconsistent. It boasts stellar performances from actors who are clearly having their last hurrah. For a very short period of time, it feels like it has some kind of emotional maturity that is applicable to how the real world actually works. It has great visual effects and the kind of noisy bullshit CG-laden fighting nonsense that is pleasurable to watch in that passive kind of way.
It is also enormously bloated, the second hour being a punishing grind and the obvious place to start cutting runtime. It furthermore has the gall to pretend like its deaths (permanent as of now) have meaning in a narrative that trivialises the very notion of character death. Its cinematography, when not aided by pre-vis artists, is hopelessly pinned down by boring medium shot-reverse shot setups.
Is it better than Infinity War? Yeah sure, I think so. Its smaller core cast enables the better performers to shine and allows for a classically structured three act story. Is it the best movie ever made? No, but a lot of you will feel otherwise, and that's okay. The millennials finally have their own Gone with the Wind, a kind of film that has no goal other than to just be the Biggest Damn Movie. It's okay to love it, and it's also okay to hate it, because regardless of what your take or mine on Avengers: Endgame is, Endgame is too big for any of that to matter.
(Psst. X-Men: Days of Future Past has done this whole superhero time travel thing to erase an apocalyptic future better. And it didn't need five and a half hours to do it!)