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"Avengers: Endgame" and the Miracle of Great Pacing

January 15, 2020

Avengers: Endgame is the caps the current iteration of the MCU, known as the “The Infinity Saga.” With more than $2.7-billion in worldwide box office dollars, Endgame is the biggest movie of all time in that regard. Does it deliver the goods? Yeah, it does.

This is not an in-depth discussion of plot, but there are probably some spoilers.

Avengers Endgame Poster

Avengers: Endgame is often magnificent. Let’s just get that out of the way. I’d say I have Marvel fatigue, even though I’ve seen just about all of the movies. I was excited to see Endgame, although my enthusiasm was yoked to some degree of obligation. Excited or not, when you feel obligated to see a movie nuzzling the 3-hour mark, that’s not necessarily a spot you want to find yourself in. Compulsion, run time and an impossible amount of hype compelled me to temper my expectations. I was just hoping for a good time and for my bladder to remain intact.

A handful of criticisms have been consistently leveled at the MCU. Bad villains. Nonsensical and consequence-free destruction. “Marvel fatigue” has been invoked by many (23 films and counting in about 12 years years is a lot). Previous Avengers movies occasionally struggled to balance the main characters beyond pointing the camera at a hero, giving him or her a zinger, and then moving on to the next. Endgame tries valiantly to exorcise all of these demons and mostly succeeds. Thanos is a great villain — a visionary with a grand plan that makes sense (at least in a galaxy brain kind of way) who wholeheartedly believes in his purpose, and he’s capable enough that it takes the whole team to beat him. The climactic battle happens on the destroyed and hollowed-out Avengers campus — close enough to civilization to be meaningful, but far enough away that you aren’t distracted by the untold collateral damage. And the ridiculous roster of characters are well deployed and sufficiently individualized (more on this later).

There are plenty of nitpicks with Endgame, some of which we’ll get into, but I found most of them forgivable considering how well the emotional core of the story landed. Captain America and Iron Man, the elder statesmen of the saga, get proper send-offs. Even considering the deference paid to the characters with the most status, there are still plenty of shining moments and grace notes to go around for everyone else.

Speaking of moments, the plot divides up the main characters and sets them on a time-hopping quest to retrieve the infinity stones from different timelines and bring them all back to the present enabling the Avengers to undo Thanos’s deed from Infinity War. (Deep breath.) The character pairings allow for some wonderful moments and give us an excuse to revisit characters who seemed to have been written out of the series long ago.

As for Thanos’ conquest by finger-snap, the elephant in the room ever since that film’s debut is that many characters who perished were expected to return. The Avengers has always been stuffed with characters, adding back another dozen or so via resurrection, seemed like an inevitability that could threaten the integrity and suspense of the rest of the movie.

It’s not ideal to lean on “pacing problems” when practicing film criticism. I’ve lingered on pacing problems in the past, but I do try to avoid vague, lazy critiques by supporting such claims with specifics. Avengers: Endgame seemed like a movie that might sag under the weight of an excessive run time and the need to represent dozens of important characters.

The thing about pacing, and directing in general (not speaking from experience here, but still), is that filmmakers have to direct the audience as much as they direct the movie. If they want you to notice something, they must somehow indicate it. If something is incredibly important, it’s up to the director to make sure that element gets the appropriate showcase. Part of figuring out the pacing is letting the relative importance of competing elements determine how prominent a showcase each one gets. This is an essential element of filmmaking — especially with a premise as unwieldy as Endgame’s. It the filmmakers’ responsibility to imbue competing elements of with the proper weight. To misjudge this balancing act could mean losing sight of the story you’re trying to tell, and risking a befuddled audience.

With this in mind, the sure-handed direction of Anthony and Joe Russo, and all the other filmmakers who worked on this movie, meant that the much-anticipated return of these beloved characters happened at the absolute perfect time. This timing allows the overwhelming number of characters to exist in a more concentrated fashion and neutralizes a weaknesses that has cropped up in previous MCU entries. Because of how effective the Russos were in this area, and in spite of my Marvel fatigue (and the fact that I was in no way surprised by their return), I quite unexpectedly shed a tear when the many presumed-dead characters reappeared. Bravo.

Another obstacle that could have made Endgame as mind-numbing as the worst of the MCU is the arbitrariness that comes with funneling heroes of from different worlds and with varying abilities into one narrative. I’d like to commend The Ringer, as I am wont, for addressing this with a post last year. It’s probably hard to depict the difference in power or ability between a Norse god, a gamma beast, and a genetically enhanced soldier. Then there’s Thanos, who seem to inflict and incur damage from various Avengers seemingly at random.

While on the subject of tricky power imbalances, Captain Marvel is a bit of an omnipotent panacea who gets to show up in the eleventh hour and turn the tide against Thanos. The explanation here is, essentially, that she’s too busy serving the same purpose on thousands of other worlds to be a full-time card-carrying Avenger. That’s fine. It’s a nitpick, but given the sheer magnitude of what the MCU has accomplished to date, that point really didn’t ruin anything for me as I sat there in theater, and I’m not about to let it. It seems reasonable to credit the Russos once again for handling this inherent unwieldiness.

The Captain Marvel conundrum, and the cumulative effect of any other nitpicks (let’s not even try to unpack the story’s time-travel-related liabilities) don’t feel significant because this movie gets so many of little things right. The emotional bonds of the characters. The societal impact that comes with a world-historical event like Thanos’s snap. It’s not perfect, but as a polished dissertation following years of tedious leg-work, Endgame seems to have come to most of the right conclusions. Endgame is a great accomplishment in its own right, and an even greater one when you consider it the cherry on top of “The Infinity Saga” as a whole.

And what has the MCU accomplished, exactly? This 22nd film in the series — and it’s weird writing that, because now with Spider-Man: Far From Home, we’ll only be one shy of the current number of official James Bond movies — concludes an overarching story with payoffs that trace all the way back to 2008’s Iron Man. The biggest movie of 2008, and the then-biggest comic-book movie of all time was The Dark Knight. Stepping back to 2008, a generally cohesive story spanning 12 years and 23 films seemed at best unreasonable and at worst impossible. There were bumps along the way… Bruce Banner was recast and some of the 23 are trivial stepping stones rather than vital installments. Still, the way these movies consistently harnessed big budgets and star power is unparalleled. There was a joke that practically every notable British actor had appeared in the Harry Potter film series. Counting the newer Fantastic Beasts series, there have been ten of those flicks. Twenty-two movies suggests there have been even more great actors featured in the MCU, and nearly every character of consequence from the MCU makes an appearance in Endgame. It’s yet another miracle of pacing that this cornucopia of glorified cameos turned out to be a strength for Endgame rather than a hindrance.

Contrary to the title, Endgame will be neither the last Marvel movie nor the last Avengers movie. Far from it. A lot of big-budget movie properties tend to work in trilogies, or on a one-to-one basis with popular book series. The MCU, while rigid in its own way, has always marched to the beat of its own drum. It doesn’t feel quite right to call Endgame a “fitting conclusion,” or to say, “they saved the best for last,” but it does stake its claim as one of the best MCU movies. It’s well-made and mostly wonderful. Bring on Blade.

From → Film Reviews

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