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When we last saw The Avengers, they were defeated. Thanos, a genocidal alien with a philosophical streak, snapped his fingers and murdered half the universe, taking many beloved superheroes along the way. The remaining question was not if Thanos’ master plan would be undone—that was a given—but how. Avengers: Endgame initially takes that question seriously by grappling with what defeat means, but in the middle of its bloated runtime, it loses interest in its own plot and instead focuses on giving fans what they want. Fan service can be satisfying, just not the way the writers and directors handle it here, so by the time they get back to moments of gravitas, it is already too late.
In the aftermath of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Avengers deal with survivor’s guilt. An emaciated Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) pins his anger on Captain America (Chris Evans), while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) turns his self-loathing inward. These scenes are intense because they are borne out of characters we have watched and adored for years. After establishing actual emotional stakes, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely introduce a plan to undo the snap. Uncertain if they will succeed, the survivors somehow find the courage to be the heroes they once were, and their mission is an opportunity to rehash the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
By now you have heard that Endgame is just over three hours along, and the screenwriters insist they could not cut a thing. Their statement is an exaggeration or a flat-out lie: Endgame moves at a steady clip, until it grinds to a halt. In fact, one can pinpoint the exact moment where Markus and McFeely give in to fandom. Shrewd storytelling would avoid temptation, or find a way to conflate fan service with character development. This shift is galling because it erases the goodwill created by the film’s first hour. It is as if Iron Man, Thor, and the others forget they are on a dangerous mission, and the fate of the universe is on their shoulders. Endgame does not have to be dour; in fact, many of its funniest moments are when our heroes are reeling from the snap. Comedic notes are found by respecting the nature of the characters, and the actors who play them. Mawkish sentiment jettisons that respect.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo fall into the same missteps that have plagued Marvel films. This film ends with a lengthy showdown, one that’s drained of imagination or suspense. Heroes careen through the air, and without dialogue to share the Avengers’ strategy, the whole thing would be incoherent. Magic bullets are no replacement for well choreographed action, but the best Marvel films at least found an emotional core and the outcome did not feel forgone. That forgone conclusion also relates to the inherent problem that Infinity War cannot resolve: If vanquished heroes return, then that cheapens the circumstances of their tragic deaths.
No one could have anticipated the cultural dominance that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would come to enjoy. Since the release of Iron Man more than a decade ago, these films have permanently changed popular culture, to the point that these actors may never shake the personas they helped cultivate. Downey Jr. will be forever tied to Iron Man, which is a shame since he’s been sleepwalking through the role since Civil War. Evans first founded the MCU’s moral center in The First Avenger, a North Star for the entire franchise, but here he is curiously given little to do. The only real highlights are Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, who find depth in unexpected ways. Many other performances, including newly beloved heroes, amount to little more than a cameo.
Like a comedy that leaves room for laughter, there are gaps in Avengers: Endgame for people to cheer. The film earns some of these moments, while others are obligatory or pandering. Either way, these films have blurred the line between creator and audience, leading to a movie-going experience that is more communal than ever before. What is lost by this shift is a sense of authority, so when Avengers: Endgame strives for tragic or triumphant notes, they are all the more hollow. It is still possible to engage with superhero films in a traditionally satisfying way (Black Panther is proof of that). But for that to happen here, Endgame would need to internalize what the director of the first Avengers film once famously said and give its audience what they need, not what they want.
Avengers: Endgame opens Friday in theaters everywhere.