'Avengers: Endgame': Film Review

The known universe will capitulate.

Marvel Studios and Disney's three-hour epic sendoff reunites the franchise's mightiest superheroes to battle Josh Brolin's Thanos.

The closest equivalent to Greek mythology the modern world has devised of late achieves a sense of closure in Avengers: Endgame. A gargantuan film by any standard, this three-hour extravaganza shuffles back into the action numerous significant characters seen in recent Marvel films as it wraps up an epic story in which the survival of the known universe is (once again) at stake. While constantly eventful and a feast for the eyes, it's also notably more somber than its predecessors. But just when it might seem about to become too grim, Robert Downey Jr. rides to the rescue with an inspired serio-comic performance that reminds you how good he can be. 

Avengers: Infinity War, which was released a year ago this week, stormed the planet to take in $2.048 billion at the worldwide box office on its way to becoming the fourth biggest-grossing film of all time. Its three-hour running time notwithstanding, there's no reason on or off Earth to suspect this one won't enter the same rarified realm.

In case you hadn't noticed, since last we saw the lantern-jawed mug of Thanos (Josh Brolin), he's decimated half the population. Endowing him with such power is the complete set of six Infinity Stones he spent the last film accumulating, and Thanos has worked out his own perverse rationale as to why humankind deserves to be put out of its misery rather than just being punished. When Brie Larson's recently introduced Captain Marvel shows up with the announced intention of knocking off Thanos single-handedly, she needs to be restrained, for Downey's Iron Man has first dibs on taking out the brooding evil genius.

Easier said than done, however. For an entertainment brand in which hardly anyone ever really and truly dies, a sense of mortality nonetheless hangs over quite a few of the characters — especially in this saga, in which some confess, in one way or another, to feeling that they've come to the end of something. While there are certainly young upstarts like Captain Marvel and the briefly glimpsed Black Panther ready to jump into the fray, veterans including Iron Man, Chris Evans' Captain America and Chris Hemsworth's gone-to-seed Thor (complete with pot belly) seem more than prepared to face their reckonings, come what may.

Nonetheless, it's an amiable brand of melancholy that pervades the film, one that scarcely gets in the way of the enthusiasm and excitement that Marvel adventures almost always deliver in some measure or another. The feeling of finality and potential farewell is sometimes suggested quietly just in the way certain moments are lingered over, conveying the fatalistic sense that this might well be the last time around the block for some of these characters. At the rate it's going, Marvel will be around for the better part of forever, but this will likely be the studio swan song for a number of the castmembers.

The major characters, most of whom have had multiple individual films centered on and in some instances named after them, are faced with the all-but-imponderable challenge of how to undo Thanos' success in collecting the all-powerful stones. It's one of the signal successes of the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that they concoct a method for doing so (stemming from some of the Marvel characters' special relationships with the Quantum Realm) that even sounds half-plausible in context; the brain trust centered around Tony Stark/Iron Man comes up with the clever, if perhaps not entirely original, idea of a “time heist” (the time bandits, anyone?). If flawlessly executed, this looks to be the only way of extricating the stones from Thanos' otherwise iron grip on the dire-looking future of the universe.

Although there's loads of action and confrontations, what's distinctive here in contrast to most of the earlier Marvel films are the moments of doubt, regret and uncertainty, along with the desire of some characters to move on. Granted, this is almost always undercut, and/or cut short, by some emergency that pulls them right back in, and decisive action always remains paramount.

But there is growth here. Whereas Downey's fast-talking quips and occasional rudeness became increasingly callow and off-putting in his Iron Man outings, Tony Stark in this movie, at last, seems more human and dimensional. Thor and Captain America are experiencing identity issues. And the most unexpected comic relief may come from Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, a very large man with a greenish-gray hue to his skin who dwarfs everyone around him and is often called upon to do the real dirty work due to his size. Perhaps most notably in the moments when this veteran superhero is reassessing his powers, Ruffalo's highly amusing performance reveals a frank and unusual awareness of his character's acceptance of self in an action-spectacle context.

There is no question that Avengers: Endgame benefits considerably from the prioritizing of humor and character detailing on the parts of writers Markus and McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, something most of the actors clearly picked up on and ran with. But spectacle still rules in these fanciful epics, which have pre-primed viewers eating right out of the filmmakers' hands. The best of the Marvel films — and the Avengers pics are certainly among them — go the extra mile to genuinely engage the audience and not just pander to it. Cutesiness and formula prevail at times, to be sure, but this team knows quite well how to stir the pot. And to turn it into more gold.

Yes, there's a big climactic battle and the decisive death of a major character (for all the conflict depicted, the mortality rate is very low, for the sake of films to come, no doubt), but no action on the level of Game of Thrones or Marvel's own Black Panther. No, what comes across most strongly here, oddly enough for an effects-driven comic-book-derived film, is the character acting, especially from Downey, Ruffalo, Evans, Hemsworth, Brolin and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man.

So Avengers: Endgame is, from all appearances, the end of the road for some characters and storylines, but the seeds of many offshoots look to have been planted along the way. Expect to see them grow and multiply in the coming seasons.

Production company: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Brie Larson, Paul Rudd, Don Cheadle, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, Benedict Wong, Tessa Thompson, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Robert Redford
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Trinh Tran, Jon Favreau, James Gunn, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
Music: Alan Silvestri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan DeLeeuw
Casting: Sarah Finn

Rated PG-13, 182 minutes