The empty churnings of last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” ended on an impressive, if tentative, note of loss: a batch of beloved characters was reduced to ashes, murdered by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who, enabled by his possession of the six Infinity Stones, also killed half of all other living beings. The sense of grief, though, felt brazenly manipulative; given that the reversibility of time was planted as a plot element in the film, it was a foregone conclusion that these heroes would somehow be coming back in the next “Avengers” installment. As it turns out, the effort to bring them back is the story of “Avengers: Endgame,” the last film in the series.
The new movie (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, as was its predecessor) prolongs the melancholy mood with which “Infinity War” ended. Despite its surges of superheroics and numbingly vague and grandiose battle scenes, “Endgame” is primarily in the elegiac mode—even if its principal strain of mourning is reserved not for the fate of individual characters but for the Avengers cycle itself. From the start, “Endgame” links to the previous film with a series of deaths and near-deaths, a new mourning and a narrow escape, and finds a group of surviving Avengers, twenty-three days after Thanos’s massacre, preparing a new mission. But Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a.k.a., Iron Man, who is still grieving the death of Peter Parker in the previous film, erupts with Homeric wrath at his companions, especially at Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a., Captain America. Tony wants no part of the mission—or of the Avengers.
The action then leaps five years ahead, when the survivors of Thanos’s campaign inhabit cities in ruins. But the remaining Avengers have yet another plan, this one suggested by Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a.k.a. Ant-Man, to send the entire group back in time to recover Thanos’s stones and undo his murders. (It’s inspired by Scott’s time-warping journey, in infinitesimal form, to the so-called quantum realm, in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”) The science on hand isn’t good enough, though, and they need the help of the visionary inventor Tony, who at first turns them down again. He’s living in a quiet country house with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and their young daughter, appreciating what he considers his “second chance.” But Tony’s sense of guilt at the death of Peter Parker spurs him back into action, sparks his reconciliation with his cohorts, and gives rise to the time-travel adventures at the core of the drama.
The combination of superheroic battle, sentimental reunions, and time travel suggests, oddly, the classic genre of metaphysical military romance (“A Guy Named Joe,” for instance, which was remade by Steven Spielberg as “Always”). The pointed emotionalism in this premise—the return to the past, the redemption of failures, the repairing of old bonds and the forging of new ones—suggests that a resonant film might have emerged from “Endgame.” Some scenes have a strong melodramatic authority, and there are a few situations that induce an inspired aura of the uncanny. But these moments get lost in the movie’s stiflingly rigid yet bloated three-hour span. The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones. (For instance, there’s nothing here to rival the phantasmagoria of “Ant-Man” or “Doctor Strange,” let alone the thrilling political symbolism of “Black Panther.”)
“Endgame” pivots on matters of memory. It’s a sequel that does more than depend on preceding films in the series; it invokes them onscreen as part of its time-travel plot. As the remaining Avengers of today are reinserted into scenes from their movies past, “Endgame” delivers momentarily fascinating though utterly undeveloped face-to-face confrontations (and even battles) of these present-day characters with their past selves. Some characters enter a loop involving their own origins and even encounter their own parents in earlier times (even, in some cases, before their own birth). The crux of the final battle is sparked by a next-level diabolical plot by Thanos, who realizes that he’s under siege from the Avengers because they, like the other survivors of his half-world extermination, remember how things were before. As a result, he hatches yet another scheme, which involves the obliteration, fabrication, and control of memory.
In “Endgame,” memory plays more than a dramatic role; it plays a moral one. Memory is represented as a fundamental freedom and as a crucial element of power. If only that freedom were an element of the movie itself. What’s missing from “Endgame” is the free play of imagination, the liberation of speculation, the meandering paths and loose ends that start in logic and lead to wonder. The climactic battle scenes are seemingly interminable; other episodes in imaginary realms are rigid, lumbering, and perfunctory. And I’d happily sacrifice an hour of that churning and plotting for a scene in which Scott Lang, returning to his home in San Francisco after a five-year absence during which he was counted as dead, walks in the door and has a discussion with his wife and daughter about what the hell happened.
The absence of such scenes is all the more regrettable given the one realm in which a glimmer of imaginative freedom shines through—in the strength of “Endgame” ’s performances. Above all, Downey carries the film with his wry and sulfuric acting, his grand, impulsive, thrillingly inflected delivery of the film’s cut-down, index-card dialogue. The movie is proof of how much a great actor can do with how little. Several of Rudd’s whimsical moments have an inspired sense of spontaneity. Also, Brie Larson makes much of her brief but prominent reprise of the role of Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel—she ramps the character’s confidence up to bravado and then to a near-camp intensity.
The cast of actors is diverse, though the Russos do little with that diversity. “Endgame” is a movie of men, of cishet men, and, in particular, of fathers—and their approaches to paternity suggest the movie’s crucial moral divide. Women are featured prominently throughout the film and act heroically in private and in battle, yet they do so with their personalities and mental lives nearly erased, reduced to the instantaneous import of the onscreen action. Characters of color are similarly prominent, and similarly effaced. There’s a particularly obtuse moment in which massed Wakandan troops—the only troops who are allied with the Avengers at large—enter battle. It’s an awful vision of black rank-and-file soldiers as heroic volunteers and cannon fodder, and the movie ignores the sufferings of these soldiers in battle. The movie’s lack of imaginative freedom reduces personal identity to pictorial identity; the grandiose and maudlin melodrama to which the movie rises feels as manipulative as did the dénouement of “Infinity War.”
This narrow dramatic determinism is the principal reason that the Marvelization of movies ultimately feels deadening, despite the occasional spectacular delight or dramatic twist. It’s not because of the ubiquity of the advertising or the number of screens on which the movies play. It’s because their hermetically sealed aesthetic narrows the inner lives of the characters depicted to a terrifying homogeneity, grooming audiences to welcome precisely such movies and to imagine themselves in their terms.