I’m afraid it’s grumpy-old-man time, everybody. I mean, it’s often grumpy-old-man time ‘round these parts, but you may find today to be a bit grumpier than usual.
Avengers: Endgame has been eleven years in the making (since Iron Man came out in 2008). The general public is rabid for this film; everybody loves all the characters—hell, the world practically worships these characters and the actors playing them. Thus the thought struck me earlier this week: If this film isn’t good… or God forbid, actually sucks… would anyone be crazy enough to say so? This franchise is so beloved that angry fans would burn their house down, right? So who, I wondered, who would be stupid enough to offer even a hint of negative criticism toward this film? What nut out there would dare to rain on this parade?
Spoilers ahead. Plot spoilers, that is—I’m guessing I already spoiled the general tenor of my review.
Let me apologize right up front. I know that basically everybody is going to love this film and disagree with (mostly, if not absolutely) everything I’m about to say. It’s not my intention to upset anyone out there, but I gotta be honest. Believe me, I love these characters as much, if not more, than anyone to ever live on God’s Earth, and I wish they could have stuck the landing here, but they didn’t.
Avengers: Endgame succeeds marvelously on one level, but fails miserably on another. Emotionally considered, it’s wonderful—damn near perfect, in fact. When the heroes all return together at the end to save the day, I nearly wept with joy. This is what’s going to make it easy for most (practically all, really) of the audience to love this movie.
But when you take the emotion out and look at this film objectively, it’s an absolute clusterfuck mess. The characterization is good, but the plot is a disaster—and while characterization will always be more important than plot in writing terms, that doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t matter at all. It still matters. And when it’s this big a mess, it’s going to sink your story no matter how good the characterization is. So where did the plot start to go wrong here?
Well, there’s this trend in modern film/television/literature wherein writers are desperate to surprise their audience, which is getting harder to do every day, as audiences keep getting smarter and smarter. So writers go through their plots, eliminating every avenue that might realistically lead their protagonist(s) to victory by the end of the story. Then they get to the end of the story and… they’re pretty much screwed, because they’ve already eliminated all of the realistic resolutions on their way to this point. Now the only options left to them are (A) do something really stupid, ridiculous, and/or senseless to resolve the impossible situation they’ve created; or they do something even worse, which is (B) they cheat.
Cheating usually involves one or both of the following: You introduce something at the end of your story, something you offered no hint of to your audience prior to that point, and it serves as a Deus Ex Machina for you; or you change the rules that you established at the beginning of your story so that you can get to the end you want. These forms of “cheating” are also sometimes referred to as “not playing fair” with your audience.
In this case, the plot started going awry with Infinity War. At the end of this previous installment, Thanos stood victorious and held absolute power. So how were the heroes ever going to come back and win? It was a very dramatic cliffhanger, one of the most powerful and suspenseful imaginable, but then you’ve got to pay it off.
They actually had the perfect set-up in Infinity War, and that was to have the Avengers get a hold of the Infinity Stones and undo everything Thanos did. In some ways this may have felt too cheap and too easy, but I think this would have been offset by the actions of Thanos himself. The Avengers actually had him beat near the end of Infinity when Thor cleaved his chest with Stormbreaker, remember? Then Thanos uttered the line, “you should have gone for the head,” before using the time stone to undo Thor’s mortal blow. It would have been perfectly poetic then for the Avengers to later use the time stone to take his victory away, much as he had theirs.
But they didn’t want to take this route because it was too largely anticipated by the audience and they were dead determined to surprise us. As mentioned four paragraphs up, this obsession with surprise and shock tends to ruin a story, and such was the case here. So right at the beginning they reveal that Thanos has destroyed the stones (taking them off the table right away as a potential solution) and then Thor chops his head off. A shocking and surprising twist, yes, but now what? You’ve taken away the most predicted path to victory, so no one knows what’s going to happen now—which is good—but where do you go from here?
So five years go by. Tony Stark marries Pepper and they have a daughter they name Morgan. Everyone else on the team is trying to cope with what they lost. Then Ant-Man/Scott Lang escapes the quantum realm and his daughter Cassie is five years older than when he left, though only five hours have passed for Scott in subjective time. Thus the possibility of time travel via the quantum realm is introduced and before you know it, voila, Tony has figured out time travel.
You already had the one time-travel device in your plot (the Time Stone), which strains credulity enough by itself; then you introduce a SECOND means of time travel? Really?
This is a cheat, clearly, but wait—the cheating will get worse.
After addressing the fact that this time travel won’t work the way it does in all those corny movies (and nearly all of these movies get name dropped), they proceed to go through time, interact with their past selves, and make everything right almost exactly like they did in all of those aforementioned corny movies. Actually worse than those movies, because they change the past but also get to keep all the good things that developed in the reality established in the intervening five years. Ant-Man/Scott Lang is the same age but Cassie is still older, Morgan Stark is still here… but Peter Parker goes back to high school and sees his buddy Ned there with apparently no time at all having passed for them?
Talk about having your cake and eating it too. This is the cheatiest cheating that ever cheated.
Yeah, Thanos travels through time also in an attempt to stop them, which leads to a great and epic fight, but it all comes back to time-travel shenanigans fixing everything. I’m not even sure how the ultimate resolution works. Did Thanos ever exist in the new reality now? Did all those people who were dead remember they were dead? Or did they just never die in the first place? And how could any of this be the case and still have the five-year reality unaltered?
Thor also gets Mjolnir back by plucking it out of his own past. This has no seeming effect on reality or the larger timeline either. It’s just one cheat after another.
Banner controls the Hulk now too. If they offered a proper explanation for this, it must have been pretty quick and cheap ‘cause I missed it entirely. What was even the point of this change? Why was it necessary? It was just another confusing distraction in a film that was already a big enough mess.
They also changed the rules for how the Infinity Stones/Gauntlet worked. Last time, Thanos effortlessly snapped his fingers and wiped out half the universe. Now, apparently, using the gauntlet costs the Hulk his arm and Tony Stark his life. I’m sure Feige and the Russo brothers will offer some explanation, but I don’t see how any such explanation could qualify as “fair” at this point. This film doesn’t just cheat, it cheats in multiple ways on multiple levels from beginning to end, nearly all the way through. Can you even call it trying when you cheat this much?
Once more, the best thing I can say about Endgame is that it’s an emotional success, but unfortunately, everything else about it is a complete and utter failure. Even the noble endings given to Cap and Iron Man—touching and moving and appropriate, yes, but were they earned? No.
Dramatically speaking, Tony Stark had to choose: either his daughter Morgan or half the life in the universe. In order to undo Thanos’s work, he should have had to undo Morgan as well. This was where the real drama was to be found in this story. Instead, as I pointed out earlier, they let him have his cake and eat it too. The problem with Cap is similar. It makes perfect sense that he would want to go back in time to be with Peggy, but wouldn’t this—shouldn’t this—have had timeline ramifications? Wouldn’t this have altered reality? The better drama, much as with Tony, would have been to present this as a choice to Cap: Be with Peggy or sacrifice your chance to be with her in order to save half the universe. Instead Cap, like Tony, gets to have his cake and eat it too. He saves half the universe and gets to live the life with Peggy that he always wanted, with no time-traveling consequences.
Did it make me happy to see Cap get the ending he deserved? Emotionally, yes. Same deal with Tony—yeah, he died, but Morgan survived, which was really his sole priority at that point. But in the context of the story they gave us, these endings both feel like cop outs. They gave us bullshit, fairy-tale, fan-service endings, rather than tales of noble self-sacrifice; the kind that are at the core of all true heroism.
Again, I’m really sorry about this everyone. Honestly, I’m not some troll who’s looking for an excuse to hate on stuff, but I can’t in good conscience give this film a thumbs up.
A few hours from now, I’m going to watch most of the characters I love on Game of Thrones get murdered by zombies, so I’m going to be pretty miserable for most of the coming week, if this is any consolation. Unless you’re also a GoT fan, in which case… I dunno… misery loves company, I guess…?