Saturday, April 27, 2019

The MCU hits the Endgame...and what an (Avengers) Endgame it is!

NOTE: The following post contains massive spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. You've been warned!

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I've seen every movie in the theater, most of them on opening weekend, most of them multiple times. I'm well versed in the mythology of the movies and love the characters inhabiting the expansive comic-book-inspired universe.

There have been ups and downs. While the first Iron Man is fantastic, The Incredible Hulk didn't grab me and Iron Man 2 was a disappointment. I've always liked the first Thor and Cap movies, and The Avengers remains one of the strongest entries in the series.

I enjoy much of Thor: The Dark World while acknowledging its shortcomings. Basically, other than The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 (movies my wife and I skip during MCU rewatches), I'll sit and watch any MCU movie at any time.

I love Captain America. Iron Man. Thor. Black Widow. Hulk. And, yes, I love Hawkeye (some people think he's useless, but I firmly disagree). I concentrate on these original Avengers because they're the ones Avengers: Endgame is most interested in telling us about.

Infinity War left us on a down note, with half the universe snapped away in Thanos' insane plan to "balance the universe." It's hard to say his "heart's in the right place," but the guy's got his warped convictions, at the very least, making him a very compelling villain. But the weight of that act--with so many beloved characters fading into ash--was devastating.

We lost so many great characters, including Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, Falcon, Groot, Bucky, Black Panther, etc. All gone in a snap with the entire rest of the universe. As a fan, it destroyed me to see them go; Cap had just gotten Bucky back, Iron Man had bonded with Spidey, Black Panther had fought so bravely to prevent Thanos and his forces from carrying out their plan.

And then they were all gone. The only feeling of hope we had came in the form of Nick Fury's space pager after the credits rolled.

That sense of loss and failure continues in the first act of Endgame. Our characters get one spark of hope when they discover Thanos' location and go to reverse the Snap. But then they learn Thanos, committed to the end, destroyed the Infinity Stones so no one could undo his work.

Five years pass, and the Avengers are essentially broken. As an audience, we're broken, too.

But then along comes Ant-Man, who may not be the smartest or strongest of the team but makes up for it in heart and much-needed optimism (along with his charmingly dorky "I'm just a regular guy along for the ride" demeanor). He's experienced a few hours in the Quantum Realm, which passed as years in the real world.

And he comes up with the idea for a "Time Heist" to recover Infinity Stones from different points in the past. Yes, the Avengers will travel through time in a mind-bending, heart-wrenching, thrilling, and often hilarious quest to set things right. It's a critical mission that will require tremendous sacrifice for our heroes but allows us fans to relive some of the greatest moments in MCU history.

With that setup out of the way, here are some of my thoughts on Avengers: Endgame.

Emotional payoffs. If you're invested in these characters, it's hard not to get choked up. The fates of Nat, Tony, and Steve are touching. Each deserves its own entry (and will get one shortly). We see Thor's fall into self-doubt and unworthiness, Clint's loss of his family and its cataclysmic effect on his inherent goodness, and Bruce's final acceptance of his two personalities.

You suck, Vormir. When Thanos sacrificed Gamora in Infinity War, it was one of the most powerful moments in the movie. It showed that while Thanos was a monster, he was truly committed to his cause and capable of love, no matter how warped the concept was for him. The alarm bells started ringing when Nat and Clint were dispatched to recover the Soul Stone because I knew one of them wasn't coming back.

I don't think anyone in the movie really knew how the Soul Stone worked, not even Nebula. The audience, however, did. I didn't want either one of them to go. For Clint, it would've meant making amends for his fall into reckless vigilantism. For Nat, it would've meant giving herself up for something greater and sacrificing the Avengers family she'd come to love. I like that they stepped back to discuss it and then fought with each other to make the sacrifice.

Also points to the movie series for giving us two characters who truly loved each other without making it a romantic connection. We'll never forget you, Nat. No, you're tearing up while writing this.

So that's why Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone. Obviously, when Dr. Strange surrendered the Time Stone to Thanos to prevent him from killing Tony, it meant Tony had a major part to play in the "endgame." However, we didn't know it meant the Sorcerer Supreme knew it meant Tony had to die until this movie.

I mean, Dr. Strange could've simply turned over the Time Stone because he knew Tony was the only person who could figure out the quantum shenanigans required to undo the Snap. We know better now. Yes, the plan needed Tony to figure out the mechanics and build a new gauntlet, but it really needed him to steal the Infinity Stones from Thanos and snap away the Mad Titan's army.

It was the only way--and Strange knew it. More importantly, he knew he couldn't tell anyone, not even Tony.

The callbacks. My goodness, did this movie reward longtime fans of the series! Some of the cameos were jaw-droppers! Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford!). The Ancient One. De-aged Hank Pym and Howard Stark. Frigga. (Sort of) Jane Foster. Peggy Carter! Rumlow and Sitwell. Loki.

They were all fantastic.

Get a Bowflex, Thor. One thing that underwhelmed me during Endgame was the treatment of Thor. He was so great in Ragnorak and Infinity War, and I initially thought what they did to him in Endgame was a disservice to the character that simply made for some easy jokes.

Then I thought more about Thor and his character arc. He was a brash and bold warrior who needed to learn humility. He did that in the previous movies. He regained some swagger in Infinity War and, I believe, started to think he had everything figured out.

When the Avengers failed to defeat Thanos--and he had a chance to end it but didn't--Thor went dark. So dark, in fact, that he killed Thanos with little thought at the beginning of Endgame. Despite that, self-doubt sprang in, perhaps for the first time in his life. He felt unworthy of his weapons and his title. He felt himself a failure to his people and the entire universe.

When viewed from this perspective, the Lebowski act made a lot more sense. He lost himself and was so desperate to prove himself useful, even pleading with the others to let him wield the new gauntlet even though it was clear he wasn't ready for it. His conversation with his mother and his ability to still summon Mjolnir were vital moments in his development, helping him become the "old Thor" in some ways and the "new Thor" in others.

I'm still not completely sold on the look and the jokes, though.

Finally got that dance. Peggy Carter is one of the best characters in the entire MCU, and the movie series has made sure to keep her, if not front and center, then at least present. She had her own TV series and has made cameos in several movies, including both Cap sequels and the flashback in Ant-Man.

Her tragic romance with Steve is something not easily rectified. Cap spent 70 years on ice while Peggy moved on and had a family of her own. Even if they were soulmates, nothing could come of it.

However, when you add in some time travel and Infinity Stones, just about anything is possible. Cap gets the chance to grow old with the woman he loved--and to enjoy the kind of life he never thought he'd be able to experience.

Peggy--or at least a version of Peggy from a branched timeline, it's really not clear--gets to have the dance that fate denied her. It's poetic and cathartic. The next time I watch Captain America: The First Avenger, it should be interesting to see how Endgame gives new context to their relationship.

Tony makes the sacrifice play. Some of the original Avengers were going to die in this movie. It's the only way to give weight to the grand stakes of the MCU and close out story threads that started with Iron Man in 2008. The obvious choice was Captain America--almost too obvious.

Also obvious: Tony Stark. I thought either Tony or Steve would say goodbye in this movie, and in a way, they both did. Steve returned the Infinity Stones, lived a fulfilling life, and then returned as an old man to complete the mission. However, it was Tony whose act of sacrifice allowed for the ultimate victory against Thanos.

At the beginning of the movie, he was embittered after surviving his trip into space. He blamed Cap for fracturing the Avengers and weakening them against Thanos. He isolated himself from the team, built a family, and pretty much swore off further superheroics. He told his colleagues he wasn't interested in helping them even after Ant-Man returned.

But Tony's Tony--so the idea of mastering quantum mechanics won't go away. It's kind of like his obsession for upgrading Iron Man's armor. He cracks the code but tries to convince himself it won't matter. He talks to Pepper about it and realizes everyone who lost something in the Snap deserved the chance to have that back.

So, the crazy Time Heist works with a few unexpected miscues and the Avengers face down Thanos once again (Thanos from 2014, by the way). Thanos gets a remade gauntlet and snaps--only to discover Tony stole the Infinity Stones. We saw what two snaps did to the Thanos of 2018 and what one snap did to the Hulk--both super-strong beings.

Imagine what it would do to Tony Stark, a regular human being.

Yeah, Tony doesn't survive. He defiantly says, "I am Iron Man," snaps his fingers, and then dies, surviving just long enough for Rhodey, Peter Parker, and Pepper to say their goodbyes. Most affecting, to me anyway, was Pepper giving him reassurance that everyone would be all right and he was free to rest.

Tony Stark, the self-centered genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, gave up his life and everyone he loved to save the world.

The ultimate sacrifice play.

No, you're tearing up while writing this.

The secret MVP. Since Nebula survived the Snap and knew about Thanos and his plan, I thought she'd have a pretty big role in Endgame. I didn't think, however, she'd be one of the darn MVPs of the movie! Nebula, next to the original Avengers, is probably the biggest key in the whole thing.

She leads them to Thanos at the beginning, ends up being "entangled" with her past self in 2014 (allowing for a dual role), and convinces 2014 Gamora to switch sides. She did a lot of heavy lifting in this movie and showed a tremendous amount of growth from her one-note appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. I was really impressed.

So many memorable moments. We lost Nat, Tony, and (effectively) Steve in this movie, so let's lighten the mood a little bit with some of my favorite moments from the film.

Hail Hydra. The elevator fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best action sequences in the whole 22-movie series. The callback on this scene, with future Steve stuck in an elevator with a bunch of traitorous SHIELD/Hydra agents, is terrific. Instead of getting into another fight, he utters, "Hail Hydra," and gets the Mind Stone.

Also points for Ant-Man pointing out that all the traitorous SHIELD/Hydra agents all looked like bad guys to him.

Two Caps. When the team returns to the Battle of New York, 2023 Cap faces off against 2012 Cap, who reminds him that he "can do this all day." I love 2023 Cap's reply, an exasperated "I know."

On your left. With all hope lost, Steve steels himself for a one-man confrontation against Thanos and his entire army because Captain America never gives up. It looks like he's about to make the big sacrifice when he hears Sam Wilson's voice over the radio.

"On your left" is another callback to The Winter Soldier, and it's so satisfying! Within a few seconds, the entire landscape of the battle against 2014 Thanos shifts to even odds. Black Panther appears. Spider-Man appears (the crowd at my screening went WILD over both of these). Falcon's back, Bucky, Wasp, the Guardians, Dr. Strange--all the snapped heroes come back and Cap knows the final battle won't be futile.

A Worthy Super Soldier. Captain America wields Mjolnir and conjures lightning. It's spectacular and pays off the "hammer party" scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even better was Thor's excited shout of "I knew it!"

Taco buddies. In a brief, sweet moment, Professor Hulk gives Ant-Man a couple tacos after Ant-Man's were obliterated by a returning spacecraft.

Father and son. Tony's conversation with his father in the 1970s was another great moment. His excitement in telling his father that he "has a daughter" was emotional, even though Howard Stark didn't know the context. We did.

Lost love. The same 1970s scene brought Peggy Carter to the forefront; Steve gets a glimpse of her but doesn't say a word. The photo on her desk of Steve before the Super Soldier Serum speaks volumes (it's the same photo of him from the end of Captain America: The First Avenger).

An idiot sings on Morag. Going back to Morag for the Power Stone was a fun scene with Rhodey and Nebula. I loved how they showed Star-Lord singing to himself while recreating the opening from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Valkyrie, Korg, and Miek. Thank God they're alive!

Avengers, assemble! He said it. All is well.

I'm sure there are several moments I'm forgetting and I'll probably add to the list after a second viewing.

A few lingering questions/comments. Endgame is perfect as a crowd-pleasing coda to the first phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I do have a few questions and minor nitpicks. Let's go through a few of them.

Half the world is five years older. Due to the rules laid out in time travel, those killed in the Snap came back to 2023 without having aged while the rest of the world is five years older. This creates a lot of headaches, including the fact that Cassie Lang (and her mom and stepdad) is five years older while Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne are not. Also, since Peter Parker and Ned reunited at the end and appeared to be the same age, both were snapped while about half their classmates are five years older.

What about Coulson and the Agents of SHIELD? Look, we were never going to see Phil Coulson. Due to his death in the Agents of SHIELD TV show, he wouldn't have been around for the Snap. The decision to go back to the Battle of New York in 2012 meant a Coulson cameo wasn't possible because Coulson had died in Avengers before then.

Still, I would've liked a reference somewhere in there for Clark Gregg's character, who appeared in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. The movie world never acknowledged his return in the TV show, which is frustrating but understandable. I simply wanted someone in the movie to mention Fury's "one good eye" because he was there at the very beginning--and that beginning is ultimately what led to Endgame.

Where was the Nick Fury-Captain Marvel reunion? Introducing Captain Marvel so late in the MCU meant she couldn't have a major character arc in Endgame. That's fine--we got about as much of Carol as we could get and then she sort of disappeared "for reasons" before returning at the end. I get it.

I understand the movie is overstuffed and the ending reflects more on the legacy of Tony Stark and the Avengers than it does on Fury and Carol. However, those characters hadn't seen each other for more than two decades. Couldn't they have shared a hug or something?

Some missed cameos. This isn't a complaint at all, I swear! I will say I thought maybe we'd get a moment from Odin, Korath the Pursuer (they were right there on Morag!), Pietro Maximoff (the timelines chosen for the movie didn't allow for it--and with Scarlet Witch snapped, it wouldn't have had an impact on anyone except Hawkeye), Arnim Zola (the 1970s scene), or the Warriors Three and Lady Sif (seriously, where the heck is Sif?!).

Well, that's about all for Avengers: Endgame for now. It's an incredible movie, especially if you're invested in the 21 previous entries in the MCU. All the characters you love have big moments, there are huge payoffs for story beats that began in 2008, and it's immensely fun and satisfying.