Avengers: Endgame is the Biggest Flex in Cinema History

There will never be another film like Endgame and there never should be.

Note: a slightly truncated version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Warning: SPOILERS of varying degrees for Avengers: Endgame abound throughout.

Well… this piece I wrote in the aftermath of viewing Infinity War last year hasn’t aged particularly great.

Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd entry in the 11-year long Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to become the eighth franchise entry to make $1 billion worldwide.  Hell, depending on when this runs, it may already have crossed that milestone, it may even have done so before the weekend was out.  39 movies will now make up the billionaire club and Marvel alone will be responsible for nearly a quarter of them.  $2 billion worldwide is practically assured and if it weren’t for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu being a mere week away then we’d probably have to invent new metrics to count the amount of cash Endgame would bring in.  Movie theatres worldwide stayed open 24 hours across the weekend to accommodate demand, 3.25% of the UK population supposedly pre-booked a ticket to at least one screening.  This thing was the kind of global cultural event that comes along once in a generation, hooking hardcore fans and casual audiences alike; I’m amazed it wasn’t designated an international holiday.

And with the world completely and firmly in the palm of their hands, Marvel Studios opted to pull off arguably the biggest flex in the history of cinema.  Endgame is a $400 million 183-minute ultra-self-indulgent victory parade for their previous 21 movies that the viewer NEEDS to have seen every single one of, including ones from eight years ago and having key plot and character beats come from the worst entries of the series, in order to understand this otherwise incomprehensible movie.  “And not only are hardcore MCU stans going to adore it, the more general audiences who don’t religiously pour over every little minutia or have skipped a few entries are also going to eat up every last goddamn second because we are Marvel and we own your asses eternal by now,” they seem to gloat.

The entire middle hour of the film is based around time-travel shenanigans which involve restaging, calling back to, expanding and subverting sequences from prior films whose effects require that prior knowledge to appreciate at all let alone fully – plus the one good TV show that nobody actually saw.  Major characters drop in and out with zero fanfare or explanation for anyone who just so happened to miss or forget where they were when we last left them.  Giant crowd-popping moments of the massive expensive finale hinge entirely on the viewer remembering throwaway gags or asides from movies released almost half a decade ago.  Do you remember anything at all about Thor: The Dark World?  Despite that being statistically improbable, Marvel’s sure hoping you do because Thor’s most affecting scene in the movie requires it.  And very, very little of this receives even a passing line bringing more casual viewers or anyone who hasn’t spent a decade obsessing over the series up to speed.

This should be hubris, grand epic-scaled hubris which finally sees the Marvel Cinematic Universe bash its head straight into a wall both financially and critically.  I have been racking my brains ever since exiting the cinema attempting to find some comparable antecedent for Endgame and I guess the closest might be The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King?  But even that doesn’t quite track since Lord of the Rings was only a trilogy instead of whatever-we-call-a-22-film-series, released over 3 years instead of 11, and was always designed to function as a complete film with a singular narrative rather than a bunch of entirely separate series which only sometimes intersect in a manner which retroactively causes them to work as a grand narrative.  Even the biggest world-conquering franchises approaching their ends or double-digit instalments make sure to handhold casual audiences through either expository recaps or giant spectacle action which works independent of prior context – Harry Potter, Fast & Furious, Star Wars.  They’re not explicitly fan films, ones whose enjoyment and understanding depends heavily upon memorisation of minutia from years ago with minimal action or entry points to appease the non-dedicated, and the ones which are tend to flop quite spectacularly – most YA adaptation rejects, the Fantastic Beasts series, Solo.

So, Endgame shouldn’t work.  This should have collapsed in spectacular fashion.  Even Infinity War kind of works as a standalone movie, partly because its villain was the closest thing in the ensemble to a protagonist and partly because Bruce Banner effectively functioned as a walking excuse for catch-up exposition, and the reason why that first Avengers conquered the globe so thoroughly in spite of it seemingly like the biggest risk in blockbuster cinema was because it hits with the same power, joy and effectiveness for those who hadn’t seen the movies leading up to it as it did for those who had.  Endgame very arguably doesn’t unless we’re talking in the Aquaman sense where somebody judges their satisfaction upon how much movie is in their movie (for there is THE MOST MOVIE in this specific movie).

And yet…  it kind of really does work.  Not all the time – Black Widow’s death thuds in the exact same way Gamora’s did in Infinity War which is sadly in keeping with the MCU’s disinterested treatment of her, Captain Marvel is an afterthought, it really is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen every single film beforehand – but Marvel’s massive self-indulgent flex does somehow work, particularly in that third act which just kills from start to finish.  Perhaps this is because Marvel more fully embraced the popular critical comparison of their narratives acting more like instalments in a serialised TV show the viewer has to wait four months and £12 between episodes each time, with Endgame functioning like the big nostalgic series finale that sees every single character return in some capacity and is all about feeling like a firm end to something.  A franchise petrified of long-lasting consequences, with a plot explicitly about undoing a long-lasting consequence from another film, pulling the trigger and not shying away from a true sense of finality to such a degree that it even resisted the urge to add a stinger, instead playing the sounds of Tony Stark making his first Iron Man suit over those final logos as a perfect full-circle button on the entire thing.

I’ve seen a bunch of cynicism surrounding the finale of Endgame from many corners of the critic-sphere, much of which I understand given the MCU’s perpetual inability to make anything stick – again, this was exactly what I spent 2,000+ words moaning about after Infinity War – and all of which I respect so long as you, say, don’t suddenly decide to leap into an impassioned barely-related rant about the sanctity of cinema or something halfway through.  But I personally can’t quite join in on that cynicism this time.  The Russos, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and Marvel Studios draw just enough of a line in the sand with Endgame that, if it weren’t my “job” to see and remain up-to-date on all of these films, I would genuinely be content with never seeing another entry in this series again.  For all its self-indulgence, for all its self-congratulatory ticker-tape parades – Marvel did not earn that girl power sequence with their past treatment of female characters in these movies, yet goddamn did it kill anyway – for its steadfast refusal to appeal to anyone not already on the train, Endgame works.  Neither fully in spite of or because of itself.  It just kinda does, like a magic trick whose method I am yet to figure out.

What I have figured out, what I figured out from pretty much the second I emerged from my screening on Thursday night, is that nobody should ever try to duplicate, replicate or outdo Endgame.  Ever.  This is a miracle movie, all the more so for its flaws, its blatant bullish swaggering flex, and it walking this particular tightrope over a bottomless chasm without any harness or safety net.  It cannot be replicated, it cannot be exceeded, and anyone who tries to, whether that be imbecilic Hollywood execs – like the ones who tried to start cinematic universes post-Avengers only to fail miserably every time, or the ones who tried to make R-rated movies in the vein of Deadpool because it MUST have been the excessive swearing and blood which made Deadpool work only to watch Hellboy become an early contender for 2019’s biggest bomb – or Marvel themselves, is a goddamn fool who hasn’t been paying attention.  If anyone could pull this feat off, to make this kind of movie in this kind of franchise and have it forcibly halt the world on its axis so everyone could accommodate its might, they could only do so the once.  Anybody who tries to recreate this or expects to recreate this is setting themselves up for embarrassment, it is the freak anomaly in the results chart.

There were 14 million possible realities where Endgame was a colossal failure in every respect.  We live in the one where it somehow wasn’t.  There has never been a movie like Endgame before, there never will be a movie like Endgame again, and there never should be a movie like Endgame again.

Callum Petch has got the moves of a TV queen.

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