I had a good time with Avengers: Endgame, what with its Back to the Future Part II revisiting of its own history, various of its character developments, and particularly with its resourceful throwing of spanners in the works of the team’s best laid plans to return the lost populace of the galaxy to their present.
However, I wasn’t overly impressed by the Russo brothers’ ability to explain their pet version of time travel. Indeed, I went away thinking this element was something of a train wreck. I’ve since moderated that view, but with a few caveats (there’s a particularly concise, digestible account of how Endgame most likely coheres here, but it’s very much the exception among numerous pieces explaining “How time travel does make sense in Endgame” that make no sense unto themselves).
Endgame isn’t the most elegant picture, plot-wise – I’m sure there’s an actual kitchen sink in there somewhere – and like almost all Marvel movies, it culminates in a battle that confirms Kevin Feige will simply never understand that less can be more (and that the Russos, while reasonably adept at one-on-one action, have no aptitude for vast spectacle). But it does, in the main, satisfy as a wrap up to ten years of the MCU, even if it conversely entirely fails to whet an appetite for the next ten.
In terms of that over-stuffed plot, there’s so much in there that some of it couldn’t not hit its marks. The five-years-later opening stages are especially engaging. Sure, they’re replete with broad-stroke doodling of the ramifications of the Snap for these guys: Hawkeye becoming a full-on vigilante assassin; Thor turning lard-ass – as Rocket observes, “You look like melted ice cream”; Hulk having come to terms with himselves and thus almost but not quite justifying his irksome uselessness in Infinity War; Cap, er, leading self-help groups.
The Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely at least partially justify their gargantuan runtime by letting this unfold at a steady pace, allowing the enormity of the change to hit home (of course, they’ll have had The Leftovers to give them their cues). And before that too, there are nice touches: the disappearance of Hawkeye’s family; Tony’s emaciated tirade at Cap (both familiar to and rawer than previous instalments). It’s going to cost a lot to pull down all those Snap memorials, though, now death is not the end. Still, they could put up much-needed affordable housing on sites where they most likely pulled houses down to put the memorials up.
I was equally caught up in the agile introduction of a slew of complications to the time-heist plot, even if many of the actual emotional beats left me stony-faced. There’s allowing a version of Loki to survive (disappearing elsewhere into timeline B, presumably), and (also presumably) a prior Gamora so letting various continuations of the franchise proceed unhindered. And throwing in a need to return to 1970, waxy-faced Howard Stark notwithstanding, since the iffy effects added to the sense that this father-son reunion wasn’t all it might have been. There’s also Thanos’ discovery of dual Nebulas in 2014 effectively messing up matters; I’m a sucker for these types of plots, even given the frequency and/or frequent misuse of them.
Frankly, though, I was less than moved by Black Widow’s self-sacrifice; could they have picked two characters we care about less – I know, I know, I’m speaking for myself – to play out a scene designed to pack such emotional heft? On the other hand, while I’ve quickly grown very tired of quippy Thor, since everything about him now smacks of playing for easy laughs, safe in the knowledge this version is an audience pleaser, including the fat suit, the scene with Rene Russo’s Frigga was genuinely touching.
The climax, though. Nebula’s ability to bring Thanos et fleet back through the wormhole with but a Pym particle to her name doesn’t bear much scrutiny on the face of it. But the escalation of events leading to Tony and Strange exchanging an exasperated look of “Here we go again” as, despite all their efforts, events appear to be repeating themselves (“We messed with time. It tends to mess back”), is such a strong moment – along with Tony’s clever-clever old-switcheroo self-sacrifice – that it very nearly justifies the interminable excess elsewhere.
Fight after fight after confrontation piles on as each hero gets their moment against Thanos but to little ultimate consequence. These are, at least for the most part, acceptably choreographed. It’s with the mass mayhem that Endgame rather gets lost up its own wormhole, even with a Giant Man in the mix.
As soon as the (re-)assembled, reconstituted heroes and armies arrive through a portal, it’s evident this is going to devolve into the same-old pixelated overkill, and much of it flies by frivolously (Peter’s return, in particular, is disappointingly lacking in personality). I had to laugh at the way Captain Marvel (“What, you going to get another haircut?”) is dealt with, having her arrive in the wake Infinity War’s post-credits fanfare and a solo movie, only to be abruptly removed from the mix after a perfunctory cosmic AA routine because she’s too super-powered not to sort things out in double quick time (admittedly, her reasoning is sound, but the writers’ is no less obvious for it).
I also had to laugh, derisively this time, at the Russos’ opportunistically self-congratulatory “sisters are doing it for themselves but only one-and-a-half have had their own movie so far so not that much” gathering storm, which has to be most wretchedly cheesy moment in the entire MCU, easily outdoing the previous title holder, Joss Whedon’s ill-advised speed-ramped panorama shot in Age of Ultron. Especially as, having so gathered them, their combined efforts evaporate into the usual confused melee.
The aftermath of all that carnage finds Tony in funereal form, Valkyrie the new monarch of New Asgard, and somewhat tiresomely, Thor and Peter Quill squabbling over who’s in charge (I really enjoyed that interaction in Infinity War, but sometimes less is more, and a whole Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 of this just doesn’t appeal). The funeral roll call is something and nothing, really, but it’s no doubt obvious that I’m too cynical to be moved. Nevertheless, bravo for finally writing out Cap and Tony (it might have been more affecting had the latter gone when we still wanted more). I do wonder how they’re going to fill the gaps going forward, however, as charisma-wise there seems to be surfeit of B-players.
But back to the time travel. It’s ironic that the Russos took pointed time to scoff at other movies’ time-travel misfires when, hoisted by their own petards, they failed to explain their own sufficiently coherently. Hence the widespread variations in interpretation for how Endgame’s supposed to coalesce. One of the most common appears to be that an unhealthy dose of magic wand – “the infinity stones cure everything” – is required to make it all work. Bruce – no wonder he can’t create a successful time machine – authoritatively mocks his co-Avengers’ movie logic by telling them “if you travel to the past, that past becomes your future and your former present becomes the past, which can’t now be changed by your new future“.
To be fair, the movie does appear to follow that through, so in the Avengers-verse paradoxes cannot take place, but the fact that so many – myself included – initially read this as a linear timeline suggests the Russos needed to do a bit more to underpin matters.
The Ancient One’s visualisation lacks the clarity of Doc Brown’s in the suddenly-maligned Back to the Future Part II, but her words essentially confirm multiple timelines, even if she (unnecessarily) couches it in the language of the stones causing the universe(s) to operate as it does: “The Infinity Stones create what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one stone and that flow splits. Now, this may benefit your reality, but my new one, not so much. In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world would be over-run and millions would suffer. Tell me, Doctor, can your science prevent all that?”
The branch version of time inevitably throws up its own problems that aren’t wholly accounted for (and even though Back to the Future set out a linear, singular version of time, there’s no really satisfactorily way to explain the end to the first movie, other than that Marty arrives in an alternate timeline, replacing a version of himself from a much better-off McFly family). But as Ng Xin Zhao’s piece points out, Endgame just about gets away with the time travellers being able to return to their reality (they could feasibly end up in any multiple one) by travelling back through the same wormhole by which they left.
Still, though, each divergent timeline should really create another divergent timeline, so I don’t fully buy into the idea that returning to timeline B and bringing back the stones hasn’t inevitably led to a timeline C (where the stones are never returned, simply because it has to exist as “a reality” until Cap actually goes back). So there is a version (and presumably this illustrates either the Ancient One’s flawed logic or that of the Russos) where exactly the concerns the Ancient One has over a future without the stone must come to pass; time travel will inevitably have terrible consequences for some version of the Avengers in some alternate branch reality.
Bruce’s optimistic account of how time travel works is essentially a less objectionable version of Steven Moffat’s self-conscious timey-wimey, whereby the Doctor Who showrunner played so fast and loose with plot logic that River Song could leap off a roof knowing the TARDIS would appear to catch her once the Doctor found out she had jumped off. It’s designed to stick two fingers up to an audience hoping for internal coherence (and consequences). Absolutely fine if you’re Bill and Ted, but less so if you’re trying to look at it rationally and/or suspensefully (the Back to the Futures had to make rules for timelines gradually changing to get around this kind of thing, so Biff was able to return to the same 2015 even though his younger self has changed 1985 by the time Doc and Marty get back to it).
Then there’s Cap returning at the end, now with a doubtless very saggy, wrinkled ass, accompanied by much speculation that he lived out his life secretly with Agent Carter in the A timeline, so was able to pop up nonchalantly on a bench at the end. The Russos have confirmed he didn’t do this, though, so at least they’re reinforcing their own processes: “‘If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality,’ Joe explained. ‘The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away?’” Actually, my question is how unscrupulous Cap must be to snatch away any vestigial hope the Cap in the (B?) branch reality, the one he has muscled in on, has for happiness (or whomever Carter would have married, come to that). He’s presumably presuming Cap would behave exactly as he did, which he may well have done, but on the other hand…
Most amusing, though – or horrifying, given the variable potential repercussions and altercations of people moving on with their lives in the intervening period – is the five-year gap that finds the Snapped returning at the same age they were before. As we saw in micro form with Scott’s daughter, this will presumably mean half Peter’s classmates have long-since graduated. And that’s not to mention the global resourcing issues resulting from all those extra mouths to feed. Definitely a job for the Avengers. I’m sure Captain Marvel will be able to sort it out.
So Avengers: Endgame has more than its share of indulgences (some would label it fan service) and slightly ill-advised decisions, but I found it a more satisfying experience than Infinity War overall. The first part suffered – if that’s the right word – from its linearity of purpose and the inevitability of backtracking on its decisive gesture. The attempts to mix that up and provide a grand send-off get the better of Endgame at times, but not unlike the final season of Game of Thrones, it’s difficult to see how it could otherwise have played out.