A good death is hard to find.
Dying well is the goal. Dying well is the mission. Dying well is the point of all life, the point of every story.
That’s where Avengers: Endgame fails. Too many bad deaths, not enough good ones.
The movie is also way too long and sacrifices a good plot for a cheesy gimmick, but its blackest offense is botching almost all the most important characters: either killing them, killing them in the wrong way, or not killing them at all.
No, I didn’t hate Endgame. I was too thrilled with its triumphs and too angry at its follies to merely hate it. I more than hated it. I wanted it to stop existing. I wanted the Russo brothers and the writing team to take it back and try again. I wanted to rewind time back to before I’d witnessed how they spoiled the finale to the saga I’ve been watching (and mostly loving) for a third of my life.
Sorting success from failure is easiest if we speak in terms of pacing, plot, music, scenes, and characters. Pardon my geek, but I occasionally reference acts and plot points from Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, so take a look at that if it helps with the terminology.
Let’s start with the obvious. The movie is bloated and lethargic (though not as bad as Infinity War). The Russo brothers trimmed these final two installments down from 900 freaking hours. Sometimes, you can hardly tell.
1) Too many openings. Barton losing his family makes a great start. So does Stark drifting in space. So does Thor walloping off Thanos’s head. The problem is, they all make great openings. By the time the opening titles finally appear, I’d forgotten we were still in the prologue!
Whittle it down. Shrink the chitchat. Tighten the debate over whether and how to find Thanos. Let’s get this show on the road!
2) Act I has a bunch of dead weight. Ant-Man’s return and search for his daughter, Captain America’s counseling session (stuffed with the preachiest gay ad ever), and the Debate simply take too long. The team should settle on the how and when of the time heist (or cook up a better plan!) quicker.
3) Act II has too much Fun & Games. What begins as an entertaining gallivant through the Marvel Pensieve turns into an “are we there yet?” dawdle. Thor especially tests our patience in a silly heart-to-heart with his mom—a thoroughly wasted opportunity and further proof that Chris Hemsworth drew the short straw; his character is entirely trashed. (More on this later.)
4) The back half of Act II (Bad Guys Close In) drags on forever as we can’t seem to stop hanging out with Nebula, Gamora, and Thanos. The movie suffocates Nebula with needless camera time, period. Her transformation is interesting but should have been explored at a jauntier clip and with a lighter touch. Chop, chop, the audience is waiting!
Time Heist: Bad
Time travel rarely makes a good plot. It’s a trick. It’s story fraud. Monkeying with time ought to be done only by stupid movies (Timeline) or movies that nobody minds being stupid (Men in Black III). (The only satisfying treatment of time travel is in N.D. Wilson’s Outlaws of Time series, so if you want to imitate its principles, go ahead.)
Endgame’s time travel is an underwhelming copout. True, we’re all in a good mood and affectionate fans will hardly begrudge a trip down Memory Lane (which boasts some of the film’s most hilarious and enjoyable moments), but overall, the wily time maneuver is self-indulgent fan service. The movie would have packed a far bigger punch had the Avengers beaten Thanos apart from something so hokey as time travel.
It is also, as it turns out, a scam. Endgame doesn’t play by its own rules. The story struggles with a few technical difficulties (how do Thanos and Nebula travel from past to present using only one Pym Particle?) and farfetched shenanigans (how does Dr. Strange muster the troops so fast?), but these are venial missteps. Endgame’s mortal sin is in breaking the very rule on which the story hinges.
Basically, the laws of time travel in Endgame are these: Wherever you go, past or present, there you are. Times might change, but you march steadily into the future (even if the future involves your past). So you are constantly in the present—your present. Envision history as a mall. The years are stores. You can wander in and out of stores all you want, and while the stores change, you do not. So if you were to, say, kill your grandfather in the store labeled 1930 (which would be terrible), you wouldn’t suddenly cease to exist. Got it?
So far, so good. But if events in the past don’t affect the future, how can the Avengers steal the Infinity Stones and expect to change anything?
Aha, here’s the critical rule. As the Ancient One explains to Banner, your time-travel actions can create divergent realities. Oh yay. Removing an Infinity Stone spawns a parallel universe. History splits. (So now there are two malls.) A never-ending franchise filled with alternate storylines—and Marvel raking in billions—is the last thing I want to think about, so let’s just tiptoe away from the fact that the Ancient One’s explanation totally opens the door to that nightmare. Let’s focus instead on how, after taking advantage of the elaborate divergent-reality trick for two hours, Endgame destroys this rule in the last 10 minutes.
In the final scene, Steve goes back to replace the Infinity Stones in order to prevent a cosmic personality split. Yet the Russo brothers confirm that this split is exactly what happens. Okay. I guess we can at least thank goodness that in marrying Peggy, Steve doesn’t thus eradicate her husband and snuff out her kids (who are now part of her other reality), because that certainly isn’t the Boy Scout we all know and love.
But let’s just ask three questions that remain: If creating a branch reality is so catastrophic that the Ancient One barely relinquishes the time stone, why is Cap stupid enough to create a branch reality himself? Which stone does he not replace in order to create this branch? And how does Old Steve get back into this reality to give away the shield? He has no time device. He’d have to come back through the portal, but he doesn’t, he bypasses the Hulk completely. So Steve just lives and ages naturally and…somehow wanders back into his first reality to sit down on a bench??
Not even the Russo brothers have the answer. They seem to find their loss for words amusing. I find it hardly less annoying than ending a story with “He woke up, and it was all a dream.”
The Infinity Saga deserves better. The fans certainly do.
Alan Silvestri has composed more Marvel soundtracks than any other writer: Captain America, The Avengers, Infinity War, and now Endgame, which is a lot for someone who is never my first choice for composer, or even my tenth. His action sequences are raucous and his fanfareish hero themes are never as singable as John Williams’ or Hans Zimmer’s.
But he was the absolute perfect choice for Endgame. He does a phenomenal, PHENOMENAL job with Stark’s burial hymn. The track “The Real Hero” is a sad and noble genius. It beats Silvestri’s own theme from Cast Away for greatest threnody in film. I have listened to it on repeat endlessly.
Another bullseye is all the musical callbacks from past Marvel films. The main Avengers theme rings throughout the movie, of course. But soundtrack fans will also recognize the bittersweet string motif as Steve watches Peggy through the glass in 1970. It is the same motif that accompanied his “death” in the first Captain America when he crash-landed the Hydra plane and lost Peggy, seemingly forever.
Likewise, when Cap flourishes Thor’s hammer in the final battle, the horns hearken back to his Howling Commando days: raiding Hydra trains and storming the Red Skull’s fortress.
And the grim, do-or-die trumpet blasts that sounded seven years ago when Iron Man carried the nuke in the first Avengers sound again as Stark dons the metal glove studded with infinity stones.
You get the idea. It’s great. The soundtrack feels like a big group hug.
The climactic battle in Act III strikes the right notes but at mezzo-forte. We need fortississimo! The action never boasts the same height of Avengers or even Infinity War—primarily because not once, but twice, help arrives before our heroes need it.
Captain America facing Thanos alone, prepared to take on the Mad Titan’s entire army with battered arm and splintered shield, should have been a tremendous moment. It deserves blazing focus. Ironically, the movie which is too long almost everywhere else should have lingered just a few extra seconds here. Let the grim reality sink in: the first Avenger is about to die, but he doesn’t care, because he could do this all day. As it is, the standoff feels a bit brief and mechanical. When the portals open and resurrected hosts come flooding back, the deliverance and triumph are neither as sweet nor as grand as the turning of the tide deserves.
Likewise, the battle isn’t going in a particularly bad direction when Captain Marvel (whose raison d’être is to prove how boring feminism really is) drops out of the sky and rescues everybody—before they even need rescuing! I’m perfectly aware the situation is desperate, I’m telling you it doesn’t feel desperate. The scene runs like raw footage awaiting the breath of life. Thanos has just unleashed hell, but the music doesn’t sound hellish; our heroes are doomed, but doom is on none of their faces; the Avengers are (apparently) at the end of their rope but not even Cap has anything grand to say, and Cap always does. The key to eucatastrophe is absolute, rock-bottom despair. Only once the water has come up to your neck should help finally arrive.
These gaffes don’t make or break the film. Just weaken it. The only true stupidness in the final battle is the women’s march. Like, did all the guys go grab a beer or something? Ladies communicate telepathically now? If I were a feminist, I’d be insulted by such mollycoddling. Real girls don’t need this kind of “girl power.”
Probably the best Marvel opening of all time is the dreadful scene where Barton loses his family. Flawlessly executed—picnic, cute kids, happy family, no music, ashes on the wind—the tragedy sets the perfect tone for the film and casts the hook of story grip nice and deep.
Everything with Stark is a win, but standouts include him recording a message for Pepper on the spaceship; blaming Cap and calling him a liar; father-daughter scenes with Morgan (she’s a delight); and running into his father, a poignant meet-up that unspools with amazingly awkward grace and hits all the right emotional beats.
Other spectacular moments include Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer (which he could do all along), and you do get a thrill when he finally utters the beloved comic-book command, the command been spoken by Chris Evans in real life (summoning costars for drinks way back for the first Avengers) but has never quite been said on screen: “Avengers! Assemble.”
I will watch and rewatch Endgame just for these home runs and I will adore them every time.
But Stark’s death and funeral exceed them all.
Appropriately, it is Rhodes who finds the dying Tony first. After all, it was Rhodes who first found the battered Tony in the desert at the beginning of his Iron Man days. Giving Pepper and Spiderman each a chance to say goodbye was perfect. (Steve is weirdly left out, but that’s a small quibble.) The stillness, the silence, the utter lack of music create a flawless, please-don’t-break-the-spell reverence and intensity. Undoubtedly one of the most memorable movie deaths I’ve seen.
Nope, I didn’t cry. I was too stoked to cry.
Wrap it all up with the massive team-family gathering, “I love you 3,000,” little Morgan’s love for cheeseburgers…I could (almost) forgive Endgame every other sin just to see Tony Stark rest in peace. Well done.
Characters: Good & Bad
Ant-Man is dandy. He’s funny and enjoyable and reminds us that time travel is always a joke.
Rhodes and the Hulk are both solid, though Hulk’s permanent green state is a bit jarring and I agree with Valkyrie that I liked him better both of either other ways.
Peter Quill is crude and not funny.
Thanos, Gamora, and Nebula—already dealt with. Bad. Time drags when they’re on screen.
Captain Marvel. Who?
Barton is fantastic. His character arc grips and compels. He commands our sympathy, disapproval, and admiration. Firmly established in Age of Ultron as one of our favorite dads, he gets sucked into a black hole of bitterness and ultimately kicks it in the teeth. Nice job.
Black Widow. WASTED. Her scramble to beat Barton off the cliff is burlesque. Her sacrifice creates no emotional crater because: 1) Act II has already outlived Methuselah, so we’re antsy and don’t care; 2) Marvel has done such a bad job killing and resurrecting characters—including several billion people in this very movie—that we don’t take Black Widow’s loss seriously. Logically, we know she’s gone. Emotionally, it’s hard to care. We’re numb after all the death porn. 3) The freaking Time Heist!! If Gamora gets to come back (because of alternate realities), why not Black Widow? The screenwriters should have taken their cues from Barton’s difficulty in convincing the others that Black Widow is really gone. If the team can’t believe it, neither can we, and now we’re miffed.
Thor. Ruined. He’s a bad dad joke. Drunk, disheveled, and depressed is great, but fat isn’t funny for very long, especially since his physical wreckage represents spiritual havoc from which he never recovers. All of a sudden, the god of thunder is a coward?? The 1500-year-old deity who has witnessed and weathered countless downers just can’t take it anymore? The king of Asgard abdicates the throne (to a woman) because “It’s time for me to be who I am, not who I’m supposed to be”??? Hell no! Just-be-true-to-yourself is the philosophy of every villain and failed hero. That is Thanos. That is Loki. That was Tony Stark for the first 40 years of his life. That isn’t Thor.
Captain America: Travesty
Thor might be the lamest joke, but Captain America is the greatest tragedy for one reason: he doesn’t die. If you’re going to permanently retire a character like Cap, killing him is your only option, because otherwise he will never stand down.
The exit given Steve Rogers in Endgame disgraces him on two counts. First, it squanders the opportunity to clinch his hectic relationship with Stark. Second, and more importantly, it betrays everything Captain America is and ever was.
1) Steve Rogers is the team’s emotional anchor and always has been. He is the gravity that keeps the Avengers from spinning—morally, emotionally, strategically—out of control. Since he’s so reliable and unchanging, his character arc is intimately tied to other people, especially Tony. But the writers whiff the opportunity to really develop this.
After the miserable Stark throws a pretty graphic accusation at Steve’s feet (“We lost, and you weren’t there…I’ve got nothing for you, Cap… No trust. Liar…”), they ought to have picked this up again later. The story begs for total, grandiose reconciliation—Tony-Stark style. Giving Steve back his shield counts as a halfway point, but a full-tilt apology is still in order, followed by some epic quality time in the fight against Thanos.
Iron Man and Captain America should have gone down together, fighting back to back, their dialogue peppered with echoes of key lines from over the years. “Ready to lose?” “Together.” “You trust me?” “I do.” Stark could have stolen Cap’s famous quip: “I could do this all day.” SO MANY IDEAS. I’m sure the screenwriters could have come up with some snappy one-liners as the two fathers of the Avengers died doing what nobody ever thought they could do: the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist and the man out of a bottle not just crushing the same villain, but fighting as brothers.
2) If the writers meant to honor Steve with a happy ending, they failed. Putting him out to pasture is an insult. Letting it be his choice is an assassination of character.
Believe me, I get the emotional appeal. Reunion with the love of his life seems an appropriate reward for the war hero. Steve is the inverse of Tony in life, and now he is the inverse in death. Stark gives up peace and family for the sake of the world, and Cap, who has tried to die for the world since he was a 90-pound asthmatic, is granted peace and family instead. The truth is, he did lose his life. He lost it in the ice 70 years ago—only without dying, which is possibly the hardest way to die. Who could begrudge Cap a chance to return to the life he lost?
Steve Rogers, that’s who.
Did the writers forget the man they’re dealing with? Joining the shield wall vs. pursuing ordinary life is every Avenger’s perpetual choice, a choice Steve has never failed. Abandoning the fight to go home is exactly the temptation that momentarily cripples Steve under Scarlet Witch’s curse in Age of Ultron. “We could go home,” the beautiful Peggy begs. “Imagine it!” Steve later specifically refers to this temptation as his own “dark side,” when Stark accuses him of having none.
When Steve sees Peggy in 1970, of course he’s tempted. This is a temptation he should have overcome. Let him hesitate in the moment; let him eye the time machine sometime later in the movie, knowing his girl is only seconds away—and refuse. Getting himself “back in the world” has been his great struggle, but he was winning. Every single film has focused on him striving (and succeeding) to adapt, to plug himself into the here and now, to fight the evil in his path and protect the people God has put in front of him. After refusing to succumb to all of grief’s temptations since missing that dance in 1945, he’d never surrender. There’s no way he’d turn his back on his responsibilities just to hook up with an old sweetheart in a stupid alternate reality. This isn’t Steve. This isn’t happily ever after. This is Steve giving in to his own dark side. This is the failure of the greatest Avenger.
Okay (you might say), but who’s to say Steve didn’t continue to be Steve and fight all kinds of evil in this new reality? All sorts of things might have happened! Okay, sure. They might have happened. But we don’t see them happen. One minute, young Steve is standing on the platform. The next, he’s got one foot in the grave. He’s obviously brimming with a life well lived, but we don’t get to see any of it. The shock is alienating. We’re too weirded out to feel truly happy for this old man. The movie tries to do too much at the last minute and leaves too many questions unanswered. The whole alternate reality deal is altogether cheesy. Absurd. Sentimental. Unsatisfying. Not the final salute Captain America deserved.
I AM IRONMAN
Ben Shapiro gives an interesting criticism of Iron Man’s storyline. He dislikes the way Endgame lowers the stakes for Stark. Since traveling into the past won’t change the present, there’s no real personal risk; his family will still be here when he gets back.
I like Shapiro (a ton), but I think he misses an important truth here. Tony still risks his family—maybe not their lives or his daughter’s very existence, but he risks them nonetheless. He could lose his girls. He could get stuck in the past if just one in a trillion things goes wrong. He could also die. And when he dies, he’s got more to lose. The stakes are plenty high.
Shapiro also argues that Endgame merely recycles Iron Man’s internal conflict from the first Avengers: Will he be the one to make the hero play? Will he lay himself down on the wire to let the other guy crawl over him? The answer was settled back in 2012: yes. Since then, says Shapiro, the great question has been, will Tony Stark mature and settle down? According to Shapiro, Endgame then largely ignores this question by resolving it in the first 30 minutes and dispatching Iron Man on an adventure that doesn’t jeopardize everything he has worked so hard for, etc., etc.
Now, I agree that the question whether Tony will mature and settle down is a question, but it is not the question. The answer has been consistently yes: whether it’s going to the ends of the earth to save Pepper (Iron Man 3), becoming a father to Peter Parker (Spiderman: Homecoming), or desiring children (Infinity War).
So what I believe Shapiro misses is the fact that the question for Stark is, now that he’s settling down, is he willing to give up everything he just gained? Will he take the easy way out around the fight for freedom (creating Ultron, signing the Sokovia Accords) or will he recognize that freedom is never free and sometimes this means putting life—not just his own life, but the quality of life he desires: his future with family—on the line?
Tony’s motives are never in doubt, but his actions are often emotional, extreme, and short-sighted. In Age of Ultron, a vision of pending world-wide catastrophe (Endgame gone globally wrong) spurs him to create AI in a panic. In his frenzy to ward off danger once and for all, he tinkers with a power he doesn’t understand and produces a monster that nearly destroys the world anyway. In Civil War, he likewise overreacts to a history of collateral damage by surrendering the team’s freedom and responsibility.
Film after film, Tony’s good-hearted but rash attempts to save lives, call off the team, and finish the fight so “we can all go home” are simply failures to stand up to the real fight, the real reason why they fight: for freedom. Whether that of a town or a country or the world or the entire universe, it is freedom that is always at stake. That is the battle he keeps dodging.
So Endgame phrases the same question but ups the ante: Will Tony Stark cleave to his cozy new life, or will he put it on the alter in order to save the world?
Every true warrior must risk that which he loves in order to protect that which he loves. Life is what a hero loses; life is what he gains. The soldier gives up the hearth to protect the home—if not for himself, then on behalf of the generations that follow.
A student of mine once visited a reunion of Allied veterans at the D-Day beaches in Normandy, France. A little old French woman wept as she held the hand of an equally old American soldier. The woman’s English was broken, but her message was clear. “For my children, I thank you,” she kept saying. The old soldier patted her hand and said: “That’s who we did it for.”
That’s who Tony Stark did it for.
Endgame is the story of a playboy turned husband, a child turned father, who finally sees the big picture and, under the bold conviction that he cannot dodge this fight, surrenders the sweetness of family life on behalf of millions of other families. He loses his hearth for the sake of countless homes.
Because he is Iron Man.
Critics have admitted it’s hard to judge whether Endgame is actually a good movie because it plays on so many heart strings, but come on, guys. If we love the Marvel movies so much, let’s just call Endgame what it is: a spectacular disappointment. It doesn’t fail because it fails completely. It fails because it ought to have been perfect. (I wouldn’t blame a novice for missing the bullseye; I would blame Clint Barton.) I wanted to love it. I flat-out adored 80% of it. But it’s like watching Michael Phelps come in fourth.
To the writers: Know your characters! Go slightly mad with the editing scissors. Recognize a terrible idea when you see one and shoot it on sight. Kill your darlings. Be worthy of the story you wield.
But man. Tony Stark.
Agreement on everything except two points, and you really made me rethink Cap’s ending. Thor was brazenly bad, though it took me a rewatch to get my heartstrings disentangled from the story.
“The only satisfying treatment of time travel is in N.D. Wilson’s Outlaws of Time series…” You need to read more time travel stuff. Nate’s is fun, sure. But the absolute best? The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, a staunch Catholic and a jim-dandy sci-fi author.
And the timeline stuff does actually work for Cap’s ending, because there’s been evidence that Peggy Carter actually did have a husband during her life, and it’s been said (I forget by whom) that there may be some little half-super-soldier kids running around somewhere. I think the “out” they were giving Cap is that his past self was the one running around taking care of the battles – he really was getting it both ways. Out fighting evil and at home with Peggy at the same time. Not the perfect ending, no, but at least the time travel logic holds in that particular example.
Great article as per usual. Thanks for writing!