With ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Marvel’s heroes shut up and play the hits

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Sitting at the end of a 21-movie red carpet, “Avengers: Endgame” does not operate under the laws of other movies. Primarily marketed as “long” and “full of spoilers” (whatever that means), it’s a blockbuster that’s been promoted through tantalizing vagueness and grandiose gestures toward a farewell.

It’s an event closer to the intellectual property swagger of “Super Smash Bros.,” the civic duty cheerleading of the Super Bowl, the corporate messianic meme of the McRib. It is a movie that is entirely, even respectably, about its event status and nothing else. As such, it has eccentric qualities as a pop culture paradigm shift while remaining predictable in terms of its actual narrative, restricted to the loose ends it must tie up.

Last summer’s “Avengers: Infinity War” ended with purple party pooper Thanos (Josh Brolin) completing his dunderheaded mission to eliminate half of the universe — effectively taking away half of the franchise’s action figures. After apprehending the Mad Titan, “Endgame” makes a borderline provocative storytelling decision to skip ahead five years.

Within a matter of seconds, many of these heroes have undergone more change than they’ve weathered over the course of this series. Each is crippled by survivor’s guilt, attempting to move on while still picking up the pieces of mass extermination. More than a little lugubrious, the unsettling tranquility of the beginning lives and dies on the virtues of its cast. Without any immediate conflict to deal with, all Earth’s mightiest heroes can do is hang out, putting into perspective how firmly their characterizations have been solidified over the years.

It’s an achievement that a Marvel movie can simply work as a series of heart-to-hearts, although “Endgame” doesn’t fully recognize that strong suit. The movie remains surprisingly light on its feet once the plot kicks into high gear. The second hour revolves around some irresistible time travel shenanigans involving the Avengers stealing magic rocks from their past selves to undo Thanos’ devastation. Unlike most of Marvel’s team-up movies, “Endgame” has an actual hook beyond simply getting everyone in the same room. There’s legitimate idiosyncrasy to the circumstances, forcing this team to use their superpowers for stealthy situations and giving them an opportunity to reflect on their collective past.

While the Russo brothers demonstrate their penchant for narrative traffic control here, the final hour proves they remain unforgivably bad directors of action. The crassly crowded finale represents a “Where’s Waldo?” sketch more than an actual battlefield, peppering its hideous gray landscape with Easter egg one-liners and mix-and-match iconography designed to congratulate viewers for their basic ability to remember who’s who.

The candy store approach offers momentary thrills, but fails at establishing an internal consistency, offering no distinction between which attacks the combatants can come back from and which will keep them down. Worst of all, Thanos (thankfully absent for most of “Endgame”) returns with his army of anonymous aliens and trademark verbal NyQuil to put a damper on the big reunion. At least he wields a big ass sword this time around.

As “Infinity War” bent over backward to set the table for this sequel, “Endgame” contorts in the opposite direction, diligently reaffirming the franchise’s history. But as much as the movie begs to be liked, its quieter beats achieve a poignancy that its momentous pandering only hopes to. Take a brief moment late in the film when a grab bag of superpowered women team up with one another in an insulting, self-congratulatory forgery of on-screen representation. It assumes empowerment without laying ground for it, only exposing how none of these characters really know one another and how they are always pushed to their movie’s peripheries by men.

“Either it’s all a joke or none of it is,” Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) quips about his time travel research, inadvertently diagnosing the project that has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stylistic concessions and brand maintenance have managed to make nearly two dozen movies compatible with one another.

But while there are parts of this universe to love, there are inevitably parts to discard. By arguing for the significance of everything that’s come before, “Endgame” forces the viewer to buy all those pieces as a single package. How any one person feels about it will largely reflect their opinion of Marvel Studios in general. For all its moping, “Endgame” is a celebration first and foremost capped by a victory that reads, for both economic and narrative reasons, as a foregone conclusion instead of hard-won.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].