Avengers: End Game (2019) (Poster excerpt / IMDB)

‘Avengers: Endgame’ Culminates 2010’s Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame has the most crowd-pleasing finalé to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

After years of licencing comic book properties to Hollywood studios, Marvel Entertainment launched Marvel Studios in 2005. Marvel Studios developed the properties to which they had the cinematic rights, mostly lesser-known or second-string superheroes, into a series of lightly interconnected films that became known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU began with Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), setting a tone of colourful, funny, highly-entertaining and faithful comic book adaptations for which Marvel Studios would become known.

The first five films of the MCU led up to The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), in which all the established superheroes came together for a cinematic team-up. The Avengers was a massive success, emboldening Marvel Studios to take more challenging narrative turns and inspiring every studio in Hollywood to attempt a similar cinematic universe. The MCU continued to expand, adding increasingly diverse characters and allowing more leeway to highly-talented filmmakers to put their unique stamp on the shared universe.

Ultimately, a decade’s worth of storytelling and character development coalesced into the third Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018). The heroes, and the universe, suffer a devastating loss in the climax of that film, setting the stage for the triumphant conclusion of the MCU up to this point: the Russo Brothers’ 2019 film, Avengers: Endgame.

Endgame is not only the conclusion to some of the overarching plotlines and character arcs of the first 11 years of the MCU. It’s also the culmination of the grand experiment of a shared cinematic universe. Over 21 previous films, various filmmakers wove an enormous, intricate narrative tapestry around huge, heroic characters. Each MCU film works in isolation (some better than others), each series tells its own story, but they all fit together into a larger narrative that enriches each component part. For example, one could be satisfied watching only the Iron Man trilogy, but then one would miss the central character’s fascinating further development in the Avengers films.

Indeed, the MCU unfolds like the largest-scale television series ever produced. Each feature-length episode focuses on one set of characters, and they occasionally unite for the biggest episodes. If that comparison holds, then the first 22 films represent the first season of the MCU, and Avengers: Endgame is the massive season finalé.

Endgame culminates the preceding films, but also serves as a reflection on the achievements of the MCU. From 2008 to 2019, MCU films became increasingly popular and respected by filmgoers. Marvel Studios became a cinematic brand, and a large segment of the filmgoing public came to expect consistently high-quality entertainment doled out two or three times per year. Having a reliably loyal audience afforded Marvel Studios the freedom to take chances on unique filmmakers, diverse characters, or bold narrative choices with minimal risk.

That audience trust and loyalty came not only from consistency, but also from the emotional investment viewers had in the characters after watching them develop over a decade, much like in a long-running television or book series. There’s a comfort in seeing Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man nine times in 11 years, or Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America seven times in eight years, or many of the other long-running characters. Endgame can be viewed as an exercise in rewarding longtime, loyal fans by both celebrating and concluding all the films that led to this point. The monumental achievements of Avengers: Endgame are therefore best understood through the lens of culmination and reflection.

In that spirit, the filmmakers chose to focus the film on the original six Avengers: Tony, Steve, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The assembling of these six characters catalyzed the Marvel Cinematic Universe in The Avengers, and their final adventure together ends this season. The filmmakers understood the weight and scale of such a significant payoff and they crafted a three-hour long blockbuster film to do it justice. Despite the length, audiences were keen to experience such a long-awaited, highly-touted culmination. A decade of increasing popularity and emotional investment created a unique sense of anticipation for the film. All of this certainly contributed to Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time (worldwide).

The commercial success of a film is certainly not the same as the quality of a film, although many people conflate the two. That said, commercial success on this scale speaks volumes about popular culture in 2019 and the place of the MCU in pop culture history. Perhaps the MCU represents the zenith of blockbuster entertainment and the wildly successful culmination of a new form of cinematic myth-making. Or perhaps the film represents the infantilization and homogenization of Hollywood filmmaking in the 21st-century, and a leading cause of death for mid-budget, mature films in cinemas. That’s entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the MCU, however, one must reckon with it as the central cinematic pop culture phenomenon of the 2010s. Its widespread success in an era when culture has become increasingly fractured and niche is all the more remarkable. The success of the first decade of the MCU is significant and singular. Future pop culture phenomena will surely emerge to capture the global imagination, but not quite in this way.

Endgame is aIso remarkable when compared to other significant 2019 pop culture culminations, Benioff and WeissGame of Thrones and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019). The conclusions of those series were highly divisive and criticized in a way Endgame was not, highlighting Endgame as one of the most satisfying conclusions to a large-scale, long-running pop culture phenomenon ever. So, after all of that context, I examine how that culmination was achieved, and how this film reflects 11 years of superlative blockbuster storytelling.

Avengers: Endgame was announced as Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 in October 2014. Infinity War and Endgame were developed concurrently by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Development of the films began with the endings for the two protagonists of the MCU up to that point: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Tony’s character arc over nine films evolves him from a selfish jerk to a selfless hero, so his logical ending is to die saving the day in Endgame. Steve’s character arc unfolded as the inverse of Tony’s. He begins as the ultimate self-sacrificing hero, living only to serve the greater good, and gradually begins choosing things for himself. He survives Endgame, allowing himself to stop fighting and live a life.

These endings were decided by the Fall of 2015. The filmmakers then identified the finalé of Infinity War: the villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), successfully collects the six powerful Infinity Stones and uses them to snap half of all living things out of the universe in a misguided attempt to improve conditions for the remaining half. With the endings of both films decided, Infinity War was structured to build up to the Snap, while Endgame was structured to deal with the fallout from the Snap and build up to the endings for Tony and Steve. Endgame focused on the surviving characters dealing with grief and failure, and trying to make things right.

As the screenplays developed, Infinity War and Endgame became increasingly distinct tonally and narratively, and the title changed from Infinity War – Part 2. The filmmakers have claimed that Endgame was the easier of the two screenplays. Infinity War needed to move like clockwork, driving ahead in a propulsive chase towards its climax. The focus was on Thanos, and the ultimately futile attempts of the heroes to resist him with force. Endgame was a much looser plot, but also a more classical epic adventure.

After their initial failure, they attempt a more intellectual solution to their problem. One of the strengths of the MCU is a strong focus on the heroes, and they are typically the most interesting characters in an MCU film. Infinity War was unique for positioning its villain, Thanos, as the central character. Endgame, as the culmination of the MCU, logically returns narrative focus to the heroes, specifically the original six Avengers. The focus on Thanos in Infinity War allowed the filmmakers to streamline the narrative, removing extraneous scenes or details if they did not pertain to him or his goal.

Similarly, the focus on the six original Avengers streamlines Endgame to focus on the culmination of their stories. This also provides opportunities for the film to reflect on their growth as characters, and thus reflect on the whole series to this point. Most Marvel films take some inspiration from comic book stories, including Infinity War. But there are no specific comic book origins for the plot of Endgame. It’s strictly an outgrowth of the films that came before. It’s a wholly MCU film, and the culmination and reflection were baked right into Endgame by its choice of central characters.

This focus on the original six Avengers also meant that other characters, such as Thanos and the newly-introduced Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), would have smaller roles than fans might expect. Some characters, such as Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) have strong moments, but they are strictly in service of the main six characters. Thanos remains the villain, but the focus on the heroes means he’s offscreen for much of the film, with his villainy felt primarily in the effects of his past actions.

Avengers: Infinity War was released globally on 27 April 2018. Avengers: Endgame was released globally on 26 April 2019. The intervening year was fascinating from a marketing perspective. Infinity War ended with the villain succeeding, and snapping out of existence such popular characters as Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even though audiences assumed they would all return in the next film, it was a shocking ending. Marvel Studios played their cards close to the vest, and there was no promotion for Endgame for quite some time. The title was not even announced until the first trailer in December 2018. The filmmakers even considered having no marketing at all for the film, creating a unique kind of buzz.

To be fair, audiences would have shown up to Endgame with minimal urging, making widespread marketing largely unnecessary. But it was also a savvy decision to avoid saturating the market with Avengers promotion, as people would have likely grown weary of constantly hearing about Marvel Films. Beyond minimal promotion for Endgame, Marvel Studios refused to officially announce any future MCU films, even ones that were in pre-production, as their mere existence might spoil the film. Endgame was announced nearly five years in advance, but the schedule beyond it remained blank until after Endgame was released.

There was one exception. Since Sony Pictures shares control of Spider-Man, they announced Spider-Man: Far From Home (Watts, 2019) as a follow-up to Endgame in December 2016 and engaged in typical promotion in the lead-up to the film. This surely rankled the Marvel Studios marketing team, who pretended Spider-Man was gone. As Endgame approached, none of the material gave any indication that the missing heroes would return, preserving some of the biggest moments until audiences saw them in the film.

This only added to the immensely rewarding experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. The film is a love-letter to longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with seemingly endless culminations, references and inside jokes. It’s nearly overwhelming in its scope, and would be taxing for anyone unfamiliar with the MCU. But by this point, filmgoers had already decided whether they were a fan of the MCU or not. Endgame was not poised to win new fans, but to reward existing fans. And it does so impeccably.

Avengers: Endgame is crowd-pleasing in the extreme, but never descends into fan service, which further sets it apart from much of pop culture in the ’10s. Social media created a situation where most filmmakers or other creators are easily accessed by fans, and where fans can easily gather in large numbers to discuss their views on pop culture properties. This resulted in some fans exhibiting a certain entitlement that their ideas or views must be heard, acknowledged, and incorporated into the properties they profess to love. The most vocal of these fans put creators in the uncomfortable position to either ignore or acquiesce to these demands, sometimes compromising their visions in the process.

Fan service often results in creators making strange narrative or character choices to please vocal fans, but that likely disappoint other fans (because you cannot please everyone) and the results is inconsistent with the original vision of the property. The most prominent example of fan service began with the online furor by some fans against Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017). That film made challenging, unexpected choices with the 40-yea- old Star Wars mythos, resulting in the most interesting film in the series in 37 years.

Some fans were not interested in challenging or unexpected narrative turns, however, and the backlash was loud and intense. The following film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, seems hopelessly compromised by walking back some of The Last Jedi‘s more interesting developments while also telling a bland story intended to please longtime fans. Its approach is a miserable failure, and Rise of Skywalker has become the model of pandering fan service harming a property.

Marvel Studios is not known for fan service. Led by producer Kevin Feige, Marvel filmmakers have delivered their vision for the MCU. From the beginning, they have pushed the narrative in compelling, unexpected directions, hoping the fans will appreciate their choices. The most crowd-pleasing moments of Endgame are not attempts to appease vocal, entitled fans. These moments are natural storytelling outgrowths of 21 previous films, or ideas that appeal to the filmmakers. They satisfy audiences because they are consistent with the stories fans loved before and because they are executed with narrative and cinematic skill. The MCU has emerged from its first era with an integrity of vision that many other properties have lost. It should be little surprise that consistency and talented execution resulted in a more satisfying film than catering to needy detractors, but 2019 offered the perfect case study with Endgame vs The Rise of Skywalker.

Let’s examine the ways in which Endgame perfectly reflects upon the MCU and culminates years of storytelling. The film breaks fairly neatly into three sections, each with a very different tone.

The film opens with Clint suffering the effects of Thanos’ Snap when his wife and three kids disappear before his eyes. Three weeks later, Tony and Nebula are rescued from a disabled spaceship by Carol and brought back to Earth. The other Avengers have been dealing with the loss of half the life on Earth, and Carol gives them the opportunity to take revenge on Thanos. They travel to Thanos’ garden retreat, but are horrified to discover he used the Infinity Stones one more time to destroy them. Thor decapitates Thanos, but it’s an empty gesture. Nothing can bring back the people who were lost.

Five years later, the surviving heroes are trying to cope. Steve is running a support group to help people move on, while he tries to move on himself. Natasha fills her time coordinating heroes across the galaxy, processing her survivor’s guilt. Tony has moved on, however, retiring to a lakeside cabin with his wife, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), and four-year-old daughter, Morgan (Alexandra Rabe). Bruce is productive, merging his human intellect with the Hulk’s body, and has become Earth’s premier superhero. But Thor has sunk into a deep depression over his guilt, and is now an overweight alcoholic. Clint has become a murderous international vigilante after the loss of his family.

Just by happenstance, Scott is ejected from the infinitesimally tiny quantum realm, where he has been trapped since the Snap. The five years have only felt like five hours to him because time works differently there. He approaches the Avengers with a plan to traverse the quantum realm to travel back in time, steal the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get to them, then use them to bring everybody back. Tony is the most skeptical, as he has the most to lose if things go wrong. But, eventually he can’t help himself from solving time-travel. He sets the stakes: they must bring back what they lost while preserving what they have. Thor and Clint are also hesitant, but they agree to join. So, the original six Avengers reassemble, along with Nebula, Rocket and James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), to carry out a time heist.

This first act isn’t devoid of fun or levity, but it lives in the sadness of the heroes’ failure. It firmly establishes that the end of Infinity War is not simply a cliffhanger to be quickly reversed, but a lasting event that has serious emotional effects on the characters. The filmmakers take their time to establish the emotional stakes for the six main Avengers, which gives the action that follows weight and purpose. In the wrong hands, this would have either been rushed to get to the fun or felt too morose. But the filmmakers understand the emotional investment that even casual viewers have in the MCU heroes, that viewers care about them insofar as one can care about fictional characters. This gave them the confidence that viewers would be interested in watching the characters wallow in failure.

The tone is smartly established by opening with the loss of Clint’s family. Clint was absent from Infinity War, and this scene was originally intended to follow Thanos’ infamous Snap in that film. By instead opening Endgame with the scene, audiences are immediately reminded of how they felt at the end of Infinity War, watching many characters disappear into flakes of dust. The film then rushes into action, with most of the remaining heroes confronting and killing Thanos, something most viewers suspected would take the entire film. By destroying the Infinity Stones and killing Thanos, the most obvious plots are immediately negated. This is shocking so early in the film and left viewers to wonder where the story would go next. That’s a great energy with which to start a film.

Marvel Comics sometimes publishes a series titled What If?, featuring fun alternate versions of familiar characters or stories. The rest of the first act of Endgame unfolds like What If? stories: What if Captain America lost hope? What if Iron Man settled down with a family? What if Bruce Banner and the Hulk perfectly merged? What if Thor became an overweight, depressed alcoholic? The whole section is a thoughtful examination of the different manifestations of grief through the six original Avengers, and it’s deeper and more psychological than one might expect from an Avengers film. It’s full of serious conversations and character analyses, allowing viewers to spend time with these beloved characters, some for the last time.

The actors are all in top form, as well. Each actor has spent so many films portraying their characters that their performances are relaxed and assured. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth particularly stand out, as they have never been better in their roles. Paul Rudd also walks a nice line between dramatic work (discovering his young daughter has grown five years in his absence) and comic relief as he joins the other heroes.

This is Tony’s film more than any other characters’, though. His introduction while stranded in space lasts just long enough to convince viewers that he may die at the beginning of the film, and ultimately prepares viewers for his actual death at the end. His stakes are higher than most, as messing with the timeline could erase his daughter’s existence and jumping back into heroics could separate him from his family for good. Once he works out time-travel, he’s compelled to help because, as a hero, he can’t do nothing when he can do something.

Natasha, the other major casualty in the film, is also compelled to help. She seems like a wreck, sleeping in Avengers Headquarters and eating peanut butter sandwiches as she coordinates other heroes. But her survivor’s guilt compels her to do anything she can to make up for her perceived failure, to clear the “red in her ledger”. She can sacrifice herself later in the film because doing so achieves her ultimate purpose.

Thor’s depression is mildly controversial, as some fans felt that his weight gain is played for laughs. While there are jokes at Thor’s expense, his situation does address the complexities of depression. Had Thor succeeded in killing Thanos in Infinity War, it would have been his film. But, he failed, Thanos succeeded, it was Thanos’ film. Thor now can’t even speak Thanos’ name, and he’s clearly attempting to drink himself to death.

People face depression and substance abuse every day, and it’s helpful to address the issue through the lens of a superhero. Using Hemsworth, who is normally unbelievably fit in these films, in a realistic-looking fat-suit drives the point home and makes the whole idea credible. But laughs are natural since it’s such an unexpected shift for the character. The important part is the way his friends, primarily Bruce and Rocket, reach out to him to let him know they are there for him.

This first act only works because audiences care for the characters. Fans have watched them develop over previous films, and are ready to see them in this different context. Such a somber first act is a bold choice by the filmmakers, but it pays off spectacularly. With the effects of grief and the emotional stakes firmly established, Endgame has enough weight to move into the incredibly fun middle act without losing sight of its characters.

The second act begins by redefining cinematic time-travel away from the Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985) model where changing the past changes the present. In Endgame, the past and present for the characters is unchangeable because everything happened to them. By going into the past to alter things, or retrieve Infinity Stones, they create an alternate branch of the timeline. This once again asserts that the end of Infinity War will not be undone but it can be reversed.

The plan is to break into teams, travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones, and return with them to the present. This leads to a brainstorming session where the heroes reflect on past adventures to determine the best times and places to find the Stones. Tony, Steve, Scott and Bruce travel to Manhattan in 2012, during the climax of The Avengers. Hulk retrieves the green Time Stone from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Dr. Strange’s predecessor. She insists that he must return all the Stones back to their timelines after they succeed, closing the branches they are creating.

Meanwhile, Steve retrieves the yellow Mind Stone from the sceptre of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after the Avengers defeat him, but Steve has to fight his younger self to do it. Tony and Scott attempt to recover the blue Space Stone (the Tesseract) from the Avengers, but plans go awry and Loki escapes with it. Steve and Tony are thus forced to go further back in time to a military base in 1970, where Tony encounters his father, Howard (John Slattery), and Steve spots his unrequited Second World War crush, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Thor and Rocket go after the red Reality Stone (the Aether) from Asgard in 2013, in the middle of Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013). Rocket retrieves the Stone from Jane (Natalie Portman), while Thor has a much-needed heart-to-heart with his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), who died soon after. The Dark World is one of the least-loved MCU installments, so its prominence in Endgame is remarkable. Nebula and Rhodey travel to the planet Morag in 2014 to steal the purple Power Stone before Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) can do so at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014).

Unfortunately, Nebula’s cybernetic implants interface with her 2014 self. Younger Nebula is an acolyte of Thanos and partner of Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The interfacing allows 2014 Thanos to learn of his future success and the plan to reverse it. He sends 2014 Nebula back to the present in place of her older self. Finally, Natasha and Clint break off from Nebula and Rhodey in 2014 to travel to Vormir for the orange Soul Stone. They discover that it’s only acquired by losing something you love, meaning one of them must die for it. After fighting each other, Natasha makes the sacrifice.

Back in 2023, the heroes mourn Natasha, and Tony creates a new gauntlet to hold the Stones. Hulk wears the gauntlet and snaps to bring everyone back. Meanwhile, Nebula uses the time machine to bring Thanos’ ship from 2014 to the present. Just as the heroes realize their plan worked, Thanos’ ship destroys Avengers Headquarters.

This middle hour is the most joyous part of the film, a refreshing change of tone from the first hour. It’s a ridiculously fun time-travel heist, filled to the brim with callbacks to previous films and surprising cameos. The first hour establishes the emotional weight and stakes for the characters, while the second half allows the filmmakers to reflect on the characters’ growth by directly contrasting them with their younger selves in previous films. Back to the Future is often cited in Endgame, but this section is actually a recreation of parts of Back to the Future Part II (Zemeckis, 1989) on a massive scale. The time-travel conceit allows characters to revisit key moments from The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy from a different perspective, while there are also direct references to Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016), and Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a well-earned MCU victory lap, almost a greatest hits collection of fun moments.

Some of the cameos are particularly exciting. Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Robert Redford, John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, Maximiliano Hernández and Frank Grillo all return as memorable characters who died in previous films. Redford was the biggest surprise, as he announced his retirement from acting after The Old Man & the Gun (Lowery, 2018). His cameo here is his final film role (unless he changes his mind). Natalie Portman appears by using deleted scenes from The Dark World and newly recorded dialogue.

The references to old films are knowing and fun. Tony and Scott observe the heroic pose of the Avengers when they finally defeat Loki, but it looks awkward. Tony criticizes Steve’s costume, as it does nothing for his ass, but Scott praises it as “America’s ass!” Nebula and Rhodey watch Quill dance through the alien temple listening to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on his Walkman. But from their perspective, not hearing the music, Quill is just dancing and singing badly. Steve acquires Loki’s sceptre from SHIELD agents, who are revealed to be villainous Hydra agents in The Winter Soldier, in an elevator. Through characters and staging, the Russo Brothers perfectly recreate their own classic elevator fight scene from The Winter Soldier, but then undercut the tension by having Steve claim to be part of Hydra as well. Steve then fights his younger self, who clearly annoys him with his naive bravado. Steve once again succeeds through deviousness, knowing exactly what to tell young Steve to distract him.

Those Steve scenes exemplify how the time heist demonstrates the growth of the original Avengers. Steve began as a perfectly noble, straightforward soldier. But he has grown less naive and more crafty through experience. Also, travelling to the past and seeing Peggy reminds him of what he lost by being a superhero, planting the idea for his ending. Tony’s conversation with his father does the same. They connect over being workaholic fathers, and Tony learns how Howard felt about parenting him. Tony’s father issues are resolved in that conversation, leaving him whole from a character perspective. He can die at the end, because he’s now at peace.

Thor, meanwhile, historically has nothing but bravado. However, in his current state, seeing Jane, his mother, and Asgard, gives him a panic attack. His conversation with his mother allows him to overcome his self-doubt, to stop trying to be the man everyone expects and be true to himself. He also recovers his mystical hammer, Mjolnir, from 2013, indicating that despite his depressive state he’s still worthy to wield it.

Much of Bruce’s character growth occurs offscreen during the five year time jump. But observing the younger, mindless Hulk smashing everything in sight embarrasses him now that he has merged his human intellect with Hulk’s physical power to become whole. Bruce’s arc completes when he realizes he possesses both the strength and resistance to radiation to survive wielding the Stones. The accident that made him a monster also uniquely qualifies him to save half of the universe, resolving any remaining self-doubt.

Even Nebula encounters her younger self, who was abused into blindly serving Thanos. The intervening years have allowed her to free herself from her abuser, but seeing her younger self allows her to take stock of her growth.

And then there is Clint and Natasha. Whereas Thanos was resolute in Infinity War, killing his adopted daughter Gamora to acquire the Soul Stone, Natasha and Clint debate. Natasha sees this sacrifice as a chance to fully make up for her past mistakes, something she has been trying to do for five years. Clint, meanwhile, has spent five years killing people out of anger. This is his chance for atonement too. They fight not to kill the other, but to save each other. When Natasha dies, it’s her choice, it saves Clint, and it makes her whole.

But this is a controversial choice for the filmmakers. One of the weakest moments of Infinity War is Thanos killing a female character to further his own story. Endgame doubles down on that unfortunate trope, killing the lone original female Avenger at the end of the second act. It’s more of an active choice than about Gamora’s death, but it’s still disappointing that the screenplay was structured in such a way to make Natasha the only logical choice. Some viewers felt that the film implies that Clint should live because he needs to return to his family, and that Natasha is expendable because she has no family. But the Avengers are Natasha’s family, she dies for them. Perhaps giving Natasha her solo film, Black Widow (Shortland, 2020), after Endgame will make up for it in some way.

Avengers: Endgame then enters its final act, its final bit of culmination and reflection. This concludes the so-called Infinity Saga, the first 22 films of the MCU. It features the ultimate victory of the heroes over Thanos. It then continues into a moving denouement that concludes many stories, and sets up the future. Thus, it has a lot to accomplish. Even so, it features at least two of the most crowd-pleasing moments in the history of blockbuster cinema, back-to-back.

After Thanos’ ship attacks, Bruce, Scott, Rhodey and Rocket are caught under rubble, Clint falls into a basement with the Infinity Stones where he’s pursued by Thanos’ monsters, and Tony, Steve and Thor confront Thanos. Present-day Nebula is freed by 2014 Gamora, and they save Clint by killing 2014 Nebula. Thanos declares that his original plan didn’t go far enough, and announces his intention to wipe all life from the universe when he recovers the Stones. Thanos knocks out Tony, throws Steve aside and nearly kills Thor before Steve uses Mjolnir to attack.

Previously only Thor has been worthy enough to wield Mjolnir. Despite this advantage, Steve is nearly defeated, and faces down Thanos and his army alone. When all hope seems lost, magical portals conjured by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) appear behind Steve. This signals the arrival of the heroes who returned when Bruce snapped. T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Peter Quill, Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klemintieff), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Wong (Benedict Wong), Hope van Dyne/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Pepper in an Iron Man suit, as well as armies composed of Wakandans, Asgardians and sorcerers all emerge, and the Avengers regroup to join them.

The Avengers army and Thanos’ army then charge at each other for a massive CGI battle. The heroes play keep-away with the Stones, eluding Thanos’ grasp. When he’s nearly killed by Wanda, Thanos orders his ship to fire on the battlefield until Carol arrives to destroy it. Dr. Strange orchestrates the one successful outcome he envisioned in Infinity War. When Thanos acquires the gauntlet, Strange indicates to Tony to follow his instinct. Tony grapples over the gauntlet, using his technology to move the Stones onto his own hand. Thanos attempts to snap, but Tony has the Stones. He snaps, reducing Thanos and his army to dust, but the power surge kills Tony.

All the heroes and other MCU characters, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), May Parker (Marisa Tomei), Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), General Ross (William Hurt), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), attend Tony’s funeral. Clint reunites with his family, T’Challa celebrates in Wakanda, and Peter Parker returns to high school. Thor declares Valkyrie the new Queen of Asgard, and leaves to find his own path with the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Finally, Steve takes the Stones and Mjolnir to return them to their proper times and places, closing all the time branches. But he doesn’t return immediately. His friends, Sam and Bucky, spot and old man sitting nearby. Steve decides to remain in the past and live the life he had lost when he was frozen for 70 years after the Second World War. He passes his signature shield to Sam, anointing him the new Captain America. The film ends in 1945, with Steve sharing a long-awaited post-war dance with Peggy.

I’ve never had a theatre-going experience that will match Avengers: Endgame on opening night. I’m not a huge fan of loud, raucous cinema crowds distracting from a film, but the energy of that crowd was electric. MCU fans reacted in unison to every crowd-pleasing moment. The cheers I heard, first when Steve wields Mjolnir and then when the heroes returned through the portals, were joyous and cathartic. The heroes we followed for over a decade achieve their ultimate triumph, and Thanos is defeated one year after his victory in Infinity War. As viewers, we had as much to do with these events as sports fans have to do with the outcome of a game, but it felt incredible nonetheless.

I tear up during Endgame twice in every viewing, and both times for the same reason: During the portals scene and during the long steadicam shot through the crowd at Tony’s funeral. These were the two scenes in the film when the entire epic cast was gathered in one place during filming, and it’s palpable. The level of great actors on display is staggering. But more than that, these moments highlight for me the massive scale and monumental success of the MCU. They feature characters from series such as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther and Captain Marvel, all of whom have become pop culture icons and household names. Eleven years of storytelling and pop culture significance culminate in those scenes.

The 30-minute final battle features some ingenious audience manipulation. The heroes’ achieve their goal, snapping back everyone that was lost, but Thanos’ attack intentionally makes the audience forget about it. Most viewers are so caught up in the action that they forget about the returned heroes until the portals scene, increasing its impact. The climax is unabashedly triumphant, but it’s well-earned after two films of trying to defeat Thanos. The battle itself is a bit of a jumble, full of sound and fury, but it features a lot of nice character interactions and callbacks for longtime fans. I particularly like Tony sweetly hugging Peter, his protégé. I also enjoy Quill trying to hug his formerly dead girlfriend, Gamora, only to have her kick him in the balls because 2014 Gamora has not met him yet. There’s an attempt to demonstrate diversity by having the assembled female heroes pose together and attack, but it’s undeserved in a series that, while greatly improving, still has a way to go on female representation.

I conclude the analysis where the screenwriters began: the fates of Tony and Steve. Tony’s transition to a selfless, sacrificial hero (traditionally Steve’s role) ends here with his death. By this point, he has spent many films trying to protect the Earth from another existential threat, like the one faced in The Avengers. He fails in Infinity War, but makes peace with it and settles down. When presented with the opportunity, however, he can’t stop himself from helping. His father issues are resolved through time-travel, and the threat he feared for years is defeated. His character has nowhere else to go at the end of the climax. Besides making his death logical, this also removes the tragedy. Tony dies completing his purpose heroically, his work is finished.

It’s also fitting that the character that began this era of the MCU in Iron Man dies at the end of Endgame. Downey gives a series-best performance, clearly understanding the significance of ending his iconic character. Tony uncharacteristically doesn’t speak as he dies, which was Downey’s idea, but then fittingly performs his own eulogy in a pre-recorded video. After the funeral, his daughter asks his best friend, Happy (played by the director of Iron Man), for a cheeseburger, just like Tony asked for a cheeseburger when he was rescued early in Iron Man. The circle is complete, and it’s satisfying.

It would be far less satisfying for Steve Rogers to die. He began as a selfless hero, wanting only to serve. He nearly dies crashing a dangerous plane into the Arctic at the end of The First Avenger, but awakes 70 years later to keep serving. He gradually comes to trust his instincts more than the authorities, in films such as The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016). And now, after spending his life serving others, he makes the selfish choice (traditionally Tony’s role) to take the opportunity to leave it behind. His ultimate culmination is to end the fight not by dying but by living. He passes on the mantle of Captain America to Sam, but also the responsibility for the flight to the other, highly-capable heroes around him. The new Captain America being a black man, which occurs in the comics, is a significant moment made all the more interesting by recent events in the United States. The quiet moment of Steve and Peggy dancing at the end is a beautiful way to end the film and this stage of the MCU.

Avengers: Endgame is satisfying on every level. It’s a comic book superhero film with all the trappings one might expect. It’s also a surprisingly deep, insightful study of long-running, beloved cinematic characters. Each of the six Avengers finds some satisfying resolution, as do many of the other featured characters from the MCU. Besides culminating 22 films’ worth of character development, Endgame also allows viewers to reflect on the films that came before. It does so by having serious, emotionally-rich conversations in the first act, by literally travelling back into previous films in the second act, and by exceptionally bringing its characters to resolution in the third act. By achieving this so spectacularly, Endgame is one of the most crowd-pleasing films of all-time, delivering fans everything they can hope for while avoiding the temptation to bend to fan service.

I’ve always been fascinated by blockbuster films. Mass entertainment films are often dismissed as disposable popcorn entertainment when they’re released, but the best of them reflect and shape culture. For better or worse, we are living through the cinematic fallout of such films as Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981). Those films captured the imaginations of audiences around the world and have not let go in the decades since. They defined blockbuster films. This is my 45th article on the Marvel Films, and 22nd article on the MCU. I began writing them over three years ago when I sensed there was cultural significance in superhero films becoming the dominant form of blockbusters. I hoped to chronicle this era of mass entertainment films through the lens of Marvel Films. Since then, the immediate cultural significance of films such as Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), Avengers: Infinity War and, most of all, Avengers: Endgame have justified my instinct.

Avengers: Endgame represents the peak of what superhero films can offer. It’s made with heart, talent, and intelligence. It captured the imagination of audiences not just because it is a great film in its own right (although it is) but because it culminated a whole series of films that were beloved around the world. It’s a colossal achievement, and one that can’t be easily matched or repeated. In an increasingly fractured, niche pop culture landscape, the MCU is a pop culture institution that much of the world is able to experience and share together. Some viewers may not enjoy these films or their impact, and that’s fair, but they can’t be dismissed as disposable popcorn entertainment or a theme park ride. This era of blockbuster entertainment peaked with the MCU, and it will be cited as an influence on blockbuster entertainment in the decades to come.

Avengers: Endgame made $1.2 billion dollars worldwide in its first three days of release, on its way to $2.8 billion worldwide at the end of its theatrical run. It outgrossed Cameron’s Avatar (2009) to become the highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide. The pent-up anticipation for this film, after 11 years, 21 previous films, and a stunning ending to Infinity War, may never be topped.

With the COVID-19 crisis potentially altering the theatre-going experience in the long-term, it’s possible that Endgame is the last megablockbuster for quite some time. There will be more superhero films, more Marvel films, even more MCU. Eight future MCU films have been announced. Marvel Studios has also announced a number of series that will appear on the DisneyPlus streaming service, including Falcon and Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Hawkeye, and She-Hulk. The MCU will continue, pop culture will move on, but Endgame will represent a peak in global pop culture, and I was thrilled to experience it.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: This is the final Stan Lee cameo. He appears in the 1970s segment, de-aged and driving past the military base shouting “make peace, not war.” That is 38 cameos in 54 films, over 70% of Marvel Films up to this point. Goodbye, Stan, and thank you.

Credits Scene(s): There are no credits scenes, as this is the ending of all that came before. However, the credits continue the theme of culmination and reflection. As the names of the dozens of featured cast members appear, the score takes on a prestigious sound and scenes from previous MCU films play in the background. Then, as the credits reach the actors portraying the six original Avengers, the music changes to the iconic Avengers score.

Taking a page from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991), the actors each appear in silhouette in front of iconic scenes, and their signatures appear on screen. This is the big farewell to Renner, Johansson, Ruffalo, Hemsworth, Evans and Downey. Then, at the end of the credits, is the sound of Tony Stark banging out his first suit of armour in Iron Man.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order: This is the culmination of everything that came before. It goes right at the end:

Phase 1
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
3. Thor
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers

Phase 2
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
12. Ant-Man

Phase 3
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
14. Captain America: Civil War
15. Black Panther
16. Doctor Strange
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming
18. Thor: Ragnarok
19. Ant-Man and the Wasp
20. Avengers: Infinity War
21. Captain Marvel
22. Avengers: Endgame

Next Time: Another long-running Marvel series comes to an end, but much less impressively.