There’s a part of me that buys into the idea – the non-controversial idea – that good stories have endings. This defies my love of superhero comics because the whole shared universe promise is that these stories never actually end. There are exceptions of course (this is why it was such a big deal when Hellboy comics ended this month after 25 years), with breaks for creative runs and conclusions to arcs within the larger tapestry, but endings are for elseworlds and alternate timelines. Avengers are Forever.
Editor’s Note: Let’s just assume this entire review contains spoilers – do not read unless you’ve seen Endgame, or don’t care about spoilers!
Ironically, Avengers has in large part created a culture where film franchises never end. Whether through reboots, story extensions, or shared universes, Hollywood got a taste of that sweet never-ending story magic and doesn’t plan to look back any time soon. The frenetic build to “the next big thing” – complete with breathless prediction pieces and post-credit teases -stands out as one of the most credible criticisms of the MCU.
It’s rarely bothered me – again this is comic book DNA through and through – but it’s also true that ever since General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross met with Tony Stark in a desolate bar to discuss the Hulk, the MCU has been building to something else. And the reality that has dawned on me in a post-viewing state of elation and subsequent mourning, is that all of this – all of the MCU – has well and truly built to Avengers: Endgame.
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Where to Start With Marvel Comics?
I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about Endgame as an actual ending because true to comic book form, it’s nearly impossible to feel like one. It’s an end of an era, but how could it be an ending. After all, Spider-Man: Far From Home is scheduled for a July 5, 2019 release, less than a month and a half after Endgame. The MCU carries on unabated, regardless of outcome.
Except… does it? For the first time, the MCU has reached a point of no return. In comics, a sweeping round of character deaths and board-removals has the permanence of an etch-a-sketch tiger held by a two-year-old (not that I’m bitter about a very specific perfect tiger I recently etch-a-sketched). The MCU does not have this history of resurrection and reboots, and despite Marvel Studio’s pioneering CGI age effects, the films face a reality of actor ages, contracts, and real world changes.
Above all, I think this is what makes Endgame – and let me pause for a moment to proclaim this is a near perfect movie – so remarkable. Much like comics fans have taken to drawing a line at 2015 Secret Wars, there’s the MCU before Endgame, and the MCU after Endgame, and those are going to be two very different segments of this shared story.
Every plot choice marks this segmentation, including the film’s time jump. Given that there’s less character exposition, Endgame leaning in to the 5 years later time period was brilliant. It’s also wild to consider what this means for future MCU outings – for example the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home (speaking of which, shouldn’t Ganke be… older?)– will be in a world that was raptured for 5 years and is now recovering with a returned population!
I’m excited for what’s to come – and there’s all sorts of set-up that I’ll get to here – but I’m also genuinely sad in a way I did not expect. Avengers: Endgame features a plot about going back in time to set things right, while simultaneously delivering a result that there’s no turning back from. For the original Avengers – and the MCU as we know it – this was the end. And what a glorious end.
MCU Power Rankings
Ranking Endgame is likely the most difficult first placement I’ve tried to make in the five-plus years I’ve been revising my list. My gut reaction is that it’s a near perfect movie, an incredible achievement, and the most emotionally affecting film in the entire MCU.
Yet somehow I can’t shake the feeling that Avengers: Infinity War remains my number one! It’s a somewhat ill-defined perspective, admittedly informed by a lone viewing, and a desire to reject any recency bias that may be influencing my decision. Endgame reminds me a lot of Kevin Durant in that it’s so effortlessly excellent it almost seems too easy.
I can’t help but shake the feeling that I appreciate Infinity War’s degree of difficulty more getting Avengers and the MCU to this point. Endgame has to explain less (apart from the quantum mechanics of time travel) and spends a majority of its time reveling in callbacks and the success of the past. While it’s a stunning exercise in storytelling economy, it’s also wild how much Endgame feels like a greatest hits reunion tour.
As a whole, it’s an infectiously fun journey back in time, but not breaking entirely new ground. For the first time in Avengers, there’s not a single new character Endgame needs to develop, instead making room to give a curtain call to all of them. I can’t emphasize enough, though, that I only voice these ill-argued criticisms in an effort to weigh the greatest Marvel movie of all time against the only-slightly-less silver medal winner.
I don’t actually have a problem with Endgame’s fan-service – I think it’s all well-earned and helps cement this movie’s standing as the culmination of all that’s come before. Plus,I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited by an action sequence than Captain America wielding Mjolnir to fight Thanos. Or Spider-Man swinging through a battlefield carrying an Infinity Gauntlet. Actually… the entire battle sequence, full stop.
I also appreciate the hell out of Endgame’s demands and assumptions that you’ve seen the entire journey to this point. There’s been a swelling rise of voices who want to “cheat” their way to Endgame without actually watching the entire 22-movie MCU slate (I’ll admit it’s a daunting task if you haven’t been along for the ride). Endgame rejects a ‘new user friendly’ plot, placing some of the most seemingly inessential MCU entries front and center during the time heist.
The temptation is to cheat and co-rank the two part “Infinity Saga” as one entity, which is without question how I feel. The last two Avengers movies are the best the MCU has ever been, and a remarkable payoff for the entire decade-plus ride to this point. The Russo Brothers and writing team of Markus and McFeely deserve an insane amount of praise for pulling these films off so seamlessly.
For now, I like the energy of Endgame more than anything, but have to give the nod to the movie that brought Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet to life so effectively.
Tier 1: The Best
1) Avengers: Infinity War
2) Avengers: Endgame
3) Jessica Jones (Season 1)
5) Guardians of the Galaxy
6) Thor: Ragnarok
Tier 2: Great
7) Captain America 3: Civil War
8) Black Panther
9) Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
10) Daredevil (Seasons 1,2,3)
11) Spider-Man: Homecoming
Tier 3: Good
12) Iron Man
13) Captain Marvel
14) Captain America: The First Avenger
Tier 4: Perfectly Average
15) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
16) Iron Man 3
17) The Punisher (S1, S2)
18) Ant-Man & The Wasp
19) Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Tier 5: Mixed Feelings
21) Runaways (Season 1)
22) Doctor Strange
23) Luke Cage (Seasons 1 & 2)
24) Thor 2: The Dark World
25) Cloak & Dagger (Season 1)
Tier 6: I’ll Only Watch With a Comic In Hand
28) Agents of SHIELD (Seasons 1 through 4)
29) Agent Carter (Seasons 1 & 2)
30) Iron Fist Season Two
31) Incredible Hulk
Tier 7: Nope
32) Iron Man 2
33) Jessica Jones (Season Two)
34) Getting your toe stuck under a closet door
35) Iron Fist Season 1
36) Waves of nausea
10 More Thoughts
Before Avengers: Endgame started, I wrote down 5 of my “absolute hopes” for the film. Here’s how they stacked up with the reality:
- Thanos is *not* the villain – This was simultaneously true and untrue, which was an effective tactical strategy. My major hope was rooted in the desire to avoid the Avengers traveling to Thanos farm in order to force him to change things back, and fortunately this easy out was sliced to pieces by Stormbreaker very early in the film. While my post-Infinity War hope was a plot akin to the original comics Infinity War or Annihilation (in which Thanos’ allegiances are suddenly altered by his amoral pragmatism), the decision to make the villain a time-traveling Thanos was an excellent choice.
- Legacy Set-Up – Knowing that Endgame is the final chapter for the original 2012 Avengers as we know them, and expecting several of those founding members to meet their end, I really hoped Endgame could set the stage for the next generation. This came true in a wide variety of ways, from the ceremonial passing of the shield to Sam Wilson, to Valkyrie reigning supreme over Asgard, to Thor joining the Asgardians of the Galaxy.
- One of the deaths makes me cry – I’m not big on seeking out art that plumbs the depths of sadness, but I definitely wanted the emotional heft of the Avengers about to die to hit me with the weight it deserved. Tony’s Endgame sacrifice pulled just the right strings to work, to the point that I’m not sure I’ll ever think of the line “I’ll get you all the cheeseburgers you want” again without tears in my eyes. It’s easy to view Endgame as a celebration and sendoff of Robert Downey Jr’s era-defining performance, and sending the character out saving the universe by wielding the Infinity Gauntlet is brilliant.
- Fantastic Four Set-Up – I knew this was a reach, but I still hoped against hope for a post-credits tease that promised the coming of the four. The film offers some multiversal/timestream fodder for future additions, but for the time being, this wasn’t to be.
- Wild Cosmic Entities – The other Marvel Universe connection I hoped for revolved around the major cosmic players like Eternity, the Living Tribunal, and the Celestials. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 delivered on small tastes of these ideas, and given Thanos’ connection to Titan (and possibly the Eternals), I very much wanted a cosmic council gathering to determine the mad titan’s fate. Instead, we got the brain that delivered so many of those ideas on the page (Jim Starlin’s cameo in the small 5 years later support group), which isn’t a bad consolation.
Captain America 4
You know, Cap hopping onto the time platform with Mjolnir and the infinity stones in hand had me just about losing my mind over the potential of Captain America 4: Across the Multiverse.
The entire sequence had me completely convinced Steve Rogers would simply be lost in time, still setting the stage for a Sam and Bucky team-up, and leaving Cap to traverse the cosmos in future installments. So yes, I was totally surprised when old man Rogers popped up on the conveniently located park bench near the time platform. It was a beautiful send off for Cap, but I won’t pretend I’m not still clinging to hope for that Cap 4 story.
Good Shot, Hawkeye
Between Dude-Bro Doc Green/Amadeus Cho Hulk and Big Lethorski, it’s hard to pick a favorite Avengers reinvention. It’s not hard to pick a least favorite, though, with Hawkeye’s cool ‘do and moral compromise contributing astonishingly little. The cold open at Camp Hawkeye was an efficient scene setting maneuver, but Clint’s turn as Ronin made narrative sense, but accomplished very little. Much like Clint running aimlessly through a warzone with an infinity gauntlet in his arms, the MCU just never really knew what to do with Hawkeye. Given this, I’m still generally weary of Jeremy Renner’s reported role in the upcoming Kate Bishop centric Hawkeye series.
Disney+ Advertising = A+
Much will be made of the “post-credits tease absence” (more on that in a second), but the Disney+ set-up throughout Endgame is genuinely incredible, to the point that I’m desperately eager for the Marvel series promised on the platform. Here’s what we know is coming, and the ways Endgame sets the stage:
- The Falcon and Winter Soldier – Likely the most obvious of the bunch, with Steve’s ceremonial passing of the shield to Sam Wilson. As much as I liked Bucky’s turn as Captain America during the Ed Brubaker run on the title, I’d agree the Sam Wilson era makes the most sense in the MCU.
- Loki – While we didn’t technically see Loki among the returned characters, his time-traveling cosmic cube pick-up seems to set the stage for Tom Hiddleston’s return. I’d be pretty into Loki traveling the cosmos via use of the cube, but I could also see a version of this story where the god of lies uses the cube to alter his fate, and potentially forge a new “heroic” path in the present MCU timeline.
- Wandavision – I’m way less clear on whether or not Vision will actually play a notable role in “Wandavision,” especially with one of his core inventors no longer with us. I’m very interested to see where this series takes the Scarlet Witch, though. Elizabeth Olsen’s character was pretty effectively going mano a mano against Thanos until the mad Titan panicked and reigned fire upon the entire battlefield. If Wanda is this god-tier powerful, what’s she like in a strange 5 years later timeline, still mourning her love?
- What If? – The brief Peggy callbacks are more than enough to get me hyped for the promised Peggy-as-Cap “What If” episodes!
- Hawkeye – Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye passing the bow to a new hero (Kate Bishop) is very appealing. Despite the opening sequence tease, I’m assuming Kate’s role will not be usurped by Clint’s own daughter, and this series would be the perfect building block towards Young Avengers in the MCU.
Whereas Iron Man’s sacrifice brought me to tears, and Cap’s surprise ending caught me off guard, I was far less impacted by Black Widow on Vormir. I actually thought the “I have to be the one to die!” race with Hawkeye was accidentally comical, with the duo one-upping each other in an absurd suicide-off.
Part of the cynicsm toward this scene stems from the absence of emotional connection to Black Widow as a character, which is without question related to the fact that only Hawkeye and her never got a solo movie. For my money, Black Widow’s best movie is by far Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier which happened five years ago. It’s a huge drop off from there to find reasons to really invest in this character.
I also don’t really get how Black Widow or Hawkeye jumping off the cliffs of Vormir quite equates to Thanos’ sacrificing his daughter (Gamora) in the quest for the soul gem. Is the implication that she and Hawkeye loved each other? Again, this is not really the Avengers history I’ve received, with Clint happily married and Natasha’s closest on-screen connections coming with Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers.
On top of all that, I’m sure far more will be made of the fact that Nat’s sendoff was peanuts compared to Tony’s, and that the MCU just dumped its two most well-known female heroes of the same literal cliff. I’d guess the argument in favor of this scene is that allows Black Widow a heroic sacrifice, but I will not be surprised if the prevailing opinion is it’s a bad look for a male dominated franchise.
Thor: The Dark, and Totally Still Relevant, We Swear, World
Congrats to Thor: The Dark World, probably the most consistently disliked MCU movie (I maintain Loki has never been better), for making a powerhouse return to Endgame. This felt like the biggest power move of the entire film, with a shocking amount of Thor’s journey hinging on Lady Freyja!
I Have Questions: Timey-Wimey Version
I appreciate Endgame’s efforts to talk away popular culture understandings of time travel (while simultaneously joining the pantheon), and it won’t take away from my enjoyment of the film, but if anyone can explain to me how 2014 Thanos traveled to the future and was snapped, but also lived to set the stage for that snapping in 2018, I’m all timey-wimey ears.
In general, I’m more than ok with my answer as I watched (“It doesn’t matter, just enjoy it”) but I’m genuinely curious.
Similarly, I’d bet a sizable sum that the fully functioning time platform doesn’t last much longer in the MCU. It seems like too many problems can be addressed the same way again, and that would be a let down.
I Have Questions: No Amount of Money Can Buy You A Moment of Time Version
I was a bit let down with how thoroughly the MCU crew yada yada’d the Hulk’s absence throughout most of Infinity War as well as Carol’s absence for two decades.
I’ll acknowledge the movie probably didn’t have time to do a deep dive here, but these were a couple of my biggest questions coming out of the set-up to Endgame, and I’m not sure we really got answers.
Today in “Dave overthinks an obvious answer,” I kind of wonder if the post-credits audio tease (generally accepted as the sound of Tony forging his first suit of iron) is actually more future-forward than we’ve been led to believe. Could that be the sound of the next Iron Man in the making (Tony’s daughter, Pepper, and Riri Williams all come to mind).
Or what about the idea that somewhere out there in the multiverse of timestreams now altered, there’s a new Iron Man forging his/her first suit of armor? Every ending is a beginning and all that.
Probably it’s just a nice homage. But what if?
Everyone has their own version of this but it’s wild to put the MCU’s progression alongside my own life. Since Iron Man kicked off the new era of comic book movies, I graduated college, started work at 3 companies, got married, started Comic Book Herald, had a baby, developed an allergy to cats (I have two), and saw the Cubs win a World Series!
Through it all, I’ve gotten to watch the Marvel Universe become the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, and to share my passion for Marvel comics for thousands of readers who came to comics through the MCU.
So let me join in the chorus of voices feeling grateful for the exceedingly high quality MCU, and all those who contributed!
My understanding is that as soon as present-Nebula goes back to Morag and her Wi-fi issues cause the alternate Nebula to pick up her memories, a new reality/timeline is created because Thanos then finds out what his future will be and begins to ensure it occurs. As soon as that happens, it spins off in the way the Ancient One described during the movie.
That means that when alternate Nebula goes back to 2023 and summons Thanos and his army to that year, she pulls him from that alternate timeline. Thanos was still successful in the main timeline, but they were able to undo his acts AND save an alternate timeline from those acts from occurring by taking him out of his alternate timeline and snapping him away in the main one.
This is hard to type in a way that doesn’t sound confusing…
So, this totally makes sense to me, and has become my accepted understanding as well!
Now I just want to see that “What If” TV episode that tackles the timeline where Thanos *doesn’t* win!
Great review, though I’m a bit worried by your list.
Dr. Strange is far a better film than Black Panther in my opinion. Black Panther’s only strong suit as far as films go is it’s villain. Stephen Strange in the film has a unique personality, and the plot was definitely more refreshing, where Black Panther for the most part had a very bland plot and, T’Challa in his film, seemed like a flat character without any motivation. (Though this can be blamed on Civil War since T’Challa’s character arc mostly takes place there). Instead, for me Black Panther was perfectly average.
One thing I’ve learned doing Comic Book Herald is that everybody’s got their own list 🙂 I definitely thought T’Challa’s struggles as the King of his nation were very compelling, but I appreciate you sharing your take!