I’m just kidding; there is no such thing as a perfect story. What there are, are stories that are so great to experience that they don’t leave room in your head to criticize them while enjoying them. That’s Avengers: Endgame.
So, some background.
As everyone knows, I’m a lifetime comic-book fan. Not a rabid collector, but I can’t think of a year when I wasn’t picking up one or two titles. I’m not a die-hard fan of any particular superhero or comic; instead I tend to look for those comics where the writer/artist fusion creates magic, and at various times I’ve collected The X-Men, The Avengers, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. I’ve read the titles I like long enough, off and on, to see at least two big reboots of my favorite characters. This is the lens I’ve been watching the ongoing rollout of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through; I knew going in that the characters and their stories would be recognizable but different, and just hoped that we’d see good stories. And it’s been a wild ride.
Some of these movies were stronger than others (to me Captain Marvel and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies felt weakest), but all were enjoyable and a step above almost anything else out there in superhero-fiction. The Incredibles I and II and Big Hero Six matched them, but MCU are the best of the live-action movies.
So now we come to Avengers: Endgame. How does it stack up to what’s come before?
I’m not really sure how to answer that. Why? First, because it doesn’t stand alone; A:E is really Avengers: Infinity War I-II, a more than 5-hour movie. I’ll call it A:I/E. Second, A:I/E can’t stand alone, either. It rests on the other 20 films, which introduced us to the monster cast of heroes and deepened their stories, relationships, and themes over the course of nearly a decade. That’s the genius of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is all leading up to why I consider A:I/E the Best Superhero Movie Yet. Not perfect, but Best Yet. First, because of the 20-movie buildup, there has never been a collection of characters in which I have been so emotionally invested. These. Are. People. We’ve watched them grow, change, triumph, fail, love, grieve, etc. With that kind of investment, A:I/E could fail in only one real way; it could fail to provide an emotional payoff to the character arcs of heroes whose stories are ending.
And this is the ending of a chapter of MCU history (the coming Spider Man 2 is a sort of prologue).
A:I/E doesn’t fail. I’ve seen it twice, now, and I can’t think of a more perfect ending. So now that I’ve given it the accolade of BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE EVER!, go out and see it if you haven’t already. If you have seen it, lets move on and talk about it.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS, ABANDON SUSPENSE ALL YE WHO VENTURE HERE!
A:I/E finishes two hero story arcs, Iron Man’s and Captain America’s, definitively and perfectly. It gave both the right kind of happy ending. You might not think Tony Stark’s was so happy, but it’s what Pepper told him: “We’ll be okay, Tony. You can rest, now.” This echoes what she said earlier in the movie, and also echoes the key “want” Tony has always had. In Iron Man I, his motive was to fix his mistakes (among other mistakes, being a weapons-maker and war-profiteer). He’s always worked hard to do good, driven by guilt for his mistakes and fear for the world. Well, he saved the world from the biggest threat it had ever faced. Yeah it’s sad he died, but it’s a kind of triumphal sad. He WON.
As for Captain America, Steve Rogers has always been a hero driven by an overriding sense of duty. To his family, to his friends, to his teammates, to his country, to his world. It’s his greatest strength; whatever tragedies befall, as long as his duty is clear, he’s a rock. He’s also been the least-changing MCU hero, in a good way. Constancy is an undervalued moral trait, and he embodies it. But that constancy of heart had a price; Cap couldn’t move on. Even ten years after waking up from the ice, he couldn’t move on from his first love, Peggy Carter. Natasha twitted him about it, as only a friend now as close as a sister could. So the last scene, where Steve gets to finally dance with his girl, confirming that, after everything, he got to live a full and happy life with her, is perfect.
Although Tony and Steve had the best story-endings, two others are nearly as strong. Natasha/The Black Widow, who in earlier movies displayed great regret over the “red in her ledger” and the loss of her opportunity to have a family, found two families in the end: The Avengers and Clint’s family (especially his children, to whom she was Aunt Natasha). She gave her life for both those families, and specifically so Hawkeye would be reunited with his. Hawkeye’s “ending” is implied. No, he didn’t die. But after all he’d been through losing his family, with them back I can’t imagine him doing anything other than hanging up his bow for good to be with them. He might remain involved as a trainer/consultant, but not a field agent.
Accounting for the last original Avengers, there’s The Hulk and Thor. I don’t need to say anything about Bruce’s ending. I imagine that he probably even got the love of his own life, Betty Ross, but Marvel didn’t need to go there (although it would have been cool if she’d been at the funeral). Thor’s ending was the weakest.
Speaking of the funeral, I figured out who the lone boy I didn’t recognize was; the teenager kind of standing off by himself; Harley Keener, the smart kid Tony met in Iron Man 3 while he was on the run. At least that’s my guess.
Lest I make you think it’s all about the ending, nope. The other thing A:I/E nailed was the sheer epic payoff. For power and impact, I can’t think of a Final Battle that’s done it better–not even the epic battles of The Lord of The Rings. Once Bruce snapped his fingers and Hawkeye’s cellphone buzzed, you know all of the snapped-away are back. So I was expecting the snapped-away heroes to show up like the cavalry coming over the hill for a last-minute rescue, but they weren’t the cavalry, they were the entire army. Actually, three armies–an army of Asgardian warriors, Wakandans, and sorcerers. How cool was that?
A final note on the overall plot; I went into A:I/E expecting that the Avengers would somehow get the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos and just reverse the Great Snap. And while that would have been doable, plot-wise, the decision to avoid the easy way and instead hit the heroes with total failure and five years to live with the failure was a brilliant choice. Because in the Real World, failure has consequences. Hitting the heroes–and the audience–with those consequences was gutsy and brilliant.
And the Timey-Wimey Stuff
Finally, I can’t tell you how inexpressibly happy I am that A:I/E avoided the Timey-Wimey Ball. What’s that? To quote TV Tropes:
The Timey-Wimey Ball is the result of a series or movie where the writers are a wee bit confused or forgetful about exactly which kind of time travel can happen, sometimes within the span of one episode! One day You Can’t Fight Fate (or at least not without the Butterfly of Doom coming along), but the next you can Screw Destiny and Set Right What Once Went Wrong by killing Hitler and changing the past for the better. Especially headachy because there’s no Temporal Paradox, or if there is it’s totally arbitrary.
I’ve read a couple of complaints from viewers who thought they saw a bouncing timey-wimey ball somewhere in there, but that’s because with everything going on the explanations for what was happening went by kind of fast (and they staged a less-than-clear ending that confused some people). Here’s the “science.”
In the Marvel Universe, you can’t change your past. You can change the past, but that’s because when you travel back to the past, the instant you arrive you split off a new quanta of time that can be described as Past X + YOU. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem like you changed anything; just your arrival creates a divergence.
If the idea of creating whole new universes every time you time-travel gives you fits, you could instead use the model I did for the Infinitude; there are an infinite number of quanta (alternate realities), a subset of which–still infinite–are exactly or near-exactly identical. Traveling back in time takes you to one of these identical quanta, which you can completely knock off the rails of subsequent history through your actions, creating a massively divergent timeline from that point. It works out the same; you can never visit your past, just a past that looks like yours until the moment you arrive.
A:I/E stayed true to this model of time-travel from beginning to end. The Avengers visited four different quanta pasts, “creating/diverging” four new histories. And no, there was no reset when Captain America took the stones back to their original quanta; all of their actions in New York, on Asgard, and on other planets changed things. The movie didn’t even try and address those changes, but I’ll give you a few. To keep things straight I’ll talk about MCU Prime (the unaltered timeline), Alternate NYC (the visit to the Chitari Invasion of New York), Alternate Asgard (of Thor 2), Alternate Space, and Alternate SHIELD.
Alternate NYC: In that timeline, Loki escaped with the Tesseract/Space Stone. Among other changes, this derails Thor II since he wasn’t in his cell in Asgard to tell the Dark Elf agent where to find the shield generator (and that’s not considering all the mischief Loki might have gotten up to between Thor I and II in that history). Captain America also left some very confused Hydra agents, who were bound to Do Something about that confusion, and a Captain America who now knew Bucky was alive somehow (if he believed the older Cap, and he would after his Tony Stark made sense out of what had happened). This totally diverges the timeline leading to Captain America II and III. Since I’m sure Cap didn’t give the Mind Stone back to Hydra, this messes up the timeline for Avengers II as well (at the least, no Wanda and Pietro).
Alternate Asgard: The Aether/Reality Stone was extracted from Jane Foster, removing the need for the sophisticated plot to get it out of her and destroy it. Lady Frigga, Thor’s mom, probably survived in Alternate Asgard since Malaketh wouldn’t have been coming for Jane. (To answer a stupid objection, bringing the stone back, there is no way Captain America would have re-injected it into Jane Foster even if they could have returned the stone to it’s previous viscous state.)
Alternate Space: The chain of events leading up to the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy . . . absolutely derailed. Also, the Thanos of that reality is dead with all his minions.
Alternate Shield: Like the Reality Stone, the Space Stone is also returned in a very different shape than it was taken. Not sure of the effects of that, but there have to be some. Also, the theft of some of Henry Pym’s Ant-Man juice has to have changed things too, if only with initially small but cumulative effects.
And none of this takes into account the changes Captain America makes on his own journey to return all of the stones to their quanta. Technically, to do his duty there all he needs to do is hit each quanta long enough to drop each stone anywhere. But it’s Cap we’re talking about; he knows they’ve changed things–you can bet he stuck around in each quanta long enough to put the stone in a good situation and at least make sure they didn’t Destroy Everything in any of them with their interference. (I’ll bet he fought alongside Thor repelling the Dark Elves’ attack on Asgard.) Which brings us to our last new alternate-universe.
Alternate Carter: All we know about this quanta is that, after returning the Infinity Stones to their rightful quanta, Steve decided to grab his Happy Ending. With more Pym Particle charges in his suit, he traveled back to the end of Word War Two to find his girl, Peggy Carter, to whom he’d promised a dance. To make it nice and tidy, I prefer to think he found a quanta whose own Captain America had died in that final flight rather than getting frozen for 70 years. He made that his new home–where I’m sure he completely changed the post-war timeline (after all, he’d had 10 years to study post-war history from V-Day to 2010). He was their Captain America and, after a long and eventful life, he brought that quanta’s Captain America Shield back to MCU Prime to present to the Falcon. The End.