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28 Jun 2019

Review: Endgame – It’s hard to believe that it has been over a month and a half now since HJ and I saw the long-awaited concluding chapter of Marvel’s “Infinity Saga,” Avengers: Endgame (hereafter “EG”). Why has it taken me so long to write this? Well, for one, I always planned on waiting a little while to give me time to put my thoughts together and let them simmer. And I also wanted to allow a reasonable amount of time for people to see the film, as I had no interest in writing a spoiler-free review. Just to make it clear, THERE WILL BE MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOR ENDGAME below. Of course, I had no intention of waiting six weeks to post this, but that’s life for you. After so much time had passed, I did contemplate abandoning this, but, as it turns out, Marvel is re-releasing the film in theaters today with some new end-credits scenes (I don’t know if it’s actually going to be re-released in Korea, though). If you are one of those people who is planning to go see the film again, maybe this very belated review will give you some food for thought before you head back into the cinema. If not, hopefully it will be interesting nonetheless.

“For all its flaws, though, I think Endgame did what it had to do.”

Despite the fact that this is an EG review, I’m not actually going to begin by talking about EG itself. Instead, I am going to start with the first part of this story, Avengers: Infinity War (“IW”), which I absolutely despised. Seriously, I don’t know if I have ever hated a film as much as I hated IW. I think I was angry about it for months. Having gotten that out there, let me take a step back and clarify that I don’t think IW was a bad film; I would actually classify it as a good film, in that I think it was generally well made. I just hated the way it made me feel while I was watching it. I did toy with the idea of writing a review of IW after we saw it, but I realized that it made me angry just to think about it, so I let it go. Having seen the conclusion of the story now, though, I think I have an even better understanding of why IW made me feel the way it did, so it makes sense to start there. By outlining what I hated about IW, I can bring into focus what worked for me in EG.

With the perspective offered by time, I can say that there were things about IW that I think worked well. Thanos was a great villain (although my favorite Marvel villain is probably Killmonger, from Black Panther), even if his plan was ridiculous. The single-minded devotion with which he pursued that plan was what made him so formidable—he was, as he said more than once in EG, “inevitable.” The action was what I have come to expect from Marvel, and there were plenty of scenes that were a lot of fun to watch. There was also a lot to think about in terms of the philosophy of the film, namely the supposed clash between utilitarianism and deontology (a bit more on this later).

But, as I mentioned above, on the whole the film frustrated me, because the plot was basically one inconceivably ill-considered decision after another on the part of our heroes. The film begins with a great line by Thanos—“I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right... yet to fail, nonetheless.”—that I think would have landed with even more impact had the heroes not ended up losing and failing because they were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t do what needed to be done. For example, despite being the only one who knows where the Soul Stone is located, Gamora decides to try to stop Thanos herself. But not only are she, Quill, and Drax not in time to stop Thanos from getting the Reality Stone, Gamora also manages to get herself captured and ultimately leads Thanos to the Soul Stone as well. While we’re on the subject of Quill, let’s not forget that probably the best chance the heroes had of defeating Thanos and taking away the Infinity Gauntlet was ruined because Star-Lord couldn’t keep his emotions in check for a few seconds. This scene pained me in particular because the Guardians of the Galaxy are probably my favorite part of the MCU; watching Peter lose it like an absolute child was heart-breaking and infuriating at the same time. I can only imagine the pain he must have been feeling in that moment, but holy crap, dude. Pull yourself together for five seconds!

The Avengers also have a chance to destroy the Mind Stone and thwart Thanos once and for all, but Cap gives his ridiculous “We don’t trade lives” line. Vision counters by pointing out that Cap sacrificed himself to save millions of people—a very valid point, and one that I agreed with. I never could remember how Cap replied to this, and it wasn’t until we watched the film again in preparation for EG that I understood why I couldn’t remember: because Cap never replies. He takes a deep breath, but it is Bruce who ends up replying that Vision might have a choice—that is, that there might be a way out that doesn’t involve killing Vision but might still allow for the destruction of the stone. This always rubbed me the wrong way, because it went against the criticism that Cap levels against Tony Stark in the first Avengers film: “You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Tony quietly replies, “I think I would just cut the wire.” And to that, Cap sneers, “Always a way out.” But isn’t that what they’re doing now? Looking for a way out, instead of letting Vision lay down on the wire? It just feels so arbitrary, obstinate, and—perhaps most importantly—out of character for Cap.

After IW, I read a lot online about how this was really a battle of moral philosophies, with Thanos’ utilitarianism being pitted against the Avengers’ deontology. But this falls apart if you think about it too much, because Thanos isn’t really a utilitarian—if he were, he would seek to do the most good for the most people. As I noted above, his plan is ridiculous. Randomly wipe out half the life in the universe because resources are scarce? As opposed to, I don’t know, increasing the amount of resource in the universe? Or maybe just changing the rate at which living beings consume existing resources? Or any one of the million possibilities that you would have at your disposal as owner of all six Infinity Stones that wouldn’t involve the greatest act of murder in the history of the universe? (Many, many people have of course already pointed out the same thing.) But, as I mentioned in a comment on one of Kevin’s posts about the film, they don’t call Thanos the “Mad Titan” for nothing. It doesn’t bother me too much that Thanos’ plan didn’t make any sense, because he was pure in his belief in it and relentless in his pursuit of it, and that made him a terrifying villain. On the other side of the equation, are the Avengers really acting deontologically (from the Greek deon, meaning “duty” or “obligation”)? I must admit that I find this question a little murkier, but that may be only because deontology (at least in the Kantian sense) makes no sense to me; I find it very difficult to comprehend the morality of an action as divorced from the consequences of that action. And I am not sure if the Avengers’ decisions perfectly line up with this thinking.

We’re getting a bit bogged down in philosophy here, and I think that is partly because the film treats the various philosophies in very sloppy fashion, but it least it makes for some interesting food for thought. I want to backtrack a little to Thanos’ plan, though. Of all the scenes in IW that I hated, the scene with Thanos and Gamora on Vormir enraged me the most. When Red Skull says, “In order to take the stone, you must lose that which you love,” my reaction was the same as Gamora’s—namely, that Thanos was screwed because he didn’t love anyone. But then he throws her off the cliff and somehow that sacrifice satisfies the requirement. When it dawns on Gamora what is about to happen, she says, “No. This isn’t love,” and I agreed with her completely. Not for one second did I believe that what Thanos felt for Gamora even remotely resembled love, so I found this completely unconvincing. I will also admit that I was upset that Gamora was dead, because she is the glue that holds my beloved Guardians together.

In addition to a series of mind-blowingly poor decisions and other aspects that I found unconvincing, I was also frustrated with the ending. It was supposed to be a sad, emotional moment, but I remember sitting there in the cinema thinking, “Are you kidding me? Really?” I didn’t feel any sadness at all—just disbelief and frustration. It was obvious that the decimation of half of all life in the universe was somehow going to be reversed in the final film, so this final scene struck me as little more than a crude attempt at emotional manipulation. I was also frustrated by the fact that we were given no time to process the enormity of what had just happened. I realize that this sounds like it runs counter to what I just said about seeing through the whole thing, and maybe it is, but I managed to feel both of these things at the same time. Thinking back on it now, it’s possible that the ending of IW might have hit me more in the way it was intended had I been given time to process it. And I don’t mean after the film—everyone of course had as much time as they needed after the film to process the experience. I mean that I needed the chance to process it as part of the narrative, to process it along with those who were left. But everyone gets dusted in fairly short order, Cap sinks to the ground and says, “Oh, God,” and that’s it. I felt... cheated, on many different levels.

Enough about IW, though. There is a lot more I could say, but just writing those few paragraphs was an exercise in frustration. It’s time to move on to EG, and I am glad to report that the final film in the Infinity Saga successfully made amends with me. It is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination—but in a way it also kind of is. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it now, and the more I think about it the more holes I see, but EG was what I wanted it to be: It was an emotionally fulfilling film in a way that IW was most certainly not. Does it make complete and perfect sense? Probably not. Do I care? You know, after thinking about it for over a month and a half now, I have come to the conclusion that I do not. EG won my heart. I’m still going to talk about those things that don’t make sense (otherwise the review would end here), but keep in mind that no matter what I say from here on out, I loved EG.

I’ve heard some people complain about how the first act of the film (with the exception of the very quick confrontation with Thanos) is basically all about the characters moping about in the aftermath of IW, but I didn’t see it that way. This is part of what I mean by the film being “emotionally fulfilling.” Yeah, sure, I knew that the dusted were going to come back, and not just because death is rarely permanent in comic-book films—a number of the characters have films coming up, so unless they were all going to be prequels, these people had to come back. But if their loss was going to mean anything at all, we needed to see those who remained deal with that loss, so I was glad to see the film take its time with that. And let’s not forget that opening scene with Hawkeye and his family. It was the Decimation on a very small, personal scale, but it was so much more gut-wrenching than the overblown and rushed ending of IW, in my opinion. In fact, thinking back on it now, I wonder if IW might not have been better had it not simply ended with Thanos’ snap—when the screen goes white, that’s it, the film’s over. Then you open EG with the Decimation and immediately see the aftermath of it, while it is still fresh. I don’t know how tenable that really would have been, but I think it would have been pretty amazing.

At any rate, I’m glad we were given the time to process things with our heroes. And that was just the beginning of the emotionally fulfilling moments. Tony’s moment with his dad, Thor’s moment with his mom, and Cap’s reunion with Peggy all hit me right in the feels. And then there were those awesome, heroic moments that had “fan service” written all over them, but I don’t care—I’m a fan, and I loved them. Just before the start of the final battle, when the sling ring portals began to appear and I heard Falcon say, “On your left,” I thought my heart was going to swell to bursting. This was a callback to Captain America: Winter Soldier, of course, which was itself a great film. I think that’s why so many of these moments landed the way they did—because we have this universe of films that have been with us for over a decade now, and EG brings them all together and gives us the emotional ending we needed.

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the film for me was what I have since learned was apparently a somewhat controversial scene, and that was Black Widow’s sacrifice on Vormir. When Hawkeye and Black Widow left for Vormir to get the Soul Stone, I didn’t really think about what it meant. Then, when they encountered Red Skull, it slowly began to dawn on me. Still, though, I just assumed they would find a way out of the dilemma—ironically, the exact same attitude that pissed me off in IW. When it became apparent that one of them would indeed have to die and that there was no way around it, I didn’t know what to think. To be honest, I wanted Hawkeye to make the sacrifice, simply because I was more attached to Black Widow as a character than I was to Hawkeye (isn’t everyone, though?). I was on the edge of my seat as I watched the two friends fight to the death—not to live, but to die. It was tragic and heart-breaking, but yet somehow emotionally fulfilling in every way that the same scene with Thanos and Gamora had not been. When Black Widow pushed off the cliff and dove to her death, I was dumbstruck. But it was an incredibly heroic moment, and if Black Widow had to go, I can’t think of a better way she could have done it.

I mentioned that this was controversial. After watching EG, I read a lot of the articles about the film that I had avoided up to that point, and one of those, an article on Vox about Black Widow’s death, left me completely perplexed. The author’s main thesis is that “Endgame kind of quasi-fridges Black Widow.” She is referring to a trope known as “Women in Refrigerators,” in which a supporting female character is killed to motivate a male protagonist. The author hedges twice (“kind of,” “quasi-”) in her thesis statement, which is perhaps an indication that she realizes, at least on some level, how ridiculous the idea is. She even devotes a paragraph to explaining how the death “isn’t exactly a classic fridging.”

Black Widow’s death isn’t exactly a classic fridging, which is why I’m qualifying it with “quasi.” For one thing, she is not the only person who dies in Endgame. She’s also a fully fledged character, not just a wife or a girlfriend who was only written into the story in the first place so that she could die and make everyone else sad. And she dies of her own free will, sacrificing herself in pursuit of the Soul Stone in one last blazing display of competence, not because she’s killed by a bad guy who wants to use her as a tool to hurt the men around her.

So she is a) not a supporting female character who b) is not actually killed by a bad guy, and—if I can add a bit of my own thoughts here—c) her death does not necessarily serve to motivate any of the male protagonists. Which leaves me wondering how exactly Black Widow’s death is supposed to be a “fridging,” even a “quasi” one. This is like saying that a car is a quasi-airplane because they both happen to have wheels. To be honest, if anything bothered me about Black Widow’s death, it was the fact that everyone seemed to just forget about her after she was gone. I think it was only natural for Tony to get that funeral at the end of the film, where everyone came together to mourn his loss, but it was insulting that it was not a funeral for both Tony and Natasha. I mean, I get that Tony’s death came at the climax of the film and Natasha’s death happened in the middle of everything, so the former was more recent in our minds, but that doesn’t excuse anything. The Avengers were Natasha’s family, but after she died she just ceased to exist for everyone. Considering how important a character Black Widow was, I don’t think this was fair.

Enough griping about Black Widow, though. Going back to the things I liked for a moment, I think if I had to sum it all up in one word, that word would be “payoff.” If you want to be cynical about it, you could call it “fan service,” although I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. The fans have been around for over twenty films now, so I don’t think it’s too much to expect that we get some payoff on things that have been simmering for a while. I am aware that there is an apparent contradiction in my attitudes toward IW and EG. I called out “IW” for its “crude attempts at emotional manipulation,” but I’m OK with EG’s fan service? Let’s be clear—it’s all emotional manipulation. I don’t think this necessarily makes the emotions we feel less genuine or authentic, though. So it’s not the manipulation itself that I have a problem with. What bothered me about the emotional manipulation in IW was that it often seemed arbitrary or just plain didn’t make sense.

In EG, on the other hand, the payoffs for the most part made sense to me and seemed more earned. I already gave one example of good payoff above—Falcon saying “On your left” just before all of our favorite heroes appear—but there were plenty of others as well. One that sticks out in my mind even now is Cap raising Mjolnir into the air, and Thor’s jubilant reaction to that. It made me rethink that scene from Age of Ultron where the Avengers are sitting around and goofing off by trying to lift Mjolnir off the table. Everyone, of course, fails, but when Cap gives it a go, the hammer budges ever so slightly—and Thor’s smile turns into a look of concern. At the time, I just thought it was a gag, but thinking back on it now, it seems that there are a number of ways to interpret the scene. Perhaps Cap was not yet worthy to lift the hammer? I suppose that might make some sense, but the lifting of Mjolnir is not something that is a matter of degrees—either you can lift it or you can’t. A far more intriguing possibilitiy is that Cap could have indeed lifted the hammer, but when he saw the look on Thor’s face he realized how devastating that would be to his friend and chose not to lift it. Whatever the case, Thor’s reaction in EG shows just how much he has grown.

The entire final battle scene was pretty much one payoff after another, so it would be pointless to try to list them all—if you’ve seen the film, you already know what I’m talking about. I said above that these payoffs for the most part made sense to me. But not all of them did. Interestingly enough, these moments that did not land for me all seemed to revolve around Captain Marvel. Let me say right up front that I was not a Captain Marvel hater, and didn’t even know about the internet rage until quite late in the game (if you don’t know what I am talking about, just count yourself lucky and move on), so I went in to that film fairly innocent. Thus it is with some measure of objectivity that I can say I did not think Captain Marvel was that great of a film. It wasn’t a horrible film, mind you, and there were parts of it that I did like. I just don’t think it was my favorite, not by a long shot; I can think of at least ten Marvel films off the top of my head that I enjoyed much more. Anyway, despite what I thought about Carol Danvers’ standalone entry, I was interested to see how they were going to work her into EG—and I was disappointed to find that the answer was “minimally.” I suppose Captain Marvel does cause a problem for the film makers, just like the eagles caused a problem for Tolkien: If you have a character who can pretty much solve all of your problems, how do you maintain any sort of tension? We’re supposed to believe that Danvers had more important things to do elsewhere in the universe, but I’m not sure I really buy that. It just seems like a flimsy excuse to me.

Anyway, none of that is really my point. My point is that the two moments in the final battle that fell flat for me both involved Captain Marvel. The first was when Peter Parker gives Danvers the gauntlet and then says, “I don’t know how you’re going to get through all of that.” At this point, I fully expected Danvers to smile at Parker and then just blast through the army standing in front of her. Instead, we get this scene where all of the female heroes somehow manage to congregate in one place, and one of them (I don’t even remember who it was) says, “She’s not alone.” I honestly think I might have scoffed aloud at this when I saw it on the big screen. She’s not alone? She’s been alone before and flown through spaceships. She’s basically like Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi, except she doesn’t need a spaceship of her own and she actually survives (and she’s not hated by legions of—oh, wait... never mind). Even setting aside the ridiculousness of every single female hero somehow finding their way to that spot at that precise time, the idea that the most powerful hero to ever live might need help is just laughable. I wondered perhaps if I simply did not appreciate this because I was a man. Would I have appreciated it more were I a woman? Of course, I cannot answer that question, but I did ask the woman who had been sitting next to me during the film (HJ, of course—just to clarify), and she said she was actually annoyed by the scene, because (I’m paraphrasing here) it felt like pandering, and half-assed pandering at best because of how patently absurd it was.

The other Captain Marvel scene that fell flat for me wasn’t exactly a payoff—it was more like a lack of a payoff. That was when Captain Marvel fought Thanos and basically got brushed aside like a fly. I suppose it did make sense in the universe of the film, because Thanos plucks from the gauntlet the Infinity Stone that gave Danvers her powers and hits her with that. But why did he have to pluck the stone from the gauntlet? Why couldn’t he just hit her with the gauntlet with the stone still in it? For that matter, why didn’t Thanos hitting people with the gauntlet just instantly obliterate them with the combined power of all the Infinity Stones? We probably shouldn’t get too deeply into that, because things start to break down if you think about them too much, but this scene also felt like another rather lame attempt to “explain away the eagles,” if I can try to coin a phrase here.

Speaking of things that start to break down if you think about them too much, there were a number of things that passed by me in the moment, but then later started to niggle at me. Sometimes this happened when I was thinking about the film afterward, and sometimes the process began before the film was even over. For example, I did start to think about the aftermath of bringing everyone back even as it was all playing out on the screen. I guess I should start this by saying that I did not see that coming. I assumed, I think like a lot of people did, that the Avengers would attempt to undo the Decimation. We knew there was going to be some time travel, and that just seemed like the most logical way to go about things. But with five years passing after the Decimation, you had people who had built new lives, and was it really fair to take all that away from them? I understand Tony’s reasoning here, but I’m not sure I agree with it. For one, if they did go back in time and undo the Decimation, no one would remember the lives that they never ended up living—it’s not like they would actually “lose” anything (at least, this is my understanding of how time travel works in this universe; it’s possible Tony might have remembered). More importantly, though, I have to wonder if the Avengers really considered what it would mean to leave everything as it was and simply bring everyone back. You have a world that has been without half its population for five years now—a world that has been reshaped to support only that population—and suddenly you double that population in an instant? Imagine the chaos this would cause! But that’s just on a macro level—you have to think on the micro level as well. What about people who had lost their spouses or partners in the Decimation and remarried? This is probably going to represent a significant portion of the population. What happens when all those dusted spouses and partners come back? What about the people who survived the Decimation but lost the will to live after their loved ones disappeared? What happens when those people come back to find that their loved ones couldn’t go on without them? Imagine a young couple being dusted, leaving behind a newborn baby, only to come back and find the corpse of their child lying in the crib after having starved to death in the chaotic aftermath of the Decimation. OK, maybe don’t imagine that, because it is horrible, but I did imagine it. Yeah, this really bothered me.

I suppose there are a number of ways to think about this. On the one hand, we should probably be grateful that the filmmakers did not take the easy way out and do what I was actually expecting them to do: just undo everything to before the snap. In retrospect, that would have been fairly unimaginative, and wouldn’t have made for as much conflict. That being said, I do think that simply bringing everyone back opened up a larger can of worms than the filmmakers could realistically deal with. I’ve tried to look at this from different perspectives—perhaps it is, in a way, a meditation on loss and grief—but in the end I can’t get away from the feeling that they glossed over or just flat out ignored a lot of the problems that the Avengers’ solution would have created. It’s worth asking, though, if I would have enjoyed a film that did address all those problems, often at the expense of other elements of the story. It’s hard to say, and I am not even sure I know what such a film would look like, but I’m guessing I would not have found it as emotionally fulfilling.

There were other things that didn’t quite work for me—the time travel didn’t seem to make a lot of sense at times, for one, and there were also little things that niggled, like Tony not experiencing any visible effects when his gauntlet became the Infinity Gauntlet, especially after we saw both the Hulk and Thanos experience the surge—but the aftermath of the Decimation and the consequences of bringing everyone back are what stuck with me.

For all its flaws, though, I think EG did what it had to do. It was carrying the incredible weight of everything that had come before, as well as the responsibility of bringing everything to a close, at least for now. Even if it didn’t always quite come together or make complete sense, it did provide us with an ending that, overall, felt emotionally satisfying. EG was definitely not my favorite Marvel film—it’s not even in my top five. In fact, if it makes my top ten, it is only barely. I am not going to attempt to make an ordered list, but I think my top ten would probably consist of: Iron Man 1 and 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy volumes 1 and 2, Black Panther, The Avengers (that is, the first Avengers film), and Spider-Man: Homecoming, in addition to EG—but EG might very well occupy the bottom spot. But none of those other films had to do what EG had to do, which is wrap up a very long story and help us say goodbye to some beloved characters. So I am not going to sit here and tell you that EG was the best thing ever, but I can tell you that I did love it, and it did make up for (what were in my mind) the sins of IW.

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