Compulsory entertainment in “Avengers: Endgame”

“Avengers: Endgame” picks up immediately after the end of the previous Avengers film, “Infinity War,” as we see the effect of Thanos’ great snap – culling all the living organisms on earth by half. If “Infinity War” was the story of the catch, then “Endgame” sets itself up as the story of the release and the catch and release dynamic of the two films is an apt a metaphor as any to consider how the films converge and diverge. Thanos is critical in both. He is the being whose rise to power forces a reunion among a ruptured group in the last film, and he is the being whose achievement of that power creates a struggle with grief and then a newly minted reunion in “Endgame.” The central task is to fix Thanos’ actions from the previous film. The if of this is less important than the how because even as the encouragement to not spoil the “Endgame” has persisted, we trust that our heroes will fix things. And even as the how of the fixing is the film’s compelling device, “Endgame” is aware that the value of its existence lies beyond what seems like an inevitability of saving the world and more on seeing how our heroes learn from the previous film.

So, “Endgame,” with its tripartite struggle, offers a mediation on grief in its first third, a series of heists to top all heists in the second, and a battle for the ages in the third. Within these developments, Thanos looms – an inevitability that we await with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. One of the more troublesome issues in “Infinity War” was the way the film seemed unable to critique the inherent foolishness of Thanos – a proto-fascist type who seemed inherently unaware of his own limitation. “Endgame” leans into his self-importance. An immediately condescending speech of his is cut short by just the right move in the first act, for example. But elsewhere, the film seems still uncertain as to his limitations as a villain and as a foil. “Endgame” playfully grapples with the selfishness/selflessness binaries that define stories of heroism and although this dichotomy leads to some impressive moments (a Black Widow / Hawkeye encounter where both Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner commit with an impressive fervour), in other places the filmmakers’ politics seem muddled.

But who exactly is attending “Endgame” to pick the brains of the Russo brothers on their views on existentialist ethics or Cartesian doubt? Few, if any at all. “Endgame,” as advertised and as presented, is a high-octane thrill-ride meant to conclude a decade long investment. And on most critical fronts, it does what it promises. Despite their inclusive title, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has revolved around Iron Man and Captain America as its two equal but opposing beacons and the film works best when viewed through these lens. It’s their rift that has defined the civil war that has marked the last stretch of films leading up to “Endgame” and the film is most cohesive when invested in them as individuals and as partners. “Endgame” is less careful and caring in other ways.

On the heels of “Captain Marvel” and its recent success, the way Carol Danvers and the women of the Avengers feel incidental is too pointed not to realise. Scarlett Johansson and Karen Gillan are doing the most interesting acting in the film, with the former especially emphasising the oddities of the series doing so poorly by her despite her relative importance in the hierarchy of things. It’s significant, though, that their good work here emanates from arcs that see them as being objects of personal growth (or ruination) for characters around them rather than central figures in their own heroism. And it’s an arc that feels ambivalent when “Endgame” at its height is concerned with the limits and reaches of superheroism.

But, like Thanos and his plan for saving the world, “Endgame” is more concerned with the endgame than the peripheralities. In “Infinity War,” the film seems unwilling to grapple with the depth of Thanos’ love for anything when faced with his singular vision of world domination disguised as altruism. In “Endgame,” the individual hollowness of arcs is incidental to the Russo brothers’ larger intention of presenting a holistic bombastic thrill-ride. What’s ironic is that in both cases the aspects on the edges shine through better. Throughout “Endgame” I kept being more interested in Thanos as megalomaniac father-figure rather than as staid villain. Similarly, as a film that is inherently episodic, I found “Endgame” more thrilling on person to person moments than in macro level moments of avenging.

“I am inevitable.” It’s a pronouncement by Thanos that recurs a number of times over the film’s runtime. And it’s the rare moment of introspection from a character whose blindness the series has never efficiently exploited. The line is prescient and symbolic not just for Thanos within the film, though, but seems inextricably linked to the cultural and commercial behemoth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe culminating with this 22nd film that is primed to break box-office records the world over. Like Thanos, “Endgame” and its annihilation of its competitors has seemed inevitable for some time. And in some ways, that inevitability is instructive if not always necessarily entertaining. At its best, “Endgame” earns respect for its commitment to the very best and very worst of its brand in this final (or “final”) chapter and even as Thanos emerges as less critical to the macro storyline this time around, it’s significant how he – whether as presence or absence – defines so much about the dramatic effectiveness of “Endgame.”

Because Thanos is inevitable, the film never really seems too concerned with making sense of all the paradoxical elements of his character and actually putting his ideology on trial. It emphasises his staidness as a villain when the film is so interested in the end result of his existence that the filmmakers are unwilling to challenge the pillars that keep it up. In the same way, the spoiler frenzy surrounding the film’s release makes “Endgame” come across as unavoidable. Not only unavoidable in the way of something that magically manages to tap into the zeitgeist, but unavoidable in the way of something you have no control in the face of. A required compulsion. An inevitability. For if something is inevitable, arguing about its place in the world seems irrelevant when its triumph is an assured prophecy.

 

In “Endgame,” Thor has the film’s most polarising arc. It’s the perfect example of the way Marvel gives and takes away. On one hand, we have a compelling reaction to trauma and failure buoyed by Chris Hemsworth’s development as an actor since his first appearance in the films. On the other hand, we get a prosthetic body-part played for laughs that consistently undermines a great deal of what the arc promises. It’s a hollowed insincerity that exists alongside a thoughtful dissection. And it’s a duality that feels endemic to the series. Ragtag squabbling alongside larger than life heroes. A celebration of imagination and nerd culture helmed by an entertainment conglomerate. As the camera panned down Hemsworth’s body for the reveal of Thor’s state in a critical scene at the end of the first act, I could almost hear the directors saying, “This is the part where the audience laughs.” And the audience I was with responded with uproarious laughter. “Endgame” telegraphs its intentions to reach to its own inevitability in ways that frustrate as well as entertain. And it is entertaining and sometimes almost moving. It also feels deliberate and unspontaneous. It’s the paradox of the Marvel Universe and the paradox of a film that announces itself as an Endgame in some respects but becomes merely a transfer of power as we head into the next phases of this so far glorious inevitability.

“Avengers: Endgame” is currently playing at local theatres.

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