One part “The Leftovers”, one part clip-show, one part “Avengers: Infinity War” all over again, “Avengers: Endgame” is an odd film. Perhaps that’s accomplishment enough for the twenty-second film in this unstoppable series. A brief prelude serves as a fascinating follow-up to its direct predecessor, then followed by nearly an hour flatly aping “The Leftovers” in as much a take on a dystopia or post-apocalyptic scenario as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was to a political thriller, or “Ant-Man” to a heist film (read: not at all, beyond bare superficialities before they collapse into the typical quippery and incoherent CGI action). Then again, the sheer length of that segment does lend it some weight, and while there’s not much a sense of post-”snap” worldbuilding (certainly not visually), the emotional state of some characters is actually realised quite well, particularly in the case of Thor. Hemsworth’s headfirst leap into any note to play beyond, well, the utter lack of a note he had until “Thor: Ragnorak” is so noticeable – he relishes what he’s given here.
Black Widow fares less well, her character painfully underused and thinly-realised, though Scarlett Johansson’s evident skill over her peers still makes the character feel like it’s working all the while. Sometime after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” Mark Ruffalo seemed to throw in the towel, take everything less seriously, and mindlessly overact his way through any scene; that continues here. Perhaps it’s connected to the Russos, and their partnered writing team of Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus seem to have absolutely no sense of romance, more noticeable in their painful attempt at “WandaVision” in “Avengers: Infinity War”, and in their awkward jettisoning of the romance between Johansson and Ruffalo’s characters. Robert Downey Jr doesn’t deliver as strong a performance as he did in “Captain America: Civil War”, but still outacts most of his peers, helped by a script that very much centres him (there’s probably something to be said for his, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, performances in these movies, given they’re apparently the only cast members getting the full scripts).
The second act, or hour, of the film shifts into high-octane fanservice, mostly light-hearted, and is an absolute blast. The clear highpoint of the film, and one of the absolute highpoints of the entire gargantuan “cinematic universe”. The gags themselves, and the decree to which they depend on remembering minutiae from films (both very good and very poor ones) from years ago is hilarious. The writing around the temporal mechanics to facilitate the fanservice are awkwardly self-conscious, but the sequences themselves are fantastic, brought to life skillfully by the VFX teams, and the cast clearly having fun with the zaniness of the premise. Chris Evans, normally awfully flat, excels when allowed to flex his comedic chops here. Amazingly, Karen Gillan of all people gets the juiciest dramatic arc, and of course performs it absolutely excellently.
Eventually that great second act peters out into a clumsy third act that, in a bizarrely literal sense, redoes the climax from “Avengers: Infinity War”. An already derivative, fairly lifeless climax. What stakes are there in seeing endless CGI goons stampede around on dully-filmed, flatly-lit bores of landscapes? The requisite hero moments are fairly delightful, especially one very pointed gender-tinged one which dispenses with the faux-groundedness to delight in its (unearned, it must be said) strength of character cast. Still, even that quick scene…the composition is just so aimless, lifeless…a litany of characters introduced in quick sequence but none in interesting ways, nothing is framed in any sort of emphatic way. A huge battle is made so uninteresting because there’s no sense of cohesion, inventiveness, or even just plain emphasis in the framing. Overall, the whole routine comes across as expected in every sense, where the second act was surprising and inventive. For some characters, the film makes good on the finality of its title, although the mechanics by which one character reaches it are so poorly-defined that the writers and directors have different understandings of what even happened there (there was enough emotional clarity I wasn’t bothered, but when the film goes out of its way to mock certain genre conventions, it sits oddly to fall into the logistical traps that typically ensnare them). Traps define a lot of the film though. Ant-Man in his giant mode is seen in a shot directly following Ant-Man in his regular mode tinkering with a van; if basic continuity can’t even be kept straight, what hope is there?
I give credit to the film undercutting – to a degree, anyway – the ridiculousness of its antagonist, who felt idiotically endorsed as a worthy ideological villain in the previous Avengers movie. His words ring increasingly hollow as the nonsense that was his plan becomes more evident, and the emptiness of his rhetoric becomes more plain as he refuses to accept his circumstances (in much the same way he lectures others). Little bits of thematic cohesion pop up sometimes, with some characters seeking atonement (Iron Man, Black Widow), the focus on futures unbridled by past (literally, with all the child characters), the reconciliations with parents, etc. But it’s ultimately a couple of very different movies crashing into each other (again, sometimes literally!). It’s certainly more interesting than most of its series peers, but there’s no cohesion or purity here the way there is in as focused a character arc by way of genre riff like “Iron Man 3”, or in the soulful playfulness of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. For all the talk of it being an ending, too much of it feels like more of the same setting the stage for even more. But not all of it. Some of it is properly novel, and it’s undeniable that the sheer scope is an enticing factor of its own. Three and a half Disney+ series, and the lack of a credits tag.