Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe—comprised of 22 movies and spanning 11 years—is is completely immersive and expansive. While most MCU films stand alone as entertaining, self–contained planets, it is when they come together and form a tapestry of stories pushing and pulling at one another—that the audiences are truly in for a treat.
For the past decade, this episodic storytelling has changed the way we view blockbuster films. It has produced unique, entertaining individual features, as well as ensemble films that pit these characters against one another. However, as much as Marvel has painstakingly built up its mythos, it has not been afraid to knock some of it down. It tore down the long–standing governmental agency S.H.I.E.L.D in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, tore apart the Avengers themselves in Captain America: Civil War, and finally, killed almost all of its major characters in Avengers: Infinity War. That last storyline (although many knew it would be reversed) shocked and stung as a victory for the villain—Thanos.
Avengers: Endgame—which has already made $1.2 billion worldwide in just three days—is Marvel at its best, because it embraces its complex story with gusto. It plays on the nostalgia and excitement, but shocks its audiences with its scope and decisions. Although some plot developments may feel bittersweet for longtime fans, the film also feels like a satisfying, beautiful wrap–up for the MCU so far. An emotional conclusion, for sure, but also a fitting one.
The film, as many fans had guessed, uses time travel in order to undo the damages that Thanos inflicted in Infinity War. The plot device, while predictable, allows Endgame to revisit iconic scenes throughout the MCU’s cinematography. When Iron Man, Captain America, and Ant–Man travels back to the Battle of New York (of The Avengers timeframe), the classic shot of the original Avengers standing in a circle—the first time these disparate characters teamed up—elicited great excitement throughout the theatre. However, the best parts of Endgame are when its characters—now older and more disillusioned—comment on the past. There is nothing like watching a tired, present–day Cap telling his younger self to take it down a notch, or War Machine drily pointing out that Peter, who looked suave in Guardians, actually looks like an idiot. These moments, although dripping with fan–service, prevent Endgame from collapsing under the weight of its own history.
In fact, it is this awareness of this history that makes Endgame such a distinctive culmination of the previous 21 films. It gives us two Captain Americas fighting each other, which is exciting not only because of the quick–cut action shots, but also because we’re watching our cinematic past and present collide. When we watch Black Widow and Hawkeye fight over who should sacrifice themselves, we are reminded of their first time on screen together—when the former fought the latter in order to save him in The Avengers. One of the most successful instances of Endgame capitalizing on its history comes during the final battle, when a bloodied Captain America finally picks up Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir—for those well–versed in MCU lore, it’s hard to overstate the moment’s significance. Two grand character myths come together, and it feels as validating for the audience as it does for the characters.
But this doesn’t mean that Endgame is without surprises. Going into the film, most fans knew that our surviving heroes would somehow reverse Infinity War. Yet, few expected the reversal to be on such a grand scale. In the film’s final act, just as everything seems to be lost, portals forming behind a lone Captain America reveal hundreds upon hundreds of reinforcements, drawn from every corner of the MCU. These heroes are not brought back at end of a final showdown—as one may have expected—but brought back at the beginning, and ready to join the closing battle.
This was the moment that caused the theater to erupt into its loudest cheers during the entire film. The trailers never hint at the return of these characters, and the scope of their return—Spider–Man swinging through the portal, Black Panther charging out with the forces of Wakanda—is such an exhilarating, visually impactful moment that rivals anything to come from the MCU thus far.
When The Avengers premiered in 2012, it did something that few other franchises have done successfully—it brought together individual headliners, and made a cohesive, exciting story. When people watched The Avengers, it felt like the start of a new era. Since then, neither Avengers: Age of Ultron nor Infinity War have fully lived up to the momentous feeling of the first. With the final act of Endgame—when Captain America tells all the heroes, "Avengers, assemble!"—it finally feels equally momentous. Just like The Avengers, Endgame is big enough to capture all of the MCU myths that have built up previously. But now, it is the end of an era.
That end, ultimately, comes with the death of Iron Man—the most shocking outcome of Endgame. While many expected the virtuous Captain America to sacrifice himself to stop Thanos, few expected Tony Stark—the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist who embodies the wit and heart of the MCU—to be the one to do it. With the death of Iron Man, the one who began the MCU in 2008 with his titular film, the MCU of the past 11 years feels truly over. Although fans around the world will mourn him, Endgame is a satisfying conclusion to Tony’s story arc.
Granted, Endgame is not a perfect film. Without at least some experience with the MCU, it would be hard to find the movie entertaining, or even understandable. The sacrificial death of Black Widow also feels like a disappointing end to the character, especially considering that her life seems once again to be undervalued against more traditional ones. Toward the end, a shot of all the female MCU superheroes joining forces feels empty without the first female MCU superhero joining them. Lastly, the film’s time traveling plot falls apart under scrutiny; while the timeline mess may be clarified in future MCU installations, it remains confusing for now.
But maybe we don’t need to look at Endgame too closely, and instead should appreciate it for what it is—an ambitious, visually explosive conglomerate of heart and humor that concludes a long line of other movies. It's meant to be watched in a crowded theater, filled with cheering and clapping and maybe even some screaming. It is a movie that will make the longtime fans cry, but even the casual fans feel emotional.
Toward the end of the film, during a beautiful funeral for Iron Man that includes most Marvel characters, I remembered watching my first MCU film—Iron Man 2 on an 15–hour flight from Shanghai to Detroit, where the characters’ confidence and wit excited me about the country I was moving to. I remembered watching Guardians of the Galaxy on the last days of summer before high school, and talking about how cute Baby Groot is with friends who I’ve since lost touch with. I remembered coming home after watching the Infinity War premiere with my best friend—who now live hundreds of miles away—and debating about the fates of the universe. Finally, as the credit began, I realized that it was time to say goodbye.
Moving forward, I’m not sure that I will be as invested in the MCU as I have been. Half of the original Avengers are now gone. There are still exciting new stories to look forward to, and I’d happy to see the MCU bring out a new generation of heroes. But Endgame is the enormous, full–circle conclusion to the MCU that we have grown up with.