The title of Marvel’s latest and possibly the final film in the Infinity Stones saga isn’t misleading at all- it is indeed the endgame for the main characters- Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye- in the sense that it is the last and only chance for the characters to play their final cards, and the movie ends with their character-arcs more or less, complete. To sum it up in a safe, spoiler-free sentence, it offers a beautiful (and probably the only) way of wrapping things up, and has plenty of heart in it- and while that makes it entertaining and satisfying, it has its fair share of confusion and complications.
So yes, it’s the endgame for the Avengers, but not really an end for them, or for anyone for that matter.
MCU: Marvel’s Cinematic or Comic Universe?
The abbreviation “MCU” while usually referring to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”- a set of over 20 films divided into three phases, along with those spin-off TV shows and other material that all are joined by one overarching narrative involving the Infinity Stones – is sometimes also confused with the ‘Marvel Comic Universe’- referencing most of Marvel’s superhuman comic book series, from where the movies borrow, adapt and twist their storylines as well as their characters. And while the long-running comics by their sheer volume and versatility of the medium- easily allows for multiple realities and alternate timelines, and therefore every permutation and combination you can think of involving the characters and plot-lines, the movies constrained by their own rules, usually do not. So, to put it in very reductive terms, no one stays dead for long in a comic book- but you can usually and safely assume that a character’s death in a film is likely to be permanent.
Avengers: Endgame by succumbing to time travel as a plot device, and consequently creating divergent timelines as well as plot-holes- reverses this entire logic. It doesn’t promise a happy ending for all of its main characters in its own canonical timeline, but suggests that everyone gets their share of closure, redemption, happiness (and for Loki, chaos) in some timeline or the other. Endgame, by the very nature of its conclusion, isn’t so much an ending, but a starting point for more prequels, sequels and spin-offs to come. And that’s fan service and marketing done right, so beautifully right, because for most fans, Avengers: Endgame is likely to give them what they want, or the most of what they want.
A Linear Plot, with Timey-Wimey Complications:
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
So let’s discuss the plot first, before moving onto the characters, the plot-holes and possible theories. The events of the Infinity War have left the remaining Avengers shattered and separated- in fact, Tony Stark and Nebula are stranded in deep space and resigned to their fates until Captain Marvel, Marvel’s stand-in for Wonder Woman, responds to Nick Fury’s desperate S.O.S before the Snap, and rescues the duo and reunites them with everyone else. They band together to destroy and avenge an unsuspecting Thanos (who is calmly cooking his last meal in an Edenic planet) and easily do it- Thor cleanly chops his head off- only to realize that Thanos has used the power of the Infinity Stones to destroy the Stones themselves- which means that for now, the Avengers cannot reverse the effects of the Snap.
The next moment important event to happen in the MCU is the following sentence:
Five years later, a lone rat scampers about in an abandoned laboratory.
This said rat, probably hungry and curious, climbs over the dusty devices and inadvertently presses some buttons that ejects Scott Lang, aka Ant Man from the Quantum Realm, where it turns out, that he was only trapped for five hours. In the interim, Tony and Pepper have a baby daughter, while Bruce Banner and the Hulk have finally fused into one being. Scott figures that as time works differently in the Quantum Realm, as a last resort, the team should try time-traveling back to reverse the effects of the Snap. A plan to steal the Infinity Stones from various points in the past is formulated and named as the “Time Heist” (which interestingly is the name of a Doctor Who episode) – the Time, Space and Mind Stones from the battle of New York in Avengers (2012), the Power and Soul Stones from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and finally the extraction of the Aether/ Reality Stone from Jane Foster in Thor: The Dark World (2013).
(While the logic of selection makes sense, it creates a plot-hole in itself- why not choose different moments as long as they can be justified? The obvious answer is, that would make a different film.)
But anyway, the last attempt is successful, but the presence of a future Nebula in the same time frame as her past self alerts a past version of Thanos to their plan, and while the Time and Mind Stones are safely secured, Loki makes off with the Tesseract, prompting Stark and Rogers to travel further back to the 1970s to retrieve it. This allows Tony Stark to meet his father and get some sort of parental closure, and conveniently lets Steve Rogers steal some more Pym particles for more “timey-wimey” adventures. Returning to the present, they face a past version of Thanos, manage to reverse the effects of the Snap and bring back the later Avengers and side-characters (including Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch and the Guardians, among others), defeat Thanos for good and reduce his army into dust, all at the cost of Tony Stark’s life. With the world’s population restored, Captain America singlehandedly travels back in time to return the Infinity Stones to the points where there were taken to close the divergent timelines, and returns an aged man, after presumably being reunited and spending time with his true love, Peggy Carter.
Female Superheroes (And Their Lack Thereof):
All of which provides a neat conclusion to the Saga, at the cost of two pivotal deaths: Iron Man and Black Widow. While the deaths of Iron Man and Captain America have long been theorized, and given that the MCU began with Iron Man in 2008, it makes sense for the narrative to close with his death, after he got to enjoy a few years of peaceful domesticity, sort out issues with his father and finally avenge the evil-doers, and it also makes sense for Captain America who misses out on normal American life thanks to his 70-year cryogenic sleep in the ice- to reunited with Peggy and get some semblance of romantic love.
But the death of Black Widow, who sacrifices herself in place of Clint for the Soul Stone, who has been abused and tortured and has had to fight her way through everything and for whom the Avengers provided the closest thing to a family and an identity, who by the way is the only female character with no superhuman powers in the original team, and who as of 2019, is still yet to get her own movie-her sacrificial death, like Gamora’s is nothing but a classic case of “fridging”-performed so, that the male protagonists get to act and be heroes(in general)and Clint gets to keep his family alive (in particular), and is from at least a feminist point-of-view a poor directorial choice, for while Tony Stark gets a funeral, Natasha’s dead body lies at the bottom of a chasm, so alone and broken as she always had been throughout her life.
(This of course doesn’t take away the fact that the scene where Natasha and Clint fight, in order to save the other is beautifully choreographed, and is probably one of the highest points in the film- and it’s also heart-warming how the film is filled with small genuine moments where the characters express their love and friendship in the form of platonic affection for each other, and is a welcome break from the romantic/sexual tropes that are usually deployed in such apocalyptic-like scenarios.)
Also, apart from Nebula and the Black Widow, most of the female characters including Captain Marvel only have perfunctory plot-filling lines (as an example, Shuri a young genius Black female scientist and a probable successor to Iron Man is chosen by the writers to disappear during the Snap, and it is an anthropomorphic male Racoon who does most of the tech-work) and are useful primarily as combat weapons against Thanos. And interestingly enough, the female characters in the film, such as Frigga, the “wisest” witch of Asgard and the Ancient One who wields the Eye of Agomotto- are surprisingly cool with time travel, and help Thor and the Hulk easily, while the male characters at least initially, are adamant to it, and find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the Back to Future-like implications of the context- Steve gets away fighting his past self by saying “Bucky is alive.” Of course, this point is debatable- both Frigga and the Ancient One are proficient in the magical arts (and one can’t help but ask, but given that Loki was taught magic “tricks” by Frigga, how much does he know of dimension-hopping?), but it leads to another contentious argument- the characterization in the film is very flawed.
Character Development or a Collision of Characters?
For instance Thor: Ragnarok allows Thor to harness his powers, become self-sufficient and channel the power of his hammer without it, and throughout Infinity War, despite witnessing his brother being strangled to death, he keeps his head cool, and manages to have a weapon forged that at least does some damage to Thanos, but in Endgame, he is clearly suffering from PTSD, is pot-bellied and drunk the whole time, and apart from reconciling with Frigga, makes no attempt to rescue his brother or meet Odin. Even the severe effects of PTSD aren’t addressed or taken up with much seriousness. Similarly, the estrangement between Iron Man and Captain America that reached ferocious proportion in Civil War, are surprisingly resolved with a simple handshake.
This also shows the collision of different directorial visions of each Avenger- as though each character is an amalgamation of various versions of themselves from different universes, and this is perhaps best exemplified in Loki- who Kenneth Brannagh sets up as a tragic anti-hero in Thor, whom Joss Whedon turns to a power-hungry megalomaniac in Avengers controlled by Thanos, whose incipient redemption-arc is cut short via a fake death in Alan Taylor’s sequel, who is emasculated and cast as comic relief in Thor: Ragnarok and who finally gets a hurried redemptive death, while completely ignoring his magic prowess in Infinity War- a decision vehemently criticised by online fans. Thus Loki disappearing with the tesseract in an alternate timeline, is perhaps the only way to restore some agency to the God of Mischief and Chaos- a version of Loki is still alive, and free to do what he wants. But Bucky, played by the very talented Sebastian Stan, who has a similar anti-hero character arc barely, occupies any screen-time or is given much attention.
“Timey-Wimey” Logic: How Do You Resolve Paradoxes?
Finally, there is also the question of time travel and the weird convoluted logic that Marvel deploys at convenient places to make the Infinity Saga coherent, but everything else, not. The movie references most of the popular time-travel films including Back to the Future– and teases at how this one is going to be different, particularly at how it ignores the Grandfather Paradox (future Nebula kills her past self, a past version of Gamora ia alive while the Gamora sacrificed to the Soul Stone is dead, which means Star Lord now has to kick start his romance from scratch, and both past and future versions of Thanos are dead by the end of the film) as well as doesn’t set up any Bootstrap Paradoxes, where the future events are pre-determined by the past and form a closed-loop.
What we are offered instead, is a few sentences by the Ancient One, Bruce and Iron Man about the rules of time travel and the probable existence of alternate timelines- thus, there is definitely a timeline where a 2012 Loki is on the loose with the tesseract, and a timeline where the Infinity War never happened, because Thanos was killed before he got to the stones, and therefore all the Avengers are technically alive. The movie basically does what happens in comics all the time- no one stays dead for long, and everyone is alive somewhere or the other, or can be brought back, as and when demanded by the plot and audience.
Fan Service and Franchise-Building Done Right:
From a personal viewpoint, time travel as a genre is deeply limiting, because for it to work, the narrative needs to create its own rules and strictly adhere to them, and the rules must be accessible and comprehensible for the audience to fully enjoy it, and in the case of paradoxes, try to resolve them in some way or the other. The film although depicting a single ending, thus teases at multiple endings (but not which as much élan as Nolan typically does)and futures- the fans can choose what they want, and depending on what they choose, future films and shows will be made to cater to them (an innovative form of interactive storytelling, perhaps but also to ensure adequate box office revenue?), such as the upcoming Loki TV show, as well as a show set in the 1950s featuring Wanda and Vision (though Vision is still dead) and a third Guardians of the Galaxy film where Gamora is slated to return.
While plot-wise the “timey-wimey” logic is confusing, and will require astute viewers to make charts to try and explain it, thematically it makes sense- because the entire Avengers saga is built on references to past films, Easter eggs, post-credits scenes- and thus choosing to revisit some pivotal scenes in the final film, is a beautiful and poetic way to wrap things up – it is a love-letter to Iron Man and the vision of a protected world he has tried to achieve all his life, as well as a love-letter to all the fans who have stuck with Marvel, until the very end. And Marvel’s very set-up- of sequels, spin-offs and post-credit scenes not only assures financial returns, but also creates an entertainment-business complex that like a perpetual motion machine, can keep sustaining itself. It has tried to replicate in film, which Doctor Who, Star Trek and to an extent, certain long-running sitcoms have tried to do in television.
So to take the example of Doctor Who, the sci-fi show can run indefinitely as long as it has good writers- because by its very premise, the lead and supporting actors as well as the show-runners are always replaceable, and the production studios can choose to set any story featuring the Doctor and their companions, in any time and place they want, and keep doing that, for as long as it rakes in money and viewership. Thus, while the Avengers’ original-run may be over, the new Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy are free to take over-best embodied when an aged Steve Rogers hands over his shield to Sam Wilson.
Avengers: Endgame offers a beautiful, but somewhat confusing conclusion, and as it does so with enough heart, the average viewer will be ready to ignore and even forgive them for the loose ends. It takes mostly safe risks, uses the old formula of balancing witty one-liners with spectacular CGI-drenched action (something they only began to do seriously from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film and reached new comic heights in Thor: Ragnarok) and a typical linear superhero plot, along the lines of “world at threat, formulate plan, plan will inevitably go wrong, improvise and defeat villain, save the world”- thus this film doesn’t actually do anything new with the genre, and that’s actually fair given how high the stakes were, in the same way Return of the Jedi brings the initial Star Wars trilogy to a satisfying end, but cannot outshine the poetic brilliance of Empire Strikes Back.
Avengers: Endgame is a pretty good film that tries its very best. It starts off slow, almost deliberately in the first act; build up to a very entertaining and fun time-and-space hopping second-act, and finishes off spectacularly in the third-act, leaving behind some loose ends. It is heart-breaking (and especially towards the end, it is a genuine tear-jerker), extremely intense throughout, and engaging enough for one to not be bothered by its three-hour long running time. And it’s precisely because, the film tries its best to do justice to all the main Avengers, and include the enormous ensemble cast as much as possible, and address all the imminent plot threads- that the film succeeds, despite its flaws and convoluted logic, and for which, it deserves genuine applause and appreciation.
No matter how intense a Marvel fan you are, Avengers: Endgame is a film you cannot avoid, and will definitely make it worth your time- not just for this one, but also for all the ones you have watched before, and even perhaps, for the ones you’ll probably end up watching in the future.