When a movie franchise ends, everything is wrapped up in a bow. Heroes walk off into the sunset and maybe there’s an epilogue 20 years in the future, but basically the story is over and that last scene is frozen in amber forever. When a television series ends, you’re comforted knowing those character’s lives will go on; but you’re sad because we just won’t get to see them anymore. The Harry Potter franchise ends, but we all know that Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad is still out there.
This distinction matters when you’re talking about Avengers: Endgame because it wasn’t really a movie. Starting with Iron Man in 2008 and especially after the first Avengers in 2012, we’ve all been watching a big budget, long-form television show with two or three installments a year. So what does that really mean for Avengers: Endgame? You got an impossible plot, unbelievable action, unprecedented character development and diversity that will shame every other franchise for the next 30 years.
Just don’t call it a movie.
Our collective cultural investment in the Marvel Cinematic universe is a testament to the Golden Age of television, Netflix and trusting the audience. I went to Bingeclock.com to see how long it takes to binge all six seasons of Game of Thrones, and it’s 2 days and 18 hours and 40 minutes. All five seasons of Breaking Bad? 2 days 14 hours. You know how long it takes to binge all 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? One day, 23 hours and 14 minutes (over a decade, each release built off the next), basically the same as a peak TV show. Compare that to how long it takes to binge all 25 James Bond movies: two days, four hours and 56 minutes, but that’s content spread out over 57 years! Avengers: Endgame is even filmed like a TV show with scene changes fading to black almost like you’re going to commercial. Never before has the American viewing audience consumed so much theater content, over just 10 years, that’s all interconnected. Yet, that’s exactly what makes the series finale work.
Avengers: Endgame revolves around something you almost never see in the super hero genre: losing. At the end of Infinity War, Thanos snaps his fingers and turns half of all the life in the universe into black confetti. How each of the Avengers deals with that loss personally and as heroes provides some of the funniest and emotionally moving points in the film. The super hero genre usually gives you quick solutions because when the movie is over, that’s it. Batman’s back is broken, does a prison workout in a big pit, then comes back to save the day in The Dark Knight Rises. The X-Men figure out how to stop an apocalyptic future and make everything okay again in Days of Future Past. There’s always a magic talisman, time machine or heretofore unknown super powerful being to fix everything. Not Avengers: Endgame. It quickly dispenses with any of the usual tropes to “fix” everything. The solution they come up with is HARD. It won’t give everybody what they want, which raises the stakes in a believable way. Somehow Endgame gives us the dual themes of immense loss and the impending end of a series, without sacrificing the optimism of the super hero genre.
The genre itself is forever changed by the pure visual spectacle of Avengers: Endgame. It has some of the most amazing fight scenes you have ever seen on the big or small screen. The action sequences are as revolutionary as the Matrix films were 20 years ago. There are surprises in almost every battle, with nods to previous Marvel Cinematic Universe episodes, comic books and pop culture that make the whole theater cheer and gasp. Just like in Captain America: Civil War—the battles you think are coming often don’t and the battles that do happen have massive emotional subtext to them.
Over years, I’ve begrudgingly credited the Marvel Cinematic universe for slowly diversifying their cast. Yes, I realize they’re working with 70-year-old mostly white comic source material, but if you can turn Nick Fury into a black man, you can add some color to a squad of white Russians, blonde Norse gods and Aryan Super Soldiers. Avengers: Endgame solidifies that Marvel has reverse gentrified the neighborhood. Without spoiling too much, black characters are so organically integrated into the Marvel Universe that none of them are side-kicks anymore, and by the closing credits, several have been thrust into prominent roles in the Marvel Universe. Speaking of prominence, Avengers: Endgame is basically stunting on franchises with supposedly strong women leads like Aliens, Star Wars and Star Trek, with the pantheon of women superheroes they’ve developed in just 10 years. There is a moment in the film where you realize you can field an entire Avengers team of women, and honestly that would make a damn good spin off. Plus Marvel finally acknowledges that there are LGBTQIA+ relationships in the universe. Imagine that.
Speaking of relationships, none of Avengers: Endgame works if not for the outstanding acting of the original Avengers cast. In the end, every relationship isn’t fixed, everyone doesn’t find love, but the deep platonic friendship between Hawkeye (who’s often been the Michelle Williams to the rest of the Avengers’ Destiny’s Child) and Black Widow, and the self-deprecating humor of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor give Endgame a well-rounded emotional spectrum. These relationships are fleshed out because of the threat posed by Grimace on steroids, aka Thanos. The Marvel Cinematic universe hasn’t had many memorable globe-threatening villains. Killmonger had a personal vendetta. Loki was just a trouble maker. Ultron was what happens when your Apple watch gains sentience and decides you deserve to die. Initially, Thanos was just an abusive father and a zealot with a fetish about duality and cleansing an overpopulated universe. He was basically the villain baby of Ra’s Al Ghul and Two-Face, with a purple make-over. However, there is a point in Endgame, and you’ll know it, when Thanos moves from being a zealot with a plan to absolute evil. It’s chilling, it’s amazing and a testament to the slow burn that Josh Brolin has played this character with in fits and starts for 10 years.
By the end of Avengers: Endgame, you will be emotionally drained. People in my screening left laughing and crying, and I’m pretty sure I saw a grief counselor and some support dogs outside just in case. Since Endgame is more a series finale than a movie, it’s clear that this universe will go on, but everything will be different. Years from now, we’ll talk about the pre- and post-Endgame Marvel films like we talk about Deep Space 9 before-and-after Worf, or The Good Wife vs. The Good Fight, or Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding. You’ll be happy you went along for the ride, thrilled by how you got there and satisfied by how it ends. Just remember to bring some Kleenex.