22 films, give or take, over ten years: almost $20bn in gross receipts; tonight, Marvel's Infinity Saga, launched in 2008 with Iron Man, draws to a close with the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame. I shall be surprised if this film does not set new box office records: the fact that it is one of that select few to have earned packed house midnight showings for faithful Marvel-watchers is omen for success.
A Brief History of Infinity
So what's it all about? If you've not watched the 20 or so films preceding, then you may miss some of the finer points to this instalment. But each film to date has been both part of the narrative arc and decent standalone effort. So do not let the back story put you off. Key things to be aware of - whether you are Marvel geek or occasional dabbler in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is that this is all about the Infinity Stones: artefacts of immense power left over from the creation of the universe that allow their holder to warp space, time and reality at will.
But if you want to wield this power, you need to be pretty strong-willed to start with. Step forward Thanos (Josh Brolin), a giant purple-skinned cosmic entity with a bit of a gripe. Seems he reckons the main thing wrong with the universe is: there is just too much life in it. So he hatches a plan. Collect the stones, assemble them in one “infinity gauntlet” and, with one snap of his fingers, unmake half the living universe.
So he's the bad guy? Not necessarily. More, just, complicated. And like every extremist ever, both well-intentioned and, well, a bit extreme. One might say he just let things get out of hand!
Avengers: Infinity War, released April 2018, took us up to that last moment. There is a battle royale as every significant member of the Avengers, plus allies, attempt to stop Thanos assembling the stones and fulfilling his plan. This was ensemble event writ large: on the battlefield, alongside a host of minor characters, were Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) , Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Peter Quill/Star Lord (Peter Quill). I say minor: that is not even half the top class actors involved
And they failed. Thanos executes “the snap”, and the film ends, in truly horrid fashion, with countless people – including some big-name stars - dissolving to dust before our eyes.
In the year since, geek theories have abounded. For the most part, they assume some mishmashery of time travel and parallel universes. Much ink was spilt picking apart a prediction made by Dr Strange shortly before he, too, was snapped to oblivion, that there are 14,000, 605 possible outcomes and...in only one do the good guys prevail.
...and Cold Reality
As the film opens, we see the surviving Avengers assemble. Iron Man, last seen adrift in a space ship running out of oxygen, is still with us. So, too are Thor, Captain America and Bruce Banner. Licking their wounds. Downbeat, as befits people who have just seen half their world wiped out. Two key characters did not even take part in the Infinity War: Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen), whose own origins film was as recent as in March 2019; and Scott Lang / Ant Man (Paul Rudd), last seen in the end credits to Ant Man and the Wasp, trapped in the quantum realm when the snap went down.
What more to add, without major spoilers? The stage is set, the snap has gone down.
One feature of Endgame is that it is long. So long - over three hours – that there may come times when you just gotta go. Acknowledging this, a number of sites produced handy guides to when you can pee. If you are at all worried about your ability to stay the course, check them out.
Though the consensus is that while you may take a brief time out in the first half, two-thirds of Endgame, whatever you do, do not leave the cinema during the last hour. Because there is nothing unmissable in those final 60 minutes!
A Masterpiece in Three Parts
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo use that length to explore more than one significant theme in depth and to shift tone markedly from hour to hour. The beginning, including a downbeat title track – Dear Mr Fantasy, by Traffic - is doom and gloom. Not just a battle lost, but living when so many that you have loved are no more. The tone is set by the very first scene that, I suspect, caused a tear or two to be shed. There is loss and grief and anger, and all the consequences of that, as each character retreats into personal salvation. The Hulk evolves into celeb superhero. Tony Stark finds comfort, at last, in family life. And Thor! Oh dear: let's just say this is not Thor as he would wish to be remembered.
Catalyst for change is the re-emergence from the quantum realm of Scott Lang and the possibility of undoing what has happened. At this point the film shifts up a gear: there is more comedy; and much mockery of filmic rules of time travel. Paradox is forbidden. Though as we discover later, you are absolutely allowed to meet your mum or dad - and kill your younger self – without history dissolving to mush. And about that paradox thing: Endgame creates so many paradoxes that the next story arc might as well be called the Infinite Possibilities.
Geekdom will be annoyed.
Reconciliation and Endings
Old wounds are healed. The process, begun in Captain Marvel, of clearing up key questions, continues apace. Like who IS entitled to wield Thor's hammer? This segment is littered with “Easter eggs”, and on point lines, leading the audience, on more than one occasion, to break into applause.
And then on to a final battle, between Avengers and, er, Thanos, who they definitely killed back at the start of the film. Did I mention Endgame includes paradox? Though, not quite battle as we saw it in Infinity War. For this – and the family get togethers that followed, felt much more like old-fashioned curtain call. First the entire cast take to the stage to bow together. Then one by one the main characters advance to bid farewell.
Though I cannot pass this section without honourable mention to the point when the Women Avengers Assemble. Yay!
And yes: there are farewells here. Likely the last time we will see creative inspiration Stan Lee, who died in 2018, in on-screen cameo. The line that came most often to mind is from another universe entirely, as Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy tells Sam: “the Shire...has been saved, but not for me”. Not everyone survives Endgame. But who departs and the manner of their parting? That would be telling!
Suffice it to say: Dr Strange knew exactly what was to happen, what had to happen.
Four and a half stars.