‘Avengers: Endgame’ and endless content

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This review is spoiler-free.

A couple months ago I sat in a movie theater watching hundreds of names in small print roll slowly up the screen just so I could watch a cat throw up for fifteen seconds. This feline regurgitation was the post-credit scene in Captain Marvel, the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prior to this weekend’s box office-shattering superhero-palooza, Avengers: Endgame. Sitting in that theater after Captain Marvel ended felt ridiculous, yet my friends and I weren’t the only ones to do it. People sat patiently to see what brief clue Marvel would offer up about the next film in the series.

In one sense, this is a measure of just how invested moviegoers are in the MCU. There have been 21 Marvel movies with post-credit sequences, and audiences almost always stick around to watch them, no matter how insignificant they end up being. But these scenes are also indicative of how the MCU functions differently from any other franchise in cinema history: the value of each film is tied up in whatever comes next in the series. (I have argued previously that this makes the MCU more akin to television that film.)

Avengers: Endgame, though, has been billed as the culmination of the entire MCU to this point. It was supposed to have some sort of finality, and accordingly, it does not have a post-credit sequence. I’m happy to report that this billing was mostly accurate: Avengers: Endgame succeeds where past MCU films have bored me because it does indeed tell its own story. It does not exist in service to the next MCU movie, and this makes the stakes feel heightened.

Endgame runs for three hours, but it never really drags. The film glides along, supported by succinct plot exposition, crisp action sequences, hilarious one-liners, and discussions about Captain America’s ass. The scenes with Thor in particular are a highlight. Without giving anything away about the actual plot, the middle hour of the film is one of the most inventive and delightfully self-reflexive in all of the MCU. It’s complex yet easy to follow, it’s tense, and it literalizes just how much the prior movies in the MCU existed for the sake of this one. There’s also a prolonged CGI slugfest in Endgame as there usually tends to be in these movies, and as usual, I didn’t care for it. Overall, though, Endgame caps off this 11-year run of codependent superhero films in a satisfying manner.

There’s something unsettling, though, about the idea that a franchise that (if you are a completist) has consumed 45 hours of your life merely turning out to be a satisfying conclusion. Endgame is a blockbuster of epic proportions, it obliterated box office records, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Why do I feel so underwhelmed?

Perhaps this feeling is a fundamental consequence of the nature of the MCU. The apparent goal of Endgame was not to create some dazzling new cinematic spectacle; it was to complete the first decade of the franchise. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and Co. are building a puzzle, not painting a masterpiece. Endgame puts the last pieces on the board, and it feels good to see the whole puzzle fully realized. But it will never have the capacity to reach the emotional heights as an entirely unique work of art.

Fortunately for the MCU, it was born into a world full of puzzle fanatics. Everything in pop culture or politics is piecemeal and fleeting. Our language is shifting: we don’t read the news or watch a movie; rather, we just consume content. Information and art are products, inputs being fed into the same machine. We take them in, we process them very quickly, and we move on to taking in the next content. It’s a mode of intake that warps how we treat MCU films. There are big-name characters in Endgame who have few, or no, lines in the movie. Yet rather than condemn this as an indication that the film lacks character development, we accept these minimized roles as necessary. These characters are pieces on the chessboard, not dynamic personalities.

The conversation about Endgame in this context struck me as oddly reminiscent of the release of the Mueller Report earlier this month. Ever since the special investigation began it has been met with wall-to-wall coverage. Every New York Times nugget of information or Mueller court filing was treated as a piece of a puzzle, and we were glued to the process. Then the culmination of it all came out, and it actually had a lot of what was anticipated. But the idea that the Mueller Report was the end of anything was a mirage: investigations are continuing, and the president is still unintelligibly yelling on Twitter. We moved on.

Similarly, to think that Endgame is the end of anything would be foolish. There are already eight MCU films on the way, one of which comes out in just a couple of months. This is not to say that Disney is simply a money-hungry monolith (although it is), because people clearly like these movies a lot. But the problem with building a franchise based on what happens next is that it inevitably devalues what’s happening right now. Endgame successfully avoids this burden, and it’s a better movie for it. But the weight of more than 20 other movies on its back meant that it could only provide closure, not elation.

I love movies because they are one of the few remaining escape valves from the incessant pace of content consumption. Yes, they are obviously pieces of entertainment. But they operate on their own time, they tell their own story, and then, crucially, they are over. They hold meaning because they are comfortable with their own finality. Conversely, keeping up with the conversation about a never-ending presidential campaign or an ongoing TV series can be exhausting. If it never ends, then why does it matter?

I have a begrudging respect for the MCU, in the same way that I respect the physical achievements of athletes in sports that I don’t particularly care about. It’s impressive what they’ve accomplished, even if it’s not my thing. But I would like to maintain some sliver of hope that all movies don’t go the way of Marvel, existing as a means to expand audience and engagement and all these words that have more to do with marketing than moviemaking. The magic of cinema is rooted in its ability to create the illusion that over the course of two hours, without moving, I have witnessed a complete story. But with the rise of endless content, even content as well-crafted as Avengers: Endgame, the experience feels a bit more like a chore.

Avengers: Endgame: 3 stars

Jacob SkubishComment