One quiet day Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), formerly the Avenger known as Hawkeye, is at his farm basking in the company of his beloved family when the after-effects of events in Avengers Infinity War take their devastating toll. Twenty-three days after the Infinity Gauntlet wiped out half of all life in the universe, a shell-shocked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) lies adrift in space alongside a similarly bereft Nebula (Karen Gillan). With seemingly no hope of rescue. Meanwhile on Earth, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his fellow remaining Avengers - Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), plus lone surviving Guardian of the Galaxy Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) - struggle to make sense of the apocalyptic aftermath amidst feelings of grief, failure and remorse. Until the unexpected arrival of friends both old and new sparks one last ditch desperate plan to take out Thanos (Josh Brolin) and set things right.
Of all the expectations hanging over the epic conclusion to the Avengers saga (or at least its first iteration, as there were inevitably more Marvel movies to follow) few could have anticipated that its driving theme would be the ties between parents and children. And yet musings on family, parental responsibility and the concept of rekindling hope through one's children are exactly what this film delivers. Albeit sandwiched in-between breakneck action, grandiose sci-fi set-pieces and the sort of devastating emotional gut-punches one would more often associate with harrowing war dramas. Interestingly, in light of contemporary cinema's fascination with dissecting 'traditional' gender roles, a significant portion of the relationships here involve fathers and daughters. The story has multiple male heroes driven by their desire to recover or else avoid the loss of daughters that simultaneously embody redemption, hope and all possibilities inherent in the future. At the same time two crucial scenes involve a life-altering reconciliation between mother and son and father and son. It says something about why this sprawling superhero epic connects with audiences on an emotional level where others resort to empty spectacle that in the midst of time travel shenanigans and big special effects brawls, the film stages a poignant moment where a father and son discuss fatherhood.
Avengers: Endgame is a film about healing. Be it recovering from physical and emotional trauma (co-director Joe Russo cameos in a much discussed scene as a gay man grieving for his partner), mending broken relationships (the fractures wrought in Captain America: Civil War (2016) are addressed here), atoning for past sins or literally repairing the universe. One infinity stone at a time. Often overlooked in the rush to praise other creatives, co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take what in lesser hands could have been a seriously unwieldy, labyrinthine story and divide it into three ingeniously compelling acts. The first is psychological study exploring how various characters cope with grief in different ways. While some, including Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (in her most nuanced and affecting turn in the role) and Brie Larson's Captain Marvel (galvanizing the film with her pleasingly sparky energy, albeit sporadically), retain their fighting spirit, others wallow in despair and/or self-recrimination. Some cling to hope while others maintain a more pragmatic outlook. Or else vent their rage and frustration through pointless, potentially self-destructive violence. Although Josh Brolin's Thanos remains as formidable a villain as ever (in light of a plot twist, arguably even more so) the true antagonist faced by the Avengers here is the fear of failure.
Time travel comes into play throughout the film's second act which one character tags accurately as a 'time heist.' Despite a curious choice to heap scorn on the quantum logic underlining Back to the Future (1985) Markus and McFeely's script does actually lift a trick or two from the less beloved yet in retrospect more influential Back to the Future Part II (1989). From this point Avengers: Endgame plays delightful self-referential games with the history of the MCU. Chock full of surprise cameos and "I remember that" moments it is fan-boy filmmaking at its most charming yet works largely because there are genuine stakes staged amidst the fun. The third and possibly most crowd-pleasing act is of course the big showdown. Yet where past Marvel epics are often accused with foregrounding hollow spectacle, Endgame's electrifying finale is turbo-charged with big, satisfyingly cathartic emotional pay-offs. Like virtuoso musicians at a rock concert directors Joe and Anthony Russo give fans moments they both wanted and never realized they wanted. Among these a notable sequence celebrating Marvel's rich roster of strong female protagonists that drew the by-now tiresomely predictable misogynistic griping even as theater audiences around the world cheered. Even more, unlike other sprawling three hour saga-concluding epics, Avengers: Endgame sticks the post-script ending, concluding multiple character arcs with remarkable poignancy and grace. Amidst a galaxy of stellar turns wherein every single character miraculously lands a standout moment, Robert Downey Jr. shines brightest shouldering the most affecting character arc as Iron Man. Fittingly, as it was on his shoulders Marvel built the most successful film series of all time.