A warning: This doesn’t spoil “Endgame,” but does spoil a lot of “Infinity War.”
Ten years ago, I saw “Iron Man” at an Army base theater in Seoul, South Korea, where we were stationed at the time. Since the film was heavily involved with the military (both plot-wise and in real life), the producers did a little tour of overseas bases to coincide with its premiere in America.
Robert Downey, Jr. and director Jon Favreau were there to introduce the film. I even got a poster signed afterward. Downey was already reveling in his new persona:
If you had told 16-year-old Jake that 10 years later, “Iron Man” would be the first in a huge, intricately connected series of films that would have made nearly $10 billion domestically and almost $20 billion worldwide, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Yet, here we are, where superhero movies have made the jump from geek circles to popular water-cooler topics, in an era where you can buy “Captain America” pajamas at Walmart and words and phrases like “tesseract” and “infinity stones” and “HYDRA” and “vibranium” are as commonplace in conversation as the weather.
It all came to an end this weekend (well, technically, Marvel Cinematic Universe czar Kevin Feige has gone on record saying Phase 3 of the MCU will officially end with this summer’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” but that’s technically a Sony Pictures joint and not a Disney film, because of rights, but I digress) with “Avengers: Endgame,” a 182-minute long, $1.2 billion opening-weekend behemoth.
It is impossible to adequately review this movie on its own terms. The Marvel movies long ago stopped being stand-alone movies (perhaps as far back as “The Incredible Hulk” and its end-credits tease), and has instead functioned as an 11-year, 22-episode TV show that spanned two distributors and juggled dozens of characters.
It’s also hard to review without giving away too much of the plot, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it breaks down into largely three acts over its three-hour running time. The first hour is all about the grief these characters have felt after the results of “Infinity War,” when half of the world got dusted away. Tony Stark/Iron Man takes this the hardest, as he watched surrogate son Peter Parker die in his arms.
The second hour functions as a “getting the band back together”/Marvel “Ocean’s 11” caper heist led by Scott Lang/Ant-Man. Much like “Infinity War,” “Endgame” has a lot of humor going for it in its second act.
The final hour functions as the typical Marvel battle scene/end coda wrap-up for all of our favorite characters. Basically, I loved the whole thing, especially the ending. But, with a few exceptions, I’m generally a fan of most of the MCU.
The fact that “Endgame” balances so many story arcs and beats, and does it so well, is a testament to the Russo brothers and to the actors that have imbued these larger-than-life characters with a sense of humanity. Here especially, Downey, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are giving some of their best performances as Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.
By the time we get to the end, we’ve watched a decade of payoff combined with a story that also gives fans a lot of the fan service they wanted (as objective as I tried to be, I was not immune to this; at one point in the end battle, I hollered in the theater).
Perhaps there was too much fan service, but that doesn’t matter: these films are critic-proof at this point. You can’t say anything critical about them, lest you insult the fanboys. You can’t discuss any key plot points immediately, lest you be known as the person who shares the dreaded SPOILERS. And don’t get me started on the feud between DC and Marvel fans, who treat each opening box office weekend as personal validation of their taste going mainstream.
Much has been written about superhero fatigue, comparing superhero films to the Western film boom of the 40s and 50s. These films aren’t going anywhere, no matter what happens to the characters in “Endgame.” These movies aren’t our new Westerns; they’re our new mythology.
The Avengers and the Justice League an the characters in other superhero films are our new mythology figures, our new gods, our 21st century common stories that reflect our times back onto us. It’s not hard to make a connection between when these films started to get popular among the culture at large and why: We were all looking for something or someone to ease the trauma of 9/11 that we were looking for that help from anyone, even if it took the form of a web-slinging high schooler way back in 2002.
We needed a hero to save us, and we took that need to the cinema with us. And after “Spider-Man” set that template, we kept going back, time after time, looking for a way to avoid the disasters in our own lives. These movies became escapist entertainment in its purest form.
Which is why “Infinity War” was such a gut-punch, actors’ contracts be damned. Packing theaters to see these heroes we had watched for a decade come to terms with their friends turning to ash was the first real consequence for this franchise in 10 years. Of course fans were going to pack the theaters for “Endgame.” These characters are our myths, our cultural common ground. As long as the world continues to turn, conflicts rise and people look for relief in film, these movies will march on.
“Endgame” was released a week after Easter, and while this is the typical spring start date for summer movie season now, I can’t help but make the connection. A movie about heroes coping with the deaths of their friends and family at the hands (well, fingers) of an evil force, waiting in vain for those heroes to return, with the promise of a new world renewed…these stories tap into something primal, almost spiritual.
Which is why they’re never going away. To crib from another House of Mouse property, nobody’s ever really gone. And these heroes are always going to be here to save the day — because we need them to.
“Endgame” may be the end of this current phase of the MCU, but it’s just the beginning of what the superhero genre holds.