Avengers Endgame: Coming to an Epic Close

So, this is it. The culmination of stories spread across 21 movies. The Endgame. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be this excited for a superhero movie, I would’ve laughed. Six months later, I’m just so glad I got into the genre. The journey has opened up a new universe (literally) for me. Celebrating the end of this journey was a completely different ballgame. I couldn’t get the tickets to an IMAX 3D show on the opening weekend, and I was naturally upset. Of course, this meant that I was watching the movie twice. At least.

That being said, let’s talk Endgame. There is a lot to say here. The movie left me with many questions and many, many feelings. Let us first get the negatives out of the way. The movie is not perfect. The pacing and narrative are a little choppy which makes the film seem slow in the first half. The first half of the film is largely about getting the avengers to assemble and figure out their plan. It tells a number of emotional stories of how each of the Avengers are dealing with the loss of half the universe. A universe that they vowed to protect. In the end, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are the only people who have accepted this new reality (sort of). Starks relationship with his daughter is particularly endearing (“I love you 3000”? Come on!) Thor’s self-destructive behaviour, a radical departure from his usual macho self is a welcome turn. It makes the movie feel much more realistic and relatable. These stories were great and made me invested in the characters all over again. The build-up was essential for a movie this intense and emotional. But it made the first half feel slow. It is not boring, but I kept thinking to myself, when is a big action sequence coming up? And this is coming from someone who doesn’t think of herself as a fan of action movies (at least so far).

The other problem with Endgame is that for a large chunk of the movie, the Avengers aren’t dealing with an antagonist. Thanos realises that the Avengers are going to use the infinity stones to derail his plan of mass genocide a good few minutes into the movie. The Avengers don’t face off with him until later. This means the Avengers, already set up to be the “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” are not being challenged by an external antagonist as they do their jobs. The heroes barely display their powers. While there is a lot of emotion, we don’t see much avenging for a long time.

There are also a couple unanswered questions in the movie. For one, time travel. I hate when films use time travel because the physics of it cannot be soundly explained and it leaves me with more questions than I know what to do with. What happens to the alternate timelines created by the Avengers’ actions when they go back in time. What does Cap’s decision to life his life with Peggy mean for the universe? Furthermore, when and how did Cap become worthy to lift Mjolnir?

Lastly, I didn’t quite like the treatment of Black Widow and Hawkeye. I love both of these characters, and while they are integral to this film, their arc doesn’t feel as complete as that of the others. Black Widow’s big scene was in Vormir, when she sacrifices herself so Hawkeye could get the Soul Stone. One of the highlights of Infinity War was the scene where Thanos sacrifices Gamora to get the soul stone. It was deeply emotional and helped demonstrate the significance of the stone. When this scene was recreated in Endgame, the bar was set very high. Unfortunately, the scene missed the same emotional intensity. Black Widow’s death was incredibly sad, but treated better, it could have been one of the best scenes in the movie. Similarly, Hawkeye’s turn for the unhinged was a bit of a downer. Like Thor, Hawkeye cannot come to terms with his new reality and changes radically. Only in his case, the change feels much less organic. I cant understand this new Hawkeye, because I don’t know what he is feeling. True, Hawkeye is a doer, but I wish the film would’ve given the audience more of an insight into his mind and heart.

I know I am being nit-picky. I wish the emotional scenes had action and the action scenes more emotion. But Endgame isn’t just any old movie, is it? It represents the end of an era for true fans, and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have made it suitably grand. There are more than a few great shots and scenes. The shots of outer space, for instance, filled me with awe. The fight between Captain America and his older self from 2012 is awesome. The shot where they clash shields is one of my favourites from the MCU. Of course, when Cap yells, “Avengers, assemble!” a big smile swept across my face. And of course, there is the big action sequence towards the end of the film. Whatever misgivings I had about the paucity of action in the movie simply disappeared as soon as that scene began. It is grand and nostalgic and features every character from the MCU. Some characters get more attention than the others, but I guess in a film this big that comes with the territory. These scenes and shots, however, are simply embellishments on what is a solid movie. The film’s real strength comes from getting the audience invested in the characters. It is so easy to focus on the powers the characters possess rather than the people they are. Endgame avoids that trap by a mile. Instead it presents us with three-dimensional characters who have grown, both since their first films in the MCU and within the movie itself. Since it is impossible to do this for all the characters in a three-hour long movie, the film chooses to focus on the three main Avengers – Thor, Captain America and Iron Man.

Take the case of Iron Man. I never much liked his character (I know, I know, it’s an unpopular opinion). I thought he was too arrogant and quippy. After the first Iron Man movie, when he reveals to the world that he is Iron Man, it is largely another feather in his cap. He is not just a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but also a literal superhero. Over the years, he understands the responsibility he has on his shoulders because of his suit both towards his fellow Avengers and to the people affected by his actions. Thor transforms from a brutish fighter to a protector of nine realms to realising the magnitude of his own power to languishing in despair when he finds that his power isn’t enough. Over the years, Captain America sheds some of his old fashioned, military man personality and begins to question authority. He goes from being just a supersoldier to becoming an Avenger who keeps the interests of the universe at heart. These are changes that the Avengers and other MCU movies have showed us over the years.

Endgame completes the arcs for these characters. It does so by making these characters dig deep into their feelings. Additionally, Banner finally reconciles with the Hulk and the characters work together to become mutually beneficial to each other. Thor and Stark get to reconnect with their (dead) parents. Iron Man – or shall we say Howard Potts – who had always been distant from his father gets a chance to spend some time with him and learn how much he is loved. Frigga’s counsel helps Thor accept his failure and move on from it. The drunk and sloppy Thor returns from Asgard as the God of Thunder with his beloved Mjolnir. Cap gets to see Peggy again and gets glimpse of the life he lost. These backstories are important because they dictate the course of the characters’ actions for the remainder of the movie. Thor sheds his sloppy avatar and returns to battle as the fighter he is. Cap understands the magnitude of his sacrifices over the years and accepts that he needs to live for himself, and not just for his duties as Captain America. That explains his decision to live his life with Peggy as Steve Rogers and pass on the mantle of Captain America to Falcon. Stark realises that his father loved him very much, but he had to do the work he was supposed to. When it comes time to sacrifice himself, Stark – initially reluctant to re-join the Avengers for the fear of losing his own family – then fully accepts the responsibilities that come with his suit and comes through for the Avengers and the universe. After all, he is Iron Man. Despite the paucity of action in the first half of the movie and the disappointing character arcs of Black Widow and Hawkeye, Endgame’s ability to make me care about the characters the way it did left me feeling a multitude of emotions at the end of the movie.

I think I can safely say that Avengers: Endgame was exactly the sort of ending that this phase of the MCU needed. And what a ride it has been! When else have you seen twenty-one inter-connected stories come together in one great movie? Starting to follow these movies has given me one more thing to love and be excited by. And that is absolutely wonderful. I can wait to see what Phase 4 has to offer.

 

 

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Pacing and editing in Infinity War

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my Marvel journey. Although I am ready for more diversity in the movies I watch, my little project of watching and reviewing Marvel movies has been such fun. I didn’t immediately review a few movies towards the end and wasn’t very good about posting all reviews before Endgame released. And while I wish I had been better about that, distance from this project has made me better at understanding the nature of Marvel movies. A number of film nerds, particularly those who have read comic books, don’t like the formulaic nature of Marvel movies. I didn’t really mind that, especially because I was trying to understand the genre and dissect different elements in the movie. But now (after 23 movies!) I appreciate a movie like Infinity War much more for breaking the formula and giving the viewer a roller coaster ride.

Writing a film with over twenty protagonists is no easy task. Don’t expect to understand all or even a few of them by the end of this film if you are not familiar with the Marvel universe already. Infinity War is one of two Marvel movies that doesn’t work as a standalone film. I hadn’t watched Guardians of the Galaxy when I first saw Infinity War. I doubt I had watched Ragnarok. And I remember not enjoying the movie and wondering what the hype was all about. Oh, how wrong I was! Once I was familiar with the characters, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its run time.

What struck me most about Infinity War (other than the ability to weave multiple stories into one mega-narrative) was the pacing of this film. Infinity War starts with full force. There is no time to get settled in and take stock of what is happening either for the audience or for our protagonists. This conveys a sense of urgency that lingers for the entirety of the film. Everyone just has to react to the situation in front of them. In this fast-paced movie our favourite superheroes seem to be in a constant state of struggle, with their heads just above the water. As a viewer, I have seen them struggle in previous films but they have always come out on top. This time, their victories are small, and come with a sense of desperation. As if there is another fire just waiting to be put out. For instance, we see Ironman, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange struggling to protect the Time Stone aboard Maw’s spaceship. While together they are able to match up to the far more powerful Maw, there is no time to relax or take a breath. The film cuts to Scotland where Vision is attacked and it is up to Wanda – and later, Cap, Falcon and Black Widow – to protect him. The audience is now exposed to another action sequence within minutes of the first. The non-stop action distinguishes Infinity War from the films that have come before it.

This kind of pacing – short, intense action sequences ending in small victories before moving on to the next challenge – is also instrumental in subverting audience expectations and making the film’s climax shocking. This is because, after a while I got used to the fast pace and small victories in the film. Furthermore, the superheroes, though down on their luck, don’t seem defeated. I mean, Thor took the power of a star to make Stormbreaker, arrived in Wakanda like an absolute badass and struck Thanos in the heart. So, when Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe, with the superheroes scattered and defeated in different parts of the universe, I was left more than a little stunned. This is the first time that the heroes have failed in their mission.

Apart from the pacing, film is made so that the sense of shock lingers on right until the post-credit scene. Thanos’ snap doesn’t cut to a black screen followed by credits. We see our favourite superheroes turn to dust. We see Ironman’s horrified expression (and we share that horror) when we hear Spidey say, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good… I don’t want to die.” We see resignation on the faces of the survivors when they realise they have failed, and that their failure has wiped out half of all life in the universe. They, along with everyone else, have lost people they loved. This is further compounded by the next scene, wherein we see Thanos retire like he said he would. We see him alone, calm, walking through empty green fields, believing he did the right thing and that the universe was grateful to him. That genocide was his mercy to the universe. That wordless scene, seemingly calm in its setting, makes the end even more eerie. Furthermore, I think the credits make it such that we cannot snap out of that feeling soon. So far, MCU movies have half the credits shown in a stylised manner with fun music to accompany it. Not this film. The film’s grim tone is carried forward through the design of its credits – a black screen with formal font. The film manages to show what Doctor Strange says after handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, namely, “we’re in the endgame now.”

To me, the form of the film is what made Infinity War special. It helped me understand how constructing a scene and editing can help steer the viewer’s emotions and expectations. Most of my reviews so far have been focused on writing and character development. Perhaps because I am only beginning to understand filmmaking as an art. I think this film is my cue to pay closer attention to editing and understanding the elements that go into constructing a scene.

Before I sign off, I must make a note about Thor’s character in this film. I think it is safe to say that of all the superheroes, Thor gets the strongest part in the film. A lot of that, I think, is owing to how the character was written in Ragnarok. At the beginning of this film, we have a character who has found himself but lost everything of worth to him. Thanos kills all the Asgardians aboard the spaceship along with his best friend, Heimdall and his brother, Loki. The Russo brothers do a fantastic job in using Thor’s arc in Ragnarok as a base and taking the character forward. He is still funny in this movie. But we can see that it is more to cover up his pain than anything. The scene between Thor and Rocket on the way to Nidavellir conveys this perfectly. Thor jokes about losing every person he ever loved. The scene is funny but also horrifying. With a realisation of his power, and nothing to live for except revenge, Thor comes the closest to defeating Thanos. The viewer, in turn, wants to see Thor come out on top as the towering hero. His entry in Wakanda is epic. But it isn’t only because of the stylised entry and his blow with the Stormbreaker. It is because of a close understanding of character and careful writing to carry him forward.

Before Endgame, Infinity War was probably the boldest movie in the MCU. It is no easy task to write a coherent, compelling story that follows narratives and characters across 18 movies and then present that story convincingly to a hungry audience. But Infinity War manages to deliver an entertainer that turns the Marvel formula on its head without relying on clichés (perhaps because it doesn’t rely on clichés). So, do yourself a favour, and watch this movie (or watch it again). Ponder on the journey it takes you through. You will not be disappointed.