I saw Endgame on the Sunday after it was released in theaters during a work-related conference in Chicago. I bought advance tickets for a screening at the ShowPlace ICON at Roosevelt. The theater featured “industry leading customer service”, reserved stadium seating, the ICON-X enhanced xperience with Dolby Atmos, upwards of 60 individually powered QSC speakers and 40 QSC digital amplifiers, and a fancy lounge with fancy cocktails. The screens were nearly 1500 square feet.
My hotel (and the conference) were in Hyde Park, a gorgeous diverse neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. As I explored the neighborhood, I stumbled by the Harper Theater, a local spot that had screened films for the local community since 1913 (with a break in the early aughts). It did not have stadium seating or an ICON-X enhanced xperience. I don’t know how large the screen was, but it was not nearly 1,500 square feet. The theater was screening Endgame but there were no lines or fuss, just some posters promoting the movie and people casually milling about the theater. There was something about the casual atmosphere and the friendly environment that felt appealing. I decided to return my ticket at the ShowPlace and buy one at Harper.
The theater didn’t serve much food but was near some great places that did (props to Ja’Grill Hyde Park). It also featured a ticket taker/usher/bartender who made a mean (and inexpensive!) Jack and Coke.The projection was perfectly fine and the sound was clear. The theater was full, but I got there a little early to get a good seat. The audience was perfect, engaged but not loud enough to be a distraction. It was a terrific viewing experience. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, surrounded by satisfied families and fans, I thought that Marvel had finally produced a legitimately great film that captured the experience of reading an epic superhero comic.
I had breakfast with a colleague at the conference the following morning. We chatted about work, family, Game of Thrones and Endgame while sipping coffee and absentmindedly picking at bagels. We both grew up on comics and were surprised at how excited we always were for the latest Marvel film, even when we had mixed feelings about the actual product. They chuckled as they told me that they took Friday off work to watch the film after closing out a particularly challenging case. I told them that I saw the film immediately after a networking dinner at the conference to wind down. They shared their mixed feelings about the film – they enjoyed moments and the spectacle, but the film was far too long and didn’t make much sense. I nodded thoughtfully. I shared my thoughts about the film. They asked me whether I liked the film. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t know.
Endgame is the second part of a story about the epic battle between almost every hero introduced in Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) vast narrative (including the Avengers) and Thanos, a hypercompetent nearly omnipotent super villain with plans to reduce the population of the universe by half that began in the Infinity War. The film is partially inspired by Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim’s classic Infinity Gauntlet miniseries from the early ‘90’s. It features the surprising team ups, epic battles and astronomical stakes that one might find in a classic superhero event crossover. For those of us who read superhero comics when we were children (and many who continue to read the books), this pair of movies combine to form a single expensive, perfectly designed nostalgia machine.
The film blends melodrama, situational comedy, slapstick, space opera and action to create an entertaining viewing experience, but it also values emotional resonance and fan satisfaction over storytelling logic and meaningful stakes/consequences for character actions. The film alternates between dialogue and banter heavy scenes and pedestrian action scenes with state of the art visual effects in a way that feels thrilling in the theater but quickly fades from memory upon exit. Endgame tantalizes the audience with a world of imaginative possibility that feels absent of civilians or characters who are not superheroes (by this point in the narrative, the Avengers are mostly protecting and avenging one another).
Endgame exemplifies the strengths and shortcomings of the MCU project as a whole. It is a film that captures the sense of discovery and excitement that readers like me felt when reading superhero comics as children, appeals to a global audience of people who are only familiar with the Marvel characters as brands and feels somewhat weightless and insubstantial.
I saw the first MCU movies (the first ‘phase’) in the theater. The sense of awe I felt watching Iron Man on the big screen diminished with each film that followed. After Joss Whedon’s Avengers, I mostly saw MCU films on a streaming platform on nights when my wife went to sleep early. They were more densely plotted and serialized than procedural shows like Law & Order and not as intellectually taxing or emotionally draining as shows like the Americans. They scratched an itch. The best of these Marvel films were thoughtful and entertaining, but other than a few standouts – Captain America: Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok – the scenes and images faded shortly after the credits rolled.
I never got completely used to this experience. I’ve loved superhero comics and film for most of my life, and one of the things they have in common are the images that lingered in my imagination.
The woman emerging from the sea as a god surrounded by flame. The man who realizes that he’s going to leave his wife and child and stay with a near stranger in France. The woman who embraces her rage and allows her exterior to reflect her interior. The door closing on a woman who allows herself to realize what she suspected all along – that she lost her husband to his family and their business a long time ago. The makeshift family who momentarily put aside their troubles to enjoy each others’ company, if only for a moment. A sequence that asks us to imagine a near future America that feels as uncertain and unsafe as the unstable countries we all read about in the newspaper (never mind that we were always more uncertain and unsafe than we thought and some of those places may have been more stable).
I will never completely understand how the marriage of superhero stories and film in the Marvel Studios films has produced so much entertaining work with so few memorable images and moments.
The excitement that I felt in Chicago’s Harper Theater surrounded by enthused families and dedicated Marvel fans faded into respect for the craft involved in creating the film as I walked back to my hotel room. It took me a few days to notice that Endgame’s plot (and the film’s overall role in the MCU vast narrative) left more of an impression than any image or visual sequence in the film. There were flashes – the exhaustion on Robert Downey Jr.’s face, the calm expression of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk – but very little that lingered in the imagination.
As I sat through workshops and chatted with colleagues from peer institutions over the following days, I found myself returning to the storytelling choices of the filmmakers and Endgame‘s place within the larger MCU vast narrative. There were elements and ideas that were still fascinating, but others which had a distancing effect, a reminder that I was watching a commercial product.
2. Endgame: The Pedestrian Puzzlebox
Endgame is the last chapter of the most successful film franchise of the last decade, a visual effects extravaganza designed for theaters with top of the line sound and projection systems. It’s also one of the few action franchises that feel more driven by dialogue than compelling action scenes. The visual effects are state of the art but the action scenes are relatively pedestrian, lacking the brutal beauty or poetry that can be found in the John Wick or Raid franchises.
I didn’t have the sense of awe or magic that I get from watching films from the Star Wars franchise (which is even effective on a smaller screen). One of the things that separate great action films like the Police Story or Mission Impossible franchises from lesser films is the use of action sequences as a tool to add layers of meaning to the overall story. The fights aren’t just a way to get from point A to point B or an opportunity to thrill the audience, they help us understand the characters involved and gain insight into their respective journeys. We see combatants display their strengths and vulnerabilities and learn from mistakes. The scenes tell a story through movement that complements the scenes with dialogue.
Tony Stark’s sacrifice is foreshadowed in the dialogue-heavy scenes in Endgame and occurs at the close of the film’s biggest action sequence, but the opportunity to use the action and movement to tell the final part of his story was lost. His final battle with Thanos and his army did not look or feel meaningfully different from his prior conflicts with Thanos and other antagonists, except that the outcome was not the same. In an early scene, we do see what Thor learned from Infinity War (don’t pause when you’ve got a kill shot against a genocidal maniac), but it would have been interesting if Thor’s approach to combat in the final battle in Endgame was more clearly informed by the prior film. On first viewing, Thor’s ferocity in Endgame doesn’t feel much different than the ferocity that he displayed in the closing battle of Infinity War.
The action in Endgame may not have the beauty or meaning that one might find in the best action movies, but even after a decade, there is still something novel and exciting about engaging with a franchise that isn’t just composed of a number of smaller franchises with interlocking stories, but has incredibly fluid narrative boundaries. Each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stands alone as an individual work or as part of an independent franchise, but could also be viewed as a piece of a larger story that shifts the audience expectations of narrative extent from the confines of a two-hour film to a ‘cinematic universe’ that includes nearly two dozen films and which represents the entire output of a film studio.
Some viewers can engage with the film as a part of a single vast epic narrative that begins with 2008’s Iron Man, but for others, this film is simply the last in a quartet, or most interestingly, as a part of a loosely connected string of films that have some familiar faces. There were some in my audience who were ardent fans of the MCU and others whose knowledge of Marvel consisted of vague memories of Iron Man and the first Avengers movie and crystal clear recollections of Black Panther (the crowd erupted when Wakandan warriors made their appearance in the final action scene) and Infinity War.
We can treat each film as a chapter of a story or a piece in a giant puzzle, but not only do we not need to experience all of them to understand the larger narrative, the shape of the story itself changes based on the number of Marvel films one has viewed. A story about heroic sacrifice can be one about the limits of duty or another one of a series of zany misadventures. It can even be a prelude to a story where your favorite franchise moves from the margins of the narrative to the center.
These qualities help make Endgame feel like the perfect Marvel Studios film, a work that can appeal to different slices of the audience who are engaged with one or more of the lucrative franchises within the larger MCU. It is interesting to think and talk about, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that the film is essentially a nostalgia machine filled with unremarkable images and scenes. Is this why it was so hard answering my colleague’s simple question?
Did I like this film at all? And if I didn’t, why am I still fascinated by Endgame?