When is the end not the end? When it’s “Avengers: Endgame.”
This latest (and longest) entry in the Disney-Marvel money-minting partnership is indeed the culmination of something. Picking up directly from last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Endgame” rounds off one phase of the superhero cycle that began in earnest in 2008’s “Iron Man.”
That means that certain villains are cancelled, the order of the universe is restored and a handful of actors round off their contractual obligations.
I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but you can pause here if you want to keep everything a surprise. Rest assured that in general, “Endgame” is a well-tooled finale that seems guaranteed to delight the faithful.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have taken their cue from “The Return of the King,” the final “Lord of the Rings” chapter. This movie is slow, steeped in nostalgia for the previous chapters, and very serious about itself.
You will remember that “Infinity War” left us hanging with a dire situation — nothing short of an apocalypse, in fact. Five years after that cliffhanger, the dispirited Avengers settle on a risky fix for their dilemma.
What could possibly solve the issue? Time travel, naturally. In much the same way the Man of Steel took care of all the problems by spinning the Earth backward at the end of “Superman,” our heroes simply need to nip back in time and put their hands on those nasty Infinity Stones, thus trumping the evil plans of Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) lead what’s left of the team, which includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). In the non-human ranks, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) have roles in the Stone-quest.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a reluctant warrior. Also a sloppy one: It’s one of the movie’s running jokes that the Norse god has spent the last five years drinking beer and putting on weight. He’s more Big Lebowski than Mighty Thor.
Very often humor is a saving grace of these top-heavy Marvel films. Not so this time: In fact, gags about a paunchy Thor are annoying when the rest of the movie insists we feel the weight of our emotional commitment to the previous 20-some chapters in the series.
The addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is a letdown; she pops up for an important gesture near the beginning, but quickly jets off to a different part of the universe. Some other big names from the Marvel-verse are sidelined until the very end, including Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
That’s explicable when you realize that those characters and actors have future Marvel releases on the schedule. “Endgame” exists more for heavy-lifters like Downey and Evans to take their bows and move on to other career opportunities.
“Endgame” stretches out to three hours, and you have to give the Russo brothers credit for fitting in so many characters and references. Because of the time-tripping, we re-visit certain moments from past Marvel movies, cleverly seen from slightly different angles.
The movie expects you to be familiar with all aspects of its universe. That’s part of the corporate process here: Marvel and Disney want you to see and re-see the films (and buy the action figures and the tie-in products) lest you miss out on something.
I confess I chafe at the expectations. Even in the best of the Marvel films, the factory-made nature of the beast is never out of view. Let’s see if the movies get looser without the “Avengers” connective tissue in the way.
“Avengers: Endgame” (3 stars)
The rounding-off for one phase of the Marvel-Disney money-minting scheme, this superhero saga picks up after the disaster of “Infinity War” and lets our heroes go time-tripping in search of a solution. A reasonably well-tooled (if very slow, at three hours) finale, with certain characters sidelined but with plenty for series stalwarts Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans to chew on.
Rating: PG-13, for violence
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