Every time a movie, any movie, is completed it’s a miracle. A careful, but imperceptible, juggling of expectations, project management, and happy compromise of what the filmmakers envision combined with what the audience wants or needs. The completion of a blockbuster is even more miraculous, and yet over the years, audiences have begun to take blockbusters for granted. It's assumed that blockbusters just get funded and set out to be giant successes and just...do it. It's as if there's a belief that the recipe of a blockbuster is throw enough money and talent into the movie pot, stir for three months of filming and simmer for six months with marketing, and, voila, a certified box office success you will have.
But in the last decade or so, for all of the tentpole movies offered up by Hollywood, it’s been proven, over and over that is simply not the case. The truth is, at every turn there’s a snake in the grass; every visual choice, every line written, a chance for the whole thing to wildly derail. Film budgets are now so bloated, and the stakes seem to either be incredibly high or uncommonly low that our perceptions have skewed; we are a world awash in the normalization of extremes, diminishing the meaning of everything.
But seeing a project through to completion is, in every-day-world stakes, the smallest and most meaningful of miracles. In that sense, Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of the MCU experiment, has become the most miraculous blockbuster for my generation.
For me, it all comes back to one simple statement: think of all of the places this could have gone wrong.
Sure, one can claim “Marvel had more money than anyone in history.” This is true, but it also means they could have squandered more money than any studio and they didn’t. It seems to me that what makes the MCU so special is that every choice, every day, the people involved took nothing for granted. There’s a lot of talk now about “giving the audience what they want,” but there aren’t a lot of major studios able to do that as consistently as Marvel has over the years. Most studios seem to be laboring under the notion that, like toddlers, movie-goers just want more of everything: bigger, louder, more extreme CGI extravaganzas that astound us with their sensory overload. What usually results is viewing-induced numbness that, once out of the cocoon of the theater, we ask ourselves “what did I just watch”? A film with characters going one way, writing another and visuals yet another, means the viewer is pulled in so many directions that we term it “an experience” to make up for the jumble.
But that’s not the way the MCU has approached things. Known for being meticulous, sometimes to the point of difficulty (I’ll probably always mourn the Edgar Wright Ant-Man That never was, just because I have to have something to complain about), Kevin Feige and team have always known their destination, almost with razor-sharp precision, and have invited those that want to follow along on the journey. And with each consecutive movie that fan base has grown, not just because the movies have gotten bigger, but because they’ve taken very calculated chances that have ultimately given viewers the best of all options: the things they wanted AND the things they needed, even if they didn’t know it until they saw it.
Avengers: Endgame is the pinnacle of everything Marvel Studios has set out to do. It is not just thematically satisfying; it also FEELS like a film and production that is working at its peak. After more than 20 films, the process has been perfected, but what’s on the screen feels more organic than ostentatious. Yes, it is loud and chaotic, and a CGI extravaganza, but it all feels like a controlled chaos. Before the final battle, the story is broken down into digestible team bits that make the gigantic story feel much more manageable. Guided by directors (Joe and Anthony Russo) who seem to care more about this team than just their singular vision, it seems as if the perfect balance has been achieved.
Considering that Thanos is the big bad the MCU has been building to, I have to believe that “balance” has always been a buzzword in the making of these movies and I would say it’s on full display here. It cannot be overstated how important the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, are to these last two Avengers installments. Like the first Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, juggling all of these characters with the right amount of humor has been key, especially when the other side of the story pendulum is extinction. It may seem frivolous to have Captain America stop to say “that IS America’s ass” but what’s even crazier is what that simple sentence tells us about how far Steve Rogers has come in this series. It’s a statement from a leader, in crisis mode, who has learned from his teammates that sometimes the overwhelming responsibility of saving the world can only be endured with a well-timed quip.
The whole film feels balanced in that way, for every character, and every storyline. All of the performers know what’s on the line and act accordingly, but this is the swan song for our core six: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. And their curtain calls surpass anything I could have even hoped to see. They collaborate with the easy rapport of a group of friends who have gone to school together their whole lives and know this is probably the last time they’ll all be here, at this moment, with this purpose, and they all deliver. The movie operates for its full run time with the understanding that, up until now, we’ve been gathering on the precipice and after this leap, nothing will be the same and it works. And I honestly can’t stop asking myself “HOW did they do it?” Nostalgia and new threats, old friends and new enemies, drama and comedy, all of the basic storytelling tenants, perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
Avengers: Endgame is a reminder of how far we’ve all come character-wise, audience-wise, and filmmaking-wise. It’s fitting that the end of this Marvel phase is a journey to the past to lay the best path for the future. It’s a 181-minute reminder of who these characters have been along the way, who we as fans have been and how those two things have, often, emotionally mingled in the darkness of a theater.
For me, it’s the end of an era. This is my team of Avengers. I’m like all small mammals in the sense that these movies have emotionally imprinted on me. That’s not something I say lightly or honestly ever thought I would say, but the payoff of Endgame is so perfect, so long in the making, that it feels like a betrayal to not mourn it in some way. These movies have been a constant in my personal formative times. Iron Man came out the year I moved out of my parents' house. Endgame came out the year I adopted a dog with the love of my life. Every one of those years in between filled with moments, big and small - but perfectly balanced - that make up my life. In the same way, for the actors, for the filmmakers, for us as fans, we've all endured quite a decade. In the end, it’s been a long journey, for all of us.
And while this journey has ended, the beauty of stories is that these same feelings, wrapped in new tales will be passed on, quite rightly, to the next generation. Somewhere there’s a 16-year-old who will meet these same crossroads when their team finishes their watch, and I hope they also get to experience the beautiful bittersweetness that is the taste of a perfect ending.