' ' Cinema Romantico: Avengers: Endgame

Monday, May 20, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

As the title suggests, “Endgame” is not a film unto itself so much as a culmination, the apex of a 22-movie series that began with “Iron Man” (2008). If certain films in the series that have felt singular (like “Black Panther”), and if “The Avengers” films themselves have occasionally included lyrical moments (like the beginning of “Endgame” and ending of “Infinity War”) as well as strong performances, they have nevertheless been comprehensively designed in concert with their Disney overlords as one continual product, a kind of movie franchise as pop art project, as much an ongoing TV show as a movie, where missing one or more episodes can you leave you adrift, with fan service the predominant aesthetic experience. All kinds of movies have easter eggs, but I struggle to recall another movie where characters themselves are easter eggs, like Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), there for roll call rather than any real reason, foreshadowing a movie in which the whole narrative exists to engineer a curtain call.

“Avengers” movies have always been best as cinematic cocktail parties, seeing fine actors hob-knob in spandex, but the preceding “Infinity War”, saddled with an overabundance of characters, too frequently played like a cocktail party interrupted by another round of introductions. As such, the supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) offing so many Avengers at that movie’s ending was a blessing in disguise, making the “Endgame” cast list much more manageable for directors Anthony and Joe Russo whose most notable filmmaking flourish is the simple act of blocking, squeezing everyone into a frame, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) going here and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) going there and having him folds his arms and having her hangs her arms at her side for a little variation. And that’s fine! The actors are the best part, never appearing burdened by the weight of a $356 million film, emblemized in how Bruce Banner and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have merged into Professor Hulk, improbably, wonderfully rendering him as a go-with-the-flow green guy in a quarter-zip sweater.

Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, as Tony Stark/Iron man is by now as thoroughly familiar with his role as Johnny Depp was with Captain Jack Sparrow, though the former remains completely engaged, perhaps because Stark has never seemed like much more than an outgrowth of its actor’s own personality. If, however, he has often felt like a one-man show even amidst such a gargantuan ensemble, here a comic partner emerges in Scott Lang – i.e. Ant Man – played by Paul Rudd whose own gift for pithiness perfectly matches Downey Jr.’s. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile, as a pot-bellied, put-out Thor, comically, deftly employs the quest of saving the world as means to get his god of thunder’s groove back. And then there’s Brie. Larson, that is, Captain Marvel. Her character comes across both indispensable and superfluous, barely there, which is a shame because she so expertly, winningly demonstrates the same movie star quality as her eponymous film from earlier this year. The moment in which her character eyes Thor as the latter summons his infamous hammer further evinces her intuitive understanding of how minimal movement and one single, small facial expression can harness the camera’s full power. A single Larson eyebrow raise, in fact, packs more jolt than one more, for old time’s sake, pseudo-climactic action setpiece so hazily imagined it virtually shrinks the otherwise expansive big screen canvas.

The characters’ mission, meanwhile, is a time heist, which isn’t my term but the movie’s, an idea culled from Ant Man’s time in the quantum realm, a plot point mostly unexplained because it is plucked from an earlier movie, one I missed, an example of how classic, concrete, self-contained narrative in an otherwise narrative movie is mostly absent. Nevertheless, they will go back in time to acquire the six infinity stones before Thanos gets them and goes and does what he did (again). If it sounds nigh implausible, these movies have always been jokey, rest assured, as the term “time heist” denotes, and the description by Banner almost approaches the lofty heights of the droll time travel explanation in “Star Trek IV.” It’s so flip, in fact, that other movies are cited as time travel inspiration, including “Back to the Future”, a reference transforming into homage when the characters beam back to actual scenes in previous “Avengers” movies and skulk around to find the infinity stones, a la future Marty McFly invading The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. If that sequence was the high point of “Back to the Future II”, so too is it the high point of “Endgame”, which has all kinds of fun with these scenarios and even injects a little poignancy by way of Tony Stark’s chance encounter with someone significant from his past where Downey Jr. demonstrates his ability to invite empathy amidst absurdity.

Then again, if this moment suggests time travel as something more than a mere plot device, easy sentimentality is all that emerges, “Endgame” remaining oblivious to the larger questions the time heist intrinsically raises. The “Avengers” movies have always been rife with fundamental ironies, like the diabolical Ultron denouncing humanity’s inability to evolve in a movie struggling to evolve too, and if time travel in and of itself might consist of them boldly going where no one has gone before, it is simultaneously a return to where they have already been, evoking the whole series and portending Hollywood’s future. Early, while Earth is still recovering from Thanos’s destruction, Captain America née Steve Rogers has apparently become a therapist, counseling people to “move forward.” Evans’s air, however, betrays his lack of faith in this advice and “Endgame” itself bears him out, its characters not simply struggling to square with what they’ve lost but furiously working to ensure that what they’ve lost doesn’t have to be, not so much boats beating against the current as actually reversing it. Almost 100 years after “The Great Gatsby” franchise filmmaking, by golly, has found a loophole: they have their cake and eat it too.

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