Well…here we are. After six years of teasing, the Avengers have finally faced off against Thanos, the Mad Titan – one of the biggest Big Bads in the Marvel Universe…who isn’t connected to the Fantastic Four.
Evil Me: Who?
Yeah, fair point. And just like they threatened to do for years, the real-life Illuminati behind all these movies split their magnum opus in half, the better to make twice as much money. Change the titles all you want, Kevin…you could’ve called this Infinity Crusade, but you don’t actually care if people buy more comics, do you? You came from the Toy Biz side of the company, where comics are little more than advertising and copyright renewal devices. You can not hide – I see you…wait, this isn’t right, we’ve done this before!
Evil Me: What?
…aww fuck it. Nothing…keep reviewing…
As the second part of a two-parter, Endgame is…alright…with a big asterisk next to that. Leading to a note at the bottom of the page that says, “for half a movie.” But Marvel’s been selling us half movies for the last ten damn years. And they’ve been getting away with it, too. We all let them.
At first, the novelty of their premises really was enough to string we internet nerds, and our associated media outlets, along. In a fake democracy like ours, ruled as it is by unaccountable oligarchs and managed by politicians who always pinkie-promise to hold the oligarchs “accountable” (which usually means “charge them a fine so small they’ll earn it back in five seconds”), seeing heroes from the 1960s kick ass in high-def really did feel like being catered to by a system that otherwise just takes everything from us. The civilians, as ever, didn’t care about much beyond “will this movie shut my kids up for two-to-three hours?” And with our powers combined, we allowed these Marvel movies to become the biggest franchise in human history, without encountering any meaningful criticism whatsoever. I mean, I’m doing my part, but I’m a dumbass who chose Blip.tv over YouTube back in 2011, and was contemptuous of this platform all the way up to 2015, seeded all this prime internet territory to the Merry Marvel Marching Society, as I call the die hards.
They let these movie’s mediocrity pass for the new “fucking awesome!” because most everything else in the last ten years that claimed to be “fucking awesome” so often turned out to be trite bullshit. Witness the Twitter-based, fake box-office war between this movie and James Cameron’s Avatar…as if both aren’t owned by the same company now…and as if anyone remembers Avatar…There’s only two Avatars I care about, and Jim Cameron’s got nothing to do with either of ’em. He just made sure they couldn’t use that title when it came time for their movie.
And do you remember when I said Civil War did nothing but ensure everyone would have to waste the whole first act of Infinity War Getting the Band Back Together? Since that trick was so nice, they decided to use it twice. So here, after finding out Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones and killing him anyway out of impotent spite, Endgame skips ahead five years. That way, our assembled Avengers can scatter again, and this three hour movie can spend its entire first hour establishing new status quos and then Getting the Band Back Together…again. It’s a bit like Fant4stic…except (presumably) intentional.
Some of these new status quos are even interesting. Tony and Pepper have settled down and had a kid, and Tony’s finally building a proper suit for his lady. Captain America’s leading the therapy sessions he probably should’ve been attending this whole time. Thor’s sulking in his gamer hovel in New Asgard – a little town on the coast of Norwary where the survivors of that refugee ship have apparently settled with no real problems whatsoever. Bruce Banner’s finally stopped depersonalizing his rage and become Professor Hulk – an end-point to his character arc that some of us have wished for ever since we saw the foreshadowing on the wall of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, back in ’03. Hawkeye’s Norman Fucking Rockwell family got snapped away, so he’s in Japan now, killing yakuza and (at least in my head cannon) having a torrid affair with Tatsu Yamashiro. And Black Widow’s become the Batman of this team – coordinating a far-flung roster of heroes who are, honestly, working better together now than they have been for the last three years worth of films.
This could’ve been quite the examination of how loss and trauma can make people leave their petty bullshit behind and come together…But we should all know by now that’s a vicious lie – the Great Myth of Post-9/11 America – and that massive, dramatic moments of world-shattering tragedy don’t actually make people any better. Like the formula that turned Alec Holland into Swamp Thing, all they really do is make people more of what they already are. Meaning the shit-scared, totally ineffective governments of this Earth should’ve become even more fascist and shipped all our Avengers off to Super Guantanamo.
But this isn’t a prison break movie. Instead, someone, somewhere along the way, decided Avengers 4 should be a Heist Film…and a Time Travel film at the same time. They even invented the phrase “Time Heist,” which let’s me bring up the phrase “stealing time” – a practice I fully endorse.
They conceived this plot in order to make Ant-Man instrumental, rather than just have Scott pop up in the second act, like he does in Civil War. By emerging from the end of his last film, Scott proves that time travel is possible. So Ultron’s two dads put their big brains together and figure out the technical side while the rest of our team collaborates on an oral history of the Infinity Stones.
And that gets us to problems unique to this film, as opposed to all the by-now standard Marvel movie problems. They know they should be driven by the development of these characters, but most of their twenty-odd films over the last ten years were driven by the need to maneuver six McGuffins into place for the Infinity War, and subsequent Crusade. Between all the fast-forwards and forty-minute climactic battles, we’re left to wonder who these characters really are. They seem to arbitrarily change from film to film based on the whims of their manufacturers…as if all their really interesting life events occur off-screen, where they won’t attract the notice of critics…or uncritical consumers who might become critics after going, “Hey…wait a second…” a few dozen times.
And that was before time travel became possible. That it is possible means I’m supposed to pull my hair out over time travel mechanics, as this film depicts them. Instead, I’m pulling my hair out over the fact this film depicts two different versions of time travel…and then ignores both of them for the sake of dramatic, climactic moments.
Here’s the thing: Hulk explains to Ant-Man and War Machine that, no, Back to the Future really was just a movie. The past is the past, and it is unalterable, no matter what you do. Then Bruce goes back to 2012 and the Ancient One basically tells him, “Um, actually, no, Dr. Banner. You’re out of your field and talking out of your big green ass.” Far as she’s concerned, Back to the Future rules totally apply to Earth 2×10^5. Changing things in the past will totally create new, dystopian futures – like one where Dormamu swallows the world without a Dr. Strange around to Groundhog Day him.
Meanwhile, in 2014, the presence of two Nebulas on the same wifi network alerts Thanos to the Avengers’ plan. In response, Thanos concocts his own plan to replace 2023 Nebula with 2014 Nebula, travel into the future, steal the gathered stones, and recreate the universe in his own image…a.k.a., what he should’ve done in the first place. In keeping with all his plans, this one is fatally flawed, giving 2023 Nebula enough time to spoil the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies for 2014 Gamora…including how Gamora’s future actions eventually turned her blue sister to the Light Side of the Force. This is enough to turn Gamora, and almost enough to turn 2014 Nebula…but she was always the stubborn sister. So, in the end, 2023 Nebula has to kill her 2014 self…and in keeping with her character, stubbornly refuses to blink out of existence.
It gets worse the more you think about it. The Thanos Tony snaps out of existence at the end of the Climactic Battle is the Thanos of 2014, brought forward to 2023 by 2014 Nebula (RIP). Meaning he was never around to destroy Knowhere, throw Gamora off a cliff, and invade Earth in 2017, wiping the whole need for this entire film out of existence. Things get even worse when Captain America decides to go back in time, return all the stones to their proper whens, and stay back in 1945, to finally have his dance with Peggy. Peggy who died back in 2016, exacerbating the Civil War. Are we to believe Old Steve was just hanging out in the next hospital room all those times his Younger Self went to see her? Nevermind the fact 2023 Captain America went back to 1945 and let all manner of historical horrors unfold without trying to change them. Even if (in spite of everything) Banner was right and “you can’t change the past,” we all know Captain American would still damn well try. Fatalistically continuing the fight against long odds is kinda his whole thing. Until this film. Probably because his actor wanted to eat a sandwitch. (I read somewhere that Evans was contractually forbidden from eating carbs sometime back in 2010, and while I can’t confirm that’s true, I can confirm it’s the kind of shit women in Hollywood have been putting up with for decades.)
And yet, it appears as if Back to the Future really was bullshit. The past is the past and, even when it comes through to the future and dies, or when the future goes back into the past to live, apparently nothing’s changed. It’s a fatalistic, mechanistic view of the space-time continuum, more akin to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey than anything else.
I know I’m probably the only one who cares. The rest of you probably just throw up your hands and go, “I hate temporal mechanics.” As well you should. I just wanted to go through all of that to say it took the Terminator franchise five movies to get this cavalier with time travel. What Endgame does here is what we in the business call “abusing the privilege.” And they abuse their time travel specifically to wallow in nostalgia for themselves, creating a film that plays like a Greatest Hits album. Hey, remember the Chitari Invasion of New York? Remember the pathos Iron Man 2 wrung out of having Tony reconcile with his father? Remember when Asgard was around to take up space on some ILM hard drive? Remember Starlord dancing across Planet Dark Souls? Yeah, great times, those.
The reason people make Back to the Future a key point in their understanding of movie time travel is, it lays out clear rules at the beginning and follows them to the degree allowed by dramatic license. (If Marty blinked out of existence the moment he stopped his parents from meeting, there’d be no story.) This (theoretically) frees the viewer up to get into the emotional journeys of the characters…which I’m supposed to be doing here. But with the exception of Hawkeye and Black Widow, I’m not sure who these people are, both because of the time jump, and (let’s be honest) the general quality of Marvel movie writing. What am I to make of a Captain America who begins the movie talking about the importance of continuing the Good Fight after a senseless tragedy, to honor the memories of those we lost if nothing else…and who ends this movie going, “Screw it. I saw my old girlfriend back in 1970 and I’ve got a time machine in my hand. See y’all in eighty years, fuckers”?
I’m not supposed to think about that. I’m supposed to be overjoyed to see Steve hand the shield to Sam Wilson. That way, he and Bucky can spend their whole movie fighting over it instead of developing. I’m supposed to be equally overjoyed to see Tony as a husband and father, but I am not a Nietzschean, so I need more than two scenes in the first act to care. The last time Tony reconciled with his father, he was still technically single, though he would’ve set his Facebook status to “it’s complicated.” This time, he can speak parent-to-parent with 1970s Howard Stark, which is supposed to be novel enough to stop me from going, “I thought we’d moved past all this shit in 2010?” Yes, there are some issues people never really move past, and Tony Stark is the poster boy for circling psychological drains. That’s why I stopped caring about Movie Tony three years ago, after he decided to make all the same mistakes that made me stop caring about his comic book counterpart a decade prior. Now, from the comfort of emotional distance, I can think it funny when Pepper has to shove Peter Parker out of the way so she can get a moment with her dying husband. I should be horrified at how callously these movies prioritize brand synergy over its own characters. But I am, sadly, used to it by now.
Partially that’s thanks to Thor. While Tony still seeks (and, once again, finds) a Reconciliation with His Father, it appears Thor’s been craving a reconciliation with his dead mom. First we’ve heard of this since 2014, but it is nice to see Freya again. She was one of the most level-headed people in this universe…so, of course, she had to die. The Fridge-Stuffing Gods required a sacrifice, and I should be happy they didn’t take Natalie.
I’m being facetious. Thor’s in a funk because he really should’ve gone for the hand and, in the five year time-jump, he’s let himself go. And by “let himself go,” I mean he got a little puggy and started dressing like a schlub, because Hollywood studio movie makers still think making their actors fat and unfashionable is just the funniest joke in the world. Going back to 2014 gives Thor the opportunity to get a parental pat on the head and a chance to steal Mjölnir away from his younger self. There’s Thor’s Reconciliation with His Father, right there: an external source of validation. It’s what all heroes crave…except it’s not – it’s what we normal, everyday schlubs crave, and…oh my god, I think I just got it. Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
Curtains for Black Widow, too. Goddamnit, Nat, why’d you have to be so noble? If you weren’t, you’d have developed even less over 20 movies than the rest of these cyphers. The good thing about being a super spy who (by her own admission, in Winter Soldier) reflexively tries to be all things to all people is, it’s much harder for your corporate owners to re-set you back to your Factory Default Characterization. Not having a Black Widow origin film to refer to might’ve actually helped this situation, because it allows me to pretend Nat’s saving Hawkeye from his war with the Yakuza (and need to sacrifice himself to the Soul Stone) is a parallel to that time he saved her from…whatever the Russian super soldier program was up to back when they first met.
It also works in the immediate because, while the Snap took Clint’s happy family away from him, it made Nat adopt the whole damn team as one big, fucked-up family…with Clint paramount among them, since he invited her to be “Auntie Nat” way back before she even knew about the rest of these jokers. Faced with the chance to give Clint back the family she never had, and to make things better for the one she’s found at work, she sacrifices herself to the Soul Stone and becomes the hero of the day. Unironically, press “F” to pay respects to a real one. See you in prequels, I guess.
All that aside, we still have to discuss the Real Problem: the fact these movies have recreated all the things we comic book fans spent my entire life complaining about, all the things non-fans say kept them from getting into comics in the first place, and all the things ex-fans say eventually drove them away. Paramount among them is the constant interrupting of everything (including everyone’s character arcs) for a Big Dumb Crossover Event That’s Sure to Change Everything…but don’t they always?
And whatever happened to Sharon Carter, anyway?
Evil Me: Who?
Yeah, fair enough.
The term “endgame” used to be reserved for the last few moves a chess match, when the losing opponent is already screwed thanks to a mistake they made way back when. Maybe it was when they let Thor port himself away at the end of Age of Ultron without establishing a communication strategy. Shit, even Carol Danvers and Nick Fury managed that much. In 1995, no less.
Or maybe Thor fucked everything up by looking in all the wrong places. If he’d just gone into the right bar on the right drift or asteroid colony, he might’ve heard a couple of regulars jawing about that shit that went down on Xandar. As in, “Hey, did you hear about the shit that went down on Xandar? A fuckin’ humy held an Infinity Stone in his bare-ass hand and didn’t die…apparently, thanks to the Power of Friendship.” And then the other patron goes, “What kind of Disney movie bullshit is that?” I’m positive extraterrestrials in this MCU know about Disney movies, and that’s exactly the kind of “joke” modern, Live Action Remakeing, Star Wars-owning, resting-on-Marvel’s-laurels Disney would make about itself. An attempt at taking their own piss that backfires horrifically, coming off as the worst kind of treacly self-regard.
Our Earth-based heroes certainly screwed up by letting their first real political crisis tear them apart. And Dr. Strange screwed up by acting too good for all this shit back in Ragnarok. A simple, “Yeah…while you were gone, your other team mates all got into a pointless pissing contest over whether to stick Captain America’s brainwashed best friend in Super Guantanamo,” might’ve made all the difference. But it’s too late now. You can’t change the past. Unless you can. Unless you can’t…
If this is a chess match, and we are in the Endgame, then we’re the opponent who fucked up way back when. Maybe it was back in 2012, when we let the Avengers glide to success. Or maybe it was back in 2010, after Iron Man 2 warned us about the future and we didn’t listen. Or maybe it was last year, when we gave them a billion dollars over a weekend for half a movie, knowing we’d have to wait a year for the other half, and acted grateful for it. Simpering corporate loyalists who stan – not a person or a character or even the actor who plays them – but the producer supposedly running this whole show. Who is now, apparently, going to be in charge of Star Wars as well, because putting history’s two biggest movie franchises in the hands of one guy sounds like a great idea. The Golden Age Hollywood Studio System is back, baby…except, back then, there were more than four studios.
I’m genuinely curious to see where these Marvel movies will go now that they have no competition and aren’t setting up a Big Dumb Crossover Event…but my curiosity is tempered. I’ve been burned before, by Marvel, even before the Disney buy out. During those first few years, these movies’ watchword was “continuity” – that was the big thing they were importing from comics to the silver screen. But as time’s gone on, they’ve leaned more and more on another comic book trope that’s both entranced and annoyed we fans for my entire lifetime: the sprawling, spectacular vista of characters posing dramatically. We call them “splash pages.”
Once upon a time, another comic book artist/writer/producer built a whole multimedia franchise out of nothing but splash pages, at the expense of everything else…including his own, one-note, development-free characters. That man’s name was Todd McFarlane, and nothing beside remains round the decay of Spawn’s colossal wreck…except the lone and level sands, stretching far away…Just saying, Kevin.