Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
It’s a minor miracle that Avengers: Endgame happened at all. It’s the culmination of twenty-one other movies, a pantheon of heroes and villains, and years of storytelling, all borne on the backs of characters whose best feature was that they weren’t popular enough to be sold off to other studios. It is easy to forget, given the cultural and financial behemoth that the Marvel Cinematic Universe became, that it started as a gamble, and that its interconnected storytelling on a cinematic scale is without modern precedent.
Nevermind the wrangling and logistics of it all. The assemblage of A-list performers, noted character actors, and Oscar nominees pulled onto the same set manages to top almost any other dream team production. Nevermind the improbability that audiences would not only willingly follow “The Infinity Saga” through nearly two-dozen films, but would actually hunger for each new morsel of plot and tantalizing hint. Nevermind the tangles of rights issues that nevertheless allowed the emotional arc of the franchise’s biggest figure to hinge on a character owned by another studio.
After eleven years, twice as many films, and way more faces than can reasonably fit on a poster, they did it. They actually did it. With the benefit of hindsight, all successes seem like destiny. But the truth is that the release of Endgame is, in the grand scheme of things, as unlikely as it was momentous.
That the movie is good, maybe even great, is a second miracle. Personal rankings and tastes will always vary. But critical consensus and fan reactions to the film have been almost uniformly positive. Levels of enthusiasm vary, but most viewers broadly agree that the movie is, at the very least, a thumbs up.
In an era where other cultural phenomena have sputtered in their grand climaxes — with Game of Thrones’s finale engendering widespread disappointment and The Rise of Skywalker polarizing audiences — the achievement of not only pulling off this massive undertaking but crafting something almost everybody at least liked, cannot be overstated.
Even more surprising is that it’s a satisfying conclusion to this multi-year, multi-phase, multimedia shared universe project. Balancing the veritable hordes of characters (several of whom had never interacted before) and wrapping up enough of their stories in a way that not only works but fulfills the promises and arcs of so many of these players is remarkable.
The achievement of not only pulling off this massive undertaking, but crafting something almost everybody at least liked, cannot be overstated.
As the final chapter of the mega-franchise that started with Iron Man in 2008, Endgame had to feel both epic enough to top previous outings, but intimate enough to feel like it sent our heroes off right. Somehow, with all of those expectations and hype and challenges, the movie strikes that balance with aplomb.
So much of its success comes down to character. With the advent of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and Michael Keaton’s Vulture and Cate Blanchett’s Hela, it’s easy to forget the common tweak against Marvel Studios was its “villain problem.” And yet, that issue stems from a series that was, for a long time, much more interested in its heroes’ internal journeys — how they were forged and changed by the events of a given film — than in who they punched into oblivion in the third act.
It’s a fool’s errand to try to pinpoint the sole secret of the MCU’s success, but one of its key strengths has been that sort of creation and development of personalities people want to spend time with, even apart from the overarching storylines and pre-viz spectacle.
Some of it comes down to great casting, with performers who are preternaturally charming and perfectly suited for their roles. But much of it comes from a focus within the storytelling on how all these fantastical events affect the heroes and civilians and space rodents mixed up in them, something that Endgame deploys to great effect.
Yes, the movie is about a “time heist” and bringing lost allies back to life and defeating Thanos once and for all. But it’s also about Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) fixation on keeping the world safe, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) struggle with his own sense of failure and unworthiness, Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) abiding efforts to wipe away the red in her ledger, and Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) resolution to face what he’s lost and left behind as a man out of time. Endgame still features the era-hopping fun, trademark quips, and Grand Guignol climax that made fans laugh, smile, and cheer. But laudably, it also opened with an hour of coping and grief.
The MCU rarely forgot to dig into the emotional effects of these grand events on its major figures, in this ultimate climax or elsewhere. That’s what allows it to have such an emotional force even within such a stuffed-to-the-brim finale.
It’s no surprise, then, that several of the major creative voices in the Marvel Cinematic Universe made their bones on television shows like Community (Joe and Anthony Russo) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon). Detractors have accused the MCU of being “TV, just really big.” But those series, not blessed with the budgets of a blockbuster film, had to find throughlines with character drama, balance multiple and oft-changing personalities, and bring a story’s history and continuity to bear when needed. Endgame is the peak of that approach on a cinematic scale, elevated and heightened to something never before seen or done on the silver screen.
Despite that, it became de rigueur to snicker at Marvel Studios’ campaign for a Best Picture nomination at last year’s Oscars. That’s understandable, with various For Your Consideration posters and ads contorting themselves to make Avengers: Endgame look like a down-to-earth prestige drama where various brow-furrowing protagonists come to terms with things. (And really, how could the movie possibly live up to the artistic legacy left by the prior ceremony’s most decorated films: Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody?)
But while anyone should shudder to think of taking away Parasite’s well-deserved win, it’s far from crazy to deem the giant-sized cape flick as worthy of consideration. The Academy is, after all, the same body that nominated Star Wars for Best Picture in 1977 and crowned the Lord of the Rings finale in 2003, both examples of genre fare that pushed the limits and scale of what storytelling could look and feel like on the big screen in ways that are still with us.
Avengers: Endgame is no different. While the film has its flaws, it still represents a sui generis achievement in cinema — weaving interconnected plots, telling longform character stories, and tying them all together in one final, monumental hurrah — like no one has ever done before. That the Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Marvel’s army of creative contributors pulled it off, delivered this finale, and sent their crowds home happy is, even with the benefit of hindsight, still nothing short of miraculous.