On Avengers: Endgame

When Marvel first announced the intent to make their own movies based on those characters that they retained the rights to, it’s fair to say it was received with a healthy level of scepticism. When it became clear that they had bigger plans of a full-scale shared universe, I think a lot of people fully expected it to be a recipe for disaster.

It’s been a long time since anybody thought that. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a true juggernaut, with their movies not only gathering extremely healthy box office returns, but significant critical acclaim; the worst Rotten Tomatoes score for any of their films is 67%, and nine of the 22 films have a score of 90% or better. A successful shared universe has become something that other studios covet, yet none have really made any convincing progress towards.

Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd movie produced by Marvel since 2008’s Iron Man, has a lot riding on it. It marks the finale of the Infinity Saga, a story eleven years in the making. It has to follow up the massively successful Avengers: Infinity War and wrap up the story there in a satisfying manner, while simultaneously putting things in place to launch Marvel’s franchise on into whatever awaits it. Really, it’s not a surprise that the end result is a full three hours in length. The good news on that front is that it really doesn’t feel like it.

The emotionally-charged finale to Infinity War has left both Avengers and the world in general massively changed and Endgame deals neatly with their attempt to process what’s happened. After a short prologue set a few weeks after the Snap wiped out half the population of the universe, the film jumps five years to a world where everybody’s had to find their own way to deal with it, with varying degrees of success. The surprise reappearance of somebody they thought lost gives them the longest of long shots to undo what happened and the surviving Avengers set out to try to set things right. And that’s all I’m saying about the plot. Marvel have been careful not to spoil too much (probably 80% of the trailer footage comes from the first 15 minutes of the film) and it’s definitely best experienced for yourself.

What needs to be said up front is that Endgame is absolutely not a film for Marvel rookies. What it is is a highly satisfying love letter to the fans who have stuck with the film series, featuring callbacks to many of the previous movies, some small, like the brief appearance of a supporting character, some pretty massive. The nice thing is that none of those callbacks feel particularly gratuitous, and some come as genuine surprises. It’s not essential to have seen every movie, but a pretty decent familiarity with the characters is really going to help.

The film unquestionably has its flaws, primarily with the pacing in the first two acts, which is a bit wonky at times. But when the film slows down, it’s generally to allow for character moments that, in most films, could feel unnecessary, but, as we’re dealing with characters that we’ve been following for a decade, there’s a sense that the film has earned the right to take the time to indulge in that. The film also manages to maintain a delicate balance between the emotional content inherent in the premise and being, at times, incredibly funny, with most of the jokes landing beautifully. The script is generally sharp and the cast universally bring their best to the table. Some of the characters feel a touch underused, but with so many characters to deal with, the film has to make certain choices, and deciding to focus primarily on the original six Avengers makes good sense.

So the film isn’t perfect. But what it is is a pretty much perfect finale to a decade worth of stories. There’s an epic level of fanservice involved, with moments that fans everywhere will cheer, but, as with the callbacks, they feel earned. Some of the plot logic is probably pretty questionable, but the emotional journey is as satisfying as could possibly be hoped for as we follow, and in some cases say farewell to (probably), characters that we’ve followed through multiple films.

To describe a film as “satisfying” seems like faint praise, but, honestly, it’s hard to find a single word that more accurately sums up my feelings about Avengers: Endgame. Is the movie great? Yes, unquestionably, but over and above that, it feels right in the way it handles the wrap-up of such an epic story. The emotional beats hit spot on every time and, if this is the last time we’ll be seeing some of the characters, Marvel have given them a truly fitting sendoff.

On Captain Marvel

Given their dominant presence on the movie making stage, it seems startling to remind ourselves that it was only ten years ago that Marvel, fed up with iffy movies based on their successful characters, decided to take a wild leap into the void and actually make them themselves. Twenty movies on, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe a box office powerhouse that every other studio out there has tried to copy, with largely negative results, they show absolutely no sign of slowing down.

With Phase 3 of their masterplan drawing to a close and various lengthy contracts coming to an end, likely marking the final appearances of those characters in the MCU as their actors move on, Marvel are keen to get new players onto the board, giving them potential to carry on into Phase 4 and beyond, and also, one suspects, having faced some pretty justified criticism, improve their diversity a bit. Possibly starting with less actors named Chris.

With the character already acknowledged to be at the forefront of future plans, Captain Marvel is arguably one of their more important movies and, fortunately for them, they’ve pretty much nailed it.

Unlike most origin stories, where the lead gains their powers over the course of the film, Captain Marvel opens with “Vers”, the name she initially goes by, already in possession of her abilities and a member of an elite Kree strikeforce fighting a lengthy war against the Skrulls, a race of alien shapeshifters. And an unhealthy case of amnesia regarding her past, with some recurring nightmares that she can’t explain. The main body of the film deals with her struggle to figure out who she really is and how she got there. While not exactly ground-breaking, it does make for a pleasant switch from the usual approach.

The script is a good one. The first act comes across as a bit disjointed, which reflects the mental state of the protagonist, then solidifies as Vers crashlands on Earth (in 1995) and begins to discover her past life as human pilot Carol Danvers. The second act properly gets underway once Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, at this point in his history mostly a desk agent, shows up and the film settles into a buddy cop roadtrip for a while. From there it builds up to an entertaining finale that sets things up for a promising future for the character.

With the prospect of being the face of the MCU for the foreseeable future ahead of her, it’s good to know that Brie Larson, at least on the strength of this movie, appears to be up to the challenge. She does an excellent job of marking the character’s journey from the troubled-but-confident Vers, through a period of uncertainty as she begins to put together the truth, before gaining a newfound inner strength as she confronts her past and reclaims her true identity as Carol Danvers. Samuel L Jackson is his usual dependably reliable self as the younger Fury and the interplay between the two is enjoyably snarky throughout. Ben Mendelsohn is excellent as Talos, the commander of a Skrull infiltration team on Earth and Jude Law gets in some impressive scenery chewing as the leader of the Kree strikeforce. Lashana Lynch makes a strong bid for being the movie’s MVP as Carol’s old pilot best friend, with a mostly understated performance that provides some valuable grounding, both for the lead character and the movie as a whole, and Annette Bening gives an interestingly unsettling performance in a small but very key role. Stealing every scene he’s in, however, is Goose, Carol’s former mentor’s cat, who not only provides some excellent comic relief moments (seriously, who’d have pegged Nick Fury as a cat person), but also proves unexpectedly key at certain moments.

As I’ve commented before, with the work effects teams are capable of these days, it’s almost superfluous to comment on the quality of the special effects, and Captain Marvel is no exception. It would, however, be somewhat remiss not to comment on the de-aging work done on Samuel L Jackson to allow him to portray a Nick Fury fifteen or so years younger than we’ve seen him previously. Marvel have done de-aging work before for flashbacks, generally with considerable success, but this is the first time they’ve done it across an entire movie and it’s pretty much flawless throughout, to the point that you very quickly forget it’s happening. Slightly less successful is the work done on Clark Gregg, returning to the MCU films as Phil Coulson for the first time since the original Avengers. While generally fine in his brief appearances, there are a few moments where his appearance slips a bit into the uncanny valley, with a sense that something’s not quite right. But with Fury as the second lead on the film, it’s understandable that they’d put their focus there, and, with him, it totally works.

The period setting (and, yeah, it does feel a bit odd to refer to the 1990’s as “period”) is pretty impeccable. Sensibly the film doesn’t spend too much time trying to show this off, but does get at least one fairly decent gag out of it with what is, by modern standards, a painfully slow computer. The setting does allow them to throw in a pretty well-selected set of songs from the era, which complement a decent, if somewhat unmemorable soundtrack.

In a nutshell, Captain Marvel probably isn’t quite up there with the very best of the Marvel movies to date, but it does come close, and makes up for the rest by being flat-out entertaining for the whole runtime. A strong script is delivered well by a solid cast and the directors have a good eye, both during the action sequences and the quieter character moments. With less than two months until the character returns in Avengers: Endgame, it definitely feels like things are off to a good start.

Oh, and, for the record, if the alterations they’ve made to the Marvel Studios logo sequence for this film doesn’t make you choke up a little, you have no soul. So there…