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 Thor: Ragnarok

Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, has, from his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, been one of my favourite Avengers.    Probably the driving force behind that has been Chris Hemsworth’s ability to take on what could be a very one-note character with, on occasion, some pretty bizarre lines, and sell it with a surprising level of sincerity.    Thor was a well-constructed origin story with a decent character arc that launched the character well – that it also got to launch Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, easily the best villain/anti-hero (delete as appropriate) in the MCU to date, was very much the icing on the cake.    Thor: The Dark World was somewhat less successful; somewhat ironically, it was hampered by Loki’s breakout success as a character, leading the filmmakers to add additional scenes with the character at the expense of the movie’s actual villain, who suffered badly by comparison.    Thor: Ragnarok aims to get things back on track and they have a secret weapon, Hemsworth’s excellent comic timing.

After his scene-stealing performance as Kevin, the spectacularly dim receptionist in Ghostbusters, it was quite obvious that Hemsworth knows how to sell a joke, and that’s something that director Taika Waititi mines for all it’s worth in what’s pretty much the flat-out funniest entry in the MCU to date.

Since we last saw him, Thor’s been roaming the universe, looking for clues relating to the Infinity Stones, with pretty much no success.    What he has picked up on, however, is that things are not going as they might back in Asgard and so he heads home to find that Odin is acting spectacularly out of character.    It’s pretty obvious what’s going on, so, unmasking Loki and dragging him along for the ride, Thor heads back to Earth to locate his father.    Unfortunately, with Odin out of the picture, certain entities that he was able to keep locked away are breaking out of their confinement and the very worst, Hela, the Goddess of Death, is coming back, armed with an epic-sized, and, as it happens, entirely justified grudge against Odin and, by extension, those who follow him.    When their initial encounter with Hela goes horribly wrong, Thor finds himself stranded halfway across the universe, fighting in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of the crowd without his hammer, without allies and without a clue what Hela might be doing to his home.

A story that deals with such issues as gladiatorial combat, attempted genocide and the actual end of the world seems like an unlikely choice for an action-comedy, but Waititi fires up the humour from the first scene and gives it every chance to shine with a script that moves along fearlessly, never afraid to throw in some snark to lighten the tone.

The cast, for their part, are clearly having a blast.   Hemsworth and Hiddleston settle back into their characters with a relaxed ease, their easy chemistry making any scene with the two of them a highlight.     Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, now sporting quite the vocabulary (if not the grammatical skills) after two years solid Hulking, has an entertaining odd couple type dynamic with Thor, as does Bruce Banner, understandably confused after spending two years locked deep within the Hulk before emerging to find that not only is he on another planet, but, worse, the only available trousers are Tony Stark’s ridiculously tight ones.

The newcomers to the franchise don’t let the side down either.   The ever-excellent Cate Blanchett chews every bit of scenery she can get her hands on as Hela.   She’s a force of nature and eminently watchable, whether carving her way through her opponents with ease, or practically purring how much she missed it afterwards.    Jeff Goldblum is a surreal joy as the Grandmaster, sitting high above the fights in the arena that he arranges.    Waititi wisely gives him free rein with an extremely eccentric character and Goldblum runs wild with it, hitting hitherto unseen heights of Goldblumliness as he happily riffs on whatever situation presents itself.   Reportedly, something like eighty percent of the movie’s dialogue was improvised and you’d have to think that all of Goldblum’s stuff was, making it entirely plausible that the occasional confused looks on other characters when the Grandmaster is speaking are, in fact, completely real.    Giving both a run for their money, however, is the movie’s primary scene stealer, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.   Or former Valkyrie, anyway, as the last surviving member of that proud group is now a hard-drinking bounty hunter working for the Grandmaster who wants nothing to do with Asgard any more.   By turns aggressive and sarcastic, she throws herself into any battle, physical or verbal, with a real “don’t care” attitude, but ultimately agrees to help out.

Visually, the movie is a real treat.   Asgard has always looked gorgeous on screen anyway, but Sakaar, the gladiatorial world where Thor and Loki end up, is no slouch either, albeit in a very different way.    It almost feels redundant to say that the effects work is top notch, but it’s fair to say that the effects teams really pulled out the stops on this one.   The Hulk has far more screen time than in any previous movie and he’s not the only major character in the movie to be fully CGI.    The environments of Sakaar are also astonishingly complex, as much of the planet is, effectively, a trash pile, picking up items from all over the universe, and I suspect that the eventual home media releases will prove to be a mine of Easter eggs spotting odd items that the effects wizards have thrown in there.

The movie does have one flaw, I think, and, ironically, given how much fun the humour is, it’s that sometimes it goes for the gag too quickly.    While the movie often feels like a rather light-hearted action piece, there are dark dramatic moments here that have a major effect on the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, changes that will have certain repercussions in later movies.    There’s a strong argument that such moments should be allowed a certain amount of time to sink in, to make their impact apparent, but the movie tends to almost immediately go for a joke, leading to multiple instances of mood whiplash and a sense that the story is less consequential than it actually is.   Still, too much humour is a pretty low level complaint in a movie that’s just good fun all through.

In the end, I loved Thor: Ragnarok.   It’s easily the best of the Thor movies and has a strong case to be among the best of Marvel’s releases to date.    Thor, along with several of his supporting cast, will be returning in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, but it remains to be seen whether the character will get to headline another movie.    If not, at least he’s gone out on a major high.