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 Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s probably been a bit annoying to Marvel for some years that the movie rights to arguably their most prominent single character, Spider-Man, have been tied up at Sony for years.    Fortunately for both them and us, Sony’s own Spider-Man movies haven’t really been setting the box office alight lately and so, after what were no doubt some very complicated behind-the-scenes discussions, the two companies are teaming up to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When we first saw this particular incarnation of Spider-Man, he was being brought in by Tony Stark to help fight Captain America and his recruits during the events of Captain America: Civil War.    After a brief prologue set shortly after the Battle of New York (as seen in The Avengers) and an entertaining and offbeat recap of the events of Civil War, courtesy of Peter’s video diary, Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up after Peter’s return home from his first taste of large-scale superheroics and follows him as he tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do now.

Peter’s main problem, as the movie opens, is basically boredom, going back to the smaller scale crime-fighting after going into battle with the Avengers.   He phones up Stark on a daily basis wanting to know when his next big assignment’s coming – unfortunately for him, Tony, who’s clearly less than comfortable with the whole mentor thing, has passed him off onto the long-suffering Happy Hogan, who tends to either cut things short, or just ignore his calls altogether.    Neglecting his school activities to focus on crime-fighting, he runs into a group of crooks using highly advanced weaponry.   Eager to prove himself, he sets out to track down the source of the weapons and, inevitably, gets in way over his head.

With this being the third iteration of Spider-Man to hit our screens in the last fifteen years, Marvel and Sony had to make this a good one and, fortunately, that’s exactly what they’ve done.    Introducing the character in Civil War was something of a masterstroke, giving us a look at him early to boost excitement for what is, when it comes down to it, a reboot, something that audiences are prone to shying away from these days.

Their other best move was casting Tom Holland, who’s genuinely pitch perfect in the lead role, in a way that previous portrayers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield never quite managed to reach.   It helps that he’s by some distance the closest in age to the character of the three, but he absolutely nails both aspects of the character, the would-be hero and the enthusiastically geeky young man behind it all.

Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark was, somewhat understandably, extremely prominent in the advertising campaign for the film, leading to a degree of concern that he might rather overshadow proceedings, but, fortunately, he’s only in the actual movie for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.   He gets some meat to play with, as Stark wrestles with the self-created problem of what to do with Peter, whether to encourage him or not, and Downey Jr handles it well.    Michael Keaton takes on villainous duties as Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, who starts out in the prologue as an honest man running a salvage company who get the contract to clean up the mess after the Chitauri assault on New York, investing heavily in new equipment to do so.   When the contract is snatched away from him by the newly-formed Department of Damage Control, a collaboration between the government and, inevitably, Tony Stark, leaving him in financial ruin, he and his workers start to use the salvaged Chitauri technology to build advanced weapons to sell for profit.   While unquestionably a villain, Toomes is portrayed throughout as a man whose main goal is to provide for his family, which gives him an unusually sympathetic air which is quite welcome.

Quite a bit of the movie focuses on Peter’s interactions with his schoolmates, to the extent that the movie occasionally feels like an homage to John Hughes.   Most prominent is Ned, Peter’s best friend and confidante, played winningly by Jacob Batalon in only his second movie role.    He and Holland have terrific chemistry, making their scenes something of a highlight.    The rest of the school ensemble are strong as well, working well to make their scenes an integral part of the movie, rather than a distraction from the main events.

What the movie doesn’t focus on, quite sensibly, is any attempt to retell the character’s origin story.   Vague hints are dropped here and there without ever feeling blatant, but the filmmakers are clearly well aware that most of their target audience likely have a reasonable awareness of his origin and that, for the purposes of this movie, it doesn’t really matter, to say nothing of the fact that including it would badly disrupt the film’s well-judged pacing.

It almost goes without saying at this point that the effects work is terrific and the action sequences well thought out.   Some helpful realism also creeps in occasionally – while previous Spider-Men never seemed to have any difficulty finding something to swing from when needing to travel, there are moments here which acknowledge that not everywhere has a conveniently high building around, leading to Peter occasionally having to run through parks to get to where he needs to be.   It’s a nice touch, and rest assured that there’s plenty of webslinging the rest of the time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is another in a long line of solid, fun movies coming out of Marvel.   There really aren’t any major flaws that I felt the movie has, making for a very entertaining viewing experience.    After his brief but highly effective introduction in Civil War, the new Spider-Man has really hit the ground running, and hopefully there’s lots more to come from him.