Waiting for Thanos

Avengers: Endgame is like Samuel Beckett with superheroes.

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Rocket Raccoon, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in a meeting room in a scene from Avengers: Endgame.
Don Cheadle, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Karen Gillan, Paul Rudd, and Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Endgame. Marvel

“The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on,” observes one of the four characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, a starkly minimalist meditation on the inevitability of death and the necessity of maintaining human connections, however imperfect and infuriating the humans we’re stuck with may be. The Avengers installment of the same title, the conclusion of an 11-year, 22-movie cycle of Marvel Cinematic Universe adventures—is the precise opposite of minimalist: It’s three hours long, stuffed with dozens of characters, and takes place not in a bare room with a chair and two windows but across multiple galaxies, time spans, and alternate universes. But in its own sentimental, fan-servicing, spaceship-exploding way, Avengers: Endgame, directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, takes on some of the same hard questions as its existentialist namesake. Whether you’re a bickering old couple stuck in a pair of garbage cans or a gang of bickering superheroes trying yet again to save the cosmos, how are you supposed to confront loss, the ineluctably sad fact that the people and institutions and, yes, even movie franchises you care about are always in the process of changing, disappearing, and dying?

Lest that analogy—Beckett in space!—sound too somber, take heart that (like the play Endgame, actually) Avengers: Endgame throws in plenty of laughs along the way. In fact, in the long stretch between its appropriately somber opening chapter and an emotionally grueling finale, it may be the most lighthearted and character-driven Marvel movie since the giddy comic entry Thor: Ragnarok. Endgame consists almost entirely of the downtime scenes that were always secretly everyone’s favorite parts of these movies anyway—the Avengers hanging out, dunking on each other’s outsized egos, indulging in passive-aggressive dominance displays disguised as banter, or casually offering each other their uneaten peanut butter sandwiches. But this epic installment (scripted by MCU veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is still capacious enough to fit in ample time—more than ample, I’d say—for spectacular if cacophonous action scenes, serious dramatic storytelling, some touches of light romance, and a surprising amount of what you might call well-earned brooding, not just on the parts of the heroes but of the villain too.

That would be Thanos, the hulking, purple-skinned bad guy (voiced by Josh Brolin) whose utilitarian moral principles had him halving the universe’s population of living things with a single finger snap in the shockingly bleak ending of the last chapter, Avengers: Infinity War. When we revisit our heroes, even those who haven’t been dissolved into mulch have been transformed by the event—sometimes literally. (A huge prosthetic stomach worn by one of these super-specimens veers cringily near fat-joke territory, but the hero’s insistent self-confidence makes the transformation more endearing than pitiable.) It takes a character who’s only briefly crisscrossed with this now-downtrodden group in the past—Paul Rudd’s size-shifting Ant-Man—to propose a plan: Why not hop back in time, reconstruct the all-powerful glove before Thanos can, and snap the missing 50 percent back into being again? That will of course require the construction of a time machine, but with a reluctant Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dragged back into the game, such a device is only one epiphany away. (Pro tip: Just reverse the rotating Möbius strip that floats in holographic form above your super-advanced home computing system!)

Storywise, the middle stretch of the movie consists of crosscutting among various interplanetary timelines as our heroes split up, Scooby Doo­–style, to recover the scattered jewels. By this point in the series, there are so many plot threads to tie up, old friends to mourn (or reanimate), and intra-Avengers scores to settle that in its relatively swift-moving three hours, Avengers: Endgame scarcely spends a minute with a single character who isn’t super. Sure, the task at hand is to bring back 50 percent of the universe’s living beings—according to one character’s estimate, the number of disappeared creatures belongs in the trillions—but the world of this movie is curiously intimate, focused all but completely on the history and relationships of the dozen or so super-beings at its center. I won’t tell you who makes it back to the world of the living—nor who leaves it, sometimes in ways too absolute to be reversible.

But as I got caught up in, say, the gruff resolution of the Civil War–era beef between Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans), or accompanied Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) through a wrenching turning point in their too-long-neglected platonic friendship, I realized grudgingly that these movies—which have taken me in the past 11 years on an emotional journey from charmed (Iron Man) to bored (Iron Man 2 and 3, most of the Thor movies) to pleasantly amused (Guardians of the Galaxy, the aforementioned Ragnarok) to legitimately moved (Black Panther, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Infinity War, and now Endgame)—no longer feel only like products rolled off the Marvel factory line, engineered for maximum global box office and product tie-in possibilities. Though not every outing has escaped the constraints placed on it by formula and the marketplace, this motley crew of super-friends has become a part of our shared popular culture, largely thanks to the charisma and interpersonal chemistry of the actors playing them. You can curse the stranglehold comic book blockbusters have on the film industry and still resist the idea of a world with no one super in it.

For the first time since the Bush administration, the final credit sequence for a Marvel adventure contains no midroll or ending “stinger,” no sly, enigmatic glimpse of what new villain or hero awaits us in the movie to come. That’s not to say there won’t be new Marvel products rolling out in the near future; if this is indeed the twilight of the gods, a well-funded and globally marketed dawn (and a welcomely diversified new pantheon) is around the corner. But there was something peaceful, almost soothing, about getting up midway through the credit roll—I admit I did stick around for one last image of all the major characters, some accompanied, in good fan-service style, by the autographs of the actors playing them—and leaving the theater without looking back. Given that time in our own universe keeps on stubbornly moving in the same direction, sometimes things—movie franchises, actors’ contracts, even the lives of long-beloved characters—come to an end, and there’s just time to take a breath and look up at the sky before the building of the next universe begins.