Avengers Virgins

What it’s like to watch Endgame if you’ve never seen another Marvel movie.

Collage of Avengers: Endgame characters like Thanos, Rocket Raccoon, Iron Man, and Nebula.
Photo collage by Slate. Photos by Marvel/Disney.

What is it like to see Avengers: Endgame if you haven’t seen the 21 previous Marvel movies that came before? We sent two Marvel newbies to find out and then chat about their experience. Warning: There may be spoilers in what follows. The authors frankly have no idea.

June Thomas: Ruth, this weekend you and I were tasked with taking our Avengers-ignorant selves to the movies to join the throngs. (And such throngs! I still have a stiff neck from sitting on the second row, approximately 10 inches from the screen, for three hours—taking advantage of one of the last available tickets in Brooklyn at 9:30 ON A SUNDAY MORNING!)

Of the I believe it is 73 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had only seen Iron Man 2, and I only saw that so I could talk about it on the Culture Gabfest. (Yes, this means I skipped Black Panther, because I really don’t like superheroes or crowds. If there were an MCU franchise about a paper-crafting podcaster, I still wouldn’t go.)

Ruth Graham: I believe I saw Iron Man, but I have no memory of it other than Robert Downey Jr.’s zingy-banter vibe, which was just about the only element of Endgame that felt familiar to me. I have to say I was perversely impressed by how little exposition the script included. Total power move, and it probably made for a stronger movie qua movie, but it did mean I was more confused than I even expected.

Unless I missed a lot (I definitely missed a lot), many of the characters were never even identified!

Thomas: You didn’t miss it—unless I missed it, too. Clearly, the film was made for experts, not know-nothings like us. Most of the time I kinda sorta followed what was going on, thanks to the Kabuki-style acting—it was always clear what emotion was being evoked—but I never knew why people were angry, or sad, or resentful, or humiliated.

I knew the characters who showed up at the beginning—I’ve been alive, watching TV, and seeing magazine covers in dentist’s offices for long enough to recognize the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, and Captain America. I was really happy when Valkyrie showed up, because I’ve seen Wagner’s The Ring cycle twice—proving I’m not completely immune to devoting absurd numbers of hours to epic storytelling situations. I cheered—inwardly—at the pleasure of recognition.

But then at the end, there were armies of people I didn’t know. The audience helped a bit—cheers of “Wakanda Forever” rang out when some Black Panther characters arrived on the scene—but by that time I’d given up. Mostly I was just wondering why so many of the men had terrible beards. (Shaving seemed to be a bit of a fetish for the director: Tony Stark said he needed a shave, we had to watch Captain America go through his ablutions, and then all those odd chin adornments.)

Graham: Yes, thanks to cultural osmosis I recognized many of the primary characters, including Captain America and the Hulk. But I never knew who Jeremy Renner or Scarlett Johansson or Don Cheadle were supposed to be, for example, other than “Avengers.” The first time that raccoon appeared on-screen, I burst out laughing out of sheer surprise.

Thomas: I never did figure out Jeremy Renner’s character, either. Being good with arrows feels more useful on Game of Thrones than for an Avenger. And it seemed like a weird choice to focus the emotional close-ups on—forgive me—one of the homelier actors.

And Thanos’ daughters, who were so very, very key? No idea. I was genuinely shocked to learn that Nebula—the defector—was played by Karen Gillan, a great Scottish comedic actress. Why cast a comic genius in such a dour downer of a role?

Graham: Wow! I meant to Google her afterward because for the first half of the movie I suspected she might have been a fully CGI creation. I am … surprised … to hear she is a) a comedic actress, and b) a great actress. A remarkable transformation!

Should we talk about the plot, as best we can? I knew that the backdrop was that Thanos had wiped out half the world’s population at the end of the last movie. When that installment came out, I cynically harrumphed that there is no way all those characters would remain really and truly dead. Half the general population, sure—superhero movies kill groups that size without a backward glance. But Spider-Man?

Suffice to say, I felt quite smug when they started talking about the time machine.

Thomas: I didn’t realize until you typed the word “Spider-Man” that Thanos’ finger snap was the reason he was missing from the bulk of the action. I assumed it was a talent-management issue—well, and for a good chunk of the running time I thought he must be a D.C. hero. (I’m aware that there are competing superhero universes, but I couldn’t tell you who is in which.)

I don’t want to be snotty about the MCU—I am a very enthusiastic consumer of a lot of trashy television—but the plot was utter garbage. Apart from anything else, the world seemed pleasantly populated post-Thanosapocalypse. Sure, some urban neighborhoods seemed run-down, but in a semi-cool Havana vibe way. But wouldn’t this thinly populated world leave more people a chance to have a lovely lakeside existence like Tony Stark’s?

Sure, a few Avengers were grieving for lost loved ones. But, you know, everyone dies in a Thanos-less world, too. Like Thanos, death is inevitable.

Graham: Everyday life in the post-Thanosapocalytic landscape was by far the most interesting theme to me, and we got so little of it. No Mets, no garbage pickup, but Thor still had cable TV and decent Wi-Fi.

I really liked that group therapy scene and the glimpse of the memorial to the victims. Although there’s a crucial moment where Ant-Man finds his own name on the memorial, and my notes read, “Scott Lang: Who?”

Thomas: For me, that was the most interesting scene of the movie in part because “my loved ones think I’m dead—let me correct that immediately” was a storyline I hadn’t seen a million times already. And it worked, even though, like you, I knew nothing about that character’s backstory. (I have to say, though, those memorials felt impractical given the scale of the population loss. An app would’ve been more efficient.)

I suppose we should talk about the climactic battle scene—which came surprisingly deep into the movie, just as all the little kids in the theater were starting to get really restless. Perhaps it was that I was so close to the screen, but I was more puzzled than awed. And, besides, I had no doubt that Thanos would be vanquished, so it all felt like bombastic filler.

Graham: The collection of the Infinity Stones, whose exact function was never really explained, felt eternal.

Thomas: Oops, I already forgot about that interminable quest!

Graham: So, yes, onward to the battle. I was underwhelmed, and I think that was because of an issue I have with a lot of superhero stories. They all pretty much have unlimited physical powers, right? I’m sure they all have particular specialties, but to my untrained eye it looked like everyone on the battlefield could produce equally world-shaking zaps—and could also survive them. A traditional one-army-runs-at-another-army clash in that universe seems pointless.

Thomas: Absolutely. The lack of clarity around powers and vulnerabilities—and who and how many times certain characters can apparently come back from the dead—annoys me in multiple cinematic and televisual universes. And, at least from a few inches away from the screen, it didn’t even look all that spectacular to me.

Graham: It was obviously supposed to be a big deal when all the old characters came back, but oh brother. And the whole scene was so overstuffed, it verged on comedy. At one point I wrote, “Spider-Man is riding a Pegasus.”

The one part that resonated with me was when Elizabeth Olsen’s character tells Thanos he ruined her life, and he replies, “I don’t even know who you are.”

Same, Thanos.

Thomas: Same, indeed.

Well, I’m glad I took part in this worldwide event, along with however many millions of people it takes to buy $1.2 billion’s worth of tickets. Next week, though, I’ll be back to my usual Sunday routine—sitting on the couch for hours, watching all the TV shows I missed during the week. To each her own.

Graham: I’m just glad we had the chance to partake in what I’m sure will really, truly, actually be the last-ever chance to spend money to watch these characters on-screen. To think we almost missed out!