'Avengers: Endgame' Goes Big While Staying True to Its MCU Roots

thor avengers endgame review
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Even with everyone turning to dust and Peter Parker's plaintive cries, the end of Avengers: Infinity War is devoid of stakes. Sure, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy all dissolve into thin air, but, once the shock wears away, it's evident they are going to return. The question then becomes how, and that's the one Avengers: Endgame has on its mind. And here's the good news: The new Marvel Cinematic Universe extravaganza answers in a manner that's alternately heartbreaking and joyous, improving in almost every way on its predecessor. Endgame might just be the best team-up film in the MCU since the gang was first brought together all the way back in 2012 with The Avengers.

I clearly can't say much about what actually happens in the three-hour running time. The plot for this movie has been kept under lock and key by Disney -- leaks be damned -- and, sure enough, to spoil it would be depriving you the fun of watching this movie unfold. Because, despite the dourness of the trailers and the marketing, Endgame, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, is a whole lot of fun.

The action kicks off almost immediately following Thanos' snap, and then jumps five years ahead in time. (C'mon, you know this from Black Widow's grow-out.) Each of the surviving heroes mourns in his or her own fashion -- some apply their grief to self-improvement, another acts out, another just shuts off to the entire world. (But in an actually amusing way.) But Ant-Man comes a-knocking with knowledge of the Quantum Realm and its time-hopping capabilities. Heroism is back on the table.

Marvel Studios

Despite its lengthy run time -- bring snacks and avoid liquids -- screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely keep the story hyper-focused even as they fling the non-dusted Avengers out to different sections of the galaxy in different timelines. The specificity of their goal propels the action, even while Thanos remains a more engaging villain in theory than in actuality. In some ways, it's fitting: Bad guys have never been the MCU's strong suit. All these jaunts build to a predictable big showdown that's nonetheless thrilling and features some of the cleanest large-scale action the franchise has committed to screen. 

This is a time travel tale, which means it's also part-homage to this 11-year-long enterprise. That is to say: If you've invested time and energy in these movies, it panders to you in ways that feel both meaningful and delightful, with references to people you thought were long gone and jokes you've tittered about on the Internet. But rather than feeling entirely like shallow attempts to win giggles from the crowd, these nods build to earned emotional beats.

Whereas Infinity War asks its audience to engage in relationships it barely develops -- sorry, Wanda and Vision soon to be of WandaVision -- Endgame frequently serves as a reminder of why so many of these characters and their on-screen incarnations have become beloved cultural touchstones. And while everyone gets their moment, I'm largely talking about the original six Avengers.

robert downey jr
Marvel Studios

Even within those core actors, there are standouts. Of the Chrises, Evans is given time to explore Cap's consummate dignity and tenacity once again, and Hemsworth has slid nicely into his role as the comedic muscle of the group. But, fittingly, it's Robert Downey Jr. who steals the show. For years now, his appearances in these projects have almost felt perfunctory. He swoops in, serves up some quips, and flies away. Here, there's a heft to his performance that evokes where this whole shebang began. Tony once again transforms into something more than a figurehead, a charismatic and complicated hero with something to prove.

The franchise has grown in significant ways since 2008, in some ways for the better (more representation) and in others for the worse (it's more of an inescapable corporate behemoth than ever). If this is really the end of the initial saga, it's a powerful one, full of all the charms and pitfalls of the adventures that came before it. There will always be vocal opposition to these movies. They make a strange multi-headed beast -- part-cynical money-making endeavor, part-intelligent exercise in long-term storytelling -- but Endgame reinforces that there's still a beating heart beneath all the machinery.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.