Running just over three hours long, Avengers: Endgame builds to a denouement with a valedictory air akin to the last act of Peter Jackson’s similarly sprawling The Return of the King, except that it comes at the end of 22 movies instead of three movies.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe will, of course, go on. It’s no secret that, despite crumbling to dust before our eyes in Infinity War, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther have upcoming movies in the works, and it looks like there will finally be a solo Black Widow movie. New properties waiting in the wings include the ancient cosmic beings called the Eternals and the martial-arts master Shang-Chi.

But some established characters, in the manner of Frodo and Gandalf at the Grey Havens, get what really seem to be final send-offs of one kind or another, offering closure to arcs stretching back for years.

Finality and closure are admittedly relative in a universe where crumbling to dust could in theory be (spoilers? perish forbid!)  more of a temporary disruption than an absolute end. Still, if most Marvel movies over the years have felt more like TV episodes than proper movies, Endgame is the first proper season finale since the original Avengers back in 2012.

As such, it may at last be possible to arrive at a kind of final critical evaluation of Endgame in relation to the various arcs it resolves in a way that was never possible with middle movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly Infinity War, all of which got by writing checks for future movies to cash.

With Endgame, in the words of Mordo from Doctor Strange, the bill finally comes due. The 22nd time pays for all. Is the payoff enough?

As regards its biggest obligation, the hole in the universe left when Josh Brolin’s monstrous Thanos snapped his fingers in Infinity War, wiping out half of all living creatures in the universe, Endgame delivers to an impressive degree.

For me, going into Endgame — indeed, walking out of Infinity War — the criteria for a satisfying resolution were straightforward: There must be no simple reset. No mere rolling back the clock; no going back in time and preventing the apocalypse from ever happening in the first place.

Whatever has happened has really happened, and whatever happens afterward, the narrative must roll forward, not backward. Above all, there can be no substantial reversal of fortune without real sacrifice.

This, in fact, is precisely the challenge the filmmakers set for themselves in Endgame.

First, although the question of time travel does come up, the possibility of merely rolling back the clock is explicitly and persuasively rejected. For once, a movie contemplating different timelines and alternate realities embraces the only rational view of time travel: The past cannot be undone.

The reason is this: Even if you go back in time and change things, what you’re really doing is creating a new timeline branching off from the original. However improved your new timeline might be, the original, unimproved timeline continues to roll on in its own separate reality. It might be nice for you living in the new timeline, but it wouldn’t help the poor souls left behind in the original.

Tom Holland’s eager young Spider-Man isn’t around to make Tony Stark roll his eyes by referencing that old movie Back to the Future, so that function falls to Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, who is almost as old as Robert Downey Jr. but looks and acts considerably younger.

In Back to the Future: Part II, Doc Brown and Marty left an unconscious Jennifer on a porch swing in the hellish alternate 1985 dominated by a deliberately Donald Trump-like casino and real-estate tycoon Biff Tannen. Doc claimed that, if they went back to 1955 and prevented young Biff from enriching himself with the sports almanac from the future, reality would reconfigure around Jennifer and she’d be fine.

Endgame isn’t content with such convenient temporal revisionism. The returning Civil War and Infinity War creative team (screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo) commit to an impressive degree to the timeline we know, to the reality bereaved of half its inhabitants and the characters left behind by Thanos’ finger snap. This is the reality our heroes must live with and attempt to mitigate or improve as best they can.

This means that, for almost the first time in MCU history, characters are given at least some time and space to breathe, to let events sink in, to cope or not to cope, as the case may be. (No spoilers, but if you want to go in completely cold, stop reading now.)

Chris Hemsworth gets his best opportunity yet to strut his comic chops as a startlingly transformed Thor, and Scarlett Johansson invests Black Widow with real vulnerability. Tony and Pepper get more than a taste of a possible happily ever after, while, in a cold open, Hawkeye has his happily ever after ripped away and deals with it … not well.

It’s not all about Earth, either. Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, now the MCU’s most powerful character, is absent for much of the movie because, as she points out, what’s happening on Earth is also happening on planets across the galaxy. Among the extended cast, Karen Gillan’s blue-skinned Nebula, adopted daughter of Thanos, has a particularly complex path.

Despite the temporal non-revisionism, Back to the Future-type shenanigans are in the offing, specifically evoking my favorite part of Back to the Future: Part II, in which Doc and Marty return to 1955, revisiting and reinterpreting the events from the first movie in fugue-like riffs.

Reviewing Infinity War, I said that it wasn’t “just the latest installment in the MCU, it is the MCU — as much of it as could possibly be compressed into a sprawling 160 minutes.”

Clearly I did not know what I was talking about, because Endgame really is the MCU — not just the universe established by the past films, but the past films themselves, or specific set pieces and times and places from those films.

Some reviews are calling this fan service; I guess because there’s a certain greatest-hits quality to it. I disagree. Fan service is gratuitous, for its own sake. What Endgame does is a kind of intratextual storytelling possible only in a mature franchise, building on its own past in order to create a satisfying sense of consummation and closure.

Even more than Back to the Future, Endgame evokes “All Good Things,” the celebrated series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard finds himself adrift in time, revisiting incidents from past episodes going all the way back to the pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint.”

Beyond the aesthetic rationale, the plot-level considerations work in their own right. The characters’ choices make strategic sense; there are good reasons to return to the specific times and places we see here.

There are also opportunities here to try to close some holes as well as wrap up some loose character threads. When Doctor Strange revealed that the Ancient One and her fellow sorcerers had been around all along, some viewers wondered what they were doing when Earth faced some of the existential threats of past films. Endgame suggests that perhaps they weren’t as passive as might have been assumed.

Finally, this specific approach to time travel is, I must confess, my jam. I love time travel in general, but I especially love it when it’s done this way.

There’s a conversation between Mark Ruffalo’s Banner-Hulk and a character from an iteration of Doctor Strange’s world, or what will become Strange’s world, that made me laugh aloud for pleasure at the practical concern not just for “our” timeline but others as well — and at the logical solution to the conundrum.

For all this, with the sense of closure comes an unavoidable clarity about the limits of the overall scope of this franchise, for all its unprecedented success.

As ambitious and well-crafted as Endgame is from a plotting perspective, and as satisfying as some of its choices are from a character perspective, there’s basically no thematic vision to this final chapter, and thus to the main arc of the franchise as a whole.

In a big-picture way, the MCU isn’t really about much of anything.

Individual chapters have carried some thematic heft. Most of the origin stories have been about heroes with feet of clay who had to save themselves before they could save the world. For a while in the middle the idea of the erosion of freedom in the name of security and the untrustworthiness of the military-industrial complex was a running idea.

Doctor Strange explored the idea of mystery and the ineffable and of rules that could be bent and perhaps rules that should not be. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok developed ideas of corruption at the heart of national patrimony, with particular attention to race in Black Panther and colonialism in Ragnarok.

Endgame is mostly about thwarting the bad guy, dealing with the apocalypse and saving as much of the world as possible. There’s no thesis, no statement of what 22 films tell us about humanity or life, the universe and everything. (By contrast, for example, “All Good Things” was about the importance of expanding one’s mind to consider previously unimaginable possibilities.)

The closest Endgame comes to a thesis is in a conversation between Steve and Natasha about the necessity of moving on and “getting a life.” If they don’t, Steve says, “Thanos should have killed all of us.”

The point of saving the world, then, is to preserve and maintain those moments of ordinary life, which mostly means relationships, marriage and family. (Children are an essential part of this vision.)

The lack of interest in human nature is particularly evident with respect to the overwhelming secularity of the Marvel movies, the lack of existential interest in mortality and even in commemorating the dead. (Vague spoilers follow.)

In 22 movies, I recall exactly one ostensibly religious event in a Marvel movie, a church funeral in Civil War.

Infinity War wiped out half of all life on Earth, and in what follows nobody prays or darkens the door of a church. Nobody asks where God is, or whether there is a God. Not even “God’s righteous man,” Steve “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that” Rogers.

For that matter, nobody contemplates suicide or wonders whether there’s any point to going on. (Suicides would definitely spike in the world of this movie. So would having babies.)

We do see that the mass disappearance of billions of people would not go without monuments to the names of the vanished. Yet when important characters die, presumably permanently, one goes completely uncommemorated; another gets an ephemeral send-off but no enduring memorial.

Then there’s the question of potentially bringing back characters who have died. Shouldn’t this at least elicit questions of a religious nature, questions about the afterlife? If characters did come back, would they have anything to say about life after death? I can think of ways of dodging these questions, but they should be there to dodge. (There is one fleeting affirmation of belief that characters who are gone continue to be aware of events.)

It didn’t have to be like this. Shazam! showed that prayer and ordinary religious culture can still exist in a comic-book movie. At Marvel, though, it seems the priority is on avoiding anything even potentially controversial, even if it means avoiding anything thoughtful or interesting.

Avengers: Endgame does what it sets out to do: Along with Infinity War, it brings a comic-book story of unprecedented scope and ambition to a thunderous, mostly satisfying conclusion. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

It’s a better-than-average Marvel movie, and if, like most of them, it falls short of true greatness, it’s almost miraculous that practically all of them have been as pretty good as they are.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

 

Caveat Spectator: Large-scale action violence; a couple of violent deaths; some profanity, cursing and crude language; a brief homosexual reference; comic heavy drinking. Teens and up.