Satisfaction is a complicated concept in Marvel Land. On the one hand, every morsel of pre-release information is obsessively poured over in feverish anticipation by diehard fans.
Those fans most likely won’t read this review, but “Avengers: Endgame” will, I suspect, offer them gratification and maybe a welcome moment of respite. “Endgame” not only answers the cliffhanger of its predecessor — that puny $300 million 156-minute “appetizer” better known as “Infinity War” — but ties together the entire 22-film arc of the Marvel “cinematic universe,” begun with 2008’s “Iron Man.”
Generous in humor, spirit and sentimentality, Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Endgame” is a surprisingly full feast of blockbuster-making that, through some time-traveling magic, looks back nostalgically at Marvel’s decade of world domination. This is the Marvel machine working at high gear, in full control of its myth-making powers and uncovering more emotion in its fictional cosmos than ever before.
It was Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (Iron Man) who kicked things off for the MCU, and it’s he who opens “Endgame” and most often takes center stage. Providing even the most basic of plot points in “Endgame” is a fool’s errand, but it’s fair to say that it takes place sometime after the rapture caused by the megalomaniac boulder Thanos (Josh Brolin). Having obtained all six of the “infinity stones,” he wiped away 50 percent of Earth’s creatures (and superheroes) at the end of “Infinity War” with the snap of his fingers.
Rather than bask in the extra parking spaces and uncrowded check-out aisles, the survivors have spent the ensuing time in a state of mourning. The remaining superheroes are also reeling, ashamed of their defeat.
Somewhere in this juggling act is a little bit of every tone in the Marvel universe: some of the wit of “Iron Man,” a touch of the madcap romp of “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” a smidge of the cosmic saga of “Thor,” and even a little of the resonance of “Black Panther.” More than any of those franchises, “Endgame,” at its best moments, carries the thrill of classic comic-book twists and reversals.
But the main difference is that a dose of finality has finally crept in to a universe where death is seldom visited on anyone but the bad guys. “Endgame” will likely be most remembered for its teary goodbyes. The send-offs, tender and sincere, capture something about the “Avengers” films. At their root, they are about family. Never has that been more apparent than in the daughters, fathers, sons, mothers, sisters, brothers and spouses that populate “Endgame,” making up the connections that bind this fantasy realm — one that, for all its turmoil, is far more unified than ours.
Other farewells are more legitimately somber. The late Stan Lee makes his final cameo here, and it’s a good one. Lee’s swan song, as much as anything, verifies that “Endgame” marks the end of an era. The conclusion of this chapter in the MCU, of course, won’t last long; Marvel’s assembly lines are already humming. And I suspect it will be some time before we understand just what Marvel has wrought with these movies. At their worst, they are colossal, inhuman products built for a supersized form of binge-watching. At their best, they are grand, mega-sized Hollywood spectacles. “Endgame” verges more on the latter.