Avengers: Endgame – A Haunted Payoff

It’s a damned ghost story.

Avengers: Endgame is nothing like your standard Marvel movie. I didn’t expect it to be, feeling that it would be more of a culmination than it would be something lighthearted and full of new characters or situations. And yeah, it’s a lot of fun in small moments and it’s definitely payoff after payoff, but those moments aren’t what this really is. This is the most haunted superhero film I’ve seen in a long time.

And the first three minutes give away what audiences are in for. Most MCU entries open with a joke, a punchy situation that gets the hero into their main arc. The plots are borderline Simpsons episodes these days, beginning in one place to inadvertently lead into another and everything is full of laughs. It’s an entertaining formula, which is why I found the opening of Avengers: Endgame so brutally powerful. Our story begins with Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who is having a nice day outside with his family. Then they vanish. No score, no epic shots, just a desperate man alone in the wilderness that lost everyone he loved in one fell swoop. Forgotten is the swell of moving strings, and there’s no spinning camera work to show our hero preparing for something big; it’s just a scared and desperate man shouting in fear at the universe as his eyes flip back and forth, feverishly searching for his family.

This is where I cried the first time.

Everyone is broken. These men and women you’ve come to love, to laugh along with, and run to the theatres to see, are like dented tin soldiers. Their smiles manic, their words grim even in the face of hope; they’ve become angry and shattered things laying at the bottom of our cinematic toy chest. Captain America (Chris Evans), guilty because he wasn’t able to save the world at large, is still trying to fight the good fight alongside Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson). Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is traveling the universe, fighting the same fight on other planets, while other teams have assembled and begun doing the same. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an absolutely destroyed man, holed up and sunken in a headspace that we’re meant to worry he’ll never recover from. The words, “You should have aimed for the head,” have become trapped in Thor’s brain and that failure has eaten his soul down to the bone. Even Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has disappeared to live off-grid. These people are haunted by a lot of things, from failure and shame to the memory of the dead, and they’ve become ghosts themselves. This world is a haunted house and the remaining Avengers are the specters, wandering halls in search of meaning and redemption.

And through this we still manage to get more ghosts in other scenes, The dead walk freely this time, in more ways than one, and we’re run through the wringer and asked to face those moments and people we’ve begun to see as just cogs in a larger work as actual ties to an emotional life. With no easy way out, we have to confront exactly what our heroes are. Romanov and Captain America are living for redemption, Thor is a shattered shell of a man, and others are living at various stages of grief (one is a serial killer). The creaks in the shadows, the things in the corner of your eye, all of it can be their guilt, their friends, their foes, and any other number of things.

The film isn’t without its failings. Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel seems off here, her delivery stoic and stony without anything for the audience to connect with. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has become a weird, college-professor-esque version of himself that left me feeling uneasy about the future of his character. Even some of the pacing is off because of the sheer amount of things happening in the 3 hour runtime. I never had trouble keeping up, I just wish some of it had slowed down here or there.

Even these small issues, though, are not enough to keep this from being an emotional experience. Stumbling here and there is acceptable when you’re in a relationship (as long as it isn’t too major), and I’ve been in one with the MCU for over a decade at this point. We’ve gotten to know each other, gone through everything from fights to romantic dinners, and watching it come to a perfect close is something I hadn’t expected. And don’t get me wrong, while I know the MCU will continue I want to state openly and directly that this is the conclusion of the arc we’ve been on. There’s no frills, no real teases for anything further. Instead we get something that feels final, an ending. That’s all I truly wanted from it, a finale to feel happy about. And I don’t know that I feel happy about it (I doubt we’re supposed to), but this is closure.

Honestly this is the biggest payoff anyone could have asked for. It’s not perfect, but it’s wonderful and satisfying. Not many franchises with this many entries (name another with this many films, I dare you) can say that they paid off. We’ve gone through something special that I honestly think will never be re-created, but the ultimate thing of staying power is the idea that this has haunted us all. Cinema will never be the same, everyone striving to grab a slice of that same pie, but this is a unique achievement. Avengers: Infinity War might have been Thanos’s movie, but this is an Avengers film from start to finish. Each moment is something we’ve seen building for over ten years at this point, and it just keeps hammering home what we’ve already known all along – that this was never about the larger world, but about the people we love inhabiting it. Everyone gets a moment, everyone gets to be a hero, and these instances are satisfying in horrid and beautiful ways.

We are all of us haunted, maybe none more so than cinema itself by this franchise, but there’s a bleak beauty in that fact. “Dread it? Run from it? Destiny arrives all the same.” Thanos’s words, spoken over a year ago, have never felt more relevant. The inevitable is coming, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be stunning in the execution. We all end, but only the majesty of how we stood along the way matters. This is a ghost story, a payoff, and even just another Marvel movie all at once. In that, though, lies something harshly moving that will never truly be replicated. That is something to be respected, especially in the face of mortality.

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