I’ve been mixed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for most of its existence. As a Johnny come lately I started with the original Avengers film, went back and watched the films leading up to it and then kind of drifted along watching most of the MCU films as they hit their home releases. Aside from Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange the only MCU films I watched in theaters were the Avengers line. Other than the original Iron Man and the Captain America trilogy, along with the first Avengers, I didn’t really feel like any of the films cross the line from good to great and there are a couple of clunkers mixed in there.
That said, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy a large chunk of the MCU when I was watching it. Infinity War was a pretty strong film in the MCU cannon, managing to show the fallout of Civil War and build up a pretty strong villain all in one go. Watching the Avengers get defeated in detail was pretty intense, and the fact that they lost in part because they were divided was not lost on me. More than anything, the scene of Thanos taking his ease, watching the sun rise on an altered cosmos was brilliant from both an emotional and storytelling standpoint. The problems begin with what happens directly after that.
And, of course, from this point on there will be spoilers for Avengers: Endgame but it’s been out for nearly six months so hopefully no one will be reading this without seeing the film first.
Endgame starts pretty much where Infinity War left off, with the Avengers scattered and trying to process what happened. The story cuts a few corners in pulling the surviving cast together but quickly restarts things by sending them after Thanos which is better than beating around the bush. Everything up until Thor executes Thanos and the Avengers return to Earth empty handed is pitch perfect. Even Thor’s parting line, “This time I aimed for the head,” is excellent.
Things go downhill rapidly with the introduction of the five year time jump.
I could really dig in to my problems with Endgame, the treatment of Thor and the Hulk, the general weakness of a time travel plot as a way to basically magic the cast out of a problem, the way the time travel in the story doesn’t even hold to its own rules, the dissonance of the Avengers defeating a Thanos from the past who wasn’t even the one who wronged them. There’s at least two thousand words on those subjects alone.
Then there’s all the things that I really loved in Endgame. Thor, Tony and Cap vs. Thanos, Tony talking to his father, the Portals, Hawkeye and Black Widow fighting for the Soul Stone. And Tony closing this chapter of the MCU as he opened it, by claiming the mantle of Iron Man once more and proving his heroic mettle by giving of himself for the sake of the rest of the universe created the perfect note for a generation of heroes to depart on. That, too, could support thousands of words of analysis.
I’m not going to dive in to any of that. Other people have done it better, and I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add. Instead I want to look at the aspect of Endgame that does interest me, and that’s why the story as a whole doesn’t satisfy me. Endgame was written to be the cherry on top of one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Almost every major emotional moment it seeks to hit, it hits. And when it hits those notes it is pitch perfect.
The problem is, those notes do not make a melody.
As a writer who often begins with a number of scenes in a story and a vague idea of the plot points that will tie them together this is something that speaks to me, and not necessarily in a good way. When writing Endgame the Russo brothers clearly had dozens of ideas about what they wanted to say about their characters and how those ideas would speak to their audience. They clearly loved the characters they were working with and knew their audience would go with them to those moments, no matter how flimsy the connecting tissue was, and they decided to just go for it and grab as many of those powerful moments as they could.
The problem is, while the Russos hit a staggering number of high notes, they don’t tell a good story. Don’t get me wrong, the story is okay. But in sitting down to write this post I found I could recall the story and plot points of Civil War or Winter Soldier much more readily than I could Endgame, even though it’s been more than a year since I watched either of those movies. Even with all the high notes in Endgame I struggled to recall them because they didn’t make a story. Cap fighting himself doesn’t play in to his character arc in Endgame, nor does most of the other things that happen in the time travelling sequences bear on the characters who do them. They are there because this is the sendoff for the franchise. That’s a shame, because many of these moments were quite good, and would have stood on their own much better with a story that was designed to maximize them, rather than just being shoved into what almost felt like an anthology film and being presented to the world as the climax of the MCU.
It’s tempting to just try and present all the best moments you can think of to your audience. But you serve those moments best by putting them in a story that your audience will love just as much as those moments. They may still go with you on the journey – and that’s certainly something to be grateful for. But they’ll actually remember them better the more effort you put in to it.