Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review Roundtable: Avengers: Endgame

At the end of April a little movie came out called Avengers: Endgame, which has been getting something of a buzz in genre circles, seeing as how it brings together ten years of big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) storylines in one big action-packed conclusion. Here at NoaF HQ we’ve been following the ups and downs of the MCU for some time (some longer than others), and have many capital-F Feelings ranging from excitement to confusion to mild bafflement about this culmination of an era.

Today I’ve gathered Brian, Mike, Phoebe and Vance to chat about our Endgame reactions: what made us punch the air in glee and what had us sliding down in our seats in frustration. Needless to say, all the spoilers are ahead and you really shouldn’t be here unless you’ve had a chance to see the movie first.

Adri: So, Endgame! That was fun. Even more fun than I expected after, you know, all the dead people and the feelings about them.

Brian: First impressions are that I thought this was a great conclusion to all of the movies that came before it. The MCU could stop here (it won’t, but it could) and I would be completely satisfied.

Vance: The woman seated next to me -- and I’ve never experienced this in a movie theater -- started taking deep, centering breaths the moment the lights went down. And I love her for it. Infinity War was a gauntlet for fans, yet she was there opening day for whatever came next, no matter how gutting. Turned out the movie was a lot of fanservice, so she made it through. As did I!

Phoebe: I’m going to date myself by saying I was fifteen when Iron Man came out and I thought it was the coolest movie I’d ever seen (beside Lord of the Rings of course). I’ve seen every MCU movie in theaters except Ant Man and the Wasp, which I regret because I loved that movie. I grew up with these movies, and this just totally satisfied me eleven years later. I cheered, clapped, laughed, bawled, and said thank you.

Mike: I definitely enjoyed the movie and look forward to watching it again, but it felt very slow as they tracked down the stones in the previous movies. I felt there was too much humor and not enough action. Although I greatly appreciated Captain America joining the Hydra agents in the elevator in what I expected to be a brawl, only to lose it when Cap whispers “Hail Hydra” and proceeds to simply walk out with Loki’s staff.

Brian: I’m with you on the plodding pace. I can string together the important moments in my mind, and they don’t really add up to three hours of movie. But I watch at least three hours of terrible TV weekly, so I’ll take “great but a bit slow” without much complaint. Agree that the elevator scene is a great subversion of expectations, and also just the tiniest hint at the Secret Empire story. Not that I want them to put that story on screen.

Adri: I thought the combination of humour, emotions and action built into something incredibly cheesy, but I don’t mean that in a bad way at all: it really works. There’s quite a long first act of feelings which is mostly engaging and builds off dynamics that are a decade in the making. With the exception of expecting us to care about Hawkeye’s family which is… hmmm...

Vance: Hawkeye’s dumb farm family is the thing I have always hated the most about the MCU. Asking us to care about it all of a sudden is akin to asking us, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, to suddenly care about one of James Bond’s bedfellows. The ship has sailed, I don’t buy in. That said, I at least believed it as a motivation for Hawkeye going batshit before we get into the real meat of the movie.

Adri: Farm family out of the way, we get into TIME TRAVEL, which lets us go on a mostly-greatest-hits tour of some of the other films, underlining how far some of the Avengers have come along the way. Once things start to coalesce into a climax, there’s a really satisfying pay-off to each of the beats. Yes, it means you can see some of them coming from a mile off (time travel plus Captain casually stopping by Peggy’s office in a midpoint scene adds up to a pretty obvious decision for his “retirement”) but that just makes it even more gratifying when those moments hit. Obviously I have lots of time for subversion in fiction too, but it’s so enjoyable to watch a story that’s already had its twists and turns and is now going to milk every moment out of the one path to its conclusion. It also makes it feel like an actual movie structure - despite the fact it starts in the immediate aftermath of Inifinity War - with well-managed tensions, rather than the big messy action-fest that was its predecessor.

Brian: The choice to immediately deal with Thanos and then flip to undoing what he had done was more interesting than I expected out of the film. It’s also a little funny that, in a world where magic exists, the solution was scientific, even if the science is pretty magical. But wow, how many cans of worms did they open with the introduction of time travel to these movies? I appreciate that the basic premise is things changed in the past can’t affect the future, and they spin off their own timelines. But if the Sorcerer Supreme (thank you for returning, Tilda Swinton) controls the Eye of Agamotto and knows Strange isn’t around until five years after the New York invasion, wouldn’t she also know that Thanos is going to dust half of the galaxy’s population? Time travel always opens a lot more doors than it closes.

Vance: Hat tip to my friend Caroline for sharing this article that offers a really game explanation of the time travel dynamics. TL;DR: the time travel actually does kinda makes sense, but just go with it. It’s fun. It’s fine. Leave it alone.

Mike: While I was expecting this to be emotional, I was not surprised for how powerful it was for the characters to travel back in time and connect with individuals they had previously lost. My favorite of these meetings was Thor and his mom. I love the way she talked about his current condition and wanted him to make things right for himself and not to worry about her. I also love that other Asgardians call Rocket Raccoon ‘rabbit’.

Adri: Remember how I told you all I’d seen all of the canon movies except the second Thor and I hoped that one didn't turn out to be in any way important to the plot here? All I can say is OH COME ON. His Mum died? Natalie Portman went to Asgard? I still appreciated this moment - Full use of Chris Hemsworth's comic abilities was appreciated, and despite the fat jokes I actually thought Thor’s arc was probably the most satisfying of the core group, given he didn’t have quite as obvious a place to go as Iron Man and Cap did. But I did spend ten minutes squirming and hoping not to be spoiled.

Brian: I am a Thor: The Dark World hater and I guess, yeah, it’s a little important to the complete narrative. Still wouldn’t recommend anyone pressed for time to watch it though. Ragnarok is a lot better and literally sets up Infinity War.

Vance: I like Thor 2, and don’t apologize for it (because like what you like, folks! It doesn’t matter if your co-contributors think you’re dumb!). Kat Dennings is a joy in it. But that aside, from Ragnarok through Infinity War through Endgame, Thor’s story is truly, deeply moving. My heart breaks for the character. Again, it would be better if his weight weren’t played for laughs, but his descent into oblivion is a) a strong choice by the filmmakers b) totally understandable, and c) fertile ground for setting up his final confrontation with Thanos.

Phoebe: I love all the Thor movies due to the Norse mythology (one of the reasons I started researching Norse myth was because I saw the first Thor and thought, hmm, that’s not right.) I’m also a HUGE Loki fan--which was one way that Endgame disappointed me honestly. They did so little with Loki, didn’t resurrect him, and didn’t let time travel Thor interact with his dead brother who he’d reconciled with at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. To follow up on the fat phobia, while I was disappointed the few times it was obvious we were supposed to laugh at his fatness, I actually wonder how much of the fat phobia comes from the audience. It was immediately obvious to me that it was a symptom of PTSD and, surprisingly, he never returned to washboard abs Thor, the usual end to such a trope. He remained “fat Thor” even when he fought Thanos, and he looked way more badass and viking-y. If anything, the audience response showed how much farther we need to go as humankind to accepting different types of people and recognizing suffering.

Vance: I’m with you. I wondered how much of the fat-shaming was more on the audience than the filmmakers. I thought it was a strong choice and I appreciated it.

Adri: I mean, to me having one fatphobic joke is one too many and I completely understand why many people don’t want to “look past that” to whatever the filmmakers intended, even if it sort of came good in the end with the Viking aesthetic and his arc, and eventual alignment with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which has been a few movies coming.

Adri: While I’m on the complaints train: the “scene of women” does not make the lack of representation over ten years right, Marvel. Especially because the vast majority of those women just show up with no emotional arcs at the very last minute. I also had no time for the sacrifice of Black Widow, and while I know Scarlett Johansen is a bit frustrating as an actor it’s such a shame Natasha Romanoff never truly got the development she deserved up to this point, even though she turned into a brilliant character without that focus. It’s really telling that what we’ve lost by the end is mostly women and a robot, and the funeral we end up going to isn’t Romanoff’s.

Phoebe: I’m going to jump in here to comment on the “women assemble” scene as I’ve been calling it. I totally agree that it doesn’t end the bad representation throughout the series, but to be honest, I cried during that scene. Was it patronizing? Probably.

Brian: Thank you for articulating better my complaints about that 5 second scene, Adri. I’ve seen a lot of people (idiots) bandying about that Marvel ruined the movie by going full SJW, and this is literally not it. Those characters and the women playing them deserve better.

Mike: My biggest gripe was Black Widow’s death. My wife disagrees with me, but I felt it was cheapened by her and Hawkeye fighting over who would sacrifice themselves (obviously it was going to be her because of his family). Her death hit me a bit harder when Hulk talked about trying to bring her back when he wielded the stones.

Adri: What I hated most about this - and there are many aspects I hate - is that this movie really drives home the fact that Natasha’s family are the Avengers, and that of all the characters she is the one that has poured the most into relationships with the rest of the group over and above any outside attachments. I think we’re supposed to accept that Hawkeye has more reason to live because he has a flesh-and-blood family but, in a narrative that’s about the Avengers where those characters are completely on the side, it feels cheap and unearned and utterly disrespectful to her character and the things that are important to her, undermining the actual sense of sacrifice which this scene was supposed to set up.

I’ll push back a tiny, tiny bit here. I don’t take issue with anything you’ve said at all, but just offer a slightly different read. I think Hawkeye is willing to sacrifice himself for his flesh-and-blood family, but Nat is willing to sacrifice herself for her adoptive family. I’m not certain the audience is asked to accept that one has more right to go on living than the other. It’s certainly a valid read of the scene, but what the filmmakers *intended* is murky. I think whatever an individual audience member takes away from it is 100% valid. I just don’t want to step on the landmine of saying “the filmmakers intended zyx,” when that really can’t be known without talking to them. For me, I hated to see Nat go, and I very much questioned why we were being asked to accept that, but the movie itself didn’t give me a clear-enough answer to really speak to it. I felt like both Nat and Gamora going off the Soul Stone cliff made me uneasy...but it’s hard to unpack, personally, what I thought the movie was asking of me. I mean, I think the farm family is dumb, so for sure I’d rather Nat have stayed topside.

Adri: I guess the thing is, in the genre which literally coined the concept of “women in refrigerators”, setting up a subplot like the unavoidable Soul Stone sacrifice and then having two women go off that cliff with similar lingering death shots shows, at the very least, a disappointing lack of self-awareness of this trope and its impact on female representation.

Mike: My favorite arc over this epic event is Nebula’s. She grew a great deal in a limited number of films from a villain with a troubled past who would stop at nothing to please her father to someone who confronted her demons from her childhood, made amends with her sister, and finally got closure from her father only to have Thor ruin the moment by chopping his head off.

Adri: I agree that Nebula’s a great character here. She also gets an interesting arc with Gamora and her past self, which really underlines how far Nebula has come (although underscoring that by killing her past is… hmm) while also suggesting that Gamora’s development over the past movies, and especially her role in Infinity War, never mattered to her as a character? I guess I see where that’s coming from, but it drives home the fact that Nebula is really the only Guardians of the Galaxy character with any interesting emotional depth. More Nebula!

Vance: I love how they’ve taken Nebula from a 100% baddie to a 100% empathetic central character. I’m curious to see where they take Gamora going forward. I loved the TV show Chuck, which ended with one of the two love interests having their memory wiped, and the open question of “What happens next between them?” There are no more Chuck episodes, but I like the narrative space created by the question of “Will these two misfits fall in love again under different circumstances?” Again, I had problems with the Gamora/Soul Stone element in Infinity War, but I’m intrigued by the narrative possibilities this suggests for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Adri: Any other favourite moments people want to share? Captain America making full use of Thor’s hammer got a loud “WHAAAAAAT” from one particular lad at the back of our cinema, joined by the rest of us cheering in appreciation. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but in the moment it’s so epic I don’t really care. (Insert Doctor Horrible Captain Hammer joke here). Also, Wakanda turning up first in the ending battle was a big hit!

Mike: My favorite moment in the entire film may have been old man Cap passing his shield to Falcon. I went into this film expecting Captain America to die and prepared myself for that reality, but loved the fact that after returning the Infinity Stones he went home, had his dance with Agent Carter, and lived a normal life.

Another moment that really hit me emotionally was Iron Man hugging Spider-Man after they reunite. I often don’t like humor during certain emotional scenes, but Peter telling Iron Man “this is nice” during the long hug was very sweet and hit close to home as a father.

Brian: Yeah, I’m pretty heartless and this moment really hit me. It was a nice wrap around from Tony watching him turn to dust in his arms to returning to finish the fight.

Vance: I told my daughter, “You know how Infinity War starts on Earth with Tony telling Pepper he wants a kid...and you know how through the whole movie he calls Peter ‘Kid’?” And her eyes bugged way out. I thought this moment was a really nice moment for both of them. It’s the kind of fanservice that I feel like we’ve all earned...and I guess the characters have, too.

Brian: Iron Man was the beginning and the end of this cycle of movies, and my favorite Iron Man moment, possibly my favorite MCU moment, is the bits in Iron Man 3 where Tony has to come to terms with the fact that he threw himself into a gaping void with a nuclear weapon to defeat an alien invasion of Earth and survived. Selfless acts weren’t Tony’s thing but he did it, and again, in the conclusion of Endgame, he did something he knew could end badly for him personally without hesitation. He came out of a very comfortable, happy retirement to save the world one more time. The whole Tony Stark arc is well done.

Vance: Seconded. Tony Stark’s last words are, “I am Iron Man,” which is such a perfect punctuation mark on these 10 years of filmmaking for all of the reasons Brian just pointed out.

Brian: Also, I was very excited when Captain Marvel came out of the sky to punch holes in Thanos’ giant spaceship. She’s very good at that. I expected and did not get more Ronan the Accuser, which is weird because Captain Marvel seemed to go out of its way to make that character cooler than when he was just some bland antagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Adri: So, now that it’s over (except that it’s not): any last thoughts? Mine is that I now have to round off my MCU "first ten years" experience by catching up on, er, Thor: The Dark World...

Vance: Do it. Kat Dennings is hilarious, and it’s the buffest Hemsworth ever got, which is really saying something!

Mike: Overall the movie and all of the movies in the MCU were a monumental success. I loved the simple twists this finale provided, learning early on that the Infinity Stones were all turned to dust by Thanos, Loki making off with the cosmic cube, Thor’s current state, and was truly not sure what to expect next. I even enjoyed how they managed the time travel and had some funny jabs at Back to the Future. I’m not sure where I would rank it among the MCU films, but it is likely in the top 5. It provided a fitting end that my entire family enjoyed.

Brian: Looking forward, I guess we know some of the direction of future MCU movies with Spiderman: Far From Home and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 on the horizon, but nothing about the overall future of the series. I’m guessing some of that is up in the air as Disney now owns the X-Men too and could integrate them and their rich history into these stories. I’m excited for that future.

Vance: If I can be permitted to wander a bit into the weeds, I would like to address how we have never in the history of cinema seen anything like this. I distinctly remember sitting in the theater during Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when the armies are massing at the Black Gate, and thinking, “I have never, ever seen anything like this.” Like all works of artistry that move a medium forward, those innovations, once realized, become relatively easy to copy. We see scenes like that Lord of the Rings moment routinely now. But I had the thought before Endgame, “I wonder if I’ll have another moment like that?” I did, kind of, but it wasn’t visual -- it was narrative. This is essentially the season finale of the most expensive TV show in history. Endgame is the coherent final product of 16 directors and at least 35 writers. The script alone for Infinity War and Endgame (which were reportedly shot simultaneously) would’ve had to be around 400 pages long. The scale of the production is mind-boggling. So while there was certainly visual spectacle on display in Endgame, I do want to take my hat off to the complexity of the undertaking that Marvel just delivered. Universal Monsters died on the vine after only one film, and DC’s best movie (by far) has been Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. Marvel has moved the goal line for cinematic storytelling, and I’m just glad as a fan I got to see Iron Man opening day, and now Endgame all these years later.

Adri: Thanks for joining me today, all, and I look forward to our next chat!

Nerds Assemble:

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Mike N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake.

Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer for nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.