I went to see Avengers Endgame the other day. I‘ve been trying to write about it, and I‘m not sure where to start. My biggest problem being, that I don‘t know if the movie is good, bad, both or neither. This then got me thinking about audience expectations in general, and my expectations in particular.
I wondered if I expected these movies to give me more than is reasonable? But then, what do I want them to do exactly? What do I expect them to do? Is the movie flawed or am I making a mistake when it delivers what it arguably sets out to do, yet I feel vaguely disengaged for the most part?
So I took a step back, and asked myself what it is that we want from movies. I think most people, myself included, are looking for some kind of emotional experience. Mainstream blockbusters aren‘t dense quasi-philosophical treatises about the human condition, they want to engage my empathy for the characters portrayed and take me on an emotional roller-coaster. There is a promise implied in this particular style of movies, that we will leave the theater a little happier, a little more optimistic and hopeful than we came in.
The superhero movies we watch are stories of Good resisting and eventually pushing back Evil. They are stories about solidarity, loyalty, selflessness and sacrifice. They are stories about power and the burden of using that power responsibly, as well as reigning in those who wield their power selfishly or without compassion and empathy.
Marvel movies are predominantly stories of white middle-class boys learning to act like men. (There is room and need to criticize that narrow focus, but as a cishet white man I feel more comfortable letting others make those arguments. I agree with the sentiment, but don‘t feel equipped to articulate the ways in which that narrowness is not only an issue, but one in desperate need of fixing.)
But Marvel movies aren‘t just abstract notions of displaying and validating social values, they are also big, loud spectacle. They are power fantasies for their audience. Their heroes serve as an allegorical mirror to ourselves. We are supposed to relate to those characters, because we recognize certain struggles, but we end up identifying with them to some extent as well. We see ourselves in them in some small or sometimes big way.
Maybe that is why some of those stories matter so much to us. For the runtime of those movies we can imagine that there is a side of us, that is like our favorite superhero. Maybe we want to believe that we can be as selflessly virtuous as Steve Rogers, as worthy of redemption as Natasha Romanoff or as dutifully bound for greatness as Tony Stark.
And sitting in the dark, staring at the screen, we can imagine that yes, we are, actually. With nobody around to tell us we‘re not. These characters aren‘t like us, they are us. That‘s powerful.
But I don‘t think that‘s what these movies really aim to do. And I don‘t think we should measure them on whether they succeed in letting us feel those things. Movies aim to tell a coherent story, that people want to see. That‘s how they function as a product, and that mostly overlaps with how they function as an art form.
One of the unusual storytelling decisions of Endgame, is that the movie‘s first act is basically the thematic and emotional conclusion to Infinity War. The reason why it works so well, is that it is payoff to a movie you‘ve already seen. If anything this seems to be the narrative trick that Avengers Endgame keeps pulling to make it all work. It‘s not just a collection of callbacks. These movies mine the storytelling tapestry of earlier Marvel entries to provide the emotional context of Endgame‘s narrative beats.
When Peter Parker returns and meets Tony Stark again, that moment is powerful not because of anything that happened in this movie, but because of their heart-wrenching goodbye in Avengers Infinity War. And even that sequence was exponentially more affecting, if you had seen Spider-Man Homecoming before. It‘s serial storytelling, but instead of having weekly episodes of 45-60 minutes in length, Marvel releases 120-180 minute „episodes“ every 4-6 months. Avengers Endgame is its grand finale and it‘s difficult to judge this movie on its own. It‘s arguably impossible without having it all be heavily influenced by all the episodes/movies that built up to it.
Maybe this is the reason, why I‘m having such a hard time forming an opinion on the movie. The entire Marvel movie series has its ups and downs. There are episodes that work well, and those that are merely ok. I‘ve missed three of them in total (Iron Man 2, Thor the Dark World and Doctor Strange), and some emotional beats in Endgame may have worked better if I had those episodes in the back of my mind.
So the question is, whether Avengers Endgame is a good (season) finale or a bad one. I guess it‘s a dutiful one, respectful of all the entries that have come before. I remember being impressed by Avengers (the first one), for its ability to juggle the disparate tones of its individual heroes. Something that Endgame comes very close to pulling off as well, despite there being far more characters to be respectful of. Although, I feel the Guardians of the Galaxy cast are a little mishandled, in that they seem to have regressed to who they were at the beginning of their first movie. (In more ways than one, sadly.)
Despite understanding why these movies can be so effective and why people often embrace them, there were only few characters with whom I really felt that sense of identification and vicarious heroism. Which means the movie didn‘t work as well for me, as it will probably have worked for anyone who feels that way about Endgame‘s protagonists. I am usually very reluctant to say that something is not „for me“, because it often feels like an excuse for not being able to adequately explain why a piece of entertainment left you cold.
In the case of Avengers Endgame, it‘s the single explanation that makes the most sense for me. It‘s a movie built around a select number of characters. The quality of the movie is heavily dependent on whether those characters are meaningful to you, in that particular way that specific superheros become important to you personally. The movie‘s quality ceases to be a question of craft or narrative, but of personal investment and emotional attachment to the archetype of the superhero you‘re watching on screen.
I could quibble about some plot questions left unanswered, or about whether certain storytelling decisions made for one character sacrifice the journey and growth of another. I could acknowledge that the attempts at siding with the more progressive voices of superhero fandom often feels a tiny bit too close to awkward pandering, but the fact that it will annoy the reactionary parts of Marvel‘s fanbase is enough to make me overlook it.
Is Avengers Endgame a good movie? I‘m not sure I don‘t know if I could settle on any criteria I would be willing to apply to it, to answer that question. Maybe the only one I can think of, is that it manages to validate and appreciate all the characters‘ individual styles and tones. (Admittedly, maybe not the GotG crew.)
So measured on that alone, it‘s about as successful as the first Avengers movie. I think most people will probably judge Endgame on emotional impact, and if the plot is centered on one of „your“ superheroes, you are going to have a pretty intense time. It wasn’t for me, but I can’t say I was bored. Although I’m not entirely sure, what it means that my main interest lay with all the peripheral characters and aspects of the movie.