Avengers: Endgame exists in a strange dichotomy as both the conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first decade years, and the finale of the MCU's first two-part story. As such, its primary purpose is to restore the status quo following the devastating events of its predecessor, 2018's Avengers: Infinity War. Minus a few fatalities, we expect it to pull of that feat, because -- no matter the cost -- we're in superhero territory, and the good guys ultimately win.
Because we live in an age of knowing everything about everything, there's no reason to believe that, contrary to its doom-and-gloom title, the film marks the end of the most successful franchise in movie history. You don't need the Time Stone to glimpse the MCU's future; you only need Google. Fans are keenly aware of the rumored slate of films in the next phase, as well as the lifespan of actors' contractual obligations.
While movie-goers' tears were still drying in the wake of Infinity War, some argued this kind of widely reported meta-knowledge cast the shadow of impermanence on its staggering death toll, and, by extension, diminished the emotional weight of Endgame's resolution. And yet, Marvel fans fretted about that as much as Captain Marvel worried about Stormbreaker breezing past her head. That is, not in the slightest. Instead, the rampant speculation surrounding Endgame hasn't focused on whether the survivors can undo the effects of Thanos' snap, but instead on how they will do it.
It makes the game less like the could-go-either-way chess match from which the title originates, but more like Snakes and Ladders. The fun isn't figuring out whether you'll get to the desired end square, it's working out how to get there first while encountering the least amount of hazards.
Beyond all of the shattered box office records, this is the truest testament to how well Marvel Studios has built up our investment in these characters and their stories. It's an endgame we’ve more or less figured out the rules for; it isn't even a real "end," and yet, anticipation for the movie hasn’t lessened in the slightest.
We're holding our breaths to watch it, if only to finally let ourselves breathe normally again, having seen everything work out as we expected. Nothing that happens in it matters, but it simultaneously also matters a lot, because even if all six of the original Avengers team sacrifice their lives during this final confrontation the Mad Titan, the life of the MCU will be left intact. In other words, Endgame simply can't fail.
That also makes Infinity War, by comparison, the riskier project. It carried the weight of a 10-year arc of big, expensive storytelling with a villain we’d barely seen or heard, and then wrapped up with a monumental loss for heroes who until then defeated anything that stood in their way.
Infinity War got the ball all the way to the front of the net; all Endgame has to do is tap it in. That isn't to say directors Joe and Anthony Russo will simply rest on their laurels and not try to over-deliver on a guaranteed success, which, judging by overwhelmingly positive early reviews doesn't seem to be the case. But even a passable version of this movie would have been satisfying enough for most.
Whether you view it as an asset or a problem, the contradictory nature of Endgame is definitely a unique position for a blockbuster to be in. Traditionally, by this point in a movie series where our heroes sit poised to go for broke -- be it a trilogy, quadrilogy or even a heptalogy like Harry Potter -- we’re supposed to have reached the end rather than an end. Endgame feels more like the end of the beginning.
Really, the closer comparison -- and one that has been made before -- isn't cinema, or even really comic books: it's television. The fourth Avengers film functions as the biggest season finale ever, beating back strong competition from the event-heavy Game of Thrones, which, coincidentally, is ending in the next few weeks. This direct comparison also tracks when you consider Thrones’ penultimate episodes have always served up the big surprises and climactic moments, with the actual finales left to wrap things up and set the stage for the next season. In this case, Infinity War was the penultimate episode of the MCU, with Endgame being the season capper ahead of the new "Phase Four" season premiere.
In the wider media landscape, the MCU's serialized construction could be viewed as a victory over cinema's own long and bitter feud against the small screen. Amid an ever-growing culture of boxset binge-watching and home streaming, the film industry has sought safety in the bankability of nostalgia, established formulas and properties with existing fanbases. Superheroes, with their rich histories, cross-genre adventures and easily merchandisable identities, fit the bill perfectly. But once Hollywood realized that shared universes and never-ending storytelling came part and parcel with all that, the real capitalization began.
In trying to beat TV, blockbuster cinema has ended up joining it. Why tell a finite story in a limited number of parts when you can build an unending chronology, the lifespan of which is limited only by the audience's interest? Conversely, television is being measured more and more by its leanness, with the miniseries becoming the benchmark for quality.
Considering Endgame's conflicting purpose -- not quite an end, not quite a beginning; inconsequential but monumentally important -- an easier description for the film's function is that of a soft reboot of the MCU, offering a prime jumping-off point for the old guard without completely jumping ship, and a resolution to an old problem that opens up a new universe of possibilities for the next generation of characters.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Avengers: Endgame stars Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Danai Gurira as Okoye and Bradley Cooper as Rocket, with Gwyneth Paltrow Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, Benedict Wong as Wong, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Josh Brolin as Thanos. The film opens Friday worldwide.