This review almost certainly contains spoilers.
Have I ever seen an Avengers movie? The question bedeviled me for a few days last week, floating vaguely in the ether of my brain, brining amidst a flotsam of other unpleasantness: work stress, life changes, dental appointments, the creeping sense that my memory is basically a sieve at this point. I can feel huge chunks of my past dropping away, my internet-addled brain poking vicious little holes in itself like a self-cannibalizing sea creature marooned along the ocean floor. It seemed to me that I had, at one point, seen one.
And yet, I could not tell you, precisely, what these movies are about. The Avengers franchise, is, as I understand it, broadly about the superheroes of the Marvel universe and about being worth a knee-buckling fuckload of money. There are many reviews of Avengers movies. People have thoughts about Avengers: Endgame, and they care very much about them, and that’s why this is now the second highest-grossing film of all time.
It’s a cultural juggernaut, in other words, a legitimately key part of The Landscape Today, and I missed all of it. (I even missed the day last week when the entire Jezebel staff went to see the movie in 4DX, both because I am the weird crone aunt who lurks unseen in Jezebel’s attic, and because I don’t know what “4DX” is and I could not bear to learn.)
To be real with you, I tend to miss a lot of things: big TV moments, hit songs, movies everyone’s seen. I am alarmingly oblivious in some ways for a person whose job it is to notice things. Would it surprise you to learn that I was once hit by a bus because I simply wandered out into traffic? It shouldn’t.
In any case, I decided it was time to catch up. Not by actually watching all the movies, which sounded exhausting, but by simply going into the last one blind and trying to figure it out, using only my keen powers of deduction and occasional whispered questions at the person sitting next to me as he vainly tried to watch the movie.
I recognize the irony here, okay? This piece of Cultural Content is so important that I’m making Further Content out of not knowing anything about it. I’m sorry. I’ll also note here, briefly, that Endgame was also apparently the subject of some truly insane hand-wringing about spoilers, to the point where the cast was subject to a showy spoiler ban that the directors then made a big point out of “lifting” on May 6. It’s three days later when I’m turning this thing in. Don’t email me.
We open with Jeremy Renner, who’s teaching his daughter archery in an idyllic field, the rest of his family preparing hot dogs so blissfully you know everything’s about to go to absolute shit. Sure enough, they all disappear, and then we flash forward five years and Robert Downey Jr. is having a tortured conversation with a shimmering blue lady.
Jesus, I think with alarm. Is Avatar part of the Marvel universe? (I have also not seen Avatar but I recall that they were blue.)
They’re stuck on a ship. It looks bad. Robert Downey Jr. briefly gets the vapors and when he opens his eyes, he sees a woman in a cloud of fire with a fabulous blowout who’s somehow rescued him. The ship lands and Gwyneth Paltrow appears. God dammit. Every single person in this fucking movie is about to get measles.
I’m joking, of course; Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t an anti-vaxxer, she’s merely someone whose lifestyle brand has amplified an alarming variety of bullshit “wellness” claims and whose presence is suddenly so distracting that it’s weird to remember that she’s an actress, too, and not just someone whose company paid $145,000 to settle a consumer protection lawsuit because Goop was selling an absurd “essence blend” and some jade and rose quartz eggs that you should not, in fact, put in your vagina. I lose a small chunk of time thinking about jade vagina eggs, and make a mental note to see if they’re still listed on the Goop site. (They are, but they are currently listed as “unavailable”).
When I emerge from my vaginal reverie, I realize there’s a talking fox in this movie. I am delighted. [Ed. note: It’s a raccoon. She just kept calling it a fox.]
The premise here is that an ur-bad guy named Thanos has succeeded in wiping out 50 percent of the world’s population and everything’s in pieces. This apparently could have been solved with more weapons and less SJW fretting, per Robert Downey Jr., who growls, “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world, whether it impaired our precious freedoms or not.” I smell neoliberalism. I make a discontented noise and discreetly order a $12 “Infinity Stone” sundae, which is, to be real with you, the entire reason why I’m attending this movie at this particular theater. I agreed to sit through roughly three hours of something I know very little about in exchange for ice cream. This should tell you everything about how I’ve chosen to structure my life.
A comical number of famous people keep appearing, looking concerned: here’s Mark Ruffalo looking pale and drawn. Here’s the fox again, who sounds like Bradley Cooper trying to sound like a ‘70s New York cabbie. (The credits will later tell me I’m correct.) It’s funny that a bajillion dollar film does not purchase good acting. (It’s also funny that I can somehow identify most of these people without knowing the names of their characters.) There’s A Chris here. I could not tell you which Chris, but it’s definitely one of the famous Chrisses. No one has a single pore on their face.
This enormous group of famous people goes to find Thanos, who’s chilling in what looks like a very idyllic thatched hut situation on a paradisiacal garden planet, and try to fight him. They want to wrest away some enormous glove thing. They fail. “I am inevitable,” he tells them, which is objectively a cool thing for a villain to say. He snaps his fingers and everything goes black.
Suddenly it’s five years later and every remaining person on earth is glumly plodding around their jobs and trying to date and sitting through a support group about surviving the half-apocalypse. This seems almost punishingly bleak. If 50 percent of the planet were wiped out, I would hope we’d all go fully feral and abolish capitalism, not sip stale coffee in a church basement and talk about how hard Tinder is?
We shift from New York to San Francisco, where an alarmed-looking Paul Rudd materializes in some kind of mail bin and then runs through the city trying to find his daughter. He doesn’t know what’s been going on! He finds his daughter and embraces her! Okay! I am keeping up!
That’s by design, of course: it occurs to me that it’s extremely easy to follow what’s going on here, mostly because these movies are written in the equivalent of 20-point type. The plots can be seen from space. They remind me a lot of those Coke commercials that feature grunting polar bears: the whole point is that they translate incredibly well even if you don’t speak English, or if you’re kid, or even if you happen to be half-asleep idiot who’s just lost an additional ten minutes or so thinking about what kind of sundae would go with a movie about your own life. (I settle on Earl Grey ice cream studded with gummi bears, for reasons too complex to get into here.)
Scarlett Johansson is sulking around behind a desk somewhere; her hair is an atrocious reverse-ombre situation, which I guess we’re supposed to attribute to grief and the various stressors of the post-semi-apocalypse. Paul Rudd rushes in and starts raving about having been in the quantum realm. I realize almost immediately that this movie is going to revolve around making a fucking time machine to go back and undo all Thanos’s murder.
“That seems like cheating,” I whisper agitatedly to the man sitting next to me, who hasn’t seen a movie with me in years, probably for a reason. He looks at me with mild bafflement. He points at the screen.
“That’s Spider-man,” he whispers consolingly, pointing to another, pubescent-seeming white person who’s just appeared.
I’m getting so confused I’m on the verge of tears—haven’t there been like eight previous Spider-mans? None of those Spider-mans looked like this Spider-man?—but then, mercifully, the sundae arrives. It has blue whipped cream and a pink cookie and it occurs to me that I have basically no clue what an “infinity stone” is, how it’s connected to the movie, or what makes the sundae resemble it. Distressed, I furtively eat 75 percent of the sundae before my dining companion notices anything is amiss. He will later note, with some confusion, that it didn’t have Oreos on it as promised. (Reader, I ate all the Oreos.)
When I emerge from a mild sugar coma, Robert Downey Jr. has invented some kind of time-Mobius strip to go back and undo Thanos’s destruction. “That’s amazing and terrifying,” Gwyneth Paltrow says, pallidly. That’s her entire reaction. That’s it.
The time machine portal is in a van, for no apparent reason. A pile of the other superheroes show up and pile out of an Audi to look at it; the product placement on the Audi symbol is so blatant I yelp a little bit.
Next, everyone ventures to New Asgard to retrieve Thor, who is, reasonably, drinking a lot and playing video games as part of his grieving process. (I’m having trouble keeping track of some of the other characters’ names, but it’s virtually impossible to miss Thor: he has a large hammer. Even I’m not quite dim enough to miss that.)
Thor’s grown a bit of a belly; everyone in the theater gasps as it’s revealed when he turns around. I feel intensely judgmental about all of them. Just let the man live! Increased calorie intake feels like an eminently reasonable choice when everybody’s died?
For no particular reason that I can discern, we’re then transported to an elaborate swordfight in Tokyo. Jeremy Renner is killing randos, which is I guess is meant to be a better coping mechanism than growing a slight beer belly and hanging with your friends. The morals of this movie are suspect!
Some kind of discussion ensues about why everyone can’t just go kill Baby Thanos. “That’s not how it works,” someone explains, and that’s that. Really? Really? We’re not going to try even slightly harder to explain the central premise of this movie, which is a very specific, narrow, and narratively leaky form of time travel? Irritated, I consider ordering another sundae. The Famous People back up their point by citing other fucking movies, a kind of winky little too-cute-by-half plot mechanism that I truly hate.
There is some discussion about “pin particles” and infinity stones again, and I gather that all the stones have to be obtained and then, I don’t know, we can open a portal out of the theater and go home. Fine. I’m excited to see Tilda Swinton suddenly appear as a no-nonsense monk who’s living her elegant best life on a Manhattan rooftop and isn’t simply going to turn over her stone because Mark Ruffalo-as-nerd-Hulk demands it. She eventually gives it to him because he explains why he needs it and asks nicely, which also seems right.
Then we’re back to Asgard where Thor’s apparent alcohol problem is being mined for laughs. I hate this?
I lose a couple minutes being judgmental, and when I return to my senses someone is telling A Chris, who I gather is Captain America, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass.” I don’t get the joke, because I’ve been elsewhere, but everyone laughs. I feel both pandered-to and humorless. When did I get like this?
Some amount of time elapses as I consider my vast catalogue of personal failings, and suddenly we’re seeing a glimpse of Tom Hiddleston, chilling in some all-white prison cell in a castle. I realize I have definitely seen whatever movie he was in before. It’s bizarre to realize there’s an entire Marvel movie locked in my cortex somewhere, a Loch Ness monster of relevant pop culture swimming around in the cholent of my psyche. I feel completely baffled. In the time I spend trying to figure out what movie that was—something I could Google in five seconds on my phone, were I not mulishly stubborn—Captain America Past and Present start fighting, and Thanos has kidnapped the Blue Lady—who is his daughter, an incredibly important plot point I’ve forgotten to mention until just now—and is rudely rummaging through her memories, apprising him of the entire plan to thwart him. Meanwhile, Thor’s mother tells him to “eat a salad,” which also gets a huge laugh in the theater full of apparent monsters I’m viewing this film with.
Wait, why the fuck is Natalie Portman here?
From here, my frantic notes became unreadable. This is like a final exam nightmare you’d have if you fell asleep watching the Oscars. It’s an absolutely illegible mound of fame. I gather that Robert Downey Jr. went to the ‘70s and met his own father. I have a series of scribbled names written down after that— they look like they’re melting off the page — and a bunch of increasingly frantic question marks. Scarlett Johansson and some other person both want to throw themselves off a cliff. Only one succeeds. I’m earnestly unsure what the point was there or why someone had to die, but the movie plays the kind of solemn final music that tell me it definitely made sense and was thematically inevitable.
We are arriving, finally, at the climactic battle scene I knew must’ve been the point of this all along, and frankly it looks very, very cool. Thanos’s army includes these gigantic flying centipede-looking things. I like them very much. Honestly, Thanos seems like the only person here with a real sense of purpose, doesn’t he?
The Black Panther cast appears, looking extremely regal, and I realize Black Panther must be a Marvel movie. I’m learning so much!
At some point, all the ladies of the Marvel universe ride to one another’s defense during this climactic battle situation, and I realize this is probably A Scene People Are Talking About. I am irritated by my own emotions here, which are out of context—I have no idea what’s actually happening—and yet surprisingly intense. This is how scrapingly low the bar is: I am just fucking thrilled to see a bunch of women onscreen together doing cool shit. The Women Being Powerful Lever has been effectively pulled in my brain. This is sucker shit, and I know it, and yet here I am, mildly emoting about it.
The stones are put into their proper place or whatever the fuck, and Thanos’s armies turn to dust. Honestly, everything involving Thanos is really, really awesome and I feel sad to see him go. We also have to watch a climactic death scene featuring One of the Famous People because it was obvious we’d have to lose one, besides the other one who previously jumped off a cliff. There’s a funeral.
Here I find myself, to my own irritation, getting weepy again for no particular reason. These movies are engineered in a lab to punch you in the limbic system and they are working on me, even with my perilous grasp on whatever just happened over the last few hours. Samuel L. Jackson wordlessly appears. “He’s in these?” I whisper incredulously to the man sitting next to me who, wisely, ignores me.
I’m curious if these movies are actually over. The word “Endgame” seems to imply that they are over, and yet there are so many famous people here and they are all seemingly doing so little, besides sticking jade eggs where they don’t belong.
“The next movie should probably be entirely about the fox and the talking tree,” I inform my movie companion, who assures me they’ve already had their own film. Incredible!
I go home, secure in the knowledge that there is content to be made from this—content that will be published on terms incidentally amenable to those preferred by the spoiler-averse Disney corporation—and which will be published with my ignorance going more or less unpunctured. It is, commercially and spiritually, a perfect bargain all around.