Friday, April 19, 2024

‘Avengers: Endgame’ Barely Qualifies as a Movie

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I was asked to review Avengers: Endgame without any spoilers. I have tried to explain myself without describing scenes or characters. The below is as spoiler free as I could possibly make it.

Avengers: Endgame is the twenty-second film in the Marvel Universe. A continuation of Avengers: Infinity War it follows our characters in an attempt to bring an end to an era. Joe and Anthony Russo give us, as a result, a shallow, craven, and safe attempt to please fans and nothing else.

If you are a fan of the Marvel movies and if you loved Infinity War then get thee to a multiplex. I’ve even been told by people who hated Infinity War that they enjoyed Endgame. For myself-I wanted to like this movie. I really did.

Early on in the movie one of the characters has a line that’s meant to be clever and funny but in actuality sums up the movie. “It’s either all serious or none of it is.” Marvel and the Russo brothers want their cinematic cake and have us eat it. They want to make a film that is both entertaining and taken seriously.

It is possible to do both, such as Mad Max: Fury Road or The Last Jedi, or countless others. But the Russos don’t have the temerity to build up drama, much less character, to even allow us to even begin to take all of this seriously. Endgame is purely fan service—which if you are a fan will leave you over the moon.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have returned as writers for Marvel’s overlong bloated nonsensical tedium. Endgame deals with time travel, as it should come to no surprise to anyone—even those who live under rocks to avoid spoilers. I do not envy the task set before Markus, McFeeley, and the Russos.

A cast of over sixty characters and a plot dealing with time travel, meaning a lot of gobbledygook quasi pseudo-science explanations mixed with little one-liners from characters to please the young and old alike. It is a task they have now failed at—twice. I am not saying I could do a better job. I am saying they should have.

Allow me to try and explain myself without giving anything away. At the start, we see a series of scenes. One scene happens seconds before the snap. Fast forward five years later. The scenes are edited like chapters in a book.

In other words, you cut just as things get interesting. It’s known as “Meanwhile back on the ranch…”.  Something interesting happens, you cut to something else and go until something else interesting happens, and then cut back. It’s a tried and true nature of scriptwriting—but not for editing.

It doesn’t help the ever-growing insanity of “spoiler culture” has provided yet another hurdle to an artform already teeming with them. A handful of actors have shown themselves while doing press, incapable of keeping secrets. The result is many scenes feel chopped up because the actors are clearly not in the same scene together. Directors are no strangers to shooting around scheduling conflicts, especially with a cast as massive as Endgame

So the Russos deal with all of this with the tried and true over the shoulder camera shot. It is a shot in which the point of view is from the camera itself. We see part of the shoulder of the character in front of it, and the other character perfectly framed in the center. Normally it is used in television and when you don’t have actors on set on the same day. It works fine for television but in film, every cut counts.

Cuts, again, build rhythm and help establish a mood. The over-reliance of these shots could be chalked up to schedules and the sheer number of actors and characters. Yet, this practice seemed to go into overdrive in scenes involving actors who have accidentally “spoiled” previous movies. While it may preserve the integrity of “spoilers” it robs the performances and scenes of meaning because only half of the people involved know what they are doing.

The result is scenes in which characters are both oddly specific and incredibly vague about who they are talking to. In one scene, in particular, the actors are blocked in an organic way but their interactions are not. Character A sitting at the end of the table. Character B is beside them by themselves. While characters C and D sit across character B.

Character A and B converse freely using names and trading jokes and information. All the while character C and D look on passively. Character A looks over at C and D but rarely engages with them.

It kneecaps the performances. Imagine if you will, you are an actor. You are given a scene but are not told who it is you are talking too or fighting against. Maybe they won’t even tell you how tall or big the person you’re talking to is so your eye lines won’t match-but no matter. Because “Spoilers!!!”

To be fair all of this, while harmful to the overall effect of the film, only displays the stunning talent being wasted on screen. Despite everything against them, the actors do a blasted good job in creating emotions despite dialogue which does nothing but explain what is about to happen. Honestly, it’s depressing when you see how good they are. It leaves you wondering what someone with actual verve and nerve would have done with such an assorted class of professional actors.

Scenes are truncated and lifeless and exist purely to show us what we the audience want to see. The cuts have no rhythm to them. There is no internal or external reason for them to do so. Not to mention the “five years later…” is a bane of all moviegoers’ existence.

I have never seen a movie that started out at one point in time, jumped ahead, flashed the subtitle “Five years later”, or something to that effect, and not wondered about the time between. Furthermore, I have never seen a movie do that that had ever justified skipping those days, months, or years. It’s lazy, plain and simple.

The Russos feel compelled to tell us five years have passed without showing us the passing of time. The opening scene does nothing to add to the character, story, or overall feel of the movie.  It is there because Marvel, the Russos, and the writers, think us stupid.

The filmmakers have accomplished something truly breathtaking. They have had made time travel boring and meaningless. Markus and McFeely have no love or joy for great gobbledygook pseudoscience mumbo jumbo. They instead try and hew to the actual physics of it. Ingeniously they have found a way so their actions have no consequences and even if they do, they can easily be resolved. Until the end when they completely ignore everything they spent so much precious time explaining.

Of course, this does not spare us from the obligatory scene involving a character listing off EVERY time travel movie ala Ready Player One. I have seen most of the movies listed, and all of them, even the ones I didn’t like, is preferable to both the scene in which they are mentioned and the movie in total. It is a scene in which exists to please the audience and to assure us the filmmakers have also watched the same movies they have; while also giving them license to do nothing with them and take the easy way out because those are just movies.

I grow increasingly irritated with movies about superheroes that wish to be taken seriously by being “realistic” while still having characters who can fly, use magic, and who wear giant deus ex machina suits made in their Malibu home. I wish they would stop trying to convince me this is all real and just let the characters behaviors, actions, and emotions convince me instead.

The Russos are great for giving the fans what they want. Like Peter Yates of the Harry Potter franchise, though, they don’t give fans what they need. Drama comes, not from seeing what we want to happen, but from seeing what we don’t want to happen. Since Endgame is nothing but fan-service it not only lacks drama it also lacks any reason to be as long as it is.

I must take a moment to address one scene. It will not be a spoiler because it doesn’t pertain to the plot. Though ‘plot’ may be too strong of a word. While in a support group for survivors of “The snap”, Joe Russo makes a cameo as the “first” openly gay character in the Marvel universe.  The “first” gay character has no name nor does his “partner”.

Keep in mind Marvel cut a scene from Thor: Ragnarok which would have implied Valkyrie’s (Tessa Thompson) queerness. But they cut it- for time. The unmitigated gall of this scene is shameful by itself. In the year 2019, some 18 years into the twenty-first century, Marvel has allowed a nameless unimportant character, played by one of its directors who happens to be straight, a gay character into their cinematic universe. Blessed be.

Trent Opaloch has shot all of the Russo’s films for Marvel. He can not be blamed too much for the flat gray lifeless action scenes in the earlier films. Because he did not shoot them. It was the Marvel stunt department. So either the Marvel stunt department is getting better or they handed the duty off to the CGI department. Either way, the scenes have more color but they come off more perfunctory rather than cinematic.

Though the film still has the odd faded look that all Marvel movies have, the Russos seem to be understanding the value of at the very least – framing. Not to mention Opaloch is being allowed more and more to use color for more than just set dressing. It seems the Russos might be learning something after all. At times, believe it or not, there are shots that actually utilize negative space as a way to show a character’s desolation.

Opaloch and the Russos seem to be waking up to the idea to the possibilities of color and theme but fall short with doing anything with them. How could they? In order for that to happen, Endgame would have to be about something. As it stands it is about nothing but satisfying fans by playing it as safe as possible.

During the climactic battle, Opaloch gives us a shot of all the women in the Marvel universe charging in all their ferocious unhinged glory. It is a shot that impressed me to see how far we come by also highlighting how far we haven’t. For though we have that one shot the rest of the movie, belongs primarily to the men. Understandable since Endgame is supposed to be a cap to the current eras of superheroes.

Still, the climactic battle isn’t cinematic so much as feeling like it’s from a video game. You could argue that videogames are approaching the film in quality. I would agree but the two mediums use different languages to tell a story. The cinematic language of cuts, frame composition, and camera movement and placement is vastly different than that of video games. I’m not saying it’s better; I’m saying the differences are inherent and one does not translate well to the other.

In the beginning, Marvel did the special effects, or VFX effects, in post-production or during the filming. Go back and watch the earlier films Iron Man, Thor, Avengers-any of them. Notice how the characters, if you look, seem to exist in the same space as everything else.

Now Marvel does the VFX in pre-production. The consequence is that say, Iron Man, when he has his suit on he has less weight and heft to him. Do a side by side comparison. The modern one looks shinier and cooler but seems more cartoonish. Now imagine a whole battle with some over a hundred characters looking like this.

My distaste for third act action scenes in comic book movies is well documented. Although I must admit there were a few moments in which I actually shouted out with glee. Despite everything all my moans and groans I have to admit to being tickled by some of the choices made by Markus and McFeeley. I am not inhuman. I did find moments within the film briefly moving and somewhat charming.

But those moments were fleeting and mostly come from feelings I had about characters from other films. And that’s the rub. Nothing I felt was due to Endgame itself, aside from one scene. The majority of my emotions and thoughts were carryovers from previous films. Endgame inspires nothing within us. It asks nothing of us.

Like Avatar, Endgame will make oodles of money. Much will be written about the Russos as “visionaries” despite vision and visuals being the one thing the duo’s output utterly lack. In the end, much like Avatar, I suspect it will leave no cultural impact. In of itself, this is no big deal. Many moves, good and bad alike, don’t leave much of an imprint on us. Except Marvel wants desperately for us to take these movies seriously.

Endgame is an overstuffed pretentious bore. An impressive feat since Endgame isn’t even about anything-at-all. It is barely about what it is actually about. It is barely a film. “It’s either all a joke or none of it is.” Yet, I can’t call it a joke because a joke has a punchline. Endgame barely has a point.


Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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