I laughed when the title of the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War was announced last year. "Endgame" is one of those cliche titles you see everywhere. Nearly every genre show has an "Endgame" episode. It seemed almost hilariously unimaginative of Marvel Studios to use it now. But while that made me laugh months ago, the surprising thing about the actual film is how consistently funny it is. I really shouldn't have been surprised, since humor has been crucial to the more-than-decade-long success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There seemed to be no room for comedy after the previous film, which saw half the life of the universe, if not 50% of all Marvel superheroes, snuffed out with a snap of Thanos' fingers. Yet there is such a thing as gallows humor, and there's always a new normal with room for jokes. That's how some people (or whatever Rocket is) cope with situations, after all. The really surprising thing about this is that the comedy star of the picture turns out to be Mark Ruffalo as The Incredible Hulk. In what may be his last turn in the role, Ruffalo gets to perform the popular variation of the character in which Ol' Greenskin has Bruce Banner's brain. It's alarming how at ease Ruffalo makes the mighty monster, compared to the pouty, childish Hulk of Thor: Ragnaraok and the default rage mode. This Hulk always has time to pose for selfies with fans -- for there are still fans in this traumatized world -- and, compared to normal, seems almost imperturbable, even when dealing with theoretical science over even Banner's head. There's a wonderful scene in which this new Hulk time-travels to 2012 New York during the climactic battle of the original Avengers film. In order to be inconspicuous on his mission (see below), he's advised to behave in his old self's smashing manner. The well-meaning yet hopelessly halfhearted way in which he goes about lazily growling and lackadaisically wrecking a car is, as of now, my favorite scene in the picture.
The Russo brothers and their writing partners, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, take an actually daring approach to the story, getting a much-anticipated catharsis out of the way about 30 minutes into the film when Thor (I shouldn't have to identify the actors by now) decapitates Thanos on the latter's retirement planet. The problem is, killing Thanos doesn't solve anything, since he'd already destroyed his Infinity Stones, making a reversal of his infamous snap impossible. From this empty bit of avenging, the film jumps forward five years to a world -- not to mention a universe, as new arrival Captain Marvel reminds us -- barely hanging on. Some of our heroes aren't even doing that. Thor has lapsed into drunken slackerdom, hanging out at New Asgard with some of his Ragnarok buddies while Valkyrie does most of the real work without anyone asking where she was when Thanos attacked the refugee ship in the last picture. Hawkeye, having lost his entire family, goes full vigilante on a global killing tour, less convinced than ever of some people's right to live. Only Tony Stark (along with the Hulk) seems better off, having given up and settled down to have a kid with Pepper Potts. Yet when Ant-Man gets randomly released from his post-credits predicament from last year, he intuits a solution from the fact that only a few hours passed by for him in the Quantum Realm while years went by outside. It takes a while to convince Stark, who worries that changing the recent past might wipe out his daughter, but once he's on board the film becomes Avengers: Timeheist -- an excuse for a valedictory tour of past MCU moments in search of Infinity Stones to preempt Thanos' seizure of them. While probably no one really wanted to revisit Thor: The Dark World, that mission gives Rene Russo an opportunity to make one of this film's many, many encore appearances by its supporting players. This middle act is more caper film than action picture, but comes to a dark climax as one team of heroes arrives at that planet where the Red Skull curates the Soul Gem, which as ever requires a love sacrifice. This results in a surprise exit from the franchise, but the sacrifice may be for naught. Thanks to a big gimme -- the idea that past evil Nebula can tap into the memories of her good future self, Thanos circa 2014 is tipped off to his future and endeavors to change some details. Thwarted then, he takes the battle to the present, only to be faced with an almost entirely replenished superhero army, plus the game-changing power of Captain Marvel. Ultimately, though, the only way to keep the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos is to use it against him, and as Hulk experienced using it to reverse the Snap, it would very likely prove fatal for a human to wield it.
Endgame is a fine film but lacks the relentless tension of Infinity War and barely makes it past the three-hour mark with more endings than The Return of the King, but its indulgent length feels earned. The battles aren't as ambitious or dramatic as in the previous picture, though yet again we have a strangely sexist moment when all the female heroes converge on one location for no special reason apart perhaps for the convenience of GIF makers. I suspect, however, that many people will like it more than its predecessor simply for the feels, both happy and sad. For the most part, the sequel exemplifies Marvel Studios' commitment to quality control in pursuit of a consistent defining tone. It quite self-consciously marks the end of an era, as half the original Avengers are exiting the franchise, but also takes time to point toward new directions: Thor teaming with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Sam Wilson as Captain America, etc. It is not the end some fatigued critics may have hoped for, but it does at least feel like the end of a chapter. The one-two punch of Infinity War and Endgame puts an exclamation point on what so far has been (with a handful of exceptions) an uncannily consistent run of epic entertainment.