A weird thing happened since Marvel Studios made the first Iron Man movie in 2008. Disaster movies started having to contend with the real thing. For over a hundred years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, filmmakers made art out of worst-case scenarios for various reasons -- political allegory, apocalypse warnings, nostalgia for the past, news of distant parts of the world that didn’t reach us in Los Angeles or Hong Kong or Bombay.
Now, the Paris Accords are being rendered ineffectual by the day, ISIS provided us with a years-long livestream of how man is wolf to man, norms-based democracy looks like it’s being eaten alive, and we are all on Twitter all the time. Iron Man (2008) came out in a decade when the western world was trying to exorcise the shock of seeing the World Trade Centre collapse, while simultaneously attempting to acknowledge that it had screwed up, very badly, in seeking revenge for that tragedy. That was an uneasy and short-sighted state of affairs. I mean, the Notre-Dame cathedral collapsed in front of our eyes two weeks ago. A disaster movie would not even.
But that’s the other weird thing that happened. Over the last decade, Marvel quietly recast all their science-fiction-tinged comic-book movies to be disaster films. Avengers: Endgame, the movie that brings the first cycle of the MCU to an end, is made by the brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who oversaw that change. In 2015, they made the sharp, vibrant second installment of the Captain America franchise, in which Cap learns that the world’s most trustworthy institutions are corrupt to the core, and the only way to save the world is to let those institutions die, and start anew.
Ever since, the films have been bucking apocalypse; absorbing the betrayals of the military-industrial complex (Civil War), saving paradise from hell and re-envisioning its future (Black Panther) and also fighting off genocidal aliens (all the blonde space heroes). It’s all been humongously silly, in a kind of Shakespearean way: some quality mass entertainment, broadly anti-tyranny and pro-humanity, stuffed to the gills with dumb jokes. (It’s no coincidence that one of the world’s most renowned Shakespeareans directed one MCU movie, nor that one of the world’s most problematic ones made two.)
Endgame has to make all the silliness count, and to be extremely, earnestly serious in the bargain. As you probably know, the last Avengers movie stopped fooling around and parked us in the middle of full-blown apocalypse. Half the world’s organisms were erased from existence by the villain Thanos, leaving the six heroes of the first Avengers movie, a talking raccoon, and the MCU’s most handsome hero, Don Cheadle, to deal with the consequences. In Endgame, these heroes have to make terrible, irreversible sacrifices in order to bring back the dead. Each must confront failure in this quest. All must do their best to comprehensively defeat Thanos, who still looks like someone captured a Juhu nightclub bouncer and painted him purple (in other words, a grape of wrath).
Its predecessor, Infinity War, kept audiences at arms’ length while it constructed an intricate plot, with room for dozens of characters, confronting steadily insurmountable challenges. It was like watching the Avengers play a video game. In contrast, Endgame plays to the MCU’s biggest intrinsic strength: it lets us drift and re-acquaint ourselves with characters we can’t help but like. We see them fight, snark and yearn; they play off each other like the unbeatable team they’re supposed to be; most of all, the film lets us in up close to watch them grieve.
That’s why it’s worth watching, if you’re going to watch it at all. I warn you that its silliness is almost self-referential: characters talk about how stupid the Back To The Future model of time-travel is, while preparing to undertake a form of time travel that’s ten times more ridiculous. But Endgame is only secondarily about how ridiculous time travel is as a plot device.
Primarily, it is about being in the middle of the apocalypse, and saying, what do we do next? The answer is surprisingly mature, for a movie that features a battle scene so long that I took off my 3D glasses and posted three unrelated Instagram stories while it was going on. The endgame is, of course, catastrophic for our heroes. It changes the world forever. I’m not actually sure the film understands what reversing a demographic and ecological holocaust entails! (Actually I am pretty sure: it does not understand it at all.)
But, fittingly for a movie that’s bidding farewell to a bunch of beloved popular heroes, it sticks close to the idea that a better future will be born because of our grief, not in spite of it. I went to my local theatre swaddled in a scarf and wearing my biggest pair of sunglasses, devoutly hoping that no one would recognise me while I huddled in a corner feeling emotions for this stupid Hollywood franchise. But, after all, it’s not such a bad thing to spend three hours in a dark hall surrounded by young people, watching a disaster movie that reminds you to keep your mind on the future, and to plan for peace. As Captain America will remind you: it’s been a long, long time.
This review was contributed by Supriya Nair.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city