In the 12th and final issue of DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths” maxi-series, which spanned 1985-86, the Psycho Pirate offered a coda to the year-long crossover of all of DC’s titles by saying, “Worlds lived, worlds died,” and “Nothing will ever be the same.”
Between “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe has just wrapped up a year-long company-wide crossover of its own, but even more impressively, it has placed the capstone on an 11-year-long, 22-film series that, simply for sheer volume, will never be rivaled.
It’s the cinematic equivalent of Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” or Dave Sim’s 300-issue “Cerebus,” a legendary artistic undertaking.
More importantly, this film satisfyingly wraps up just about every major plot thread that had yet to be resolved over that decade-plus, while offering respectful, emotionally earned sendoffs to the original cinematic Avengers, so the torch could be passed to the next wave of superheroes who have taken up the mantle in their forebears’ long shadow.
The aftermath of Thanos’ Infinity-Gauntleted finger-snap has wiped out half of all life in existence, just as he promised it would, leaving little more than the core circle of heroes who formed the “Avengers” lineup in 2012.
Worse yet, Thanos has destroyed all six Infinity Stones, leaving our heroes with no way to undo the damage.
But when Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man, unexpectedly returns from being stranded in the Quantum Realm, where time flows differently, he offers our gang the possibility that they might be able to recover the Infinity Stones from the past, forge their own Infinity Gauntlet, and finger-snap back everyone who was wiped out.
To the credit of co-screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they don’t rush to restore the heroes’ hope, and instead take time to explore a world where the good guys decisively lost.
While Chris Evans’ Captain America remains as stoic and compassionate as ever, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is only barely holding herself together by leaning on her leadership duties, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has been driven over the edge by his grief.
All the Avengers actors shine in portraying characters who have evolved (or devolved) over time, which I can’t help but think is a side-benefit of having played those parts for so many years and in so many films.
Chris Hemsworth makes it both hilarious and heartbreaking to see how far the once-mighty Thor has fallen, and Mark Ruffalo finally gets to use the full range of his talent, by playing the most self-actualized Hulk since writer Peter David’s 12-year run on “The Incredible Hulk” comic.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark has embraced his new domestic life to the point that he’s terrified of wiping it out by trying to fix what once went wrong.
The film’s explanation of how cause and effect work within its version of time travel is not going to hold up if you think about its consequences for too long, but when the characters themselves are cracking wise about time travel models from “Back to the Future” to “Quantum Leap,” it’s the film-makers’ way of co-opting the motto of Mystery Science Theater 3000: “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
Those trips back in time to collect the Infinity Stones are mostly excuses for our modern-day characters to engage in “Back to the Future II” hijinks, trying to pull off schemes in the unseen margins of what we were shown in previous films, right under the noses of their past selves.
While this section yields some of the film’s biggest laughs, it also treats Cap, Tony and Thor to bittersweet reunions with loved ones they’ve lost along the way.
Of course, the heroes’ perfect plan goes totally sideways, and their time tunnel winds up being used against them, leading to the obligatory moment when all hope seems lost, and then …
Let me put it this way: In the childhood of every little boy who grew up in the 1980s, there came a time when you’d acquired enough action figures that it inspired you to ask: “What if I just threw them all together, in one huge fight?”
That’s the final act of “Avengers: Endgame.” It’s mashing together all the characters rolled out over the past 11 years and 22 films, with all the enthusiasm of a breathless child, while still deftly weaving threads of characterization and plotting.
There’s no way I can describe this scene and do it justice, especially while avoiding spoilers, except to say it should have been illustrated by “Crisis on Infinite Earths” artist George Perez.
I can also tell fans who will know exactly what I mean when I say, “Cap finally does the thing!” and “Cap finally says the thing!”
It’s not spoiling anything to confirm that certain heroes are allowed to rest in peace, while others are granted veritable fairytale-level happy endings, because as comic book writer Alan Moore said, “This is an imaginary story, (but) aren’t they all?”
There is no mid-credits or post-credits scene, but those who stick around will be treated to the onscreen autographs of the original Avengers, in the style of the original Enterprise crew signing off at the end of “Star Trek: VI: The Undiscovered Country,” and at the very end, you can just barely hear a metal clanging, taken from the audio of Tony Stark working at his forge in the first “Iron Man” film.
I’m 44 years old this month. This film series has constituted a quarter of my life. I consider it time well spent.