When last seen, things weren’t looking so good for the Avengers. By the end of “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), the magma-voiced villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) had turned half the Earth’s population to dust. Literally. When Thanos blows away people, that’s what they do: blow away. Enabling him to do this were a half-dozen Infinity Stones (don’t ask). Among the dustified 50 percent were more than a dozen superheroic types. This was a real shock. Say what you will about movie superheroes, but they’re pretty much unkillable. Douglas MacArthur said old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Superheroes just make sequels.
In “Avengers: Endgame” (hello, Samuel Beckett) the surviving superheroes set out to make things right — of course they do, they’re the Avengers. This involves getting back the Infinity Stones from Thanos. “We have a plan,” announces Captain America (Chris Evans). “Six stones. Three teams. One shot.” Cue the “Mission: Impossible” theme.
Those teams include Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). All of those actors, per usual, do their superheroic thing expertly. Also per usual, the ever-droll Downey takes best in show, with Hemsworth — put this man in more comedies — a close second.
The plan involves “the quantum realm” and “a time heist” and the sort of set-the-wayback-machine narrative origami that allows dustified Avengers to be seen again — which is not to say they do or do not return to life, just that things get really, really weird chronologically.
The movie is ludicrously long, clocking in at three hours and one minute, but surprisingly satisfying. “Avengers: Endgame” is to the Marvel firmament as a magnet is to iron (or Iron Man) filings. It’s like the ultimate college reunion. So there’s a definite sense of hail-hail-the-gang’s-all-here fun, along with that enjoyment which comes of hearing various longstanding story lines go click.
This is the fourth “Avengers” movie and umpteenth Marvel one (no X-Men, of course, since they’ve belonged to Fox). So all sorts of familiar faces turn up, many of them you may even have forgotten. Some turn up briefly (Robert Redford, Hayley Atwell), some very briefly (Michael Douglas, Tom Hiddleston), some very, very briefly (Michelle Pfeiffer, Angela Bassett, Marisa Tomei). Initiates will know which names belong to which films. Those who don’t might find themselves pretty much bewildered throughout those 181 minutes.
The occasional ’70s song is heard on the soundtrack: Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the Kinks’ “Supersonic Rocket Ship.” A more fitting choice might have been the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” Narrative origami is one thing. Narrative origami when you’re not sure who someone is is quite another.
Yes, there’s a cameo from the late Stan Lee, although — time-management spoiler — you can skip the 12-plus minutes of credits, since there’s no Easter egg. In compensation, there are at least two hard-to-miss setups late in the movie. Thor finds himself feeling business-class comfortable flying on the Guardians of the Galaxy’s spaceship; and the identity of Evans’s presumptive successor as Captain America is anything but shielded from view.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have been shepherding things along for quite some time now. So they know how to pull off that distinctive Marvel blend of overbearing smash crash bash, undercooked pseudo-philosophizing (when two Avengers have to decide which of them is To Make the Supreme Sacrifice, hoo boy, time to get some popcorn), and trademark comic carbonation. There’s a throwaway “Big Lebowski” joke (!) involving Thor (!!) that’s almost worth the whole movie.
“Avengers: Endgame” continues the you-go-girl feminism of the immediately preceding Marvel release, “Captain Marvel.”
In fact, it’s Brie Larson’s title character from that movie who shows up early on to get things rolling. Johansson’s Black Widow emerges as the group’s moral conscience. During the climactic battle for the fate of the universe — wait, the universe? yes, those Infinity Stones have some serious ju-ju going for them — there’s a shot in which every good guy within the frame isn’t a guy, from Wakandan warriors to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
The big departure with “Avengers: Endgame” is, of all things, domesticity. If last year’s “Black Panther” disturbed certain elements of the fan base, and “Captain Marvel” really disturbed them, this might just drive them crazy. The movie begins with a father-daughter archery lesson that’s like a video version of a Hallmark Father’s Day card. A pair of sisters discovers that one of them is twins (of a sort). One Avenger gets a family. Another finds the loss of his family dominates his life. One of the origami twists involves Thor having a reunion with his deceased mother (Rene Russo), and another Avenger has an even more surprising parental encounter.
Most of all, there’s the direct acknowledgment of Avenger-dom as a band of siblings (with Evans’s Captain America/Steve Rogers and Downey’s Iron Man/Tony Stark as bickering parents?). Really, the ’70s song that belongs on the soundtrack is from Sister Sledge, “We Are Family.” “Avengers: Endgame” isn’t a college reunion. It’s a family reunion.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Jim Starlin. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Josh Brolin. At Boston theaters, suburbs, and Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 181 minutes (yup, that’s right, three hours and 60 seconds). Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action, language).