“No amount of money ever bought a second of time,” one character says to another — I’m afraid I can’t be any more specific than that — somewhere around the middle of “Avengers: Endgame.” So true, so true, and also in context so completely not true. The intersecting axes of time and money are what this franchise is all about, and while I’m not an expert in studio math, I’d guess that a second of the movie, based on what Disney and Marvel Studios paid to make it, would buy a decent used car.
There are roughly 10,860 of those — seconds, not cars — nestled in between the quiet, spooky opening and the last bit of end credits. Which means that whatever a ticket costs in your neighborhood, “Avengers: Endgame” might count as a bargain. At three hours and one minute, it’s shorter than “Titanic,” “The Godfather Part II” or Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.” And while the time doesn’t exactly fly, it doesn’t drag either. The two hours and forty minutes of “Infinity War” (also directed by Joe and Anthony Russo) felt infinitely longer. Settling scores, wrapping up loose ends and taking a victory lap — the main objects of the game this ostensibly last time around — generate some comic sparks as well as a few honest tears.
And why not? We’ve lived with these characters and the actors playing them for more than a decade, and even when the party got hectic, stupid or crowded, there was no reason to complain about the guests. For the most part, it’s nice to see them again, and a little sad to say goodbye.
[How the original “Avengers” came together.]
Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, always kind of neurotic for a buff deity with a mighty hammer, has let himself go, turning into a fat Lebowski with mommy issues. War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have more to do than previously. (I wish that were also true of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.) The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has made peace with his essential duality. Robert Downey Jr., looking handsomely grizzled, exercises his seniority with a light touch. He’s been around the longest — the first “Iron Man” was in 2008 — and combines the duties of unofficial chief superhero with those of master of ceremonies.
It’s not all fun and games. A lot of heroes died at the end of “Infinity War,” and their loss weighs heavily on the survivors, perhaps especially on Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose father was responsible for the slaughter. Thanos’s deployment of the six Infinity Stones to wipe out half the life in the universe was unforgivable, of course — I can’t believe I just typed that — but it proves to have been helpful to the Russos, the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) and the audience. We and they have a manageable dozen or so major characters to keep track of, which leaves room for some of the alternately lump-in-throat, tongue-in-cheek ensemble work that has always been the series’s most potent weapon.
“The Avengers” cycle may require an escalating series of battles to save the universe from ultimate evil — each manifestation more ultimate than the last, with Thanos (Josh Brolin) as the ultimate ultimate of them all — but the engine that keeps it running is friendship. This isn’t the same as harmony. Going back to the earlier movies, Hulk and Thor have had their moments of friction, as have Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans).
The personal and political bad blood between those two, most acute in “Captain America: Civil War,” continues to simmer, at least at first. But the mood over all is tender and comradely, touched by acute grief and the more subtle melancholy of what everyone seems to understand is the Last Big Adventure. About that adventure, I won’t say much, though it strikes me that the shape of the plot is less vulnerable to spoilage than the little winks and local surprises along the way.
Those are the rewards for sitting through all those movies patiently waiting for the post-credit stingers, collecting Easter eggs while your friends were texting or your dad was napping and generally doing the unpaid labor of fandom for all these years. Was it worth it? In the aggregate, I have my doubts, but the chuckles and awws you’ll hear around you in the theater at certain moments attest to the happy sense of participation that lies at the heart of the modern fan experience. At its best — and “Endgame” is in some ways as good as it gets — the “Avengers” cosmos has been an expansive and inclusive place.
That has proved to be good business. Disney and Marvel’s accomplishment will be duly inscribed in the annals of commerce, to be studied for many years to come. There has been variety — silly movies and somber ones; chapters that proclaim their topicality and episodes that embrace pure escapism — as well as consistency. Any single film can serve as a point of entry, and insider status is easy enough to obtain. There has never been anything difficult or challenging, which is a limitation as well as a selling point.
None of the 22 films in this cycle are likely to be remembered as great works of cinema, because none have really tried. It’s fun to see the actors in these roles we know are capable of better, and also satisfying to appreciate the efforts of those who might not be. Some first-rate directors have taken up the banner and burnished the brand. Their past and future masterpieces will most likely be found elsewhere.
Still, “Endgame” is a monument to adequacy, a fitting capstone to an enterprise that figured out how to be good enough for enough people enough of the time. Not that it’s really over, of course: Disney and Marvel are still working out new wrinkles in the time-money continuum. But the Russos do provide the sense of an ending, a chance to appreciate what has been done before the timelines reset and we all get back to work. The story, which involves time travel, allows for some greatest-hits nostalgic flourishes, and the denouement is like the encore at the big concert when all the musicians come out and link arms and sing something like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” You didn’t think it would get to you, but it does.