Note: Mild spoilers to follow. 

It seems like an eternity ago, but just a year ago, moviegoers around the globe emerged from multiplexes stunned, shocked, and otherwise shook by Avengers: Infinity War. Ten years and 20, interconnected, universe-expanding movies didn’t prepare them for the utter and complete defeat of the Avengers and Thanos’ overwhelming victory. In a snap felt around the universe, Thanos extinguished half of all life sentient life, including many (actually, most) of the superheroes who’ve made their home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the previous decade. Even knowing that Avengers: Infinity War was just part one of a two-part, superhero epic did little to give moviegoers a sense of hope, however small, that the MCU would be restored to balance – not Thanos’ idea of genocidal balance – but where might and right stood together on one side of the wish-fulfillment equation against cosmic forces of evil and where individual and collective heroism, super or otherwise, clearly and simply mattered.

When Avengers: Endgame opens, hope remains in short supply. In a brief, but no less devastating, standalone prologue, Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) loses his entire family to the Snapapocalypse / Snapture, turning Hawkeye into a Punisher-inspired, murderous vigilante, Ronin. While the survivors, Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes / War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) attempt to find a way to accept their personal and collective failure to stop Thanos and his plan, move on physically, emotionally, and mentally (one Avenger even joins a support group for those left behind), and help the world rebuild, half a decade passes. Driven by bitterness, resentment, and despair, the Rogers-Stark schism continues, however, leaving the near-future a much bleaker place. Even the appearance of Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) seems to make little difference.

Hope eventually makes an appearance in the unexpected form of Scott Lang / Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), back from the Quantum Realm after a forced, five-year vacation and the inevitable loss of almost everyone close to him. The onetime thief-turned-occasional-superhero, Scott offers Team Avengers an idea for undoing the Thanos Snap and returning everyone who’s been dusted back to life. Avengers: Endgame doesn’t exactly falter once Scott’s idea becomes the central focus of Team Avengers, but it’s also about as worn-out, clichéd, and otherwise overused as any plot device in science fiction or comics. Credit to co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, working from a screenplay credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for essentially joking their way around and through the idea and its potential story problems (i.e., paradoxes). In the grand scheme of plot devices, it’s an easily forgivable one, especially given what the Russo Brothers do with the idea.

That plot device gives the Russo brothers the completely welcome opportunity to take moviegoers through a nostalgia-laden, greatest hits package of MCU’s previous films (made all the more fulfilling by fan knowledge and/or familiarity), but viewed and experienced through off-kilter, side angles, adding a level of meta-awareness that’s equal parts surprising and fun. Inevitably, of course, Team Avengers’ plan goes predictably sideways (cue an hours worth of twists, turns, and switchbacks, including a possible betrayal or two, mistaken identity, and the return of a fearsome foe and his adopted children) and the fate of roughly half the universe or more hangs once again on the spandexed shoulders of superheroes, always with a deft blend of humor and heart, drama and comedy, character and spectacle. Considering the near overwhelming number of characters, the need to service those characters and their individual stories and arcs, and wrap up series-long plot threads, it’s something of a minor miracle that Avengers: Endgame doesn’t just work as well as does, or even works better than anyone could have reasonably expected, but that it offers a profoundly emotional, poignant conclusion and capper to the adventures of this particular iteration of the Avengers.

And Avengers: Endgame doesn’t just end with another big-budget, blockbuster-sized CG-superhero battle to end all CG-superhero battles (until the next big-budget, blockbuster-sized CG-superhero battle to end all battles), though it certainly could have and been almost as dramatically and emotionally satisfying. Respecting the decade-long investment fans have put into the MCU, along with the implicit contract filmmakers figuratively sign with fans to deliver what fans both want and ultimately need, Avengers: Endgame gives the oldest, most tenured superheroes moving, touching Return of the King-inspired sendoffs, offering MCU fans fully earned catharsis and closure in equal measure, all while carefully delivering a remarkably satisfying film that celebrates old-school heroism, not the kind of heroism dependent on superpowers, but the kind of heroism dependent on simple, if uncommon, self-sacrifice.

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