This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
What do you mean critiques? It’s the epic crowning glory of the biggest franchise experiment in film history! Twenty-one films of character development, crossovers and cliffhangers have culminated in this moment. It’s like calling Coca-Cola a subtle interrogation of the carbonated soft drinks industry.
For the most part, Avengers: Endgame couldn’t be more entrenched in its position as the poster film for franchise cinema. It’s a three-hour victory lap for its heroes, giving them the triumphant send-off they deserve and the happy ending any blockbuster franchise expects. We finally get the equivalent of a comic’s double-page battle royale as the Avengers assemble and face up to Thanos in a fight to the death, Captain America wields Mjolnir, and Marvel generally deliver everything fans have been anticipating for one score and one film.
But despite all this fan service, in a few brief lines from Thanos there are signs that the filmmakers are interrogating the reality of the franchise model and what it really means for audiences.
Thanos: I will shred this universe down to its last atom and then, with the stones you’ve collected for me, create a new one.
Thanos’ goal is our heroes’ worst nightmare, and also the worst nightmare of any franchise. He wants to indiscriminately wipe out half of life, with no regard for quality or popularity, no one-on-one battle, just a click of his fingers. Can you imagine any major franchise wilfully slashing its cast list in half and starting again with new heroes? That was the fate Marvel baited at the end of Infinity War, but no one believed for a second it would stick.
Thanos: I thought by eliminating half of life, the other half would thrive, but you have shown me… that’s impossible. As long as there are those that remember what was, there will always be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.
A surfeit of characters, plots, and fight scenes has simultaneously been the defining characteristic of the MCU and what has held it back from achieving greatness as anything over than a logistical feat. There’s skill in weaving together so many disparate elements but is there any depth? Or beauty? A less cluttered, more focused cinema is the dream of many of Marvel’s critics but it is the last thing hardcore fans want.
Nostalgia for established properties means real change and progress is impossible in blockbuster cinema. The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely may have snapped Thanos’ fingers and wrecked the foundations of the MCU but that could only ever be a temporary blip for a series built on established characters and brand recognition. Mass audiences don’t want a new universe. They want this one. Again and always.
Thanos: You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.
Ultimately that determination to stick with established characters cuts the risk of any failure, but also the chance of innovation. ‘Failure’ is impossible in franchise cinema, just like death (except for a few rare, hard-fought, overdue exceptions).
As Thanos reminds us again and again, franchise cinema is one thing above all else: inevitable. The heroes must always survive and always succeed, but then how relatable are blockbusters really, when death and failure are two of the most inevitable features of our lives? Blockbuster cinema has long been held as the foremost example of escapism and Endgame proves how true that is.
The best metaphor for reality as you and I know it intruded at the end of Infinity War as the Avengers failed and everyone died. Endgame is an escape from that reality. And the obvious counter is that there’s nothing wrong with escapism. Arguably it’s the most unique thing about cinema as an art form. But can a piece of art ever be truly great if it is not relatable?
It is no coincidence that the most interesting and unusual act of any superhero film this century is the first hour of this film where the galaxy’s mightiest heroes finally have to face real, cataclysmic failure. The Russos have made one of the most rewarding superhero films for fans, but in the process they’ve shown how impossible it is for franchises to ever be much more than unchallenging mainstream entertainment.