MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, April 26th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, Megan Basham reviews what might be the last of a particular movie franchise of superheroes.
REICHARD: Oh, and hang on. Megan assures us you do not need to listen with your finger hovering over the pause button. There are no spoilers. So, enjoy…
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Is there any other way to grade Avengers: Endgame than on a curve? The franchise’s 22 films feature a rotating cast of dozens of interconnected main characters. All those individual storylines eventually funnel into a single master narrative. Nothing like Avengers: Endgame has ever been attempted before.
So the only fair way to judge the finale is how well it merges all those highways, byways, and weird alleyways (ahem Thor: Ragnarok) before reaching its ultimate destination. On that score you’d have to say it succeeds wildly.
The story picks up as survivors from Infinity War cook up a scheme to reverse Thanos’s uber-environmentalist success at wiping out half the galaxy’s population. On the one hand, the plan is undeniably cliched and convoluted. (The characters themselves crack wise about it.) But it nonetheless allows everything that has come before to count for something. More importantly, it allows everyone who has come before to count for something.
CLIP: Hey Ms. Potts. If you find this recording, don’t feel bad about this. Part of the journey is the end. Just for the record, being adrift in space is your own promise of rescue is more fun than it sounds. Food and water ran out four days ago. Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning. That’ll be it. When I drift off, I will dream about you. It’s always you.
The biggest box Endgame needed to check was doing justice to the array of personalities audiences have come to love. And it had to do that while maintaining Marvel’s hallmark style of high stakes mixed with high humor. Even given the eye-popping three-hour run time, the fact that it manages to give every character their due is no mean feat. Half the fun is seeing how the studio has managed to discover and sharpen the unique appeal of each superhero over time. Thor and the Hulk, especially, are both different and more original than they were when we first met them.
The studio also deserves credit for understanding who should be Endgame’s focus. While the newcomers play a role, it’s the old guard and the feuds and friendships they’ve built over the past 11 years that turn the story. And I’m happy to report there are no easy cheats of recently introduced characters sweeping in to save the day here.
CLIP: Even if there’s a small chance that we can undo it, I mean, we owe it to everyone who’s not in this room to try. If we do this, how do we know it’s going to end any differently than it did before? Because before you didn’t have me. Hey, new girl? Everybody in this room is about that super hero life.
Nor is it a rush of frenetic activity. It’s no secret fans must say goodbye to some old friends. But they’re allowed to do that slowly, in ways that are unexpected and immensely moving.
Endgame does have one big disappointment, besides a fair amount of PG-13 language and a slight amount of identity politicking. Previous films debated so many big ideas. Isolationism versus national interest in Black Panther. Freedom versus security in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But Endgame doesn’t make much effort to offer a comprehensive theme for the entire Avengers arc. Then again, maybe seeing the characters that argued over those ideas set aside their differences to sacrifice one more time for something greater is a big enough idea for this final send off.
CLIP: We lost. All of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves. This is the fight of our lives. This is going to work, Steve. I know it is, because I don’t know what I’m going to do if it doesn’t.
The Marvel Universe will, of course, carry on. But I suspect it will no longer be what it once was after this. Like Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, it will now go into the west and diminish. But for all the griping about superhero dominance (and I say this as one of the gripers), we can be grateful for what these films and characters have meant to American culture. Though imperfect, they have offered a sort of last bastion of storytelling that, for the most part, whole families could watch together. They could cheer the unvarnished heroism in all its forms, then argue over burgers about some of those big ideas.
They gave us a place to come together while deftly sifting the debates that often keep us apart.
In today’s cultural climate, it seems that’s a feat only a team of superheros could accomplish. We will miss them.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.