The Five Best Narrative Surprises That Elevated “Avengers: Endgame”
It’s not surprising that Avengers: Endgame beat a half dozen box office records this past weekend including the biggest worldwide opening ever ($1.2 billion). What is startling is how well Marvel Studios managed to keep such a tight lid on the many narrative surprises in the concluding chapter to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel execs knew that audiences assumed time travel would play into the storytelling, so they gave up that plot point explicitly in the trailer. But beyond that, the story of Endgame remained well under wraps with spoilers kept to a bare minimum. That’s saying a lot considering all of those attempting to expose even the smallest of leaks online.
The tight security around Endgame allowed the final chapter in this first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to conclude with maximum impact. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely delivered a film that was thrilling, witty, moving, and continually surprising; one that almost always zigged when you thought it would zag.
Indeed, there were five twists that positively gobsmacked audiences. And significantly, they were character-driven and not gratuitous in the least. (Needless to say, if you haven’t seen the film yet, major plot spoilers will be revealed starting now.)
The first big surprise is how little Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) figured in the whole of the story. Granted, she is crucial to the two bookending set-pieces, but Larson’s off-screen for the entire second act. The female character that ended up dominating most of the storyline, and indeed, having the most significant arc, was Nebula (Karen Gillan). The mechanized alien daughter of villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) had the most screen time and was crucial in advancing the story in all three acts.
She helped save Tony while lost in space and was the one who identified her father’s hideout in the first hour. Then she joined the Avengers team for their time travel which dominated the second act. The past and present Nebula crisscrossed in that hour which set up the showdown on planet Earth in the third act. And during the final battle, the modern day Nebula killed the past Nebula which gave Thanos one less ally for his last stand.
2) Time Travel
Making the meta most out of cinema’s time-traveling tropes was the second biggest twist in the story as members of the Avengers team argued about how time travel gets presented in the movies. They dismissed films like Back to the Future and Somewhere in Time that trafficked in the idea that fiddling with the old will screw up the new. Indeed, most of the Avengers moved in and out of time without paying too heavy a toll. No one died after interfering with their former selves like Bruce Willis’ character did when his younger self (Joseph Gordon Leavitt) commits suicide in Looper.
The Avengers managed to retrieve all the stones and leave most of what they found intact as it was when they arrived. Sure, it was bizarre for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to have to interact with his dad back in the 70s, and it was crazy that Captain America (Chris Evans) had to fight the older version of himself in 2012 to make it out safe, but by and large, the Avengers team managed to escape the past pretty much unscathed. (Everyone except Black Widow that is. She was very unlucky, to say the least.)
Thirdly, while most surmised that Tony and “Cap” would figure heavily in this concluding chapter, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was just as critical to the story. Early on in Endgame, the ‘God of Thunder’ gets his chance to correct his costly mistake at the end of Infinity War, but that’s just the beginning of his arc. Thor is both heartbreaking and hilarious in the rest of the film, becoming a self-pitying drunk who induces the audience to tears of laughter and sadness.
Hemsworth has become a brilliant comic and here’s hoping that he indeed will go along with the Guardians of the Galaxy for their next mission.
The fourth biggest surprise occurred when Nebula’s wires got crossed due to her time travel, and it clues Thanos into the Avengers’ plot. While they’re turning back time, he’s turning the tables on all of them, and it became the most delicious of twists.
At the end of it all, Thanos turned out to be a remarkable villain, perhaps the best in the entire MCU. (Sorry, Loki. You were never entirely evil.) Josh Brolin’s voice work and motion-capture performance made Thanos all the more formidable because he was played so real even though he’s 10 feet tall and purple.
5) Final Battle
Finally, the most pleasant surprise takes place during the last, big battle. It’s chock full of CGI, yet it remains focused on the specific characters who are fighting. Every one of the main Avengers and several featured warriors who return via the portals of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) get plenty of screen time to make an impression and matter in the stakes. And, as stirring as the clash is, it’s over quickly, setting up a hefty denouement that thankfully, isn’t rushed. The long pan at the funeral even serves as a fitting tribute to the large cast, an affectionate roll call, if you will. It reminds us of just how many genuinely indelible characters were brought to life in the MCU, figures we’ve grown to care about and see as three-dimensional beings.
One can criticize superhero movies for their dominance of the cinematic landscape, as well as the trend of every top studio desperately trying to start their franchises at the expense of more modest storytelling.
When you see a film like Endgame rise above expectations, delivering a cinematic knockout that pleases worldwide audiences, as well as critics with a 96% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, you have to give the MCU its due. They’ve delivered the goods time and time again, and they’ve done so with vividly detailed attention to character, dialogue, and narrative surprises. In fact, for as much money as the MCU has spent making all their special effects look so amazing, their greatest feats remain in how much we care for these superheroes out of costume.
That is the biggest marvel of all.
by Jeff York
Jeff York has been writing film criticism online since 2011. His weekly blog “The Establishing Shot” is read in 27 countries and he was a film critic for the Examiner online for six years, covering mainstream cinema, as well as horror until the magazine shuttered in 2016. Jeff comes from the world of Chicago advertising, and he’s also an illustrator whose work has appeared in hundreds of periodicals including Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, and W magazine. Jeff is an optioned screenwriter, an original member of the Chicago Indie Critics (CIC), and belongs to both SAG-AFTRA and the International Screenwriters Association. You can find his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as well.
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