The Avengers: Endgame is Peak Genre (no spoilers, relax)


That’s not a bad thing. I saw it last night, and overall, it was fun, but there was so much to criticize.

First, a few of my problems with the movie.

It’s a time-travel movie. Hollywood cannot make those — they screw them up everytime. It’s a plot device that they can’t use consistently, where they have to first point out the dangers and consequences of time travel and impose limitations on it, but you know at the first opportunity all of that will be thrown out. Endgame is no exception. It doesn’t have to be that way: Tim Powers’ novel, The Anubis Gates (the best time travel story ever) revels in the consequences and causality and the story is actually driven by the implications of time travel.

It’s too much to digest. This movie is the culmination of 22 other movies, and every character has to have a cameo. The first half it focuses on a manageable subset of the characters, but near the end, it has to pack them in. There are a couple of scenes where the action comes to a halt, and the camera wanders through the good guy army taking care to give everyone a moment. For example, Shuri gets a static shot standing there — she doesn’t do anything in this movie, but she gets a few seconds to be applauded. Sometimes it was too painfully obvious.

Every problem is solved with a fight. My wife got confused about who was who, but it wasn’t a concern, because every character’s main attribute was their ability to thump bad guys. And speaking of bad guys, Thanos is a terrible villain. He’s big, purple, and muscular, and his superpower is hand-to-hand combat. That’s it. He’s physically stronger than everyone, which somehow leads to him having an alien fleet and hordes of four-armed monsters fighting for him. It is not a spoiler to tell you that the culmination of the movie is a gigantic super-brawl.

Disposable ethics. Just as an example, Hawkeye (the bow and arrow guy) is so wrecked by grief by the conclusion of the previous movie that at the beginning of this movie, he’s rampaging through the criminal underworld, leaving warehouses full of dead bodies, that sort of thing. This horrifying behavior will never be addressed. He has demonstrated super bad-guy-thumping ability, so he’s embraced as a hero. It’s a conflict that would require an entire solo movie to explore and resolve, but this movie is so sprawling and over-full that it’s treated as an ignorable bump in the road.

Death is weightless. Several well-known superheroes die in this movie. Their deaths have relatively little impact, because, well, the whole movie is about reversing the deaths of trillions of intelligent beings with a time-travel plot contrivance, so why couldn’t there be another magic trick in a later movie to resurrect them? Nothing is final if we can just make a continuity adjustment in a sequel.

OK, those were my major complaints, but there’s something that unifies them all: they’re entirely genre complaints. This is what comic-book super-hero movies do. To see them as flaws is like complaining that cowboy movies will have a gunfight, or that a rom-com will have a moment where the protagonists love each other, or that a Christian cult movie will revolve around a really stupid argument that somehow brings people to Jesus. It’s like being pissed off at the hamburger you ordered at a restaurant because it contains ground beef. It is the nature of the medium.

That said, then, The Avengers: Endgame is a superbly well done genre movie. We have reached Peak Superhero. The MCU is a complex, experienced organization that is a sleek machine for pumping out movies that fulfill a social role for a huge community of nerds, and it is a master at meeting expectations professionally and with a nice shiny gloss, and it has also built up a phenomenal roster of personalities that it can slot into roles. It’s a powerhouse.

It works well.

I live in a tiny college town of 5000 people. I never have problems getting into movies — we have a limited number of screens so there are those constraints — but I’ll usually pop into the theater 5 or 10 minutes before show time, and I only show up that early so I can get the best seat. Even that’s not usually necessary because some times I’ll get there and there are only a handful of people present. This one, we got there a half hour early and there was a line half a block long. Unbelievable, for Morris.

It was a crowded theater. Half the fun of the movie were the crowd reactions. There were gasps and cheers, the audience was really into it all. That brief shot of Shuri that I saw as a pointless cameo? People applauded. Those weightless deaths of beloved characters? People moaned and wept.

The Avengers: Endgame was effective, skillful movie-making.

What it excelled at was two things that communicators of any kind ought to respect. It was all about narrative, masterful story-telling that made it easy to leap over gaps in the logic. Stupid time travel logic doesn’t matter when what you’re trying to do is sweep viewers along in a series of challenging events. The second piece of the genre is emotion. Those 22 preceding movies were all about building personal connections with characters, and this movie was about intensifying those relationships and running them through a wringer to draw out the feelings of the audience. It does that so well.

If you’re one of those horrible movie viewers who hates genre conventions and wants accurate science and rational plotting (I don’t know anyone like that, do you?), you should attend one of these showings and pay close attention to how it fosters audience engagement, as does the whole Marvel PR machine. You’ll learn things even if you are expert at maintaining objective distance.

I’ll be curious to see what happens next, though. This movie wraps up a huge multi-movie narrative arc, but Marvel is not shutting down, there are more movies in the pipeline, they’re going to make billions of dollars out of this one, and you know some executives somewhere are scheming about how to get the steamroller going again. I can’t believe this was just an accident, and I’m sure there are plans afoot to fire up another mega-blockbuster.

Comments

  1. aziraphale says

    Re: The Anubis Gates. You may be right, and Powers is a great author, but I have a sneaking regard for Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    you wrote:

    It’s a time-travel movie. Hollywood cannot make those — they screw them up everytime

    — { I moved the emphasis }
    I’d like to point out that I think Seth McFarlane seems to have learned how not to screw it up.
    EG: The season finale of The Orville was a time travel plot that reasonably addressed the consequences of a jump backward. Resolving it nicely, to close the loop.
    He even mentions how “hopping back in time to kill baby Hitler just might make things worse by disrupting things that happened in response to Him”.
    ~
    excuse me for being a tangent.
    I’m seeing this movie Monday and holding myself back from discussing this movie beforehand

  3. says

    I saw it in a packed movie theatre, for the time of day. I don’t think the audience was into it that much (through more than me).

    But no Endgame is not “effective” filmmaking and it has very little to do with genre. It has everything to do with it being a lazy, graceless re-hash of a film that came out about a year ago.

    It says more about people than the film that it is popular.

  4. pipefighter says

    @ mike smith, wow, that was pretty edgy. Your whole argument was brushing aside a thoughtful review with a “no, I didn’t like it! So there!” I think you’re confusing the ability to disagree with having an actual argument.

  5. says

    To be clear: The time travel element did not bother me but that we once again got color coded chase sequences did. It is remarkable how few fundamentally different sequences exist in the the two films. (Yet somehow they didn’t bother to give my favorite character a re-match with their IW counterpart. Because Reasons)

    MILD SPOILER:
    Also the treatment of a certain female character arc juxtaposed with a male character arc says it all about how serious Marvel actually is about inclusion. Narrator: They aren’t.

  6. says

    Several of the narrative problems that are present in Infinity War are not resolved or made worse by this remarkably lazy film. Of note, Thanos’ ideology is both utterly incoherent and utterly alien to the Zeitgeist. The writers simply lacked the courage to make Thanos into the eugenicist that he so clearly should be. Without that edge to him he is a scene chewing comic book villain in the worse way. I simply did not care about the plot because the villain is a snidely whiplash joke. The film doubles down on the idiocy present in Infinity War as Thanos’ end goal is just more so. This problem renders the film hollow, emotionally inert.

    That might have been overlooked if the film’s overall structure wasn’t, more or less, identical to Infinity War. Starting at about 30 minutes in the two films run remarkably in parallel with each other. The pieces are slightly jumbled and certain characters end up playing different beats but act to act, sequence to sequence, scene to scene the underlying scaffolding of the plot is the same. This would be better if the plotting wasn’t redundant in the first place. Infinity War boiled down to 6 color coded chase scenes over MacGruffins. The same is true in Endgame but even more so. The plot device introduced to allow the team a fighting chance produces whole manners of plot contrivances, incoherence and oblique what the heck is happening. There are 21 other films in the series and while I have seen every single one (some more than 3 times!) I simply don’t have the convoluted metaphysics memorized. If you saw each film once in the theatre as they were released parts of this mess will confuse you.

    On that note the Infinity Stones are even more MacGruffins in this film as Endgame doesn’t even bother to try to visualize their various powers. Infinity War turned magick users into mere boxers and this film continues to lower the bar for imaginative use of space magick. I still don’t understand what the difference between, say, the space stone and reality stone is practically. There is nothing in the film that demonstrates their powers. This adds to the rote laziness that the film embodies.

    Inevitably in a film like this a few characters will get short changed. This happened here to my favorite character. For a film that so copied its predecessor’s structure I am gobsmacked that not all re-matches occurred in the action scenes. Some of them do, but a pretty obvious and possibly entertaining one doesn’t. On top of that the final moment-key to a character and the plot- is overly telegraphed due to the extraordinary amount of time spent with said character and the seeming checklist they have for a farewell tour. The balance is wrong for the character relationships. You can more or less guess the consequences based on screen time.

    None of the consequences of the two films seem final, abet textually a few of them are (I guess). Capital being what it is Disney would never kill off a bunch of Golden Geese; it was always faintly absurd the two films pretended otherwise. This narrative holdover from Infinity War takes a lot of heat out of the film.

    There are few nice quips. There are also some promising team up moments in the film that point to brighter days. But in the end this is navel gazing nonsense.

  7. pipefighter says

    No. 4 con’t: I think a big part of this is that with comment sections and social media more generally there are a lot of people who have platforms that otherwise wouldn’t. That’s not a bad thing, as it gives marginalized people a voice, but just as hydro carbon combustion yielded tremendous advantages to civilization, it also brought exhaust fumes.

  8. mcfrank0 says

    Darn you PZ, you’ve added yet another book to my virtual stack of reading! I just purchased the Kindle copy of “The Anubis Gates”. I’m no longer worried about entertaining myself during my recovery from chemoradiation.

  9. leerudolph says

    I could no more watch with comprehension (much less, enjoyment) a movie with what appears to be at least three dozen major characters than I could read with comprehension (or enjoyment) War and Peace. Many people would (and quite a few have) criticized me for the latter choice (which I made well over 50 years ago and have never regretted). Probably just as many (though not too many of the same ones?) would criticize me for the former choice.

    But I will confess that I somewhat enjoy reading what people (whose other writing I have other grounds for enjoying) have to say about such movies, whereas I would be very disinclined to read about War and Peace.

  10. says

    The movie made $156 million domestically and $300 million overseas on the first day. It has acquired a huge audience that seems to have been mostly satisfied by the result. I didn’t like much of it, but it ought to be taken seriously as a phenomenon — if nothing else, so it can be criticized effectively.

  11. petesh says

    On time travel (and much more), I recommend The Paradox Men by Charles Harness (1953), a slight expansion of his 1949 story Flight Into Yesterday. Absolutely classic.

  12. consciousness razor says

    The movie made $156 million domestically and $300 million overseas on the first day. It has acquired a huge audience that seems to have been mostly satisfied by the result.

    You’re talking about a lot of pre-ordered tickets. And yeah, they do get your money. That may count as financial success, but not a mark of artistic success.
    It can take a while, after you’ve had time to digest it (and not when you paid for tickets), to figure out how satisfed you really are.

    OK, those were my major complaints, but there’s something that unifies them all: they’re entirely genre complaints. This is what comic-book super-hero movies do. To see them as flaws is like complaining that cowboy movies will have a gunfight, or that a rom-com will have a moment where the protagonists love each other, or that a Christian cult movie will revolve around a really stupid argument that somehow brings people to Jesus. It’s like being pissed off at the hamburger you ordered at a restaurant because it contains ground beef. It is the nature of the medium.

    You put a lot of weight behind “genre,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. If you expected it to be crap, because it follows the crap formulas of a genre, then okay, it met your expectations of being crap by fitting into that genre. So what? There’s nothing wrong or incoherent about criticizing it on those grounds, because criticism isn’t about making predictions (or having expectations) and confirming them or disconfirming them.

  13. says

    H’wood has done a time travel story correctly once… but screwed up the best parts by forcing it to fit a single episode length. “The City on the Edge of Forever” manages to explore a lot; sadly, the best bits were running too long and deemed cuttable (even the full “revised” script would have run a real hour and not a commercials-allowed hour, and that cut out another ten minutes of material itself).

    And it was Star Trek, over half a century ago. The one time that Star Trek successfully used temporal looping or displacement, or purported “alternate” timelines in a mathematically-inconsistent multiverse (every other time has been even worse than PZ’s description). Given the revealed title for Star Wars VI,* I’m nervously anticipating that series doing something similar.

    The three films beginning with The Phantom Script have been excised from the universe using my own time machine (or maybe just powers of concentration). You’re welcome.

  14. schini says

    As for time travel stories, not novels but short stories, I recommend:
    – “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (Philip K. Dick)
    – “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” (Geoffrey Landis)
    these are the two best, IMO

  15. says

    12 Monkeys is maybe the one good big Hollywood movie about time travel I can remember. I’m sure it has inconsistencies, but I don’t notice them while watching and can’t recall any right now, so that’s pretty good in my book.

    As for a smaller scale more niche movie check out “Predestination”. It’s a time travel movie that’s nearly flawless in execution and has a really interesting narrative in general.

  16. abhinavsingh says

    Joy, Emotions and finally an ending.
    This is the movie for which the whole world waited. We won’t get another movie like this for sure.
    Love, Emotions, Friendship, goosebumps, and fight scenes are perfectly scripted.
    One main theme is ‘Sacrifice’ yes it’s needed in our real life too but we can’t or won’t bear it.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    I have no problem with backward time travel which creates alternate timelines, although I’ve never come across an interesting one. My problem is with “altering the timeline” or “maintaining the integrity of the timeline” stories.

    In an isolated secure lab, you build a time booth. On entering it, you will emerge from it one hour earlier. So, right there is a problem. You’re simply not allowed to enter the booth until you see yourself exit. Further, once you see yourself exit, you simply have to enter it exactly one hour later. So building a time machine magically turns you into a mindless automaton.

  18. willj says

    The second piece of the genre is emotion

    Pretty much true of all genres. Without emotional tension, you don’t have an effective story. In fact, storytelling formulas (Save the Cat, etc) are not based on content, but on emotional highs and lows, and where they occur. For example, you’ll usually see an inciting incident at around 12%, leave the “normal” world at 25%, and an all-is-lost abyss at around 75%. Not all stories work that way, but there are tried and true emotional formuals that work consistently. And of course, character is a huge part of emotion.

  19. says

    heh. I actually laughed out loud at the big Dr. Strange, Iron Man exchange. It was such screenwriting 99 applied in the most blunt way imaginable.

  20. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    #11 PZ

    I didn’t like much of it, but it ought to be taken seriously as a phenomenon — if nothing else, so it can be criticized effectively.

    Should keep the criticisms light and superficial or should we, I don’t know, acknowledge that it’s part and parcel in capitalism’s version of bread and circuses.

  21. lochaber says

    I thought both Source Code and Predestination (as Matthew Ostergren@17 suggested) were decent. Predestination is an adaptation of Heinlein’s All You Zombies, which was mostly interesting, because instead of trying to avoid time–travel paradoxes, it just full on embraced them and ran with it.

  22. Rob Grigjanis says

    lochaber @27: All I remember about “All You Zombies” is that the person has no ancestors other than themself. So whence their DNA? I stopped thinking about it before long.

  23. starskeptic says

    “It was all about narrative, masterful story-telling that made it easy to leap over gaps in the logic.”
    — Take notes, Rian Johnson….

  24. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    they techno-babbled their way smoothly through the paradox potential quite plausibly.
    I was surprisingly moved more than expected by a few scenes.
    It managed to tie-up a plethora of threads left dangling from the many previous works from the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
    Let me share one spoiler that is worth knowing beforehand and doesn’t spoil anything. There is nothing after the credits, no after-credits scene, which is ubiquitous in Marvel productions. I think the running length precluded additional trailers.
    I waited to see if there would be, despite not expecting any, and as the audience cleared, some were complaining, having expected a trailing scene.
    I would have appreciated, at minimum, a Buehler-like scene of :Go home, the movie is over, don’t believe me?”

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