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After 11 years and 22 movies, Marvel Studios has finally brought a definitive end to the Infinity Saga—the retroactive name for its first long, ambitious cycle of interconnected films. While the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home will officially conclude Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that movie promises to be more of an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame. The Russo Brothers’ three-hour superhero epic gives thundering finality to a number of arcs that we’ve been following since as far back as Phase One. Who would live? Who would die? Who would retire and form a beer gut? Those are the questions fans might (or might not) have been asking themselves going into this unprecedented crossover conclusion, the fourth Avengers mega-sequel, the biggest movie event of all time.

If you’ve seen Endgame, then you know that it’s densely packed with callbacks and scenes linking back to previous MCU films. It’s a lot to take in all in one sitting. Let’s face it: John Q. Moviegoer probably didn’t have time to embark on a three-week regimen of a-Marvel-movie-a-day in the lead-up to the film’s April 26 release. Here on /Film, Siddhant Adlakha revisited every prior MCU entry in his Road to Endgame series, but now we’re at the end of the titular road and it’s worth talking about how this movie wraps up the threads of everything that came before it.

To do that, we’ll need to delve into specific plot points that might ruin the surprise for anyone who wasn’t able to get into one of the sold-out screenings that kept some theaters open for 72 hours straight this weekend. Avengers: Endgame is chock full of twists and turns, so if you haven’t seen it yet, this is your last chance to bow out, because we’ll be going full spoilers in two shakes of a raccoon’s tail.

Avengers Endgame

Before we take a deep dive into the various character threads of Avengers: Endgame, I want to talk about the movie’s ending, because the second time I watched it, I had heavier emotional response to it and I began to realize why maybe it’s not just knee-jerk hyperbole coming from early reactions that has already caused people (as usual) to label this brand new Marvel movie the “best Marvel movie ever.”

Bittersweet sacrifices aside, Endgame gives us a mostly happy ending. The reason that’s not a cheat, in this instance, is because it feels earned. There’s something deep in the human heart that yearns for renewal and reconciliation. Even when Tony Stark dies, he’s surrounded by people he loves, and he knows that life will go on and be replenished thanks to him.

Thanos (hands down, the best Marvel movie villain) has a name that’s derived from the Greek word for “death.” That’s an inescapable part of the human condition. Endgame taps into the universal urge to see life reborn. Entire world religions have sprung up around that instinct, the comforting comic book idea that death is not, need not ever be, the end. It’s like that Dylan Thomas line, the one Interstellar quoted: “And death shall have no dominion.” (And yes, I’m aware that there’s also a line in that poem that goes, “Though wise men in their end know dark is right.”) The very idea of a Snapture, this comic book movie version of the Rapture, has a quasi-religious connotation to it.

When you watch Endgame in the light of life and love as all-powerful truths, it’s not hard to see Tony as the unlikeliest of Christ figures, sacrificing himself so that everyone else can go on to live and love another day. Tony started out supremely selfish, with Steve Rogers being the yin to his yang, a guy who would throw himself on a live grenade in an instant to protect everyone else in the group (see: Steve’s boot camp training in Captain America: The First Avenger). By the end, Tony shows himself capable of making this one selfless act. It’s a decision that costs him his life but buys the world a second chance.

If it sounds like I’m waxing falsely profound about a hollow superhero spectacle here, that’s okay. I realize the movie is pure fantasy, but it’s one that audiences all around the world are invested in. The box office numbers don’t lie: this is the most successful film franchise of all time we’re talking about. It’s a fantasy writ on the largest possible canvas and one that has touched the lives of many moviegoers.

This is something that casual viewers and non-comic book readers might not fully appreciate, but for the longest time, Bucky Barnes was one of the few undone deaths in comics. Forget the Winter Soldier with his bad-ass cybernetic arm. The only Bucky we knew was the Robin-like teenage sidekick who died at the end of World War II. Then writer Ed Brubaker brought Bucky back to life for Marvel Comics and we got this whole new series of stories where he became a vital character once again. Of the three big guns in the Avengers — Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor — Cap has the best solo movie trilogy, but two-thirds of that trilogy might never have happened were it not for this resurrectionist tendency in comics.

If “no one’s ever really gone” in Star Wars, then maybe the reason the same holds true for comics is because these modern myths spring from the deepest, most childlike place in the collective unconscious, where all things are possible and that’s what most sacred and everlasting, even above thanatos, as the Greeks called it. And death shall have no dominion …

Think about that moment when Ant-Man visits the memorial to the vanished in San Francisco. Now think about what’s left offscreen in Avengers: Endgame (and in life, if you believe there’s something more beyond this one). Picture all those reunions we don’t see between the names on the walls in that memorial and their families and friends.

Avengers: Endgame is the Return of the Jedi of our generation. Producer and franchise architect Kevin Feige consciously strove toward that, and with the help of a revolving door of cast and crew members over eleven years, he successfully laid the tracks that got us to this junction where we’re staring up through misty eyes at a new kind of tech-friendly fairytale ending. Endgame is the ultimate 21st-century big-screen bedtime story (especially if you finish watching it at 3:20 a.m. and go home and go to bed right after). It’s a movie that will fertilize the imagination of kids and it’s a movie that, on its opening weekend, has already thrilled and delighted the kind of grown-ups who are still kids at heart.

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Endgame still has a typical Avengers juggling act to do with all of its characters, but there are less leads, or co-leads, vying for screen time than there were in Infinity War, simply because heroes like Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man — all of whom have headlined their own films — are no longer in the picture when the movie starts. The real effect of them crumbling to dust at the end of Infinity War was for the Russo Brothers to streamline their cast going into the next movie, focusing the narrative back on the original team of Avengers from Phase One.

Endgame is a swan song for Iron Man and Captain America. It also shows us the death of Black Widow (though we know that she’ll live on, perhaps in prequel form, since she’s got her own long-gestating solo movie on the way). In addition, Endgame culminates multi-film arcs for the other founding Avengers, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye, leaving them in a place that is very different from where they started.

Ant-Man’s “time heist” scatters the survivors of Infinity War across MCU history in different groupings (“Six stones. Three teams. One shot,” is how Cap breaks it down for the audience). Looping back on key moments, the zigzagging heist — which is not without its pratfalls — allows the characters and us to revisit The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes. We discover hidden pockets in those movies and elsewhere across the series timeline. The end result is a crowd-pleasing, TV-finale-like blockbuster that leans hard into our nostalgia for the faces of fictional friends, characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of numerous adventures.

More than any other Marvel movie, Endgame is one that emotionally charged, powered, as it is, by an arc reactor with an 11-year battery. More than any other Marvel movie, it’s one where you can see the ripples coming across the Soul Stone pond from earlier installments. Let’s examine how the film brings closure to, or sets up the next chapter for, each of the core Avengers and their supporting characters, as well as some of the next-generation heroes who are resurrected by the time the closing credits roll. Some return to the status quo; others see their storylines impacted just enough to leave us wondering where the developments of Endgame might take them next.

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“I am Iron Man.” Those words ended the first Iron Man movie and they’re also Tony Stark’s last words before he sacrifices his life in Avengers: Endgame. Back in 2008, when Tony suddenly decided to announce himself as Iron Man at a press conference, it subverted the secret identity trope for superheroes, but it also showed him to be a singular narcissist who was not above jeopardizing his loved ones on a sheer whim if it meant massaging his own ego.

This is something that Iron Man 3 would expound on when it had him publicly provoke a known terrorist into launching an attack on his Malibu estate (with the woman he loved, Pepper Potts, inside). Tony’s “penchant for combating mistakes with more mistakes” is something Siddhant wrote about in his article about that movie and others. The creation of a murderous A.I. in Age of Ultron is merely one example of an action that falls into this pattern.

In Endgame, Tony comes close to realizing this basic character flaw about himself when he — the very first Avenger who we met on screen in 2008 — starts angrily lashing out, talking about how the team’s name is the Avengers, not the Prevengers. Their “best work is done after the fact,” and so it goes with him. This bit of dialogue informs his character and gives crucial meaning to the Avengers name … which was always rather meaningless, because what were they avenging? They were supposed to be protectorsEarth’s mightiest heroes, not a squad bent on avenging done deeds.

Until Endgame, that is. Tony began his superhero career by undergoing a literal change of heart. He’s someone who recognizes that he needs to change his outside behavior, as well, and throughout his journey, he’s paid lip service to doing that: giving up arms dealing and even going so far as to blow up all of his suits for Pepper at the end of Iron Man 3. All the while, however, he’s been operating under an illusion of growth that has continued begetting new mistakes for him.

Even his recruitment of Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War could be seen as one of those mistakes. Tony was really just using Peter to try and help his side in the conflict win. After that, he wanted to put this unwieldy teenage object named Peter right back up on the shelf where he found him in his neighborhood in Queens.

The thing is, Spider-Man kept wanting to crawl off the shelf and use his superpowers, endangering his young life in the process. This happened in Spider-Man: Homecoming and it happened again in Avengers: Infinity War. The loss of Peter, this very human mistake that Tony has made, haunts him enough that it provides the eventual impetus for him to join the time heist in Endgame.

His father Howard’s shadow had always hung over him, too, but their reunion at a secret underground S.H.I.E.L.D. installation in 1970s New Jersey (the same one from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) allows Tony to see Howard (John Slattery, returning from Iron Man 2) in a less mythic, more down-to-earth light. By his own admission, “the greater good has rarely outweighed [Howard’s] own self-interest.” He’s so self-involved that he doesn’t even know how far along his wife’s pregnancy is.

This reflects back on Tony as a character. He’s his father’s son, through and through, but by the end of the movie, he’s finally reached a place of real character growth where he can be humble and put the greater good above his own self-interest. Now the roles are reversed from Infinity War and it’s Peter who is there as he’s dying.

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