Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.
Nick Fury’s thesis statement, delivered at the end of The Avengers (2012), sets up the team of the same name to have one endgame: to be an inevitability, a promise kept. That when the chips were down — nay, lost — they are the final gambit, the last hope. The Avengers were never about stopping arms dealers or even invaders from space; the latter may have birthed the team, but it was always about something bigger (and occasionally, quantumly smaller). That’s why the 22-film Infinity Saga could end no other way. It’s not just a story of how we can overcome together, but that we will overcome together. That it’s inevitable.
Avengers: Endgame, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, fulfills the promise of The Avengers, within this cinematic universe and without. It delivers on the Tony Stark’s promise of, well, avenging this world but also delivers the grandest comic book film possible; a multidimensional time romp building to one of the most earned final action sequences in modern memory. But while the end may be predictable, it’s how Endgame got there that was wholly unexpected.
The MCU’s promise to its audience is its characters. These films were always more invested in telling us who these heroes are, and less so about what they do. So instead of flitting from action sequence to action sequence, Endgame takes the time to revel in character and relationships. In doing so, its shows a great degree of understanding of who they are and the journeys they’ve taken.
Wholly unexpectedly, Thanos is cut down in the opening minutes of the film. The first act eschews major set pieces in favor of showing us just how each of our heroes cope. Tony, constantly burdened with protecting this world, circles the wagons of the world left to him (Pepper and new daughter Morgan). Steve Rogers only knows how to fight, so he moonlights as a grief counselor, spreading comfort where he can. Natasha has taken on more responsibility by pouring her soul into leadership, and expanding the peacekeeping initiative into the cosmos.
Not everyone copes in a constructive manner, however. Clint Barton lashes out with violence, being unable to process how Thanos’s judgment destroyed his family. Thor retreats into self-loathing and doubt and alcohol, wrestling with the guilt of not going for Thanos’s head (well, initially).
And these dynamics are no mistake; whether it’s Tony’s family or Natasha’s intergalactic counsel, the heroes with productive responses to the decimation are building community. Meanwhile the destructive reactions are centered in loneliness and retreating into one’s own desolation. And this sets forward the mechanics of the story.
Each part of the story builds off the last by expanding the community. The initial force that takes on Thanos is small, a subset of survivors whose first instinct is to punch back. Yes, they put Thanos to a violent end, but what good is that? They didn’t undo the snap, and the unceremonious beheading did not allow for these characters to heal. The inherent emptiness in pure revenge without an eye towards restitution is on full display.
It takes Scott Lang’s arrival from the quantum zone five years later, along with his properly absurd “time heist” plan, that a proposal emerges to steal the infinity stones. And that starts foremost with expanding the fellowship. Scott and Tony are recruited, but not without a push from their surviving family members. Clint and Thor need more work, so that’s why it falls to their closest friends to help bring them back. Whether it’s friends and family, or counseling, it’s our bonds to one another that allows us to heal.
This upward trajectory of community building follows the movie to its end; as the heroes jump back and forth in time, they pick up unexpected allies along the way; be it Gamora from right before her turning cloak on Thanos, to Tony bumping into his father days before his own birth, to Thor’s mother Frigga (in a showstealer of a cameo from Rene Russo) on the day of her death, the team required to fix what Thanos has done expands. It allows Gamora a glimpse of the person she becomes when liberated. And it allows Tony and Thor a chance to have a proper catharsis with family members they never got to say farewell to. We heal on the backs of each other, with a clear vision of how we can be better.
And that is what makes the final “Avengers Assemble” moment so powerful; it’s not just all your favorites are gathered for one last giant romp against an alien army, it’s because the only way we can overcome genocide is together. Not just some of us, or the best of us, but all of us, from every corner of this universe. Steve Rogers reminds us that the Avengers were supposed to be different, that they will win or lose together. Sticking together is that win, and the actual victory against Thanos is just the logical conclusion from there.
“I am inevitable,” Thanos says with his last breaths (and not just once). Thanos fancies himself as the end, and you almost want to take him at his word. Almost. He is the last stop, but he is not the finish. The true inevitabilty of this story is the Avengers, and more importantly for that which they stand. It’s not about just heroism and courage and winning, but about losing, coping, and rebounding collectively —that what we accomplish, we do together.
The core Avenger journeys are inevitable in and of themselves; Cap only knows how to keep fighting, and he does so until the ultimate battle is won. If Tony has a solution to a problem, then he will see it through to the end. Self-loathing and beer may be bloating Thor, but he agrees to fight again. “That’s what heroes do,” after all. The universe arcs to the inevitability of the Avengers saving the world and defeating the Mad Titan.
But it’s not just about stopping Thanos, it’s about rejecting him and his nihilistic worldview. When Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce (who makes another surprise appearance here) tells Nick Fury in Winter Soldier that he has the courage to fix the world by killing a few million, it’s Nick’s response of “No, I have the courage not to” that echoes through this final chapter. It’s about telling Thanos we get better by helping lift each other up, not striking each other down.
This rejection of Thanos as a concept plays out wonderfully in the effort to reclaim the Soul Stone from Vormir. Killing Gamora for the stone in Infinity War is an act of greed to further his destructive goals. Yes, there’s “love” there, but it’s cynical and abusive, and thus can never truly be the winning proposition. Thanos’s worldview can’t win out. It’s tainted and bleak, and not what this universe is hurtling towards.
When Hawkeye and Black Widow fight over who must be sacrificed, it’s altogether different. It’s founded in friendship between two longtime comrades. Their scrap is not so much about saving the world, but about preventing each other from having to be the one. It’s a much purer love from two people who have picked each other up repeatedly in the past. It is not just rejecting Thanos’s sacrificing of Gamora, but rejecting his notion of love in the first place.