If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, stop reading. Spoilers will follow!
I don’t read the comics, but I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They built something magical over the last ten years, with a cast of oddball characters and films that crossed genres from space opera to spy thriller to high school dramas. The stories may continue indefinitely, but the curtains are closing on what (I predict) is the best run the MCU will have. I believe there’s plenty of potential to take existing and new characters in exciting directions, but the original cast of Avengers, helmed by Iron Man and Captain America, will be a tough one to top.
I went to see Endgame opening weekend, excited and somewhat surprised by how gushing the early reviews were. The expectations on this film were unbelievably high, and it had the difficult job of picking up after Infinity War’s mic drop and wrapping up the arcs of core characters. The opening sequence [spoilers are legitimately ahead so abort now], where Thor kills Thanos and there’s a five year time jump, reminded me of The Last Jedi in the subversion of expectations. (I could hear Luke’s voice: “This isn’t going to go the way you think.”) It felt like a concerted effort to make viewers realize this isn’t the movie they thought it would be. So, why was Endgame incredibly well-received, while The Last Jedi garnered so much backlash from fans (though critics applauded it as a brilliant film)?
Fan service? Pandering to the masses?
I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I loved Endgame. (But then, I’m a huge fan, and maybe it’s because I was pandered to…) While Endgame kicked off with an unlikely opening and came with its share of surprises, it undeniably was packed with throwbacks to fan favorites and easter eggs. They may or may not have really served the plot, but they certainly got cheers. There was a lot of speculation that they would employ time travel, which they did, and the time heist was a really fun romp, if you don’t think too hard about the logic. It did its job for the story (get the stones, reverse Thanos’ snap), but it definitely felt like a highlight reel of MCU’s Best Moments. Maybe minus Thor: Dark World. My favorite was Cap’s “hail hydra” in the elevator scene, reminiscent of Winter Soldier. Classic.
Endgame had it’s truly spectacular moments: when Cap gets Thor’s hammer, when the portals opened (Sam’s “on your left” was perfect) and everyone and their mother reappeared, and when Iron Man re-delivered his classic line before the snap. As apprehensive as I was about how they would close Tony and Steve’s stories, I thought the film did them both justice. In many ways, the two leading characters have had opposite arcs. Tony began as an egotistical, genius, playboy billionaire, and he ends with the greatest act of self-sacrifice. His off-script reveal of “I am Iron Man” at a press conference becomes a hero’s anthem. Steve began as a selfless soldier, a mascot of American ideal, and ran the serious risk of being a boring goody-two-shoes. His character arc has been one of my favorite parts of the Avengers’ stories. The core of who he is, selfless and noble, remains steadfast (and I love how they highlight that through his ability to wield Mjolnir). But he grows to be more than the face of a country or system that created him. When his convictions ran against the grain, he didn’t back down. His grand finale was a deeply personal choice, for himself rather than for the world. Just as “I am Iron Man” hearkened back to Iron Man 1, Steve’s ending closed the circle on Captain America 1. He’s a man of his word – and he made it back for his dance with Peggy.
However, Endgame was not the strongest Marvel movie in terms of story. It took a hit from having to close out many loose ends. In comparison, Infinity War pulled an even more massive cast together with a tighter plot. Endgame felt like it had multiple “starts” and multiple “endings.” Perhaps that was necessary and unavoidable, but it lacked the relentless forward drive of Infinity War and the narrative strength some of the best MCU films have brought, like Winter Soldier or Civil War. The core threading of the story was the time heist, which was more revisiting old turf than breaking new ground.
Unlike Endgame, The Last Jedi did no fan service. Or, if they tried to, it failed terribly. Star Wars fan were turned off, and a petition to remake and discount this as canon gathered steam (some people, like Steve and Nat, need to get a life). But I would argue, with general critical backing, that Last Jedi was a well-done story. The backlash wasn’t against a weak plot, but unmet expectations – Luke Skywalker wasn’t the hero we all wanted; Rey wasn’t a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi, et al.; and Snoke was suddenly killed in the middle act of a trilogy. Personally, I loved the subverting of expectations: it’s a clever turn when you’re making a film that has every wild variation of Internet theories. People thought The Force Awakens was too similar to the original, but now they complain Last Jedi is not true to the spirit of Star Wars. You can’t have it both ways. Why not takes Star Wars down a new path?
Maybe it’s just me, but if you tell a solid story, I won’t complain because the characters didn’t become what I wanted. Luke is one of my favorite characters, and while I would’ve loved to see him bust off his island and take down the First Order, I believed in the direction they took his character. The nephew he trained turned into a monster, bringing back the shadow of Darth Vader. While The Force Awakens introduces Kylo Ren as the scion of the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, Last Jedi really explores the darkness that perpetually haunts the family, including Luke. In the originals, he was a hero, but he was also a whiny, impulsive farmboy. Now, he’s a legend to the next generation, but Last Jedi shows Rey and us that he’s human, and legends do not always match reality. This is a strange (maybe a stretch) comparison, but it reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. People hated what Harper Lee did to Atticus. While Mockingbird made Atticus a nigh untouchable hero, this second book’s protagonist was Scout, and she has to mature and learn that her heroes are fallible. Same goes for Rey in Last Jedi. It’s on her to pick up the mantel now.
The Last Jedi was an impressive follow-on to the first film. It pulls the mask back and digs hard into the characters. The backdrop of the film, like every Star Wars story, is still this fight between the good guys and bad guys. But this one begins to explore those shades of grey. The old Jedi Order is gone, and Luke has no interest in reviving it. Whether or not Kylo will ultimately have a redemption arc, the exploration of the light tempting someone in the dark is more nuanced in his character than it was in Vader’s. And the connection between him and Rey was one of the highlights of the film. Do you really care that they took some liberties with “the Force” to add this to the story? Last Jedi made some audacious moves in how it handled Star Wars. I’m ready to sacrifice some technicalities of Force powers to indulge a better plot and characters.
There’s not much of a thesis to all this – it’s just a reflection on some big films, a minor (major?) geek-fest, and an informal exploration of the intriguing parallels between and vastly different reactions to Endgame and Last Jedi. Endgame is smart on its formula. It makes a decided effort to be unpredictable while giving fans what they want. The great thing about most Marvel movies is they have a keen sense of self-awareness – while the heist plot has its holes, they make fun of time travel movies enough that you cut them some slack. It’s like saying, “Don’t take this too seriously. Just laugh with us and accept it.” So we do.
Thanks for the great ride, Disney. Let’s hope you close out Star War IX strong too.