Count on gasps, applause, laughs and tears if you sit down to "Avengers: Endgame," the 22nd film in the unprecedented cinematic bonanza called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For some, the mega-blockbuster sequel represents a kind of popcorn-movie nirvana; for others, it's an obligation; and for still others, it's a non-event to be avoided. Marvel tourists may surprise themselves on how much they care about what they find in this fourth "Avengers" film, while fanatics will have a geekgasm of yet undiscovered proportions. To put it more politely, they'll love what amounts to the biggest series finale ever.
When last we left the Avengers -- the superhero team led by the at-times competitive Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) -- they had experienced terrible defeat at the hands of powerful alien supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin, via performance-capture CGI). With half of the world's population wiped out (including half of the Earth's mightiest heroes), the good guys and gals find themselves deep in a funk, licking wounds and contemplating how and if they can fight back against Thanos. In the film's early going, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely ask a provocative question: Once a plan is hatched, should the Avengers save this day?
The reasons behind that question constitute spoilers I'll studiously avoid, other than to say the question hinges on some being luckier than others at Thanos' hand of fate. In a manner that's sometimes maudlin and sometimes quippy, "Avengers: Endgame" takes its time getting into big action, first living in the pain, fear and doubt of its inciting circumstances in the confidence that its audience will follow. Marvel Films haters often cite the abundance of humor in these films, and the film's first act locates itself somewhat awkwardly at the intersection of comedy and tragedy (one character's alcoholism gets played for laughs, which suggests the filmmakers were a little too confident they could do no wrong).
Once the heroes resolve to play the longest of shots, returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo begin their endgame, a journey that requires acrobatic plot twists (in a supernatural spin on spoilers, one character tells another, "If I tell you what happens, it won't happen"), passes through a climax that energetically flips through epic comic-book splash pages, and arrives at a coda that provides deeply satisfying closure for the end of an era in Marvel Films. Markus, McFeely and the Russos conjure a convincing illusion of anything-can-happen abandon in their storytelling. The truth is that "Avengers: Endgame" uses every trick in the Marvel playbook (including one in reverse...) to reach the culmination of years of calculation, but their valedictory address rewards the sprawling cast and the huge global audience with witty nostalgic celebration and genuine heart.
The soul of these movies has always belonged to Downey Jr., who in 2008 set the tone of cooler-than-thou humor and fierce emotional undercurrents, with Evans bringing up the all-American rear in the straight-man part of Boy Scout younger brother; both get franchise highlights to play here. If the calculations sometimes whiff (a shot highlighting the women of Marvel, for example, feels like the film simultaneously condescending and patting itself on the back), even the haters will have to concede that "Avengers: Endgame" meets its degree of difficulty with a high level of popular entertainment.