With the latest $1 billion instalment in Marvel's Avengers franchise opening around the world this week, it's fair to say that this is now Disney's world, we are just living in it.
At least, the half a population that's left over after the annihilation of the Infinity War is living in it. In fact, maybe that's the main reason why all those people have to be brought back in Endgame? So they can buy tickets for it … the circle of life and all that.
I should establish early on that I am fond of these Marvel movies, but I am not a fan. I expect the die-hard, dress-up fans will have some complaints about Endgame (although the tears and applause at my first day screening might belay that assumption). I have enjoyed most of the films, liked them best when they wear their heart on their sleeve, less so when the spectacle feels empty.
The drift towards 70s-style political thrillers in the Captain America series (and the genius casting of conspiracy thriller icon Robert Redford) got me interested in the bigger picture but my scepticism about overreach meant I have always been dubious about this whole Infinity War/Endgame scenario. I was concerned about too much corporate control of what is meant to be a fun thing. Too much over-engineering to make pieces fit that were never meant to fit. Citizen, I had no faith.
But I was wrong.
Endgame starts perfectly and then gets better.
To recap - and I hope that revealing plot points from previous Marvel films don't count as spoilers - the deluded mass-murdering eco-warrior Thanos got hold of all of the powerful Infinity Stones, snapped his fingers and cut the population of Earth in half. Friends, family, loved ones and co-workers (all of which apply to the Avengers) turned to dust in front of our eyes.
It was a shocking moment, but one where an audience could soon re-establish its bearings: This is fantasy and death in these stories is not final (except when it is). One of the stones is the Time Stone and one of the Avengers (Doctor Strange) knows how to wield it. So, like Superman spinning the Earth backwards to save Lois, all that needs to happen is a bit of jiggery-pokery with the timeline and Roberto es tu tío as they say. Except that Doctor Strange is one of the people who died, and nobody knows where the Time Stone is.
Luckily Endgame dispenses with the obvious plot options very early on, leaving some real questions for the audience to ponder. It's clever in that it acknowledges all of those theories and then dispenses with them ruthlessly.
I genuinely want to avoid even hinting at spoilers here because there is so much pleasure - even for the casual viewer - to be had in all of the surprises that the film springs. Even while it is playing some heavy minor chords with beloved characters it still manages to be playful - the balance feels right to me. It feels satisfying.
In the absence of details to talk about I'll make the following points and I hope they are helpful:
- From Downey Jr as Iron Man at the very beginning, Marvel have cast outstandingly. Sometimes with already great actors (Ruffalo, Cheadle, Portman, Renner, Olsen, Hiddleston, Larsen) and some who they knew could be great (Hemsworth, Evans, Letitia Wright, Holland) and a smattering of legends (Hopkins, Redford, Pfeiffer, Russo, Douglas). In Endgame the extended length gives all of the regulars a chance to prove they have real acting chops, not just green screen pretending skills (not that there's anything wrong with those).
- Increasingly, these films have been about real, relatable, human trauma and recovery. There's so much loss in these films - and I realised about two-thirds of the way through Endgame that loss has the sense of defeat, too. There's all that and it has weight.
- Grief is a palpable emotion throughout, and it never goes away. Like many humans I've spent most of the last two years dealing with my own loss, grief, anger, bitterness, resentment and emptiness. I saw that reflected back to me in Endgame, so kudos. The past is always there to be reckoned with and our main characters get the chance to cheat a little in Endgame in ways that normal humans never can.
- I still have some plot questions - Brie Larsen's Captain Marvel is a bit of a deus ex machina and I had hoped she would be more pivotal - but those questions can wait for this weekend's second viewing.
- Marvel chief Kevin Feige deserves all the praise that can be directed his way and I hope they can find a way to pay him that's not just money. He has developed this franchise (awful word), located talent, steered storytellers, delivered returns to investors and now has managed to engineer a satisfying end to a story most of which didn't even exist five years ago. Peter Jackson always had the Tolkien roadmap to help him make Lord of the Rings but Feige has been busking it.
Which brings me to this conclusion: Endgame is the most satisfying cinema event that I have experienced since The Return of the King and for similar reasons. (And in the same theatre, I've just realised.) A long journey with characters you grow to love; shared experiences, grand emotions; huge danger; lots of thrills; some people don't make it; some are resurrected.
And, like Return of the King, there are at least five endings. They've earned them all.
Avengers: Endgame is rated M (violence) and is currently screening everywhere, and I mean everywhere.