I was one of the dawn journeyers, making my pilgrimage to see Avengers Endgame for a 2 a.m. showing on opening day. There’s a special thrill to driving at that hour, with the Interstate nearly vacant save for the occasional overnight delivery truck. At heart, I’m a night owl, and I have no issue with sacrificing a night of sleep to catch a worthwhile film… assuming it’s worthwhile.
A local news channel caught me as I left the theater, to ask me how worthwhile I thought it was.
During my drive, I reflected on the cinematic journey leading to this point. When I was a kid, there was a single superhero film that was good: Superman (1978). One decent sequel followed, then two lousy ones. That was it for a long time. The genre’s only other live-action presence was in reruns of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) and Batman (1966-1968), The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982), and Linda Carter’s dazzling turn as Wonder Woman (1975-1979.) There was even a made-for-TV Hulk film (starring the excellent Bill Bixby) and featuring Thor. And there was The Greatest America Hero.
Until Tim Burton’s Batman, that largely constituted the presence of superheroes in film and TV. A gradual bubbling of superhero films followed, most of them different flavors of terrible. I remember what a revelation the first two X-Men movies were, both bringing a level of excellence and ensemble casting I’d never seen in the genre. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man continued to expand this territory. And then… the MCU.
Sure, there’s been installments I haven’t liked at all. Yet the overall level of quality has been dizzying, and the Marvel machine has entirely reinvented Hollywood in its own image. Marvel knows how to cast their films, they know how to write them, they know how to connect them into the most astonishing meta-narrative since the Greek myths. And that’s really what this comes down to: the modern contribution to a global cultural mythology that the world has embraced, through all levels and all ages. Example in point: I was a train to New York a week ago, overhearing teenagers hashing out the socio-political merits of Team Cap and Team Iron Man.
Marvel has also managed, with uncanny acumen, to keep the MCU evolving, delaying the (inevitable, and pending) bursting of the bubble. Just when things were starting to bloat with world-saving fatigue they gave us a Flash Gordon-style galactic adventure with Guardians of the Galaxy and, a year later, the down-to-Earth, downsized, and delightful Ant-Man. Just when I was starting to tire of the explody antics, they proved a remarkable versatility in showing that the Marvel tent could encompass absolutely anything: ’70s-style spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), PTSD-driven revenge drama (The Punisher TV series), meditations on isolationism in an Afrofuturist framework (Black Panther), the political regulation of power (Captain America: Civil War), mind-bending supernaturalism (Doctor Strange) and delirious outright pulp (Thor: The Dark World and Ragnarok). They’ve given us a range of villains with well-drawn motivations that move beyond the Snidely Whiplash trope, from Zemo and Killmonger’s intensely personal vendettas to everyone’s favorite resource-minded genocidal maniac.
It’s all been an Event. A series of Events culminating in what we all suspect may be the conclusion of the ride.
It was an exhilarating, jaw-dropping, emotional epic that dared to follow that rule of drama: start small and build. It opens with Norman Rockwell-like tranquility, and then brings on the horror… followed in turns by excitement, humor, fear, more humor, and then volcanic eruptions of fan-service and authentic love for the genre and the characters. The dawn crowd I watched it with cheered, laughed, gasped, and cheered to thunderous cacophonies at multiple points in the running time.
It seems a paradox, but for an epic so crammed full of things and characters and references and callbacks and battles, it nonetheless never shied away from intimate moments. I won’t spoil anything here; suffice that there are heartbreaking and heartwarming turns to be found in the spaces between this adrenaline-fueled juggernaut. It is the reason we go to the movies.
For what it’s worth, my MCU Top Ten are:
- Captain America: Civil War
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Black Panther
- Avengers Endgame
- Thor: The Dark World
- Doctor Strange
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1
Thank you, Marvel, for doing the impossible and never losing sight of the heart and soul of your source material. Thanks for all the new myths.