Spectacular though they may be, there is some crucial element that is glaringly missing from most big, brash modern blockbusters – a beating heart, a real tangible sense that the action happening before you is happening to real people who suffer, feel loss, experience elation, just like you do.
The omission of this humanity is not a problem for what you could quite easily call the biggest and best blockbuster of the century so far, Avengers: Endgame, which wears its heart on its sleeve, as easily and as effectively as Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wields his iconicly-patriotic shield.
That allusion to one of the key members of the current Avengers line-up, and the lynchpin in many ways of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as a whole, is not accident; in Endgame, Cap’ is the very centre of the emotional resonance that suffuses this film in ways that will likely haunt you forever, mostly in the very best of ways.
Cap’, like everyone else post Thanos’ cataclysmic snap, is not coping well.
He acts like he is coping just fine because what else can you do, right? But beneath the friendly, supportive friend routine, most touchingly with Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who has her own ways of dealing with the fallout from the loss of close friends, and the self-help groups where he leads frank discussion of pain, loss and rebuilding, he is as wretchedly lost as anyone else.
Some of the aftereffects are delivered in a surprisingly funny way, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bringing forth a humourously, pain-at-arms-length performance that will have you laughing, even as you feel every last drop of the void of loss that sits, barely-masked, behind it.
Clint Barton / Hawkeye / Ronin (Jeremy Renner) takes a different tack entirely, launching himself, after his horrific loss which makes for one of the most devastating opening scenes of any film, upon the criminal dregs of the world who had the temerity to survive where so many food people did not – no surprise that an immoral act by Thanos did not morally discriminate in its effects – a ceaseless task that has no hope of filling the hole of desperate loss he is carrying.
Every last one of these people, for they are, superhero abilities aside, first and foremost people in the scarred world of Avengers: Endgame, are trying, after an initial attempt to right the wrongs of Thanos doesn’t play out as planned, to make something of a world they barely recognise, each at differing stages of grief that refuse, as grief so often does, to reach any kind of liveable conclusion.
If this all sounds so crushingly-bleak that you wonder if having your therapist sitting in the adjoining cinema seat, whispering support, may not be such a bad idea, Anthony and Joe Russo, who brought immense heart and soul to this film’s predecessor, Avengers: Infinity Wars, manage, with a cinematic aplomb that leave you gasping with admiration, to package it all up in a way that feels highly and engagingly relatable.
We have in one form or another been to that dark places that grief calls home, all of struggling to make sense of our loss, to figure out a way forward and to frame what has happened in a way that makes any sense at all.
All this, and far, far more, is injected into the first act of Endgame, which never loses sight of the fact that even characters like Rocket (Bradley Copper), typically stuck in wisecrackingly-aggressive mode, and Nebula (Karen Gillian) who is as far from emotional (most of the time) as you can get, are grappling, as is the galaxy as a whole as Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), literally fiery with purpose, with grief so gargantuan that ever covering it over, let along resolving it, seems like a thousand bridges too far.
But then the appearance of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), in the most humorous and then heartbreaking of circumstances, changes everything, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who injects his own melancholia into proceedings before then getting his brilliance on, and a newly-reunited Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has a way with celebrity selfies that will amuse and delight, and set Endgame on its middle-into-third act course that results in one of the biggest, and yet emotionally-resonant action sequences you have ever seen.
In many ways, the adventuring that fills these scenes, again both funny but mostly deeply-affecting in various ways, isn’t some hollow, explosion-ridden bravura that exists purely to shock us senseless with its scale and bombast.
Rather, at every turn, and these turns are as much narrative-propelling as they are a loving homage to the last 11 years of the MCU, we are reminded again and again of real people dealing with real events that have real consequences.
There’s masterful writing and directing at work here, an intuitive understanding that blockbusters only really work, and Avengers: Endgame works brilliantly well on every conceivable level, when peoples’ innate humanity leads the way.
The film also never loses of the fact, not for an engrossing second, that every single scene, every character interaction has to mean something or its surplus to requirements.
Many modern blockbusters forget this completely, stuffing their threadbare narratives with characters and dialogue so superfluous that you wonder why it is there at all except to pad the running time; not so, Endgame which like its predecessor, is a finely-crafted, just-so calibrated piece of cinematic storytelling that doesn’t waste a second of its considerable just over three hour running time.
You may wonder how it will fill those 181 long minutes but it does it with ease, with every character, every line, every moment of battle or emotional agony, having a reason to be there, all of them building up to a finale that delivers the goods action-wise while remaining deeply and intrinsically-human throughout.
Avengers: Endgame could have so easily surrendered to its inner Bruckheimer and sold its soul to spectacularly-explosive vengeful film noir, a miasma of darkness and fury and justice-seeking that would have looked good but felt horrifically, terribly emotionally empty.
But it neatly sidesteps that, offering a storytelling experience, thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who have extensive experience in the more emotional parts of the MCU) that is intimate in scope despite everything else about it being bigger and more impressive than Ben-Hur.
Endgame is how blockbusters, especially those of the superhero variety, should be – big and brash sure where it’s needed but also reflectively, truly human, of the good and the bad of being alive, of the pain of loss and the joy of fighting back, and most importantly, of moving forward and saying goodbye, something this film does, as it does everything truth be told, breathtakingly well.