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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.

The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.

The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.

The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.

I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.

Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”

How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.

Nate’s Grade: A

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Duchess (2008)

I think I understand the real appeal of costume dramas. No matter what else happens, the costume drama must seem smarter. You have actors, primarily British, waltzing in elaborate costuming in realistic historical settings, each offering demure statements and looking for love and acceptance in a time of chaste expression. You could place Saw 18 in that setting and it would automatically seem smarter. I think the ye olde setting for costume dramas automatically gives these films more plot leeway, but not every film actually proves that it should have earned that leeway. Saul Dibb’s handsomely mounted period drama The Duchess offers little beyond the superficial enjoyment of well-crafted costumes.

In 1770s England, young Georgina (Keira Knightley) has been betrothed to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The newly minted 17-year-old Duchess of Devonshire is whisked away to live in a giant manor. The Duke is rather cold and seems uneasy with human interaction; he shows the most affection for his dogs. He expects Georgina to primarily bear him a son. Several daughters later, the Duke is engaged in affairs and siring illegitimate children. Georgina has become a star of the social sphere, and it is here that she befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), a woman who is trying to regain her children from her ex-husband. Things get even more complicated when the Duke takes a liking of Bess, and the two become an unofficial union. Georgina has had her only friend taken away and turned into a co-wife. The only solace for the Duchess is in her flirtatious relationship with a politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Georgina feels like a prisoner in her own home and yet she cannot desert her children. What’s an oppressed woman to do in 18th century England? That answer should be sadly obvious.

The Duchess breaks no new ground and, in fact, treads water for the majority of its second half. Georgina was an independent spirit in a time that frowned upon breaking from conformity and tradition. As a woman, she was the victim of a double standard that allowed her husband to sleep with whomever he desired but she could not find physical comfort outside her loveless marriage. Marriage was widely viewed as a means to an end for male progeny, not the culmination of romantic love. Women were pressured into delivering male heirs, despite the fact that men are the ones who determine gender. Typically marriages were family arrangements for class and land ownership, so true passion was procured through marital affairs. I get it because I’ve read Jane Austen novels and seen dozens of period movies that have made the same stilted points. The Duchess presents Georgina as a feminist before her time and then a patriarchal society crushes her spirit. During the second half, when aristocratic life keeps producing heavy obstacles for Georgina, the movie just piles it on. I was left questioning what the point of all this corseted drama actually was.

After a while with my downtime I determined whom this movie is really for – hat enthusiasts. This is a Big Hat movie that puts other hat movies to shame. There are gigantic floppy hats, hats that look like fruit displays, hats that look like eighteen-layer cakes, hats that look like they have their own hat, hats with feathers zigging and zagging in every direction, and hats that look like they are consuming their host’s heads. If you work in the haberdashery industry or have an above average interest in hats and hat-related products, then run, don’t walk to The Duchess. You will be enraptured by the orgy of towering hats that jostle for screen time. Rarely are women seen without hats, so you truly will get your hat money’s worth over the course of the film’s two hours. If there were a specific Oscar category for Hat and Hat-like Accoutrement then The Duchess would dominate. I expect it will get nominated for Costumes, and really that seems like half the point in making these powdered wig period dramas.

I think the other point of The Duchess is to channel the modern story of Princess Diana, who is actually a distant relative of Georgina. The two seem to lead somewhat similar lives since they both married young, both had their husbands prefer the mistresses, both were fashion trend setters, both were beloved by the public, and after death both had their husbands remarry the mistresses. The tagline for the film is, “There were three people in her marriage,” a paraphrased quote that Princess Di said in an interview. The Di parallels seem to be all that the filmmakers intended to do with Georgina as a character; she is the least interesting person in her marriage. The Duke and Bess are far more complex and intriguing figures. I’m sure the Georgina biography that serves as the movie’s source is rich in Georgina characterization and personal detail, but all the movie cares about is establishing her as a marital martyr. There is more to this character but she just endures disappointment and punishment; I cannot fully engage with a character when their only personal attribute is suffering. The movie fails to present any notable reason why this woman of history deserves having a feature film.

Knightley seems to spend half her film life in corsets. I’m still undecided upon whether she possesses innate acting ability; to me she too often comes across as a pin-up with great cheekbones. That said her eyebrows do a great bit of acting in The Duchess. She has the habit of cocking one ever so slightly and imbuing a scene with a hint of sexual allure or mystique. They’re pretty thick eyebrows too. Knightley does acquit herself well with the material and I doubt this will be the last time I see her in a tremendous silk gown and a humongous hairdo. The most interesting actor is Fiennes because his character is so reserved and awkward in his own skin, so much must be said through the use of gestures, body language, and the perfect execution of line delivery. His character seems just as ill in his setting as Georgina. Atwell is given the most complex character to play. To say that Bess has conflicted loyalties is an understatement. She betrays Georgina but romancing the Duke can ensure that she sees her children once again. Bess should have been the centerpiece of the movie because, as presented, she is far more interesting with more dramatic conflicts and turmoil other than being wronged.

The Duchess is no more and no less than every other costumer period piece you’ve seen before. It starts well but then falls into boring and repetitious plotting (Georgina wants something, she’s denied, she wants something, she’s denied; rather, rinse, repeat, end). The Duchess will delight those in search of yet another unrequited period romance, but I feel that moviegoers should expect more from their entertainment that mechanically fulfilling the period-y checklist. The technical merits like the production art and the costumes, especially the hats, are first rate. There’s little feeling beneath all the fabulous fussing about. It’s too bad the actual drama couldn’t at least be as interesting as the hats.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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