MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Endgame

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. If you heard me crying in the theater every time I watched this, no you didn’t.

80/100

Seeing Avengers: Endgame in theaters was akin to a religious experience (or at least I would imagine, having never had a religious experience myself), but with crowds much rowdier than most congregations: there were cheers, there were gasps, there was a hefty dose crying, there was a palpable sense of excitement and tension that pervaded movie theaters across the globe. Every emotional beat landed, every fan service moment hit just the right notes, every music swell struck the right chords. If The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War were big, they were nothing—nothing—compared to this. 

Upon retrospection, some—but certainly not all—of that midnight opening magic has waned, as we look back now upon what was ultimately a very large speed bump for the MCU, which took only a slight breather before barreling forwards again. But, like Infinity War before it, like The Avengers before that and Iron Man before that, the fact that Endgame succeeds at all is astonishing. How do you properly conclude a 22-movie arc? How do you end a franchise that has reshaped the very fabric of pop culture?

Well, the real answer is, you don’t—you just keep making movies. But even though the MCU has continued on, Endgame still serves as a monumental, well, endgame, wrapping up loose threads, bidding emotional farewells, and finally letting all those years of buildup pay off.

Structurally speaking, Endgame is much neater than Infinity War, helped, of course, by the fact that nearly every character except the original Avengers and a handful of others got turned to dust by Thanos (Josh Brolin). The latter cut between disparate storylines, and even by the end not all of them had collided; Endgame, on the other hand, clearly divides itself into three acts, each with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and despite its lengthy runtime, this tactic helps the movie go by swiftly.

Act one neatly continues the tone from the end of Infinity War. In other words, it’s bleak. Though its opening should ostensibly be cheery, there is a sense of unease as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on house arrest from the events of Captain America: Civil War, teaches his daughter (Ava Russo, daughter of director Joe and niece of other director Anthony) how to shoot a bow and arrow while his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), prepares hot dogs and his other sons play catch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss, but as grizzled survivors of Infinity War, we the audience know better than to trust a scene of happiness, and so the tension continues to mount until the inevitable happens: Clint’s entire family gets dusted. That this is predictable makes it no less harrowing, and so that pit in the stomach, so familiar from Infinity War, settles back in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the lone survivors from the battle on the planet Titan, become stranded in space, and we get the first inkling of how important Nebula will become to the film. After all, not everyone is important enough to play paper football in space with Iron Man himself, and even within this brief scene we begin to see Nebula thaw as the two try to cope with their losses by flicking wads of paper at each other. (Nebula’s reaction to being told that she won is perfect: shock and disbelief, then pride, as she’s never won a thing in her life, especially not when compared to her recently-deceased sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.) Yet soon the oxygen runs out, and things look even darker as Tony and Nebula stare down imminent death. Even Tony barely has any snark left in him.

Luckily, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) shows up to save them and take them to Earth, where they reunite with the remnants: Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Steve (Chris Evans), who has shaved his glorious beard in a blow to straight women with taste everywhere. The opening two scenes had little dialogue, instead letting mood take precedence; here, when Steve and Tony come face-to-face for the first time since they nearly killed each other in Captain America: Civil War, that silence swiftly breaks. While at first it seems like the events of the past few days may have rectified the yawning gap between the two, soon Tony, looking absolutely terrible and horribly malnourished, lays into Cap: “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world. Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed… I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there. But that’s what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We’re the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers, right?” Though the Avengers are finally back together, Infinity War has only widened the chinks in their armor. While Steve puts on a brave face, this is the most desperate we’ve ever seen Tony, and it’s most certainly the weakest he’s ever looked; Downey Jr. gives a fine performance of a man well past the end of his rope.

But even with the gulf between the Avengers, they manage to band together to track down Thanos and the Stones in an attempt to reverse the Snap. Yet Thanos, as established in Infinity War, isn’t just psychopathic for the sake of being psychopathic: he truly believes in his mission, and he knows the Infinity Stones could cause temptation for beings lesser than him, so he has destroyed the Stones, thus destroying the Avengers’ chance at bringing everyone back. 

When asked by Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Infinity War what he will do once he accomplishes his goal, Thanos says, “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” That’s how Infinity War ends, and that’s how we find our villain in Endgame. Driven to a rage fueled by the decimation of his homeworld, the death of his brother, and the culling of his people, Thor goes for the head this time, and with a splatter of blood and a quiet thunk as his head hits the floor, Thanos dies before the title ever flashes on screen. Yet it’s a hollow victory, because our heroes have well and truly lost. If the end of Infinity War was bleak, the beginning of Endgame is worse. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Cut to five years later, and the Avengers have scattered. Only two remain at the Avengers Compound: Steve leads a therapy group (featuring cameos from Joe Russo and Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos) and Natasha gathers intelligence from their allies scattered across the universe, including Rocket, Carol, Rhodey, and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even if things might bear a slight resemblance to normalcy, it’s clear that grief has a stranglehold on everyone. So when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up when he was presumed snapped, suddenly there is a glimmer of hope. 

Scott, it turns out, wasn’t snapped (as you know if you watched the post-credits scene in Ant-Man and the Wasp), just trapped in the Quantum Realm until a fortuitous rat crawled over the right buttons in his van. Yet while five years passed in the outside world, only five minutes passed in the Quantum Realm, and through the power of some Quantum technobabble, Scott theorizes that time travel could be possible, meaning they could gather the Stones and undo the Snap. The trio brings this theory to Tony, who has retired to a cabin in the woods with Pepper and their new daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe), who is quite possibly the cutest, most precocious child to have ever existed. However, Tony has no interest in what they’re selling: he’s failed at saving the universe already, so best to focus on protecting what’s right in front of him. “I got my second chance right here, Cap,” he says.

So instead the team seeks out the next best scientist they know: Bruce Banner, who has come to terms with his Hulk half, becoming what is known as “Professor Hulk” (or “Smart Hulk,” take your pick), which merges Banner’s brain with Hulk’s body. There’s no real explanation for this (though there was a deleted scene about it), though it’s an innocuous enough development that seems to finally end the Banner vs. Hulk war that has been raging since 2008… at least, until Bruce shows up in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looking one hundred percent human. But in Endgame, at least, there’s no drama surrounding Hulk’s destructive tendencies or the agony Bruce feels about his alter ego, so instead we watch Mark Ruffalo go around in an advanced Shrek cosplay, and luckily Bruce acting like a bit of a stoner and dabbing (no pun intended) with some fans (played by more Russo relations) is a fun enough time.

Unfortunately, Bruce can’t quite crack time travel, resulting in some very fun shenanigans with Scott turning into a teen, an old man, and then a baby. Back in his cabin, though, Tony figures it out, and finds himself torn between the idyllic life he leads and throwing himself back into the fray. “Something tells me that I should put it in a locked box and drop it at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” he tells Pepper. But Pepper knows him; she knows the weight of that guilt would hang over his head forever, and she knows that he’s really only bringing it up so she can tell him that it’s okay. “But would you be able to rest?” she replies. It’s a brief moment of dialogue, but it perfectly encapsulates why Pepper and Tony work together in a way that precious few MCU couples do: they know each other inside and out, they have from even the first Iron Man, and weren’t simply thrown together because the MCU overlords dictated that the two main hot people of the opposite sex must bone. And so Tony returns to the Avengers Compound and gets to work.

Rhodey, Nebula, and Rocket also arrive to help out, and soon Bruce and Rocket go off to find Thor, who has not been doing so hot; in fact, he’s become a fat, depressed alcoholic who has locked himself in his cabin on New Asgard (aka Tønsberg, a town seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Thor: Ragnarok), the place where the few remaining Asgardians have resettled, to play Fortnite and yell at a teenaged player styling himself “NoobMaster69.” 

In a film series full of some very attractive people, Chris Hemsworth has always stood out—or, at least, he’s had the most shirtless scenes, including this entirely unnecessary, frankly bizarre scene from Thor: The Dark World that exists only to show off Hemsworth’s glistening pectorals. To see him in a fat suit with tangled, unkempt hair and a tangled, unkempt beard is thoroughly shocking. “Fat Thor” tries to strike a balance it cannot always achieve: Thor’s slovenly ways are clearly positioned as funny (and often are), but underneath is a very raw anguish he is attempting to hide through booze and online gaming. Hemsworth, as in Infinity War, proves his dramatic chops here as he lets Thor’s self-hatred at his failings seep through: “Now I know that… guy might scare you,” Bruce begins, talking about Thanos. “Why would I be…? Why would I be scared of that guy? I’m the one who killed that guy, remember?” Thor scoffs, but he’s on the verge of tears as he says it. He dismisses Bruce’s request for help, saying, “Why don’t you ask the Asgardians down there how much my help is worth? The ones that are left, anyway.” Yet this powerful commentary on grief and the strength of Hemsworth’s performance occasionally gets lost underneath the surface-level jokes about Thor’s weight and unhealthy drinking habits (though Tony calling him “Lebowski” is pretty damn funny, to be fair); Thor is at his best in Endgame when we’re allowed to see glimpses of the simmering anger lurking underneath that he’s been trying to drown in beer, but that’s not always the case—he’s played just a little too often for laughs for his depression to be as effective as it could be. Case in point: Thor only agrees to return to the Avengers Compound when Rocket tells him there will be beer there.

Natasha, meanwhile, has gone off to find Clint Barton, who has gone on a killing spree against any sort of ne’er-do-well that survived the Snap, including the Yakuza, in an effort to bring (what he sees as) justice to a world without it. He re-enters the movie through a single take fight scene along the streets of Tokyo, culminating in a standoff against legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who gets nearly nothing to do before Clint slices his throat. It’s a far cry from the family man we got in the first scene: he’s shaved part of his hair, he’s wearing a hood, he’s got a tattoo sleeve now, he’s edgy as all hell. Though no one ever calls him this, Clint’s new style has clearly taken inspiration from his Ronin persona from the comics, and while it’s brutal and a bit weird, it is an interesting path to take an otherwise largely unnoteworthy character from the MCU (at least when compared with his peers). Grief changes people, man.

So now we have now gathered all of our Avengers. Thus act two starts, and here the movie begins to get a little messy, as time travel flicks often do. 

The plan: go back in time and grab each of the Infinity Stones, regroup, and re-Snap. (During the planning sequence, there is an excellent bit of meta humor: when Thor explains the plot of The Dark World and the Reality Stone’s involvement in it, most people start to nod off or look utterly confused. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happening and is just happy to be involved, bless him.)

The team is split into four: Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce go to 2012 New York to nab the Mind Stone (from Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter), the Space Stone (from the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.LD.’s possession), and and the Time Stone (from the Sorcerer Supreme on Bleecker Street). Rhodey and Nebula go to the planet Morag in 2014 to get the Power Stone and Natasha and Clint go to Vormir to get the Soul Stone, not knowing the sacrifice they will have to make. Thor and Rocket, meanwhile, go to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality Stone, aka the Aether.

For such a gargantuan movie, Endgame is quiet: the first act saw almost no action, and what action was there did not elicit any fist pumps, the way Marvel action sequences are so often designed to do; act two also sees very little fight scenes, instead bouncing characters off each other in their small groups, focusing less on action and more on problem-solving. While there is good character work here, act two also serves as an excuse to make Marvel’s “Greatest Hits” album and poke good-natured fun at their lesser efforts; it’s almost entirely fanservice, but fanservice that feels well-earned after 11 years of movies, even if it is a little self-congratulatory. To those who have been there since the beginning, your indulgent overlords are here to reward you with easter eggs filled with tasty morsels.

Track number one: The Avengers. As Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce arrive in 2012 New York, we get glimpses of Loki, secret Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Steve, after being objectified by both Tony and Scott, even gets to fight his own 2012, stick-up-the-ass, mischaracterized self so he can grab the Mind Stone, successfully distracting 2012-Steve by telling him that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) lives. (“That is America’s ass,” he proclaims knocking his doppelgänger out.) Bruce goes to find the Time Stone, but instead of running into Stephen Strange, he finds Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, back for a cameo which forces us once again to question if Swinton is completely human (meant as a compliment). While Bruce gets the Time Stone, a Hulk-sized kerfuffle occurs that ends with Loki escaping with the Tesseract so his mischievous adventures can continue in his own TV show. 

To remedy this, Tony and Steve travel back to Camp Lehigh (where Steve trained as Captain America and where he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1970s, at a previous point in time where the Tesseract could be easily reached. Tony runs into his father, Howard (John Slattery), and finally comes to terms with his daddy issues, though their interaction leaves Howard a bit confused; we also glimpse a de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, with peeks at an old-school Ant-Man helmet. Steve stares at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through a window, but more on that later. They get the Tesseract easy peasy, and their interactions within this block with the people they’ve lost are poignant and affecting; it’s not all time travel jargon and discussion of Infinity Stones.

Track number two: Thor: The Dark World. On Asgard, Thor runs into his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), and nearly falls apart when talking to her because he knows that she will die on this day. Yet her advice on failure is sage, and it sets Thor on a better path; when he summons 2013-Mjolnir and rejoices, “I’m still worthy!,” it’s a lovely, genuine moment for a character who is too often used as the butt of the joke in Endgame. Rocket, while Thor has this heart-to-heart, steals the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); Portman, having disliked the production experience for The Dark World, appears through a deleted scene from The Dark World grafted onto Endgame, with a CGI raccoon added in the background. Voilà. Space Stone, Time Stone, Reality Stone procured.

So on to track number three: Guardians of the Galaxy. Rhodey and Nebula on Morag give us a chance to relive Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) “Come and Get Your Love” dance from Guardians of the Galaxy to excellent results. Good, silly fun. (“So he’s an idiot?” Rhodey asks.) While her sister Gamora was the stealth MVP of Infinity War, here the title passes to Karen Gillan’s Nebula. As Gamora’s role in Infinity War was much bigger than expected, and perhaps even bigger than her role had previously been in the Guardians franchise, so too does sister Nebula play a crucial role in Endgame, and Gillan gives far and away her best performance yet. Nebula and Rhodey prove to be an unusual but strong pairing, both bonding over their physical disabilities: “I wasn’t always like this,” Nebula murmurs as she looks at her robotic hand. “Me either,” Rhodey says, reminding us that the only reason he can walk is some fancy Stark Industries tech. “But we work with what we got, right?” It’s a brief scene but no less affecting because of it, proving that Endgame’s strengths lie in its character beats rather than fight sequences, of which we have had nearly none so far, and its plot, which is about to get a lot more confusing with the introduction of 2014-Gamora, 2014-Nebula, and 2014-Thanos as prominent characters.

Because, of course, Rhodey and Nebula aren’t the only ones hunting the Infinity Stones. Time travel in the MCU is not, as Bruce and Tony inform us, like Back to the Future. Each time you travel back in time, you create a branched timeline: when Steve, Tony, and company travel to 2012, for instance, they make an alternate universe where 2012-Loki escapes with the Tesseract and 2012-Steve knows that Bucky is alive. In the 1970s, there is now a branching timeline where Howard ran into a stranger who encouraged him to be a bit more present with his soon-to-be son, resulting in an alternate Tony who might not be saddled with severe daddy issues. Thor creates an alternate timeline where 2013-Thor doesn’t have Mjolnir (since his other self took it) and 2013-Jane gets the Aether sucked out of her more quickly, and so on.

Through some technological wormholes, 2014-Thanos finds out that our main timeline 2023-Nebula is hunting Infinity Stones and that 2019-Thanos bit it. Determined to win, he captures 2023-Nebula and hatches a plan.

Meanwhile, on Vormir (god, there are so many spinning plates in this movie and it’s not even as many as Infinity War), Clint and Natasha realize that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice—“A soul for a soul.” As neither of them want the other to die, given their long and storied history, they have a brief scuffle over who gets to be the one to hurl themselves off the edge of a cliff. In the end, it’s Natasha.

Like Gamora before her, she dies to procure an Infinity Stone; unlike Gamora, she does so willingly. This, naturally, made some people very angry. However, here’s the thing: Natasha sacrificing herself for the Avengers, for the family that welcomed her even with her bloody past, is a perfect end to her arc. Of course it’s bad optics that the sole female Avenger kicks the bucket (in the same location one of two female Guardians died to boot), and yes, she did sometimes get the short stick in the MCU (especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ugh), but neither of those things negate that this was always how Natasha was going to go. Of course she would hurl herself off a cliff for those she loved—she has always been the kindest, most empathetic Avenger underneath her cool front, and to claim that Endgame fridged” her ignores the fact that her ending stays completely in character, and it ignores the fact that she actively chose to do this and that it wasn’t done to further a man’s tragic story but to save the entire universe. 

Yes, of course Marvel should do better by their female characters, and their oft-talked about “girl power” scene later in the movie feels even stranger than it would otherwise given the fact that they killed their most prominent woman just a half an hour earlier. But those are bigger, systemic problems to be addressed; Natasha’s farewell in Endgame isn’t a sign of the MCU’s mistreatment of women (though that certainly exists), it’s a sign that the writers understood her character, and that is far better than keeping her alive for mere tokenism.

And so, at great personal cost, the Stones are procured, and everyone—except Natasha—comes back intact. Well, except for the fact that 2023-Nebula is still on board 2014-Thanos’ ship, and 2014-Nebula has taken her place in 2023 Earth (like I said, it’s messy). So as the Avengers debate who gets to snap their DIY Infinity Gauntlet, 2014-Nebula helps to prepare for her father’s arrival.

Though Thor lays out a strong, sad case—“Let me. Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right,” he pleads—it’s ultimately Bruce who snaps, because not only is he the strongest Avenger, but because the Gauntlet’s radiation is “mostly gamma. It’s like I was made for this.” Sure? I guess? So he snaps, and the birds come back, and Clint gets a call from his wife: for a moment, all is well.

But then, act three: the battle and its aftermath.

2014-Nebula opens up the Quantum Tunnel and 2014-Thanos’ ship bursts out of it, which then promptly obliterates the Avengers Compound. 

It seems all is lost, especially when 2014-Nebula corners Clint, who is clutching the Gauntlet, and levels her gun at him. Luckily, 2023-Nebula convinced 2014-Gamora to join forces, and 2023-Nebula shoots her alternate timeline past self, a sign not only of her loyalty to the Avengers but also her deep self-loathing. But even if the Gauntlet is safe for now, when Tony, Steve, and Thor go out to face 2014-Thanos, he easily bests them. Knowing that they killed his alternate self in the future, the battle has become charged: “In all my years of conquest, violence, slaughter, it was never personal,” he tells our trio. “But I’ll tell you now, what I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m gonna enjoy it. Very, very much.”

But, as Thanos begins to well and truly wreck our heroes, suddenly Mjolnir begins to crackle with electricity and zooms not to Thor’s hands, but to Steve’s—the God of Thunder isn’t the only worthy one here. “I knew it!” Thor exclaims as Steve begins to wield the hammer against 2014-Thanos (it’s sick as hell). But yet again he is bested, and when 2014-Thanos reveals the army waiting in the ships above, any hope we gained quickly deflates. But Steve Rogers does not give up so easily. This shot of Cap standing against Thanos and his army is a beautiful, wordless way to convey this comic panel, but it is a hopeless image.

Then, suddenly, a familiar voice in Steve’s ear says, “On your left,” and, impossibly, things begin to look up. Slowly, and then all at once, everyone Thanos snapped away comes streaming in from sorcerer-conjured portals, and then excitement rushes in like a freight train. It builds, and builds, and builds along with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme from The Avengers, and when Cap, Mjolnir and shield in hand, finally, finally, finally says, “Avengers… assemble!,” it is about the coolest fucking thing you have ever seen in a movie theater (just watch any number of the reaction videos on YouTube). It is pure fanservice, it is pure comic boy joy, it is—whether you like it or not—one of the most emotionally resonant moments for cinema audiences ever, and even years later, it still soars. Nothing either within the MCU or without will ever be able to match the utterly insane hype level for those entrances and that line.

Unfortunately, the battle that follows, like that of Infinity War, isn’t that interesting visually except for a few moments where the characters get to show off their powers in tandem with one another, but even those moments are disappointingly dull to look at. The success of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers doesn’t lie in their visuals, but rather in their abilities to balance an assortment of different characters and coax out new sides of the MCU by thrusting said characters into new situations. Another battle hardly treads new ground, but it’s requisite for the MCU, and so here we are.

But it’s still got those requisite cool Marvel fight moments: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is an especially fascinating combatant, almost obliterating Thanos before he orders his ship to “rain fire,” and the game of hot potato played with the Infinity Gauntlet certainly keeps viewers engaged. 2014-Gamora, having no knowledge of Peter Quill, knees Chris Pratt twice in the crotch. Captain Marvel also arrives and withstands a headbutt from Thanos, which is cool, but it’s still no visual spectacle.

Of course, at long last, our heroes get the upper hand. Thanos gets the Gauntlet and goes to snap, proclaiming self-righteously, “I am inevitable,” but it doesn’t work, and a split-second later we realize why: Tony managed to steal the Infinity Stones from off the Gauntlet, and as we watch his Iron Man nanotech snake up his arm to form an iron glove, we realize with sudden, terrible comprehension what is about to occur (or at least it was terrible for me). With one last “I am Iron Man,” Tony snaps his fingers, and so the guy who started off as an unsavory, narcissistic arms dealer dies sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. 

And so in an inverse of Infinity War, it’s now Thanos and his lackeys that turn to ash which scatters over the smoking battlefield, yet the moment is not entirely triumphant as the cost of the snap quickly catches up to Tony.

“You can rest now,” Pepper tells him. That one line sums up Tony near perfectly: restless, reckless, prone to bouts of self-destruction under the guise of narcissism, ultimately driven by an obsessive desire to protect the ones he cares about. And now he’s protected the entire universe. He can rest now. It’s a powerful scene made all the better because there are no real last words, no drawn-out death whilst cradled in someone’s arms, no sugarcoating: he is broken and bloodied, he can barely even speak, he just waits long enough to see Pepper and then dies. 

Multiple someones were certainly going to die in Endgame—that was clear from the first. That it’s Tony who makes the sacrifice play lines up perfectly with his arc, and of course it’s our very first hero who does the impossible and stops Thanos, even if he loses his life in the process. This scene and the funeral that follows, where Pepper puts that first arc reactor—the one engraved with “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”—in the water, and Tony has one final pre-recorded message for his daughter, is a fitting and bittersweet sendoff for the hero who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago. Love him or hate him, without Tony Stark, the MCU would not have come to be, and so this funeral is not only a farewell for Tony, but a tribute to the character (and actor) who started it all. All our heroes gather around for one last goodbye, and as the camera pans over the crowd, we see the legacy of not only Iron Man the character, but Iron Man the movie, and the enormous universe it spawned. 

Captain America’s sendoff, however, is a bit like an inverted Sour Patch Kid: it starts off sweet, but the more you suck on it and turn it over in your mind, the more it sours.

Tasked with going back in time to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place on the timeline, Steve Rogers decides to take the long way ’round and stay a while with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); when he comes back, he’s now an old man. Age and time, it seems, finally caught up with Steve, who hands his shield off to Sam to become the next Captain America

Both Sam and Bucky have taken that mantle in the comics, and both would have been good choices here to grapple with the legacy of that shield, each bringing their own unique baggage to the table—Sam as a black man in a world that repeatedly tries to deny him humanity, and Bucky for all the murder and whatnot—but ultimately Sam wins out. It’s a good choice (even if, from a more cynical viewpoint, Marvel only did it to garner brownie points and check off their diversity list), one which will hopefully pay off in the untitled fourth Captain America movie more than it did in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet even though Steve and Peggy’s ending tugs at the heartstrings as they finally get their dance, the whole thing sits uneasily. Post-Captain America: The First Avenger, much of Steve’s arc has been devoted to adjusting to the 21st century and all the moral ambiguity he now has to wade through; he mourned and grieved for the loss of his friends and loved ones, but he changed and adapted with the times. Now, suddenly, after we’ve spent so much time watching Steve figure out the modern world, he just ups and leaves?

It would be one thing if the films had shown Steve constantly pining after what he lost when he went into the ice. Of course they do, but only to an extent, and while the pangs of losing everyone he ever knew still hurt occasionally, Steve has moved on. The relationships he has built here, in this timeline, have been given far more weight than the ones he had back in The First Avenger, and to have him completely backtrack on his forward-moving arc to go back in time feels disingenuous and lazy. Christopher Markus himself once said, “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet,” but apparently failed to listen to his own words when writing Endgame.

Three things in particular make Steve’s ending leave a bitter taste in the mouth, with the first being the rules of time travel as established in this movie. As Endgame (and subsequent Marvel properties dealing with time travel) makes clear, travelling back in time creates a branched reality. Once you return to the moment you left in the main timeline, that alternate reality ceases to exist. (By these rules, Steve appearing at the lakeside randomly make any sense: as this is a different timeline from the one he grew old in, he couldn’t have just waited until this precise moment and moseyed on over to the Avengers Compound—he would have had to use the Quantum Tunnel doodad. But I guess it’s too much to ask for consistency, seeing as the writers and directors disagree on that whole alternate timeline thing.) This means that Steve went back in time, reunited with Peggy, presumably had a family, and then promptly erases everyone in that timeline from existence the minute he travels back to the future to give the shield to Sam. That is an incredibly selfish thing to do for someone whose actions, up to this point, have mostly been quite altruistic; even within the branched timeline that Steve creates, questions arise: Does Steve try to avert events like JFK’s assassination, or 9/11? Does he help advance civil rights? Does he rescue Bucky in this timeline before he becomes completely brainwashed? Or does he just sit on the sidelines, content with his own happiness?

Thing number two: Bucky. Whether you’re into “Stucky” or not, you cannot deny that Bucky has been a driving force all throughout Steve’s story. In The First Avenger, it’s the thought of Bucky being tortured in a Hydra prison camp that spurs Steve to truly become Captain America; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve’s world gets turned upside down by the knowledge that Bucky still lives, and he nearly dies trying to save Bucky from himself; in Captain America: Civil War, Steve goes on the run from the United States government (…again) to keep Bucky safe, and then he breaks the Avengers apart for the same reason. You’re telling me that this guy, this guy who has laid it all on the line multiple times out of love for his best and oldest friend, would leave said friend—who is, by the way, still massively traumatized from losing an arm, being brainwashed, and then turned into an assassin for essentially Nazis—for a woman that he knew back in the 1940s for, at best, a year or two? Even earlier in the film, the only thing that broke 2012-Steve’s concentration was the mention that Bucky lived. The two exchange an astonishingly brief goodbye which echoes their one from The First Avenger: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” but now Steve says that to Bucky instead of the other way around. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you,” Bucky replies, but nostalgia can only get so far. They have a quick hug, and that’s it. For a relationship that was previously given so much thematic weight to be tossed aside with such little care is astonishing.

The third thing is the much-maligned Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who does not appear in this movie, and no, she is not related to Steve, because in the original timeline she is from, Steve never married Peggy. Everyone needs to stop saying that she’s his niece. She’s not. Pay attention. 

Problems with Sharon, unfortunately, have been building since her introduction in Winter Soldier. Though her comic counterpart has a long and storied history both with and without longtime love interest Steve, Sharon in the MCU movies has been shamefully underused. Initially positioned as a love interest yet given little screentime or character, VanCamp and Chris Evans had precious little time to build chemistry; thus, when Steve and Sharon share a kiss in Civil War, it feels hastily tacked on, as if the only reason the two characters are together is because of their history in the comics, so of course movie fans didn’t take kindly to this development, especially fervent “shippers” of the Stucky and Steggy kind. 

Hayley Atwell herself has done little to help matters, saying, “Well, first of all [Peggy would] be turning over in her grave” at the thought of Steve and Sharon getting together. “She’d be like, ‘no.’ And she’d inject herself with the blue serum and become a super villain. She’d break out of her coffin and ground [Sharon]. She’d ground her. Then she’d kick Steve’s ass as well.” Yes, how feminist to pit two women against each other for the attention of a man! Thank you! Fans across Twitter and Tumblr were atrocious and misogynistic towards both Sharon and VanCamp, and it would have been hard for Markus and McFeely et al. not to notice. 

What follows is, admittedly, pure speculation, but it does not take much to imagine that this backlash—one that the MCU brought upon itself for not giving Sharon her proper due and rushing to throw her together with Steve despite having no buildup—caused Markus, McFeely, and the rest to backtrack and quickly reframe Peggy as the ultimate love of Steve’s life in Endgame, having him pull out his picture of her and make goo goo eyes at her through some blinds while no one mentions Sharon. It’s as if she never existed. It’s only Peggy and Steve, it’s always been Peggy and Steve, no one else has ever been as important in his life as she has (never you mind the fact that Steve—and I am repeating myself—broke the Avengers apart for the sake of Bucky!). Faced with a negative fan reaction, instead of fixing what wasn’t landing, Marvel retreated to something they knew worked, and so Steve goes back in time without ever saying goodbye to Sharon. Even if the writers and directors wanted to move on, it feels wildly out of character for consummate good guy Steve Rogers to just kiss and ditch. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will at least attempt to address some of this, but because Marvel wants us to like Steve Rogers and frames his reunion with Peggy as a morally unambiguous win, it’s never allowed enough leeway to truly tackle the abandonment issues that Steve’s actions would have saddled Sharon and most especially traumatized, formerly brainwashed, currently PTSD-ridden Bucky with because Marvel doesn’t want us to get mad at Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least tries to make Sharon a real character, though it feels like a slap in the face more than anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If anything, Steve should have died and Tony should have retired. Logistically and logically this would have been difficult, as it would have been hard to explain why Tony didn’t show up to whatever world-ending events happen next, and if he did show up, there is the small matter of Robert Downey Jr.’s exorbitant payday. However, as cappers to their characters, it works (at least in my esteemed opinion) better for Tony, always so self-destructive and suicidal, to finally find peace rather than make the sacrifice play (besides, we already did that arc in The Avengers), and for Steve, the forever-soldier, displaced out of time, to lay down his life for the cause in heroic, tragic fashion. Even both of them dying would have been better than this logically flimsy, out of character ending which falls to pieces the minute you examine it more closely; besides, having only two Avengers die in Endgame feels a bit weak. No, more main character death does not make a story better, but thematically appropriate endings do, and Steve’s death would have been exactly that. 

This isn’t to say that Steve and Peggy’s reunion isn’t emotional—there’s a reason they stuck in the minds of fans, and there was nary a dry eye (mine were certainly very, very damp) in theaters upon watching them dance. It’s just a shame that none of it holds up to scrutiny. 

Well. Anyway. To round out the “Big Three,” Thor decides to hand the throne to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and go off with the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is fine enough taken alone, and promises plenty of merry mayhem in Thor: Love and Thunder, but when taken in sum with the rest of his films, feels a bit like whiplash. In Thor, he abandons his reckless ways and rises to the task of kingship; in Thor: The Dark World, he abandons said kingship to be with his lady love; in Thor: Ragnarok, he once again takes up the mantle of king and assumes full responsibility for Asgard; in Endgame, he gives it all up again and passes the mantle of monarch to Valkyrie, who, while cool, has not exactly shown how or why she is the right pick to govern an entire race, even one whose population has been decimated. Thor, like Hulk, ping pongs around at the whims of the directors, and him reneging on his kingship feels like a rejection of his entire Ragnarok arc—there is no consistency to his choices, and this lack of consistency doesn’t feel like a purposeful character choice but rather Marvel just shuffling him around wherever they need him to go instead of letting his own arc be the guide. So we beat on, boats against the current… ah, never mind.

And so Endgame concludes: Tony dead, Natasha dead, Steve written off, the other Avengers still continuing to fight the bad guys. Any other film franchise would have called it quits after this: half the original Avengers roster gone, the threat building up for nearly a decade averted, almost all loose ends tied up. That the MCU has continued on afterwards can be viewed as a shallow cash grab that continues to drive out mid-budget films from the theaters, a genuine curiosity to explore as of yet underutilized characters and adapt some more of the rich history of Marvel Comics, or a bit of both. 

One common criticism of the MCU is that there are no proper endings. To some extent, that’s true: each entry acts more as an episode of TV than anything, with its own introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but then a little stinger at the end to ensure we tune in next week, and Endgame is no different. It wraps up the stories for many of its characters even as it tantalizes us with what’s to come—ooh, Thor is going with the Guardians, what a fun team that will be; Sam gets to be Captain America, how intriguing; Loki escapes with the Tesseract, what mischief could he get up to next! Everything is designed to keep people buying tickets, and with the cultural dominance of the MCU firmly solidified by now, in order to understand why everyone keeps saying, “I love you 3,000,” you’re going to have to fork over your money to the Mouse. 

Yet for all the griping I have done about this film, nothing can match the magic of that opening night. Endgame, for all its flaws, largely succeeds—and succeeds well—at what it sets out to achieve, and it has that excellent mix of ensemble humor and individual pathos that the Russo brothers balanced so well in their other MCU films and which other Marvel directors often struggle with. Its place in the cultural pantheon is deserved; even if you despise Marvel for ruining cinema, there’s no denying the influence Endgame has had, and that influence only is as big as it is because Endgame is, ultimately, a pretty solid flick which only drops a few balls out of the several hundred that it juggle

It’s hard to quantify, exactly, what impact Endgame made in pop culture. You could count Twitter hashtags or ticket sales (nearly $3 billion made worldwide), but that wouldn’t capture the conversations between acquaintances, the texts sent, the calls made to buzz about some moment from Endgame. For a brief moment, it seemed as if almost everyone in the world spoke the same language. The Red Wedding was a hill, Endgame Mount Everest. So even if Marvel and Disney are helping to strangle independent cinema, for a brief, shining moment, it felt like they had united the world.

Which, I suppose, is actually quite a frightening thought. But I digress.

There was quite a big hullabaloo several months after Endgame came out when Martin Scorsese equated Marvel movies to theme parks, and a bunch of fragile fans began insulting Scorsese’s body of work while trumpeting the MCU as a paragon of art. The thing is, Scorsese is right: Marvel is notoriously risk-averse and it almost always quashes a director’s individual voice—even when half the world was snapped away in Infinity War, you could rest assured that they would all come back in Endgame (lo and behold, they did), and even singular directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao can only fight so much against the formula. That popular cinema has increasingly become reboots and sequels, and originals are tossed onto streaming services with severely limited theatrical runs, is not entirely Marvel and Disney’s fault, yet they seem to be doing little to mitigate this, instead barreling on with their tried-and-tested formula; it’s always about expanding the universe, it’s always about branding the franchise, it’s all about making that capital, baby, even if they couch this in different terms.

But the reason Endgame was able to have such a strong hold on the collective consciousness wasn’t merely because consumers have all become slaves to the brand. Scorsese is right, but he makes one misstep: when talking about the films he loved as a child, he writes, “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” as if to say that the MCU lacks characters other than stock ones, when in fact the biggest reason for the MCU’s success isn’t its action sequences or aliens, it’s the people at the heart of everything.

No, obviously the MCU is not filled with character-driven dramas, and even its attempts to do that, like WandaVision, have all ultimately devolved into typical Marvel fisticuffs. Yet if you want to see big action setpieces, there are plenty of places to slake your thirst—but no one is talking much about Transformers: The Last Knight years after its release, whereas Endgame remains an easy cultural touchstone. Yes, it helps that Marvel has continued to churn out films, but even after The Avengers in 2012, with only five prior films under its belt, it was clear that these popcorn flicks stayed in the mind a bit longer than the others at the multiplex, and that is all due to the careful character work laid down in the films. When Tony dies, after 11 years on our screens, after 11 years of watching him alternatingly preen and self-destruct, watching him contradict himself and mess up and triumph, it carries weight because we know him, we love him (or hate him, take your pick; I think it’s pretty clear where I fall). If Marvel had not spent so much time making these characters feel like people, albeit hot and superpowered people, the whole endeavor would have failed. People don’t shell out money to see these just because they want to watch people shoot bad guys, but because they care about the characters populating this universe. So, yes, Scorsese is right, but he misses the key point as to why people keep circling back to the MCU time and time again. I guess he’s still pretty alright.

It’s a bit odd to say that Marvel lacks ambition when its very basis was built on risk. Iron Man was a risk. The Avengers was a bigger risk. Only now, with Marvel firmly seated as top dog, can we begin to pick apart the endeavor, poke holes at the formula, and make fun of those with blind brand loyalty. That it’s morphed into what it is today is entirely unprecedented: a connected cinematic universe spanning galaxies, filled with dozens of main characters, stuffed with overlapping and overarching plots that pay off years down the road. Other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s success in creating a shared universe (the DCEU, the failed Dark Universe, even now Star Wars), yet none have succeeded in quite the same way because none took the time—and the associated risk—to build from the ground up. So while some claim Marvel has grown complacent, they only have the luxury to do so because they had such sheer guts in the beginning. 

So here we are. Endgame may not be the best MCU entry, but as a cultural and cinematic event, it remains unparalleled; that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of its plot (and runtime), that it gives each character strong emotional beats, that it succeeds in concluding a story that started with a movie about a nobody superhero directed by that guy from Swingers and starring an ex-convict, is nothing short of a miracle.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s still one hell of an achievement.

Captain America vs Thanos Army [3840 x 1608] : r/marvelstudios

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • That iconic “I am Iron Man” line in Endgame came from reshoots.
  • Two more Community alums pop up: Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown.
  • Okoye mentions an earthquake under the ocean. You know who’s rumored to be the villain of Black Panther 2? Namor the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis.
  • Howard Stark appears as he’s looking for Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the scientist from The First Avenger who became a Hydra plant within S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Peter Parker (Tom Holland) not wanting to activate instant kill mode with his suit was a running gag in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but here he actually does activate instant kill mode.
  • James D’Arcy reprising his role as Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler (for whom J.A.R.V.I.S. the artificial intelligence was named), from Agent Carter was a completely unexpected cameo that absolutely floored me. Considering that Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Television has been largely ignored by the MCU (though that may change come Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home…), to have a supporting character from one of the more minor shows cameo, if only for a brief second, felt wonderful. Jarvis rocks.
  • You know, not a whole lot of groundwork for this one, since it’s wrapping up so many things. Well, that’s a lie, it’s just that most of that groundwork hasn’t paid off yet: the Guardians will appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, which will presumably also deal with Valkyrie’s queenship; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will deal with the search for 2014 Gamora; there’s going to be Captain America 4 with Sam (Anthony Mackie), etc. etc. We just haven’t seen all that happen.
  • Well, that’s a bit of a fib: Loki stealing the Tesseract did net him his own TV show.
  • The song that Steve and Peggy dance to (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) was playing in Steve’s apartment in Winter Soldier when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paid him a visit.
  • The Amazon series The Boys did a very excellent parody (or two) of the “he’s got help”/A-Force team-up scene from Endgame, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. I, for one, felt pretty pumped about it in the theater, even if it is a bit ham-fisted. Far, far more egregious things have happened then a bunch of women superheroes teaming up together for lip service. It was clumsy, but there are worse things—like, if you want to take a political issue with Marvel, talk about its weird relationship with the military-industrial complex, or American exceptionalism, or the damage it’s doing to cinema as a whole. This one scene is not the biggest issue at stake here. (Also, is it any worse than Marvel trumpeting the fact that Endgame has the MCU’s first gay character and for that to turn out to be Joe Russo making a cameo?)
  • It was very nice that the MCU remembered Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) from Iron Man 3. Would be cool to see him again; after all, he’s “connected.” Ironheart or Armor Wars, maybe? The inevitable Young Avengers movie or show? Could be fun.
  • Not to diss Kathryn Newton again (…and again), but Emma Fuhrmann, who has two brief scenes in Endgame as an older Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, absolutely kills what little time she has. It’s very unfair she was passed over for someone with more star power.
  • In case anyone was peeved (as I was) at this Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter the TV show erasure, never fear: he gets his own happy ending with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) in the future, in space, presumably working for S.W.O.R.D., except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably wasn’t legally allowed to say that. But, regardless, at least the ABC show universe doesn’t forget about their loose ends (well, most of the time).

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean. Come on. It’s the portal scene. It’s “Avengers, assemble.” Come. On. I have never felt that exhilarated watching a movie in my life. (“It’s a baby.” “It’s Scott!” “As a baby.” “He’ll grow!” never fails to tickle me, however.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Avengers: Endgame, 7. Guardians of the Galaxy, 8. The Avengers, 9. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 10. Captain America: The First Avenger, 11. Iron Man 3, 12. Iron Man, 13. Black Panther, 14. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 15. Doctor Strange, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Thor, 18. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 19. Captain Marvel, 20. Thor: The Dark World, 21. Iron Man 2, 22. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Avengers: Endgame is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.

There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.

It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.

Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’s director, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.

Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)

Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.” 

(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)

In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.

What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.

Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.

As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem. 

Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.

That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.

Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.

With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind. 

The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.

To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
  • Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
  • There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
  • “This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Doctor Strange, 9. Ant-Man, 10. Thor, 11. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 12. Thor: The Dark World, 13. Iron Man 2, 14. The Incredible Hulk

Doctor Strange Trailer

Doctor Strange is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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Episode 71: Valley Girl (2020) / Capone / The Night of the Hunter

“Method actors give you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.”

Charles Laughton

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

On Episode 71 of the Podcast Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: The King of Staten Island & Shirley. Followed by the Titles: Valley Girl, Capone, and The Night of the Hunter.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Capone on Prime Video and Kanopy

Valley Girl (2020) and The Night of the Hunter are currently available to rent from multiple sources.