I saw Endgame last night. That I was going to see it was not in question, of course, what with it being the culmination of a decade of movies (some 22 in total if I’ve counted correctly), something that is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in all of film history. What follows is some discussion of the aftermath of Endgame so it should go without saying that spoilers will happen.
Okay, so if you’re still with me, I’ll assume you either know what happened in Endgame or don’t mind spoilers. Let me summarize the plot for clarity.
The survivors of Infinity War are stuck in their various situations. Captain Marvel shows up, rescues Stark and Nebula in the nick of time from a dying space ship, they find Thanos, discover that he snapped the infinity stones out of existence (or at least he thinks that), Thor “goes for the head” this time, and Thanos is dead and all of the people how were dusted in Infinity War are still dusted. For any other fanchise, that would have been an entire movie on its own but here it’s just the opening scenes.
Now we fast forward five years. We get a few scenes about how things are going. Then Ant Man finally escapes out of the quantum realm, is confused, turns up at Avengers headquarters, pitches a Back to the Future idea, there’s some tooling around trying to get the team back together along with some more revelations about what people have been up to, some humours discussions of time travel mechanics, some failures, Tony cracks the impossible, and the time heist is on to obtain the infinity stones from the past.
Suffice to say, the heists don’t go entirely according to plan. They do get them all but not without Bruce learning something disturbing and making a promise, some historical backfill, Thanos figuring out what’s going on back during the Guardians 1 events, and the acquisition of the soul stone being soul shattering for everyone.
Then we get to the real final battle when Thanos shows up just as they manage to do their own finger snap to bring all the dusted people back. The expected huge action set piece(s) occur with various people arriving from their scattered locations after resurrection, or from wherever they were operating to join the fight. This is a real battle with real stakes because while we know the guantlet survived, it’s still stuck under the ruins of the Avengers headquarters. Eventually, after a crazy sequence where everyone gets to do something, Thanos gets the guantlet again and Tony goes head to head with him again. And Thanos does the finger snap again. But nothing. It seems Tony stole the stones during their struggle.
Then Tony does some technology magic and uses the stones to dust Thanos’s minions and ultimately Thanos himself. This is not without consequences and Tony pays the ultimate price, a consequence he was fully aware would come. From here, we get a fairly extended wind down as the stones are returned to their original places in time, Steve Rogers gets a life, and a couple of characters pass the torch. When the fade to black comes, there’s a sense of completeness to the story which is not ruined by a post credits scene
Yes, that is a summary of the plot. There is far more going on, both directly related to the Endgame action and to the greater world building and character arcs.
In the end, both Tony and Steve have their stories come to a conclusion. Tony makes a truly heroic sacrifice while Steve gets to live out his life with Peggy, or, at least, that’s what was implied. Yet before that happens, the two of them manage to reconcile with each other and Tony gets to have a brief interlude with an actual family including a daughter. Ultimately, both character arc resolutions are satisfying and they work for the characters themselves.
Thor finally manages to get out from under his sense of obligation to his people though not without a detour into Big Lebowski territory that somehow just worked. The interplay between Thor and Steve during the final battle was right up there with the Gimli-Legolas interplay at Helm’s deep. In the end, we see him arguing with Quill about who is in charge of Quill’s ship which has interesting implications for Guardians 3
Natasha’s sacrifice which allowed Clint to obtain the soul stone was heart rending but we knew when those two were sent to get the soul stone that one of them wouldn’t be coming back. I’m sure I’m not the only one that hoped there was a loophole somewhere, but it turns out they played it straight. The sacrifice was necessary and irreversible, something stated explicitly in the dialogue with the guide. That means that Natasha also exits with a heroic sacrifice. As a result of this, we also find out that Gamora’s death at Thanos’s hands was permanent. This is confirmed when Bruce says he tried to bring Natasha back and couldn’t. However, we still have a Gamora, just not the one Thanos sacrificed.
Finally, we have Bruce Banner and Hulk. A bit of dialogue shows that the two of them have merged and dealt with most of their issues. The sequence back in the original battle of New York where the merged Bruce Banner/Hulk tries to “hulk smash” is hilarious, but it also shows that he is now a functional person, a theme that continues throughout the film.
The rest of the characters played bit parts, or didn’t have any particular arc progression through Endgame, which is perfectly acceptable. They will have subsequent films to deal with consequences and further character development.
The major consequence of the events of Endgame is to the timeline. They actually discussed this while they were trying to make their time machine.
There are now two time mechanics in the MCU. First is direct time manipulation with the time stone as was done by Strange in his fight against Dormammu. There, he simply rolled back time as though it never happened. This is completely different to what the Avengers did in Endgame and isn’t really time travel.
The other is simple time travel via the quantum realm or some other mechanism. If I understood what they were doing correctly, they have established that changing the past causes a split in the timeline which neatly sidesteps things like the grandfather paradox. As a side note, this actually works with what played out on Agents of Shield. I think, however, they’re going for something a bit more subtle in that only incompatible changes to history cause a branching timeline or that the banches can merge back together if they lead to similar enough outcomes.
Thus we can have the original timeline of, say, Quill’s acquisition of the power stone as we saw it in Guardians 1 but also the bit where Quill got knocked out on the way there. If Steve put things back closely enough that Quill still obtains the stone, then the subsequent events of Guardians 1 would continue unchanged without a branching timeline.
That said, it’s pretty clear there are now two major timelines in the MCU. There is the prime timeline that we have been following where Thanos did his snap and the dusting happened. But there is also the timeline where Thanos arrives into the prime timeline from the past during the Guardians 1 time frame. Since this Thanos also dies, he can’t go back to his time and continue his plans. That means there is an alternative timeline where Thanos never collects the infinity stones which means the events of Endgame has two wins: the prime timeline gets back the dusted people and the altnerative timeline without Thanos never has to worry about it. The alternate timeline would substantially affect events depicted in Guardians 1 and 2. Beyond that, it would mostly affect the events of Infinity War (which wouldn’t happen). However, most things we have seen so far would likely be unaffected.
One might think that Steve spending time with Peggy would also cause a split timeline but we haven’t seen enough to indicate whether that would be the case or not. At least, I can’t recall if we have. At any rate, Steve would know enough about history to be able to avoid major landmines of he laid low and used an alternate identity. Regardless, we just don’t know what he did, when, or how long he did it for.
Interestingly, what happened during Endgame doesn’t invalidate what happened during Agents of Shield’s time travel story. Indeed, it seems that the theory of time travel they are operating with is consistent between the movies and Shield. However, that would give us four timelines, I think. We have the case where the Earth is shattered and Thanos happens and the case where the shattering is prevented and Thanos happens. We also have the case where the Earth is shattered and Thanos doesn’t happen and the case where the shattering is prevented and Thanos doesn’t happen. I don’t expect the shattered Earth future they visited to be substantially different between the Thanos and no Thanos option but the non-shattered Earth cases would obviously diverge significantly. I expect Shield will continue in the prime timeline.
The existence of the prime and non-Thanos timelines does have an interesting implications for the other Marvel television shows. They could simply say that any shows that don’t deal with the dusting are in the non-Thanos timeline.
While I’m sure there are flaws in Endgame that others will analyze ad nauseum, as a conclusion to the beyond epic saga started with Iron Man more than a decade ago, it is brilliant. There was no reset button on the prime timeline. Consequences stuck. The people who died separate from the dusting stayed dead. The consequences of obtaining the soul stone were the same for both sides. And, most of all, everyone did not survive. There were real consequences for the literal apocalypse. They even touched on the potential systems collapse consequences in background action, set dressing, and the odd comment in the post-dusting world (trash piled up, etc.).
Overall, the Infinity War/Endgame movie event is something that could not have worked without the epic buildup of the cast of characters over a score of movies. I mean, Endgame itself has to set some sort of record for number of “major” cast members listed in the pre-title credit sequence and the shear number of “with” credits was crazy.
On paper, if anyone had proposed to create the 22 MCU films as green field project, they would have been laughed off the planet. But with luck and some vision to recognize what they had and to build on it, and some subsequent luck to prevent the whole thing derailing, Marvel managed to do what nobody in their right mind would have thought possible. Those that have tried to duplicate Marvel’s success have largely failed. And, now, the company that has to duplicate Marvel’s success is Marvel themselves as they move into the future. Will they build up for another Infinity War or just have the various characters tick along and interact periodically? Fortunately, they don’t have to do that immediately. They can let things settle for a bit and see where things go.
My final word on Endgame is this: it is a conclusion of the major arcs of most of the characters that sparked the MCU and for the rest, it leaves them in a comfortable position. It was well worth the ride to get here and, while I personally will watch to see how things develop into the future, for those who want to get off the merry-go-round without major hanging plot threads, this is a good place to do so.