In Review – Avengers: Endgame (and the perils of writing reviews of a blockbuster)

Avengers: Endgame PosterReview Tim Robins

WARNING: For those of you who still haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers in this review. You’ll find out why we chose to include these below.

The Film: Adrift in space with no food or water, Tony Stark sends a message to Pepper Potts as his oxygen supply starts to dwindle. Meanwhile, the remaining Avengers – Thor, Black Widow, Captain America and Bruce Banner – must figure out a way to bring back their vanquished allies for an epic showdown with Thanos, the evil demigod who decimated the planet and the universe…

The Review: More than two weeks since Avengers:Endgame opened; the film is still making news this time for causing the Picturehouse chain to run out of pop corn. Financially, the film made two billion dollars in the first twelve days of opening world-wide. It is difficult to know what to say in the face of figures like that, except “Congratulations it’s a blockbuster!” – and then pass around the vapes.

In fact, James Cameron, director of the box office busting ($2.187billion) Titanic pretty much did exactly that, tweeting “To Kevin and everybody at Marvel, An Iceberg sank the real Titanic. It took the Avengers to sink my Titanic. Everyone here at Lightstorm Entertainment salutes your amazing achievement. You’ve shown that the movie industry is not only alive and well, it’s bigger than ever!”

Reviews for Avengers: Endgame have been overwhelmingly positive, despite the film having a plot so clichéd that even its characters can’t believe they are part of it. Indeed, the entire “time heist” is explained by reference to other movies that have used it including, to quote War Machine, “Star Trek, Terminator, Time Cop, Time After Time, Quantum Leap, Wrinkle In Time, Somewhere In Time, Time Machine, Hot Tub Machine…” , to which you can add the entire second season of Star Trek: Discovery.

Reviewers haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory by making themselves a mere adjunct of Disney/Marvel publicity machine. Even Mark Kermode, who previously denied knowing what ‘spoiler’ even meant provided a spoiler free review, out of respect for other reviews that had done the same thing. However, there are two problems with that approach.

Firstly, it makes reviews so abstract that they could be referring to any mainstream movie including Bambi and Les Miserables (You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, there are thrills and spills). Secondly, the term “spoilers” suggest that the most important part of a film is its plot twists (exemplified by the ending of The Sixth Sense). It is as if the early twentieth century “cinema of attractions” has finally been replaced by a cinema of superficial surprises- who will live, die and live again? Who cares?

(For the record, two Avengers characters die, apparently forever, but it is hard to discern any meaning to their deaths).

Avengers Endgame -Team

Image: Marvel

Avenger: Endgame is a film without a subtext. There is, as usual, the whiff of particularly American concerns. The “decimation” has echoes of end-times-theology beloved of evangelicals. The good life is represented as a wooden house on a farm near a lake, a kind of middle America pastoral idyl. And the kill the “Big Bad”, win the war (CF Game of Thrones) seems like a strategy born of the Atom Bomb. But apart from all that, which is stretching even my willingness to interpret the film… this is a film about nothing.

Avengers: Endgame - Battle

Image: Marvel

Iron Man battles Thanos. in Avengers: Endgame. Image: Marvel

Iron Man battles Thanos. in Avengers: Endgame. Image: Marvel

Recently, Paul Morley, in his personal psycho-drama The Awfully Big Adventure about the phantasmagorical figure of Michael Jackson, has bemoaned the death of the rock critic in the face of the proliferation of commentary unleashed by the internet. But, in the context of film and television, this has been accompanied by a hip-new jargon, by which commentators seek to present themselves as savvy insiders to the media industry, as opposed to being parasitic opportunists. A ship-wreck of terms have been rolled out to help the reader feel they have the inside “skinny” on the process of film making. So, we are told, today’s films are full of “Call Backs”, “Easter Eggs” and “Character Beats”, while dramatic moments are “Earned” while performing “Fan Service”.

At the moment, “Fan Service” irritates me the most. Reviewing Avengers: Endgame for Forbes, Scott Mendelson managed to use fan service three times in the space of a few hundred words. So he tells us, “some of the plot points and crowd-pleasing fan service beats feel copied from the last Avengers movie , “There’s plenty of fan service, most of it earned…” and that the third act “despite some grand fan service” is closer in structure and visuals to Ready Player One than The Two Towers “.

What in the multi-verse does this even mean?

Apparently, the term “fan service” originated in anime and manga fandom, where it simply meant giving the audience what it wants. But, in this context, “fan” suggests a particular sub set of the audience and seems to carry with it a set of mildly derogatory values. To take Mendelson’s review as an example: “fan service” has to be “earned” and only superficially marks the third act as different from other, non-superhero movies.

Avengers: Endgame - Thor

Image: Marvel

Fan service has also become a badge of honour in some fandom’s. Sci-Fi fans can bask in the belief that they hold special knowledge of what makes the object of their fandom great, even to the extent that they can influence its content. This sense of fan empowerment probably has its roots in the successful campaign for a third classic Star Trek season, but in other contexts it is ludicrous. For example, during last year’s anti-Doctor Who on-line hysteria, YouTube Vloggers seemed blissfully unaware that the BBC doesn’t recognise “fans” as a sub set of that taxonomic collective known as “the audience”. “Fan” is not a category for the BARB’s collection of audience data and the BBC don’t have ‘Fan Appreciation’ panels to discover fans’ particular likes and dislikes.

It is unlikely that the “fans” being “served” by Avengers: Endgame are readers of comic books. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stands in stark contrast to the sales of Marvel’s comics. Indeed, Marvel movies have come to resemble David Attenborough wild life documentaries. There’s a distinct feeling that cinema is the last chance to see these characters before they disappear from the wild. Local comic book shops seem to have acted like zoos, prolonging superhero comics’ existence beyond their natural shelf life and with little hope of returning them to the newsstands.

Media products need a critical vocabulary that reveals not how films serve fans but how fans serve the industry. I would start by exploring the emotional work that the audience was prepared to perform for the film. It is rare that audience noise in British cinemas aspires to anything much beyond irritating chit chat, the crunch of snacks and hissed comments such as “sssh!”. But what struck me was the way the audience that I saw Avengers: Endgame with was the gasping and cheering from the get go. The opening scene was accompanied by a gasp of dismay that took me totally by surprise.

Avengers: Endgame - Black Widow and Hawkeye

Black Widow and HawkeyeImage: Marvel

In her book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defined “emotion work” as unpaid, active management of emotion in particular settings in accordance to culturally acceptable norms. In the cinema, the appropriate emotions that can be openly expressed is often open to ad hoc negotiation. I recall a mildly scarily horror movie at which two young girls kept screaming at mild scenes, setting up the scares. The audience eventually tired of them, one telling them to grow up and suggested the film wasn’t for them. In a sense, the audience for Avengers: Endgame quickly established that this would be an overtly expressed emotional roller coaster. The final battle was accompanied by cheers, when Doctor Strange’s portal appears in the background and then for each of the heroes returned to reality. The press picked up on this reaction and, in effect, market the film on the back of audience reactions.

While critics have seen Avengers: Endgame as a masterpiece of corporate planning – the slow development of the MCU – it is the audience’s willingness to expend their emotions and their money that has held the plan together. It could have been different, as the failed attempt to spin Universal’s monsters into a shared universe, and Guy Ritchie’s roid rage version of King Arthur has shown. And, in fact, Avengers: Endgame did have the feel of being held together with bits of sticky tape. I mean, take the Hulk. I already felt that his total non-appearance in Infinity War was something made in the editing room, but the resolution cannot possibly have been the culmination of the intriguing sub plot that was promised.

There also needs to be some recognition of audience exploitation. Political activist and researcher Dallas Smythe, for example, argued that watching media is itself a kind of labour. The audience becomes a commodity that can be sold to advertisers and put to work on their behalf by buying their commodities. That works well in today’s social media environment.

Where television and cinema have required audiences to view products at fixed times and places, the smart phone and pads have perfused the opportunity to view throughout the day and night. Each individual carries a labour market in their pocket, one that ensures even everyday conversations are commodified and sold to others. Avengers:Endgame is not simply a cinema event but is spread across social media, where channels such as WhatCulture and Looper feed like parasitic fish at the mouth of a whale.

And like labour, consumption takes up time. Three hours of film and thirty minutes of adverts is a lot one’s life to give to any film. Media consumption is taking up more and more of audiences’ time. When the major pay to view networks dumped their latest produce such as Doom Patrol, The Umbrella Academy, The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery, I became overwhelmingly weary at the thought of actually spending most of my free time sitting watching them all. It is little wonder that binge viewing has become the order of the day. The MCU seems merely a cinematic “Box Set”, with audiences enquiring which of the previous films they need to catch up on before Avengers: Endgame. Exhausting.

It is through emotion work, viewing labour and devotion of time that audiences service the media industries, albeit willing. But I must admit, when I think of the outrage that greeted the tycoons stumping up millions to restore Notre Dame cathedral, the billions made by Disney from Avengers: Endagame is something of an obscenity.

Tim Robins

A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including StarburstInterzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’

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Avengers: Endgame – Official Site

Digital Spy: Everything that was cut from Avengers: Endgame, according to the creators

And you thought it was long enough…

GQ – Avengers: Endgame Uses Music to Travel Through Time

FX Guide: Behind the Scenes Podcast

Matt Wallin, Jason Diamond and Mike Seymour look at the block buster mega hit Avengers: Endgame.

FX Guide: The Remarkable Faces of Avengers: Endgame – Thanos (Part One)

Josh Brolin, returns as Thanos in Endgame, having been on screen for 40 minutes of the first Avenger’s Infinity War film’s 2½ hour running time. This time Brolin plays Thanos 4 years younger, as well as ‘farmer’ Thanos, and in vast fight sequences determined to defeat the Avengers.


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2 replies

  1. Did you leave the rest of your last sentence/non sequitur on the cutting room floor? At what point does the amount of money become an obscenity? The amount of money Avengers cost to make? That probably would’ve have been better reading than this review. Maybe because aside from one paragraph, this isn’t a review of the film itself, but a review of the reviews, the audience reaction, media consumption and other social ills, including quite possibly the English propensity for eating noisy snacks in the theater. Maybe that’s the point, you thought Avengers:Endgame was all over the place, so your review could be too. At least it was thought-provoking.

  2. This is genuinely one of the most snobbish articles I’ve read in a long time. Regardless of my thoughts about Endgame, to be surprised that an audience actually liked the film because they’ve been enjoying following the storylines is somewhat insulting. To see fans as ruining cinema is a remarkable piece of lack of self awareness given the incredible fan service critics give to an unending list of ‘auteurs’ who keep producing the same boring work that almost become parody. Then to complain that spoilers are diminishing the job of a reviewer is actually to confuse a review with analysis. A review is designed to inform the public about the quality or suitability of films before they go and see them. Otherwise, you might as well post them weeks later (but you won’t, because that doesn’t sell newspapers…) Analysis can look into the denser character detail, reviews should just touch the surface and not spoil everyone’s fun. And spoilers are not plot twists, they’re plot. Events, however dramatic and sudden, that happen in a film are not twists, they’re character moments that draw it along to its conclusion. So unless you have a fundamental misunderstanding of film terminology, or even how plots work, then you shouldn’t look down on the audience for just wanting to enjoy themselves and have some surprises. Imagine having the front of the book spoiling the plot of Rebecca, or who the benefactor is in Great Expectations? Where’s the fun in that? And that’s largely the point of going to the cinema or reading a book, isn’t it?

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