Everything I Never Knew I Wanted: A Review of Avengers Endgame

WARNING: This review will be full of spoilers, so do not continue until you have seen Avengers: Endgame. So first, go see the movie. I'll wait.

Did you see it? Okay, great!

A Short Review
After seeing Avengers: Infinity War, I wondered how they would resolve what had happened (namely, Thanos snapping half of all life in the universe out of existence). It seemed like if they just brought everyone back, then there was no significance to what happened at the end of Infinity War. So my prediction was that there would have to be a major sacrifice made by the remaining heroes to bring back those they had lost. I was right in the general idea, but I didn't get any details right - except for Captain Marvel bringing Iron Man back to Earth, and the Avengers going to find Thanos to take the Infinity Stones from him. Then something happened that I didn't expect. They failed. Thanos had already destroyed the Stones. And then five years passed. Our heroes had to deal with the weight of their failure (in varying ways) for five years. The fact that the ultimate resolution - through the use of time travel - doesn't erase that five years, means that the events of Infinity War will have a major impact on the world in the MCU movies to come.

The use of time travel in the plot could have very easily been contrived and overly convenient. But rather than going back to stop Thanos from snapping his fingers (which - as Professor Hulk explained - wouldn't work anyway), they pull a "Time Heist." Only Scott Lang could come up with a plan like that. Basically, since the Infinity Stones no longer exist in the present, they need to steal them from the past. And that brings me to the three major things I want to discuss in this review:
  1. How did they succeed without messing up the timeline?
  2. How this film in paying homage to every single MCU film that came before.
  3. How time travel allowed the filmmakers to further connect the films into one universe.
Messing with the Timeline
I spent a lot of time - and endured several headaches - scratching my head trying to figure out the rules of time travel in this movie. On the one hand, Iron Man and Ant-Man inadvertently allowed Loki to escape with the Tesseract in 2012, which would have had massive repercussions on history. But on the other hand, Steve Rogers went back in time to live the life he had missed out on with Peggy Carter, but is then able to pass his shield to Sam Wilson in "our" timeline. Thankfully, the Russo brothers (the directors of the movie) confirmed that Steve's life with Peggy was an alternate timeline, and he had to jump back to the original timeline to have his conversation with Sam. With that, I can draw the following conclusions:
  1. Any changes that our heroes made in the past created alternate timelines. These timelines "skewed off" (to quote Doc Brown) from the main timeline, and therefore had no impact on the present that we are familiar with.
  2. Unlike in the Back to the Future movies, when our heroes returned from the past to the present, they were able to return to the original present, instead of an alternate one. This is because they are essentially pulled back to that present timeline by the time machine in Avengers HQ.
  3. Removing any of the Infinity Stones from the past corrupts that alternate timeline, and dooms anyone in that timeline to a universe that will fall apart. So our heroes could have held onto the Infinity Stones at the end of the movie, without anything bad happening in their reality. But because they are good people, they wouldn't doom the people in one or more alternate timelines. So Steve went to return every Infinity Stone to the time it was taken from.
  4. Steve didn't have to undo all of the changes our heroes made in the past. He just needed to make sure that each point in the past had all 6 Infinity Stones. Which means he didn't have to stop Loki from escaping in 2012. And he also didn't have to re-inject the Aether into Jane Foster in 2013. Maybe he saves everyone a lot of trouble by handing them the Aether in its stone form.
  5. There is now an alternate timeline where Steve Rogers grows old with Peggy Carter. There are technically two Steves in that timeline, but one is frozen between 1945 and 2011/2012 (whenever they dug him up). Or maybe events are altered in such a way that he is never recovered. I would imagine that if and when they find Captain America frozen in the Arctic, Old Steve would choose that time to return to his original timeline.
  6. There is also an alternate timeline where Loki is running free with the Tesseract. If Steve was able to get back to his original timeline, maybe the God of Mischief could figure out a way.
  7. We also have an alternate timeline where Thanos and his army disappear in 2014 (because they are brought to our timeline's 2023 by Nebula). Since they are wiped out in our timeline by Tony Stark, that alternate timeline will never experience Thanos's snap.

Paying Homage to Past Films
The MCU films have been referring to other films in the saga since their second entry (when Tony Stark shows up in The Incredible Hulk). But Avengers: Endgame manages to make references to all 21 of the films (and one TV series) that came before it. This is quite an impressive feat. Some of these references are blatant (like when our heroes travel back in time to the events of one of those films). Some are through clever dialogue. And some are less direct, and more thematic. I'm sure I missed a bunch of these references, but here are the ones I noticed:

Iron Man: The biggest one here is when Tony tells Thanos, "I am Iron Man," which calls back to the end of Iron Man. Then, at Tony's funeral, his daughter Morgan asks Happy for a cheeseburger. In Iron Man, the first thing Tony asks Happy for after being rescued from terrorists was an American cheeseburger. Finally, there was no end-credits scene after Endgame, but there was a distinctive clanking sound, first heard when Tony was building his armor in the cave where he was being held captive.

The Incredible Hulk: I didn't notice any direct references to this film, but the often adversarial relationship between Bruce Banner and the Hulk, which began in The Incredible Hulk, is finally resolved when Bruce merges the two identities and becomes "Professor Hulk."

Iron Man 2: Tony finally gets closure in his relationship with his father, Howard Stark. This theme was first brought up in Iron Man 2. Howard is once again played by John Slattery, who first appeared in old Stark Expo footage in Iron Man 2.

Thor: I had it in my head that whoever was worthy would be able to lift Mjolnir. And we learned in Thor: Ragnarok that Thor still had his powers even without Mjolnir. So I was a little surprised that when Steve summons Thor's hammer (which was my absolute favorite moment in the movie, and possibly my favorite moment in this 22-film saga), he is also able to call lightning from the sky. But the explanation goes back to a line uttered by Odin in the original Thor. "Whosoever wields this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."

Captain America: First Avenger: There are several references back to this movie. Steve's line, "I can do this all day," which is delivered to himself. They revisit Camp Lehigh, which is where Steve was selected to receive the Super Soldier Serum. We also see Peggy Carter's framed picture of pre-serum Steve. And the way we see Steve reunited with Peggy - the two of them dancing - calls back to the last conversation the two of them had before Steve's plane crashed in the ocean.

Marvel's The Avengers: This call-back was obvious, because Steve, Tony, Bruce, and Scott travel back in time to the Battle of New York. But we also have references to how Clint and Natasha met, and their past adventures together, which were originally mentioned in The Avengers.

Iron Man 3: Did you wonder who that random teenager was at Tony's funeral? It turns out it was Harley, the boy who helped Tony repair his armor in Iron Man 3. There was also a resolution of the conflict between Tony's responsibilities as Iron Man and his relationship with Pepper, which was a prominent theme of Iron Man 3.

Thor: The Dark World: Another obvious call-back, as Thor and Rocket time traveled back to Asgard shortly before it was attacked by Dark Elves. Thor got a chance to talk to his mother, who had died during said attack.

Captain America: Winter Soldier: The major reveal in Winter Soldier was that a large portion of SHIELD were secretly working for HYDRA. This movie calls back to the fact that Alexander Pierce, Brock Rumlow, and Jasper Sitwell were prominent HYDRA agents. When Steve gets on the elevator with Sitwell and Rumlow, it is a direct visual call-back to a similar scene from Winter Soldier. Finally, we hear Howard Stark is looking for Dr. Zola. We'd learned in Winter Soldier that he had joined SHIELD (but was also secretly continuing his work for HYDRA).

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rhodey and Nebula go back to Morag in 2014, and we get to see Star-Lord dancing to "Come and Get Your Love," an alternate perspective on the scene in Guardians of the Galaxy. We also get to see Thanos sending Ronan to retrieve the Orb (which contains the Power Stone). This had happened off camera in Guardians.

Agent Carter: Agent Carter was a short-lived TV show on ABC (it aired during the winter hiatuses of two seasons of Agents of SHIELD. The show focused on Peggy Carter's exploits after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. She worked alongside Howard's butler Jarvis (who is a real person as opposed to the AI from Iron Man). James D'Arcy, who played Jarvis in the show, reprises his role for a brief cameo in the 1970s. It was a nice touch.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: In Stark/Avengers Tower in 2012, Rumlow or Sitwell mentions Dr. List, who is the HYDRA scientist that worked with Baron von Struker at the beginning of Age of Ultron. At the very beginning of Endgame, Tony says that his actions in Age of Ultron - specifically, putting "a suit of armor around the world" - were intended to prevent things like what Thanos had just done. He also throws a quote of Steve's from Age of Ultron back in his face - that if they lose, they'll "do that together too." And finally, Age of Ultron gave us the first hint that Steve was worthy of wielding Mjolnir, when he was able to budge it a little bit at the party.

Ant-Man: When Steve and Tony go to the 1970s, we see Dr. Hank Pym working at SHIELD. We also get to hear a bit of the Ant-Man musical theme when Scott comes out of the Quantum Realm.

Captain America: Civil War: When Tony returns to Earth, he is mad at Steve for what happened in Civil War, thinking that if Steve hadn't broken up the team, they wouldn't have been defeated by Thanos. Scott's hero worship of Captain America is also a call-back to their first interactions in Civil War.

Doctor Strange: The Ancient One makes an appearance, and refers to the fact that Stephen Strange is still working as a surgeon.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2: The present version of Nebula tells Gamora about how - during Vol. 2 - they had overcome their hatred and become friends, and even sisters.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: The way Tony thinks of Peter Parker as a son calls back to Spider-Man. We also get a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to Peter's suit's "instant kill" mode during the final battle.

Thor: Ragnarok: Korg, Miek and Valkyrie show up. We hadn't seen them since Ragnarok. Hulk even refers to Valkyrie as "Angry Girl," which was his nickname for her in Ragnarok. 

Black Panther: I can't think of anything in Endgame that refers to Black Panther that isn't just calling back to events in Infinity War.

Avengers: Infinity War: Obviously, Endgame is a direct sequel to Infinity War, but a specific reference would be the visual call-back to Gamora's death when we see Natasha's body on Vormir.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: The quantum realm plays heavily in the plot of this movie. There was also a sly reference to a moment in Ant-Man and the Wasp where Hope gives Scott grief for referring to Captain America as "Cap." In the final battle of Endgame, Hope calls him "Cap," and then shares a look with Scott.

Captain Marvel: Since Endgame was filmed before Captain Marvel, there weren't as many opportunities for references. But Captain Marvel's musical theme is used in this movie. I believe it is during her duel with Thanos.

Ret-con/Connective Tissue
A really good connected universe is more than just having characters show up in each other's movies. While each movie tells its own story, in its own style, there has to be one unified history that each movie fits into. Along the way, the different directors have made their contributions to this history (for example, having Peggy Carter and Howard Stark be in charge of SHIELD in the flashback scene at the beginning of Ant-Man, or Captain America: Winter Soldier's revelation that Senator Stern was actually a member of HYDRA). The use of time travel in Avengers: Endgame afforded the filmmakers a host of unique opportunities to tie the films together. Here are some ways they took those opportunities and ran with them.

2012: When our heroes travel back in time to the events of Avengers, we get to see what was happening between scenes or just off-camera. The Ancient One's sorcerers were involved in the Battle of New York. They didn't join with the Avengers in the battle because their aim was not necessarily protecting New York from aliens, but rather protecting the Sanctum Sanctorum from being destroyed during the chaos. We also get to see how HYDRA was trying to get its hands on the Tesseract and Loki's scepter. While events play out differently than they would have in Avengers, due to the antics of the time travelers, we can see how they must have gone down originally. Pierce was obviously unsuccessful in persuading Tony and Thor to hand over the Tesseract. But Sitwell and Rumlow were able to ship Loki's scepter overseas to their fellow HYDRA operatives Dr. List and Baron Von Strucker.

2014: It is evident that, behind the scenes, Thanos's strategy for collecting the Infinity Stones had not been fully fleshed out when Guardians of the Galaxy was made. By revisiting these events, we get to see a Thanos consistent with what we saw in Infinity War, interacting with Nebula and Gamora - along with Infinity War's Ebony Maw - and dispatching Ronan to acquire the Power Stone.

Present: This movie also fills in a couple of gaps from Infinity War, like what Hawkeye was doing during all the action, and whether he survived the snap. We also see that Valkyrie, Korg, and Miek were among the Asgardians that Thanos spared before Infinity War gets started.

Missed Opportunities
This movie was packed full of characters and nods to MCU's past. There were just a few things I would have liked to see, though I can hardly fault the filmmakers for omitting them:

The Agents of SHIELD: Ever since Marvel's Agents of SHIELD premiered - one year after Avengers - and resurrected Phil Coulson, fans have wondered if the movies would ever reference or acknowledge the TV series. After several movies with no mention of Coulson, I had given up hope. But it would have been nice to have him mentioned in Endgame, since Coulson played such a big part in bringing the Avengers together.

Vision: It was kind of odd that every major character who died in Infinity War was either brought back or seen in an alternate timeline, with two exceptions: Heimdall and Vision. Heimdall is really a part of Thor's story, so his absence is not inexplicable. But Vision was an Avenger, an Infinity Stone wielder, and Wanda Maximoff's beloved. So it felt weird in retrospect that all he gets in this film is an indirect mention, without his name even being spoken.

What did you think of the movie? What was your favorite moment? Did I miss any references to past films - was there actually a Coulson reference, and I just missed it? Was there anything you would have liked to see that wasn't in the movie? Check out my contact information below for ways you can join the conversation.

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