‘Avengers: Endgame’ and the Problem with a Cinematic Universe That Never Stops Expanding

If the only thing that's permanent is impermanence, then why bother?
"Avengers: Endgame"
"Avengers: Endgame"

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”]

Of the two major characters who die in “Avengers: Endgame,” one already has a standalone spinoff planned. That’s par for the course in a cinematic universe that managed to convince exactly zero viewers that the heroes snapped out of existence in last year’s “Infinity War” were actually dead, but it’s disappointing nonetheless — and further proof that Marvel still insists on having it both ways.

Consider some of the predecessors: Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, Groot, and the Winter Soldier are just a few of the characters who have either died and come back or faked their deaths in earlier films. Their resurrections and/or returns provided fan-serving feel-good moments, but they’re also part of the reason it was impossible to take the otherwise monumental conclusion of “Infinity War” at face value. It’s a problem inherent to the source material — death is rarely permanent in comic books, after all — but the longer this series has gone on, the more it’s been impaired by these fake-outs.

This is touched upon in “Endgame” by, of all people, Thor, who has emerged as the franchise’s best character following his makeover in Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” and overpowered antics in “Infinity War.” Drunk, despondent, and sporting a beer belly after failing to stop Thanos, he muses that the only thing that’s permanent is impermanence. It’s one of many affecting moments in the film, which does an admirable job of weaving together more than a decade’s worth of interconnected storylines and never feels bloated despite being three hours long.

“Endgame” represents a watershed moment in the series, as Iron Man dies a hero’s death and Captain America retires with help from a time-travel loophole allows him to live the life he always dreamed of after saving the world one last time. But the impact of both moments is lessened by the earlier death of Black Widow, who sacrifices herself on the remote planet Vormir in order to retrieve the Soul Stone. (Well, that and the fact that everyone knew enough about Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans’ contracts to deduce that this would probably be their last rodeo.) Why, if you want to have such a moment truly resonate with fans, would you have it center around someone we already know is coming back?

Scarlett Johansson Avengers Endgame
Scarlett Johansson in “Avengers: Endgame”Disney

It may seem like a minor complaint, especially as the Black Widow movie could very well serve as a prequel, but after “Infinity War” reversed this trend by appearing to actually kill off Loki, Heimdall, Vision, and Gamora, “Endgame” gave a nod toward Disney+’s upcoming series focused on Thor’s mischievous brother and resurrected Gamora via an alternate timeline. Though it’s fitting that her return coincides with Black Widow’s demise — both perished on Vormir, though only one did so willingly — their contrasting fates undermine what’s meant to be so important about that desolate planet.

The entire concept of a shared, ongoing universe is predicated on the idea that no individual movie can be more (or even as) important as the franchise as a whole. When even a film as big as “Endgame” ultimately feels like just another cog in the machine, it’s difficult not to wonder how much longer that machine can — or should — continue operating.

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