NEW YORK — “We get one chance. No mistakes.”
So says Steve Rogers, Captain America, leading the surviving Avengers after the Mad Titan Thanos’s “Snapocalypse,” which wiped out 50 percent of all living creatures in the Universe. They have a harebrained scheme – a “time heist” – that involves splitting up and overcoming enormous odds to set everything right again. Even the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange, says they have a one in 14,000,605 chance of getting it right, and that’s a number too specific to be made up.
But will the Avengers admit defeat? No, never, for that is not the Marvel way!
“Avengers: Endgame,” the three-hour culmination marking 22 chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opens internationally on Wednesday and is unprecedented in Hollywood history. There has never been a series this successful and with this many moving parts.
Other companies have tried and failed to copy it – most embarrassingly DC, the comic book entity that was, historically, the mainstream favorite to Marvel’s upstarts. (For the uninitiated, DC is home to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first hero out of the gate in 2007, Iron Man, was hardly a household name.)
The path to this overwhelming success was almost as unpredictable as our heroes using Pym particles to navigate the quantum realm to temporarily steal the six infinity stones, lure Thanos from the past to the present, then destroy his dreams of a horrible future. (That last sentence makes sense when you watch this movie.)
The vast entertainment empire known as Marvel, now the sharpest arrow in Disney’s quiver, began in 1939 as a comic book company called Timely Publications. Its founder, Martin (aka Moe) Goodman, was one of a number of Jews working in the comics industry.
At the time comics were considered such low art that it made sense that a persecuted people could easily find work there. Goodman hired a young man by the name of Stanley Lieber who was family-by-marriage. He changed his name to Stan Lee and, with it, changed entertainment as we know it.
Lee’s imprimatur were heroes that were identifiable as human above all else. Even if they had the superpowers of an enormous spider on the outside, they were shy teenage boys on the inside. Marvel comics were a steady #2 to DC for decades, until a 1990s rough patch throughout the comics industry.
With Lee as a creative godfather, new bosses came in, including two Israeli-Americans Ike Perlutter and Avi Arad. Fans have, shall we say, nuanced opinions of these men, but the fact remains that if the deals they put in place didn’t exist, the company would have folded. Specifically, Arad set up movie adaptation projects across different studios. Iron Man went to Paramount, The Incredible Hulk at Universal, Spider-Man at Sony and the X-Men headed to 20th Century Fox, among others. This diversification ensured that something would have to hit. What they didn’t expect is that all of it would.
After the first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Movies were successful (from 2007 on), Disney gobbled up (almost) everything and began a roadmap in which everyone (well, again, almost everyone) could play in the sandbox together. It happened with last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” until the big baddie Thanos, (played by Barbra Streisand’s stepson Josh Brolin, of all people!) collected the six powerful infinity stones from across the vast reaches of space, put them on his golden gauntlet and snapped out half the team (along with half of everyone else.) Just when we got everyone together, the party was split up!
Why did Thanos, an enormous purple alien, do this? Quite frankly, his reasons are still a little vague. He thinks the Universe is overpopulated, which I guess seems true if you go to the Costco in Sunset Park on a Sunday. But it still seems a little harsh! Now, with half the team gone, those that remain strategize to undo this heinous act.
Luckily, two of the living Avengers are played by sharp, Jewish actors, so we can have a little extra nachas (pride) as we watch the plan come together. First, there is Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, played by the adorable Paul Rudd, who is a brilliant and brave scientist but also serves as something of comic relief. There’s a terrific bit of business as he tries to make himself a taco but a spaceship lands, blowing shredded cheese all over his shirt.
When half of all living beings disintegrated he was deep in experimentation in the quantum realm, a subatomic micro-universe where time operates differently than it does for us. (Those of us who have ever been on hold with customer service can attest that some hours are longer than others.) His handlers, including Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) all dissolved from existence and, as such, Lang got trapped.
Years later a rat (not Rat-Man, just a rat) trips the machinery and spits him back out. From his point of view he was only gone a few hours. After reuniting with his daughter, now five years older (and who thought he’d vanished like everyone else), he finds the remaining Avengers and thinks the quantum realm’s curious chronological properties could be the solution.
Among those still with us is Natasha Romanoff/Natalie Rushman aka Black Widow, played by the beautiful Jewish-American star Scarlett Johansson. She’s having a tough time adapting to the new world. As a super agent and all-around badass, she is unused to losing like this. But when Lang suggests there may be hope, she and Captain America race to get the rest of the band together, including the series’ two science bros Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Tony Stark/Iron Man.
I don’t want to get into too many more details, because this is a movie with a lot of plot and almost all of it is fast-paced, funny and thrilling. “Endgame” is a much better movie than the draggy “Infinity War.” We all kinda-sorta know this is going to work out because there have already been ads for the next chapter, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” but the how is very unexpected. Prepare to be unprepared!
One small surprise, but not too important, is the wordless appearance of Natalie Portman’s character, Dr. Jane Foster. Portman has been out of the picture for a while and gave the impression she was basically done with these movies. My suspicion is that the footage we see of her is recycled, unused moments from “Thor” or “Thor: The Dark World,” since she doesn’t have any lines. But it’s nice to see her face again.
Similarly, Michael Douglas pops up, and with some serious plastic surgery thanks to the computer wizards at Marvel Studios. I shall leave the where and when out of it.
The greatest cameo appearance, and perhaps the most surprising, is the final appearance of the late Stan Lee. He’s popped up in short cameos in almost every other Marvel movie, essentially a good luck charm. His reappearance after death dovetails nicely with the Avengers’ quest to undo the tragedies of the past. It’s one of his better quick moments, and a great one to go out on.
I am no Doctor Strange so I can not see the future, but I predict “Avengers Endgame” is going to make nine zillion dollars. Unlike the last movie, which scored a mint, this one zooms by. The comedy really crackles, the action scenes are epic in scale and the emotional moments (there are many!) really do have resonance. If I could buy a ticket to watch it a second time, I would right now.
There will be other Marvel movies, but this is the final one with this grouping. Some things, like contract negotiations of Hollywood A-listers, can’t be reworked even with infinity stones and time travel. It’s a remarkable culmination for a tiny company with Jewish roots pumping out cheap funnybooks.