'Do write more about superheroes, it's like proofreading a manual for an appliance I've never encountered and wouldn't know what to do with anyway,' said the editor when I suggested it might be worthwhile to have at least a brief look at Avengers: Endgame, currently inescapable in cinemas across the planet, the fastest film to make a billion dollars in ticket sales, and (at the time of writing, less than a week after its release) one of the ten most financially successful films in history. It's nice to be unashamedly mainstream sometimes and I reckon this film probably qualifies.
Nevertheless, there remains the faint possibility that you, Constant h2g2 Post Reader, are interested in this film but haven't seen it yet. On the one hand, I feel obliged to reveal virtually nothing of the plot of the movie, simply because it is so crammed with twists and surprises and outrageous narrative vaults: coming to these as unsuspecting as possible can only add to the film's already considerable entertainment value. On the other, this is not so much a film in its own right as the conclusion, not just of last year's Infinity War but of the entire 22-film Marvel Studios saga to date, and a capsule synopsis will make only limited sense to anyone who hasn't been following along since 2008.
Anyway: the film opens in the aftermath of the cataclysmic finger-snap of cosmic titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), which erased half the life in the universe. Surviving the disaster are the founder members of the Avengers, along with a few new recruits like Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and the film follows how they respond to this monumental failure on their part. And I will say no more in terms of details, just in case.
What follows, though, has all the virtues of the Marvel project: excellent storytelling which balances character, action, and humour, wildly imaginative plot developments, superb visual effects, and a genuine sense of wonder. It is simply enormous fun, even if (I would imagine) you haven't seen any of the previous films. It's particularly impressive that directors the Russo brothers have not been afraid to make some unexpected choices in the course of the movie, not always taking the most obvious or crowd-pleasing route. The result is an unashamed, pure popcorn movie that also has a surprising emotional depth to it.
Of course, it is still a popcorn movie and if you don't like those then Endgame probably isn't going to do it for you. The manner in which the film resolves itself could also prove problematic in future, given that this series is going to continue, albeit focused on different characters (Marvel #23 is already being advertised in cinemas). And there are also what look very much like a few good old fashioned plot holes.
Nevertheless, the film is a worthy capstone to an unparalleled achievement in popular cinema. I occasionally come across think-pieces suggesting that, with the rise of streamers and the year-on-year fall in cinema attendance, the traditional blockbuster is about to go the way of the Gothic cathedral – a way of creative expression that priced itself out of existence. Maybe so, but if this is the case, then Endgame is likely to be remembered as one of the form's most remarkable expressions.
Non-Marvel Counter-Programming This Week…
…Eighth Grade. Former YouTuber Bo Burnham's debut as writer-director is an impressive comedy-drama about life as a teenager in the social media age. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a painfully shy and anxious girl just about to finish middle school, and desperately wanting to be popular, or even have just a handful of friends.
Well-observed to the point of being excruciatingly painful to watch, but the film is also genuinely funny in some places, also heart-breaking and very bleak in others. Burnham's thesis is that social media are mutating so rapidly that nobody really understands their full implications, not adults looking on in bafflement, and certainly not their children, who mostly lack the maturity and confidence to cope with the toxic stew of social expectation, false consciousness, peer pressure, and many other unpleasant things.
It's a bit ironic that an ex-YouTube has basically made an anti-social media film, but it's a little more subtle than I've probably made it sound, and touches on a wider range of issues, including consent and coercion, mental health, social anxiety, and more. I should stress that this is not some sort of heavy, finger-wagging jeremiad, but an involving, light-footed movie, carried by superb performances from Fisher and Josh Hamilton (as her bemused father). Well worth watching.
…Styx. Nothing to do with Greek mythology (or one of the bad guys from Strontium Dog, come to that), but a German-Austrian entry to the 'all at sea' genre. A doctor (Susanne Wolff) embarks on a single-handed sailing trip from Europe to the south Atlantic; all goes fairly well until she encounters a fishing boat in trouble, overloaded with African refugees. Quite properly, she contacts the authorities and informs them of the situation – they instruct her to leave the area, but show no sign of intervening themselves. As a compassionate human being, what exactly is she supposed to do?
To begin with this feels slightly underpowered as a thriller or drama, with a long, slow start, but once the central scenario appears it becomes quite compelling: Wolff's instincts are natural and laudable, but could it be that they are simply wrong in this case? The message, depressingly enough, could almost be that doing the right thing will very likely land you in serious trouble. Still, Wolff carries the story well, and it is certainly resonant as a piece of drama – perhaps a bit too resonant, considering it's very open about being a parable about liberal western attitudes towards crises in the developing world. But a solid and engaging film nevertheless.