Forgive me if I don't feel quite ready to review Avengers: Endgame. Whether you're emotionally invested in comic-book superheroes or not, this movie leaves you staggering, as if you've just emerged from the world's biggest tent revival. Imagine a charismatic crew of dozens of preachers and an apocalypse visually rendered by crews of thousands.
And the religion? Narrative. The 22nd film in Marvel's master plan for global screen domination, Avengers: Endgame is a massive spectacle that provokes cheers, gasps and tears from its clued-in audience. It demonstrates that, when they want to, people can still keep track of ridiculously complex story lines. As Christopher Markus, who cowrote the screenplay with Stephen McFeely, said in a recent New York Times interview, "It's inside baseball, but everyone is following the baseball."
Bringing this cycle of films (but not the entire series) to an end, Avengers: Endgame was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed last year's Avengers: Infinity War. In that film, an interstellar pontificating jerk named Thanos (Josh Brolin) used the six Infinity Stones (perennial MacGuffins of the series) to finger-snap half the population of the universe into dust.
So the sequel opens with a smaller, sadder cast. It's time for the six surviving core Avengers to rise to the challenge of undoing the damage. Five years of universe-wide mourning later, they haven't gotten far, until Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) pops out of the "quantum realm" with a potential solution: time travel.
Soon the Avengers are plotting a "time heist" to reclaim the all-powerful Infinity Stones from their own past — that is, from the narratives of previous Marvel movies. Here things get a touch meta, as the characters follow a brainstorming path that the film's screenwriters undoubtedly blazed for them.
More than ever, this finale demonstrates that the series' emotional core is the bonding, bickering, evolving partnership of the four male leads: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Each actor has ample opportunity to showcase his talents, be they dramatic, comic or both.
As for the superheroines, Marvel has work to do in that department, despite a compellingly staged climactic "girl power" moment. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) still comes across mostly as a mediator and den mother. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) remains a conveniently powered-up cipher.
If there's one female character who commands the screen, it's former antagonist Nebula, played with rageful intensity by Karen Gillan. But her history with Thanos could baffle viewers who haven't seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — such as Ant-Man, who stands in for the less obsessed audience members when he inquires who the hell all these aliens are.
It's inside baseball, all right. Even for outsiders, though, there's something fascinating about this byzantine, high-stakes game. While the three-hour movie inevitably loses steam during its supersize climax, it keeps our brains merrily humming throughout, whether we're trying to grasp how time travel works (don't try) or simply processing the characters' smart-ass references to other time-travel movies. Even viewers who are totally lost will be kept busy spotting the celebrities in the Marvel world — hey, is that Robert Redford?
Movies like Endgame embody a bittersweet irony: These mega-blockbusters, which are structured more like serialized TV shows than traditional films, have driven whole genres of "quieter" movies from theaters to home screens. Yet to see Endgame with a crowd is to remember what moviegoing once was and still can be: a group experience of grief and joy. It's a reason to assemble.