Okay, Avengers Endgame. You want to keep talking time travel and Back to the Future? In that case, get ready to be Marty McFlyed. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
Last time, and the only other time, I Marty McFlyed a movie was four years ago. Obviously, to “Marty McFly” means “to restore/change the past to create the glorious present that we always should have had.” It means not only assessing what went wrong (anyone on Twitter can do that), but also suggesting how to fix the problems. And dearie me, there were problems with Avengers Endgame. Don’t get me wrong, there were many good things, especially the acting and some of the arcs…many, many, good things. But…
“Deus ex machina,” if you’ve never heard of it, is a storytelling device and crutch whereby God or magic shows up toward the end of a story to save our heroes. The reason that every writer knows that Latin phrase is that every writer avoids that sort of storytelling…uh, except the writers of Avengers Endgame. After half of all living things disappear, nothing should come easily to our heroes. Herewith, I imagine a story in which nothing did. I imagine a conclusion that feels earned and not given. All by fixing the following ten tiny problems:
Problem 1: Does anyone in the world blame the Avengers for the loss of half of humanity?
In the comics, they sure would. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was better attuned to the world of comics; the film kept cutting to Times Square TV ticker headlines.
Solution: Show news anchors blaming the Avengers, and show some Avengers feeling bad about that.
Problem 2: Tony invents time travel in about five minutes.
And Bruce Banner, working from Pym’s notes, invents it as well? Really? One problem is that we’re sorta-kinda on Chapter 22 of a big story, and any professional writer can tell you that you do NOT introduce new characters or new types of magic in the final act of a story. You either work within the rules you already set, or you betray the world you set up for your audience. Now, maybe time shifting was sorta-kinda established in Doctor Strange. It was introduced far more clearly at the end of Infinity War, when Thanos said “This is no time at all,” and “rewound” reality maybe 30 seconds to reassemble Vision’s mindstone. A better Endgame script would have recognized Thanos’ “rewinding” as part of a fantasy/sci-fi/horror rule: if you have to introduce new magic/technology, make it something that benefits the bad guy first, so that our hero has to overcome it (and maybe later master it). Age of Ultron also had problems, but it was smart enough to follow that rule. Ultron, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision were all introduced as problems for our heroes, three of whom they finally co-opted, one they barely, finally defeated. Yeah, one can sometimes break authorial rules, but in this case, why? Makes more sense that post-Thanos, scientists would spend years studying the plants affected by that 30 seconds of “reverse photosynthesis” (or something). In the world of comics, Tony (or Reed Richards) would have been in his lab for months, maybe years, prompted by those 30 seconds, working on time travel. This would be partly out of guilt, partly because it’s not easy to solve a problem eluding thousands of the world’s greatest scientific minds. Also, the movie missed a chance to say something about Tony’s whole individualism-togetherness dichotomy.
Solution: Scott leaves a thumb drive on the welcome mat; Morgan finds it and gives it to her dad. Tony takes a look and the film reveals that Tony has been working on this in his basement/bat-cave for years. We see evidence that he worked on plants/animals gathered from the 30 seconds that Thanos “rewound,” and maybe even consulted with Wong (wedding guest!). Tony even built a prototype that kept failing, but Pym’s research is “the missing piece.” (As it often was in real Avengers comics when Stark and Pym worked together.) Tony smiles that he can’t solve everything himself. THEN we see the Mobius strip with a dot. THEN Tony looks stunned that he’s done it. Then Tony talks to Pepper, who (much more convincingly) says “I’ve never been able to make you stop.” Pepper asks if Tony can merely give the Avengers the tech, but Tony worries for their daughter’s life. He’ll have to rejoin the Avengers to be sure time travel is used to get the stones to bring everyone back (instead of sending everyone to the pre-Thanos time). Pepper gives him a blessing to bring back 3.5 billion lives into the present.
Problem 3: Time travel, including space travel, is WAY too easily managed.
If Ant-Man needed an all-covering body suit, how can guys carry through time things like armor, arrows, axes, infinity stones? Do we really need those little red Pym particles? Tony can now send people to Asgard and Vormir? What about a warning that they might end up inside a building? Sometimes the time machine needs an operator, sometimes not?. A little more difficulty here would have sold a lot of things better. At a bare minimum, the characters should have had to tap (or carefully unlock) those wrist-GPS devices to get back home. Also, if they killed 2014 Thanos at the end, how did he survive to decimate half of the living and set up the whole…you know, I don’t think I can solve all of these. But that’s all the more reason to make earning this a little harder for our heroes.
Solution: Insert a speech from Tony along the lines of “but see, Hank Pym knew that time IS space, because for the universe to expand it has to leave gaps, and we traverse those gaps in the quantum realm. When you time-travel you space-travel at the same time, that’s why with enough planning I can put you on Vormir or wherever.” Have Valkyrie (or Happy Hogan or whoever) operate the time travel machine. Also show all the characters carefully unlock their GPSes just before returning with stones.
Problem 4: After Nebula burns off half of her hand obtaining an oddly unguarded stone, Nebula easily trades places with her doppelganger while Rhodey is…doing what exactly?
There are lots of ways to redo this, but whatever happens, we shouldn’t get the sense that Nebula could disfigure her hand in front of Rhodey and then her (time travel) twin could easily impersonate her when they all get back to Earth in 2023. Don Cheadle is already underused; don’t make him play stupid, too. With a little rearranging, Rhodey can be more plausibly guilty of abetting Thanos’ arrival in 2023…something that would really help sell the film’s Act 3.
Solution: Rhodey and Nebula obtain the stone without Nebula’s disfigurement, but Thanos and crew confront them immediately. Rhodey and Nebula hold them off for a minute, but they’re losing when Nebula instructs Rhodey to take the stone (it’s too important!), unlock his GPS device, and head back to 2023. When Rhodey says what about you?, Nebula yells that Thanos will never kill his own daughter and that she wants a chance to save her sister before she goes. Rhodey doesn’t like it, but she insists, so he bangs his device. THEN the Thanos-Gamora-two Nebulas scenes as presented. But when they all come back, just before “Where’s Nat?”, Rhodey asks Nebula, “Did you save your sister?” And Nebula nods and smiles, “I think so.” Rhodey looks just a little ambivalent. Now, Thanos’ return is more his fault.
Problem 5: Tony’s funeral is way more elaborate than Natasha’s.
Feminists are complaining online, and they’re not wrong. I think the movie tried to address this with that little elegiac scene of Clint and Wanda and the earlier scene of the heroes assembled at the water, but it could have been just a little better if it had gone more like:
Solution: At dock on the water, Rogers lays a wreath on the water with Natasha’s picture, a moment that will later echo Stark’s service. Hulk kicks the bench into the next county.
Rogers: “Natasha had a lot more friends and family than this.”
Stark: “Should we try to contact them, Steve?”
Rhodey (with a certain wariness): “If we can bring back everyone we lost…I think we better do it as soon as we can.”
Barton: “We have to make her sacrifice worth it.”
(Cut to next scene.)
Problem 6: The snap is too much of a snap.
How exactly do the six infinity stones work together, anyway? One undersung great thing about Infinity War was that it established a whole planet, run by Peter Dinklage (!), to build things like magic axes and Infinity Gauntlets. Now Tony creates one like he built a toaster? Granted, it’s possible that Tony copied the tech from Thanos’ glove which the Avengers brought back from their mission of decapitation. But why make that so easy for Tony? Why make that easy for anyone? Why not have it be one more piece of evidence that the Avengers work best when they work together…just like infinity stones. The film needs to better sell the pivotal moments of Banner’s snap and Stark’s snap.
Solution: After Thor cuts off Thanos’ head, show the Avengers bringing home Thanos’ (empty) gauntlet. Later, make it clear that at some point during the five-year gap, Bruce Banner built a new form-fitting prototype based directly on the old one. Also include something like this dialogue:
Thor: “I have to do it, it’s a cute glove Bruce, but you don’t know how to wield them, it doesn’t work the way you think.”
Stark: “How does it work, Thor?”
Thor: “Well…it works with how you think. You clear your mind of all other thoughts, including the pain the stones cause, and then picture the reality that you want. You focus on that reality, you wish for it, then you snap.”
Ant-Man: “Like making a wish.”
Thor: “Not exactly.”
Rhodey: “That’s pretty much exactly what you said.”
Thor: “All right, fine.”
Problem 7: Just after Thanos’ arrival in 2023, the Hulk looks to be almost holding up Avengers HQ as Rhodey and Rocket begin to drown. And then: presto! They’re all on the surface and fine.
I suspect that this was conceived of as a callback to a comic book called Secret Wars #4, where Doctor Doom and others drop a mountain on our heroes, only to have the Hulk hold up the mountain while the others dig their way out. Yeah, so, how about more of that?
Solution: After the attack and they get stuck under there, show Hulk holding up the building as our friends recover. Hulk complains about arm pain. Ant-Man mobilizes 1000 ants to find the right air pocket/tunnel. Rocket, small guy, flies up the tunnel and blasts it clear enough for humans. Cap, Iron Man, and Thor follow in Rocket’s wake to confront Thanos as shown. Rhodey stays behind to help carry Hulk to the surface even as Hulk lets the building go. Rocket goes looking for Hawkeye. (As shown, presumably, Hawkeye, in some other part of the building, finds the gauntlet and runs with it. Although, if they get a machine operator as I wrote above, I’d actually prefer the gauntlet-saver be Valkyrie…she has a lot more charisma.)
Problem 8: Cap wields Thor’s hammer? And swallows the line “Avengers Assemble”?
Technically this was foregrounded when Cap scared Thor by almost moving it in Ultron. The fan theory is that back then, he was keeping Bucky a secret from Tony, but now that he’s admitted to helping someone who killed Tony’s parents, he’s unburdened enough to be worthy. Maybe?
Solution: Have Thor say something like “You earned this.” And for God’s sake, have Chris Evans shout “Avengers Assemble!”
Problem 9: Doctor Strange (with Wong’s help?) teleports all the superheroes and most of Wakanda a little too easily and quickly. Another avoidable deus ex machina.
Solution: during that hologram conference call where Okoye says that Wakanda is ready, we also see Wong in the Sanctum Santorum. Nat asks Wong for some help, and Wong answers that he can’t leave the Sanctum, but that when needed, he’ll do his best to teleport help to her.
Problem 10: Thanos destroys Pym’s quantum machine without anyone really caring. Also, does Tony’s death really mean much, if we can just time travel back to get him?
The way this is presented, it’s almost like carrying the gauntlet to Pym/Lang’s van was just an excuse to profile different Avengers (Black Panther, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel) Doing Important Stuff. The team’s last immediate chance at time travel should be a bigger deal than that. We last saw Ant-Man and Wasp hot-wiring the van; at least show them discombobulated at its destruction. The other patch helps this: if it took Tony most of five years (and Pym most of his life) to build a time machine, then we know nobody is going to build a new one any time soon…especially after Tony dies. His sacrifice then becomes more meaningful.
Solution: After Thanos axes it, show Ant-Man and Wasp buzzing away from the van’s destruction, with Wasp asking “Is there another time machine?” And Ant-Man shaking his head and answering, “Whatever happens in this battle is permanent.”
…I’m not sure these patches fix everything. There’s an inherent difficulty to setting up a sequel with Strange telling Stark “now we’re in the Endgame,” advertising that Endgame everywhere, and then having a movie that jumps forward five years in time. (It’s like Dick Cheney saying that the Iraq resistance is in its “death throes” only to see it last five more years…you know what, that analogy works WAY too well.) After you’ve failed to stave off an extinction-level event, there’s something narratively weird about repeatedly trying to undo it. I’m not convinced that the film needed to spend so much time “in” older MCU movies; it felt like fan service for the wrong reasons (like marketing). And I don’t love that half of MCU characters were reduced to ten-second cameos that amounted to a Very Special Avengers Christmas Hour; Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Wong, and others were much better used in Infinity War.
Also, I wish Hawkeye had died instead of Natasha. If the Black Widow movie is real, are we really lining up for a prequel centered around a dead heroine?
But everyone else loves it, so maybe I should just shut up. I. AM. NOT. INEVITABLE.