The year 2019 will perhaps go down in history as a great year for movies: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Us,” Fast and Furious spin-off “Hobbs and Shaw,” “IT Chapter 2,” just to name a few, and this Christmas also sees the release of “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.” Whether they are all as good as we want them to be is another question. Let’s hope so.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
However, April witnessed an event movie that has been in the making for just over eleven years in “Avengers: Endgame.” At the time of writing, it’s just passed “Titanic” at the Box Office and crossed $2 billion in just two weeks. It continues to break records all over the world.
Movies that take in this much money can only do so in two ways: repeated viewings and excellent word of mouth. The audiences for “Endgame” are a large demographic — children, adults, families, males, females … I even know a woman in her 80s who knows more about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) than some teenagers.
So let’s look at why it’s taken in so much money. What are the elements in the film that have made audiences take themselves to the theatre in droves, queuing around the block to see it?
“Avengers: Endgame” was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this talented team skillfully weaves all the narrative threads together whilst managing tone, excitement, and emotional connection. If the previous Avengers film “Infinity War” was the action resolution to this phase of the MCU, “Endgame” is more of an emotional resolution. If films are all spectacle and no heart it can make the film feel soulless, so keeping a good eye on both is key. With “Endgame,” the spectacle and emotional beats are balanced throughout.
Audiences have invested in twenty-two movies in the MCU since “Iron Man” first hit our screens back in 2008. Since then we’ve had “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel,” “Spiderman,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” with character threads and stories being set up and paid off accordingly. “Endgame” brings all these films together and plays on the audience’s knowledge of earlier MCU films, rewarding you for your investment, and this makes people feel good.
Any film or book that offers a resolution and conclusion is going to attract more interest as it’s curiosity that draws us in. We want to know how things end. Marvel has definitely played the long game and it’s paid off. On the other side of the street, DC Comics tried to skip a few steps to catch up and although their films have generated good Box Office, the critical reaction wasn’t anywhere near as strong as it has been for Marvel.
Emotion is key in “Endgame.” The tone is one of loss, grief, and failure. Our heroes are lost, questioning their actions, and questioning each other. We are offered internal and external conflict via this story. Friendships have been broken and the family that was the Avengers is now no more.
This emotional backbone is what provides the film, and any film for that matter, with its strength and heart. Any of the big spectacle movies over the years that have been successful always have a strong element of heart: “Star Wars,” “Gladiator,” “Titanic,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Lion King,” “Forrest Gump,” and “E.T.”
Even though our heroes are facing the end of their world, there’s still time for moments of levity. Every film, no matter what the subject, can be helped with moments of humor even if just sprinkled in small doses.
It keeps things balanced and can even help the more serious elements have more impact. Audiences during “Endgame” laughed, cried, and were thrilled with the visual spectacle. Rarely do films do all three so well.
Of course, besides the emotional component, the film also delivers on the visual spectacle, giving us all the action beats required. The CGI is top-notch, and kudos must be given to not only the visual effects artists and animators behind the film but to the directors for conceiving and breaking down all those massively detailed effects sequences.
It’s akin to a military operation, planning, coordinating, and executing scenes of this scale. It’s sad to hear the odd ignorant audience member sometimes quip, “It’s done in the computer these days…” like somehow filmmakers can hit F7 on the keyboard and you immediately get Iron Man fighting Thanos.
Another strength in the arsenal of “Endgame” was that it was a two-parter. Originally planned as one movie, it was turned into two to help give the story the breadth and screen time it required to do it justice. The cliffhanger at the end of “Infinity War,” where we see that half the population of earth is wiped out including half of the Avengers and their allies, meant we had to come back and find out what happened after.
I remember an interesting article written by Jack Reacher author, Lee Child, where he said the power of story lies in asking a question that the reader or audience needs answered. And here’s the kicker; they might not even care about the subject matter, it’s just that a question has been asked and the brain needs it answered. Child asks at the top of the piece, “How high is the tallest tree in California’s redwood forest?”
He keeps the reader on the edge of their seat teasing them, discussing other elements, not revealing the answer until the last paragraph. At the end of “Infinity War,” Dr. Strange tells Tony Stark, after witnessing the future, that he saw only one in fourteen million possible outcomes in which they won. Audiences needed to see “Endgame” to see what the one-in-fourteen-million answer was.
The film also gives the audiences what they want — the big action sequences of the team doing their own special thing: the banter, the cool visual effects. Too many films try to be clever and rob audiences of what they paid their admission ticket to see, even if what they might want is a cliché. Find another way of serving it up maybe, but don’t fail to deliver what they entered the theatre for.
“Avengers: Endgame” also does its best “Back to the Future Part 2” impression by revisiting scenes from previous MCU films in the series. It’s nostalgic revisiting stories we already know and again it’s paying off on the audience’s investment and time that they have given by watching the earlier films. It’s fun seeing what happened just after they captured Loki in the first “Avengers.”
Having Captain America see his lost love, Peggy, even from afar, or to have Tony Stark be able to understand his father’s feelings and heal old wounds. We are being rewarded for our knowledge.
The hero characters have all been established well in their previous movies, but it’s the villain who is in danger of stealing the show here. Thanos is an exceptional villain and besides being a fully CG character, he’s also a fully three-dimensional character too.
He’s controlled, poised, methodical, and a worthy opponent. He even cries in “Infinity War” after he has to kill his own daughter to secure the Soul stone. A film’s strength very often lies with the villain as seen in movies like “Die Hard,” “RoboCop,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” and “Star Wars.”
Each film department behind the scenes also has to deliver for the whole film to come together; the script, the cast, the sets, the visual effects, the editor, the composer, the costume department…. It’s these moments when we see the climax of a big action extravaganza, as our favorite characters deliver a witty line, as the musical score kicks in with the theme — that’s when we smile and that’s when we get that warm feeling of loving being at the movies.
Then, when we leave the theatre, we jump on social media and tell everyone how good it was as we want others to experience what we’ve just felt. Get enough people to feel the same and before you know it, you’ve crossed $2 billion at the Box Office.
“Avengers: Endgame” is a true Hollywood blockbuster. Not many of us have the opportunity to participate and work in these types of franchises. But as creative individuals, we do have the opportunity to create new “blockbusters” of our own. I cover many of the elements discussed here in my new book, “Making Your First Blockbuster,” written for Michael Wiese Productions, and maybe some of those elements might help you on your filmmaking journey.
Paul Dudbridge is the author of “Making Your First Blockbuster” which can be found here: Making Your First Blockbuster: Write It. Film It. Blow it Up!