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Opinion If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is TV, ‘Avengers: Endgame’ proves the Golden Age is over

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in "Avengers: Endgame." (Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Studios/Film Frame)

This piece discusses some plot details from “Avengers: Endgame.”

Avengers: Endgame,” which rolls out in theaters around the world this week, is the 22nd feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not-so-coincidentally, that’s roughly the number of episodes in a standard broadcast television show. Certainly, “Avengers: Endgame” feels more like a season finale of television than a stand-alone movie: It is structured as a series of callbacks to previous entries in the franchise that build to a big and loud, if not necessarily truly grand, finale.

If, as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson has argued, the MCU is actually “the most popular television show of the decade,” that says a lot about both the Marvel movies and the state of television. And with “Avengers: Endgame” heading for record-breaking box office during the same weekend that “Game of Thrones” is set to air what is described as a wildly ambitious battle sequence, it feels as if the Golden Age of television is drawing decisively to a close.

For all the discussion of the Golden Age of television, the cable shows that gave the period its designation were not generally broad-based hits like their network predecessors. Almost 12 million people tuned in to the series finale of “The Sopranos,” and 10.28 million to the finale of “Breaking Bad,” after the final season saw a significant rise in viewership. A mere 3.29 million watched the finale of “Mad Men,” and the “The Wire” stumbled over the finish line with a mere 1.1 million viewers. Compared with the 52 million fans who watched the series finale of “Friends,” or the stunning 76 million who hung out with the “Seinfeld” gang one last time, many of the Golden Age shows are decidedly niche.

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In terms of their reach, Marvel Cinematic Universe movies function a lot more like network television hits than Golden Age cable series. Americans bought an estimated 44 million tickets to see “Iron Man,” the first installment of the movie franchise back when the MCU seemed like a gamble. Last year, we bought roughly 76 million tickets for “Black Panther,” 72 million tickets for “Avengers: Infinity War” and 24 million tickets for “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” It’s true that those numbers include repeat viewings by superfans, but they also don’t include the vast global scope of the audience for the MCU, either. “Avengers: Endgame” made more than $100 million in China on the movie’s first day in theaters earlier this week.

Achieving that kind of huge reach (not to mention satisfying the political sensibilities of the countries to which Marvel wants access) has encouraged Marvel to adopt a relatively strict formula for its movies, from what feels like set proportions of quips to an increasingly undistinguished house action style. As Peter Suderman of Reason has pointed out, Marvel’s studio head functions as a showrunner providing oversight on the individual episodes, which are written and directed by people who are allowed their individual flourishes within the confines of the broader Marvel sensibility. The company’s spoiler-phobia has also contributed to some truly bizarre filmmaking practices that limit even the stars’ sense of what, exactly, they’re supposed to be portraying.

The result is a franchise where ideas are almost always subordinate to personalities; action and sexuality are subordinated to the need to preserve a lucrative PG-13 rating; and wonderful filmmakers, including Joss Whedon and Ryan Coogler, are brought in to give the movies a patina of personality without disrupting their essential formulas.

In the best and worst possible ways, “Avengers: Endgame” feels like the logical result of this approach. It excels at its character beats, which goes pretty far — although not all the way — toward concealing the movie’s failures of world-building and argumentation. The film has a few striking images and tableaus, most of which serve to reward longtime fans rather than to genuinely jar or stir the audience. It’s reasonably satisfying, but not transporting: supersized comfort food rather than great art.

When the movie begins, our heroes are traumatized by the vanishing of half the galaxy at the finger-snapping command of Thanos (Josh Brolin). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is furious that no one heeded him when he said, “We needed a suit of armor around the world, whether it affected our precious freedoms or not,” though he later finds a measure of peace with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has gone rogue. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and burying herself in work. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is trying to integrate his personalities. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is leading support groups. And Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is not doing well, although to say specifically how would ruin both the joke and the pathos.

All well and good on the character work: Like many of the best Golden Age television shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is defined largely by the breadth and excellence of its acting ensemble. It’s on the other metrics of artistic ambition that “Avengers: Endgame” doesn’t merely fall short, but seems to have set that drive aside almost entirely.

To the extent that “Avengers: Endgame” has ideas, they’re shrunk down to near-Ant-Man-sized bits of dialogue or in service of the blandest possible vision of diversity.

Tony’s tossed-off line about the value of preemptive warfare rather than after-the-fact superheroics is literally never revisited in the movie’s three-hour runtime. Clint’s vigilantism is dispensed with in a similarly cursory — and morally queasy — fashion. There are brief references to governments crumbling in the wake of Thanos’s genocide, but despite the wide shots of cities “Avengers: Endgame” employs, the movie keeps its focus relatively narrow, or at least as narrow as it can be with this many leads. The closest thing the movie has to a big idea is the sense of masculinity embodied by Steve’s private self and public persona as Captain America. And even that is too often reduced to lines and images that feel more like Tumblr fan art than genuine artistic vision, though the movie does manage to stick his particular landing. There are some nice, subtle nods to inclusion — among them a gay man in Steve’s support group — and some much blunter ones, but nothing that would ruffle feathers among anyone but the most grievance-oriented alt-right grumblers.

“Game of Thrones,” the biggest spectacle currently airing on TV, may have gotten distracted by sex and dragon fire. But it consistently circles back around to its big debates about leadership, legitimacy and liberation.

And as art, the most depressing thing about “Avengers: Endgame” is how visually indifferent it often is. As an action movie, it’s full of wasted opportunities: a sword fight that, puzzlingly, we’re forced to witness partly from outside the building where it’s taking place; what ought to be a seismic clash between evenly matched fighters that is shot from such a great distance that the fight choreography doesn’t land; and an exceedingly busy battlefield that gives a lot of characters nice moments, but is far too frenzied for any moment to really register. There is some camera work that feels simply odd, either out of focus or shaky to no particular effect.

As a whole, “Avengers: Endgame” is fine. It’s reasonably satisfying. I laughed. I welled up in the moment when my particular heartstrings got a direct yank. But the greatest television of the last two decades was a whole lot more than fine.

Treating “Avengers: Endgame” like the first-season finale of the biggest television show in town feels like returning to a well-established corporate mean. This is what the vast body of American and international moviegoers wants, not Tony Soprano in therapy, not Philip and Elizabeth Jennings using spycraft to negotiate their marriage in “The Americans,” not Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda sharply dissecting gender on “Sex and the City.” The vast proliferation of outlets and the shows they air means that a lot of great television is still going to get produced and watched, at least until there’s a collapse or a new consolidation of services in something that looks more like the cable bundle. But if the revolution was televised, as critic Alan Sepinwall put it, it’s over, and it was unsuccessful at changing the larger cultural landscape. The monoculture, and its mediocrity, live on.

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