'Avengers: Endgame' review: Marvel's game of stones reaches a gratifying climax

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"You should've gone for the head." So uttered Josh Brolin as Thanos last year, in "Avengers: Infinity War," just before he snapped his gloved fingers and cut the population of the known universe in half.

Even if you knew, logically, the scene was a lie waiting for a do-over, that sucker-punch ending became the water-cooler moment of 2018 — even for people who didn't work within 500 yards of an actual water cooler. The cries went out across the globe: A YEAR? We can't wait a year to see how it turns out! That's sadism on top of sadism!

Well, a year has come and gone. And now we have the extravagant — and mostly very gratifying — final chapter of this particular chunk of your filmgoing life.

The Marvels behind "Avengers: Endgame" apparently misheard Thanos' one-liner. The new film goes straight for the heart, not the head. It dwells at considerable length in tearful reunions and farewells. And in a notable exception to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's liberal nobody-really-dies storytelling policy, things wrap up with a goodbye-for-real denouement involving a majorly major character.

More crucially, I think, the movie also goes for a surprising number of laughs. This is strategic, and effective, given the ashen, leaden seriousness of "Infinity War."

"Endgame" is easily the funniest Marvel movie outside "Thor: Ragnarok" and the "Ant-Man" movies. And with three hours and one minute of movie to fill, that humor's crucial.

My favorite is a Mark Ruffalo moment. At one point Bruce Banner, now a newly formulated and relatively peaceable bio-combination of Banner and Hulk (the Hulk looks slick in glasses, for the record), attempts to reconnect with some old-style pure-Hulk rage. It doesn't come easily. The resulting sight gags, just a few seconds' worth, result in a pricelessly half-hearted display of aggression.

Quick recap: At the close of "Infinity War" Thanos secured all six Infinity Stones, placing them in the glove of doom, thereby rendering him all-powerful and a total boss of it all. "Endgame" picks up the post-apocalypse action a few weeks later, with the surviving Avengers. Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man finds himself floating in space, running out of oxygen, while back on what's left of Earth, there's Chris Evans/Captain America, Ruffalo/Hulk, Chris Hemsworth/Thor, Scarlett Johansson/Black Widow, Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye, Paul Rudd/Ant-Man, Don Cheadle/War Machine, Bradley Cooper/Rocket and a handful of others.

Most of the picture unfolds five years after that initial prologue, but because it's all about time travel, essentially, "Endgame" flits all over the place, from 1970 New Jersey to 2014 planet Morag. The character roster's hilariously long. Early on the surviving Avengers confront Thanos for what appears to be a decisive rematch, though not a happy one, since half of the earthly population remains AWOL. From there, "Endgame" follows a simple, well-worn set of narrative solutions involving stone retrieval and lessons of collective responsibility. The movie neither scrambles like a maniac nor plods like "Infinity War."

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return, along with the brotherly directing team of Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.Some characters ride in for a few lines, just to remind us who they are and why we miss them, such as Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie, and then out again. There's a rousing moment in a battle scene when things look bleak for a subset of familiar characters. Then the Marvel Comics equivalent of the U.S. Cavalry swoops in, in waves.

Scenes such as these whip up waves of love, sloshing back and forth between the people in the crowd and the crowd on the screen.

Their commercial instincts are fabulous, but the chief limitation with "Endgame" relates directly to how the Russo brothers approach the staging and composition of pure action. They're just medium-good visual stylists, alternating fake-documentary handheld camerawork with generic glide-ins, back and forth, forth and back. They get the job done. But with so much of "Endgame" taken up with two- or three-character conversations, things occasionally become stilted because the camera doesn't interact with the actors in any fluid or striking ways. (Also, the Alan Silvestri score pours it on, generically.)

It's the time travel conceit that keeps "Endgame" hopping, and the trial-and-error sequences recall some of the best parts of the first "Iron Man" 11 years back. I have no way of telling if folks wholly or largely new to Marvel World will give a rip about any of "Endgame." But it's nice the studio, coming off the $2 billion-grossing "Infinity War," may top that figure with a considerably better hunk of escapism.

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