Why three viewings of Avengers: Endgame was nine hours well spent

The real motivation is the emotional buy-in. The film brings together at least 25 much-loved characters from all corners of the Marvel universe, each demanding a fitting character arc. 

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Five hundred and forty three minutes. Nine hours. It’s around the time it would take you to fly from London to the Bahamas, or to watch an entire season of Friends, or to walk the length of the Piccadilly Line. It’s also how long I’ve spent over the past two weeks watching the latest instalment in the Marvel cinematic universe, Avengers: Endgame. Three viewings at 181 minutes apiece.

I am not alone. Endgame is a cinematic phenomenon, already overtaking Titanic for second place in the worldwide, all-time box office having made $2.48bn. It’s now only got Avatar, which grossed $2.79bn, to beat. The Titanic director James Cameron handed the baton to directors the Russo brothers by tweeting a poster with the Titanic hitting a half-submerged Avengers logo, and the words, “An iceberg sank the real Titanic. It took the Avengers to sink my Titanic.” (See also: Steven Spielberg tipping the hat to George Lucas when Star Wars overtook Jaws in 1977, and Lucas returning the favour when ET toppled Star Wars in 1982, among others.) In the US, Avengers: Endgame sold more advance tickets in the first 24 hours of opening than any film in history.

The lobby of my local cinema reflected this. In four years of almost-weekly visits to London’s Odeon Holloway, I’ve only twice seen it as busy as it was on the Endgame opening weekend: for La La Land in 2017 and for last year’s Avengers film, Infinity War. In any other screening, the standard code violations – snack rustling, whooping, running commentary – would be cause for eye-rolls at least. But what could improve the moment when (spoiler alert) Captain America brings hope to a hopeless battle – by wielding Thor’s hammer for the first time (as fans have long suspected he could) – more than a cinema-goer shouting “JEEESUS!”, and the entire audience bursting into laughter? It’s jubilant, it’s boundary-breaking, it’s a goal in the 90th minute.

For the uninitiated, here’s where Infinity War left us. Thanos, the giant purple supervillain with an alarmingly wrinkly chin, has gathered all six infinity stones to create the infinity gauntlet and, with a snap of his fingers, wiped out half of all life in the universe in a Malthusian attempt to rebalance the natural order.

Now, the remaining Avengers, unable to move on, must try to find a way to undo the “snap” and bring back those Thanos killed – including their friends and family. We know from Infinity War that there is just one in 14 million possible futures in which they are successful. What ensues is certainly not the end of the Marvel universe – but the end of the universe as we know it.

Confused? There’s a back catalogue of 21 films to fill you in, from the genius (Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok) to the tedious (all the other Thor films). There is, of course, an element of sunk cost here. By the time you’ve spent more than 44 hours, since 2008, watching the Marvel universe unfold, what’s another 181 minutes?

But the real motivation is the emotional buy-in. Endgame brings together at least 25 much-loved characters, each demanding a fitting character arc. They come from all corners of the Marvel universe – from the original Avengers (2012) to Ant-Man (2015) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – and there’s the sense that many fans have spent 11 years with these characters, all in preparation for this moment.

The enormity of the cast lends itself to great variety. Only in the Marvel universe can such disparate elements sit comfortably side by side – Robert Redford reprises his role as a spy, while Vin Diesel plays a monosyllabic baby tree; Benedict Cumberbatch’s magician Doctor Strange shares the screen with Bradley Cooper’s talking raccoon. The plot swings with ease from Thanos, a villain so consumed by his mission that he killed his own daughter, to a beer-guzzling Norse god with perfect comic timing.

Endgame is a step for diversity, too. The characters who get the greatest audience reaction are the more recent (and very successful) additions: its first African superhero T’Challa, the Black Panther, and his entourage; and the female pilot turned superhero Captain Marvel. Transparently right-on as it may be, there’s an emotional thrill in seeing a marginalised group – especially your own – wielding such power on screen for the first time, and in the knowledge that younger fans will grow up with such representation being the norm.

The sheer scale of Endgame not only necessitates repeat viewings, it withstands them. At each of my three, I noticed different details, found new moments affecting. For the Reddit-level enthusiasts there’s joy to be had in studying it all – the hidden references, the cameos – with intimate dissection and wild speculation. This is a film that never has to end, if you don’t want it to.

It’s epic, it’s devastating; the stakes have never been higher. But it’s also air-punchingly fun, a communal experience and completely without snobbery. It’s not a perfect film – in fact it borders on preposterous. But while you might not expect, or want, it to draw you in, my God, it will.

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question