Bear with me, because this post will seem more than a little silly at first.
Every once in a blue moon, a film opens during a festival that has enough gravitational force to draw me out of the P&I screenings and the insular event bubble. I’m not a fan of such situations, but I can’t ignore them.
This weekend’s Avengers: Endgame takeover of the box office (and damned near ever screen in damned near every multiplex and over-eager indie theater seeking to cash in on the MCU) managed to dominate the conversation in ways no one had considered prior to its release. Who knew we would have whole threads about bathroom breaks? Have people honestly never been to a movie over two and a half hours long?
I hate the preceding installment (Avengers: Infinity War), but I was ready to enter Endgame with an open mind. I’m an old school comic book geek who has matured into an appreciator of all kinds of narratives. I take stories as seriously as they take themselves. I have enjoyed the heist hijinks of the two Ant-Man movies, the taut espionage thriller aspects of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the team building (before fracturing the structure at its core) of Captain America: Civil War, which for me is the best Avengers film. And, of course, Black Panther filled me with pride and wonder, creating an Afro-futuristic world and merging it seamlessly into the MCU.
There’s something vaguely post-apocalyptic about Endgame, or at least there should be. Half of all life wiped out with the snap of a villain’s fingers. Sounds like a notion out of PD James, right? I would have loved Endgame with a bit more of the frenetic energy and quiet redemptive power of Children of Men. Practically speaking, that is exactly what the best movies in this comic book universe have accomplished; they have found genres and styles no one would have normally associated with their brand of flashy moving frames about impossible heroes in tight and adapted to the constraints in made-to-order fashion.
I think that was similar to what writer-director Takashi Doscher aimed for with his Tribeca Film Festival entry Only, starring Freida Pinto and Leslie Odom Jr. as a couple struggling in the face of a devastating purging of a significant portion of the population after a comet veers a bit too close for comfort. Women are decimated by the occurrence, leaving men frantic and capable of initiating the most familiar kinds of controls of order and biology. Quarantining and herding female survivors off, seeking to establish new breeding protocols, all in the name of preservation.
And, on a more personal level, in the name of love. Will (Odom) and Eva (Pinto) have just recently moved in together; their love is not new, but it resides in a honeymoon phase, untested and pure. That’s about to change.
I watched Only a few hours before Endgame, knowing that they would likely have little in common, in terms of scale and overall execution (talk about the difference between running successful neighborhood lemonade stand versus a global multi-lateral tech company), but what, I wondered, about in the interpersonal exchanges between characters?
What if you, as a superpower being, were helpless to avenge those you had lost? What if all you could do was document when and where they were lost? What if you were merely left to wait for the inevitable end of your species?
Doscher relished the end of the world dynamic backdrop, teasing us with news reports of the changing state of the landscape and the arrival of military forces to round up the surviving women. Martial law brings out the basest of instincts, easily recognized.
But he’s far more interested in the intimacies of what it means to be the last woman on the planet. How does she assert herself, how does she live out those last moments?
Unlike a superhero, she can’t go back in time and change events leading up to the reality she finds herself stranded in. So Doscher does some of this for us (and her), fragmenting the time frame, jumping and shifting between the current inevitability and the early days of the comet, Will’s decision to institute a quarantine of his own (in their space) for her protection, and the steps leading up to their final journey together. There is an arc at work that mimics the romantic – we meet them in a space of love, watch Will lose his love in pursuit of keeping her alive, and then her desire to wrestle control over her own circumstances. It is a tragic origin story of a heroine, because Eva is a superhero of sorts. She is legend, and Only shows us why.
Endgame is not Children of Men, but outside of my own private Ohio fantasy realm, no one expected it to be. Marvel didn’t hire Alfonso Cuarón (he did make a Harry Potter movie though, before winning two Academy Awards for Directing – Gravity and Roma), which is no slight to Anthony and Joe Russo. The brothers have proven more than capable of infusing humor and heart into a franchise universe filled to the brim with more characters than should ever fit into any single movie at one time and providing visual perspective on bodies in motion opposite things that don’t exist.
Is it wrong to quibble that Endgame isn’t dystopian or bleak enough? Did I expect the half of the world that was lost in the Thanos snap to stay dead? I’m not that insane, not yet anyway.
But I dreamed a little dream of a world where these heroes longed to carry the grit and ash of their fallen friends and loved one on their skin, afraid to wash it off, because to do so might mean that the last trace of those lives would truly be gone forever with nothing left to show for it. I didn’t want to bet my bottom dollar that the sun would come out, because tomorrow shouldn’t have even felt like a new day. In sorrow, the seconds, minutes, hours, and days just bleed away. Who cares how long it takes?
Sacrifice born from hope, in movies, always means that there’s a chance to reverse things. You don’t just live in the hearts of those who remember you; you can return or be re-imagined, remade or rebooted. You can remain a kid or in your prime forever. That is the stuff of comic books.
And that is exactly what Avengers: Endgame is. The tagline is true – the end is the beginning – up to a point. The thing to remember is that it never reaches what we know and recognize as the end. It doesn’t come close. If Only…