The most surprising thing in regards to Avengers: Endgame is not his final victory but his touching portrait of defeat.
Still one of the highest-grossing films of all time three years later – at $2.798 billion, it’s second only to James Cameron’s Avatar— Avengers: Endgame is surprisingly thoughtful and intimate at times, no matter how inconceivable the action. Trying to pitch the film as a moving drama to Oscar voters was downright hilarious, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get the credit.
It’s been a weird prelude to discussing the film’s most extravagant sci-fi element: time travel. End of Game is not just a crazy superhero crossover, but an odyssey through time. Marvel’s cast of heroes – some entirely CG – scatter throughout canonical Marvel history to snatch additional Infinity Stones to fix what they’ve broken. But one could say that the film’s desire to travel back in time as a metaphor for self-examination makes End of Game one of the most truthful and genuinely human films in the entire Marvel canon.
For Reverse special issue on time travel, Avengers: Endgame is perhaps the best sci-fi movie in the time travel canon that you can rewatch right now on Disney+.
THE RULES OF TIME TRAVEL is a Reverse special issue exploring the evolution of science fiction’s most imaginative subgenre. From Marty McFly to Avengers: Endgame.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely begin End of Game with a simple question: Where are we wrong?
Resuming from the previous avengers movie, the heroes make a last desperate play to get past Thanos (Josh Brolin). But when they find him, he’s not the hulking warlord they know. He lives like Dexter finale, alone on a farm, making a stew from ingredients he grows. Thanos also destroyed the Infinity Stones. He accomplished his mission and made sure no one else could use the stones. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) beheads Thanos in a hasty moment, an act that will haunt him for at least the next five years.
The Avengers spend the next half-decade wallowing and dealing with the fallout in their own way. It’s not until a rat accidentally brings back Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) that the Avengers discover the Quantum Realm and an impossible solution – time travel – to undo the destruction left behind by Thanos.
The shine of End of Game doesn’t just use time travel as a way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to high-five itself and revisit memorable corners. Nor is it how it allowed the Avengers to fathom each other, both in their victories as a team of superheroes and their losses as individuals. Instead, it’s How? ‘Or’ What End of Game interpreted time travel that makes it distinct.
By subverting the expectations set by literally every other sci-fi movie ever made – watch Rhodey (Don Cheadle) count them all – End of Game asks audiences to accept it on their own terms, not preconceived notions of how this genre is supposed to work.
“If you travel back in time,” Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) explains breathlessly, after synergizing his big brain into Hulk’s big green body, “that past becomes your future. And your old present becomes the past. which can no longer be changed by your new future.
It’s a clumsy explanation, but apparently the science verifies.
Sean Carroll, research professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, author of the non-fiction science books something deeply hidden and From eternity to hereand science podcast host Mindscapewas one of many consultants for Avengers: Endgame. I spoke to him recently for a story about the multiverse, but along the way, End of Game came along, and Carroll jokingly took full responsibility for the film’s understanding of time travel.
“So you say Back to the future is that just bullshit?”
“I don’t claim too much credit,” Caroll said. Reverseacknowledging that Marvel Studios had other experts to weigh in on the scripts, “but what we talked about was how time travel works.”
He continues, “If you go into the past and mess with it, what are the effects? The law I tried to push was the simplest and most consistent. If you can go into the past and do things, you’re not actually changing the past. Everything you’ve done there in the past has already happened, even if you don’t know it because it’s in the past.
Carroll said he “strongly opposed the Back to the future sort of time travel,” which popularized an idea of time travel by disappearing in a photograph. “It doesn’t make any logical sense,” says Carroll.
So even in a world where there are talking raccoons and gamma radiation leads to swollen green biceps, Carroll insisted on grounding himself. Something in a certain scientific logic. “If you look End of Game and they talk about time travel, and Paul Rudd says, ‘So you’re saying Back to the future is that just bullshit?’ It was my fault.
Avengers: Endgame is one of the greatest movies of all time, with a climax so incredibly huge that I still can’t believe it was ever made all these years later. That the film still functions as a film about dealing with failure is all the more amazing. I can’t say enough good things about the first hour of End of Gamewhich can be revisited endlessly and possibly the first time the MCU’s drab gray and brown color palettes are actually appropriate.
But End of Game doesn’t get enough praise as a time travel movie, a movie that’s willing to play by its own rules, informed by real science. That might not make it as influential as Back to the future. But by charting its own course, Marvel is deciding its own future, rather than relying on what has been done in the past.
Avengers: Endgame is now streaming on Disney+.