There's not much time during the overstuffed Avengers: Endgame to consider the legacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What have we been left with? A sum total of 22 films, most of which have functioned on some basic audiovisual level, very few of which (looking at you, Cumberstrange) have been dead losses; a new gold standard in rights management; a decisive placing of a concern as niche as quilting or crown green bowls - comic books - at the centre of the cultural mainstream; and the emergence of a superstudio (in Disney) capable of swallowing any of its rivals. Being an offshoot of late capitalism, a last-gasp push for the primacy of the collective big-screen experience before our multiplexes moss over and everybody retreats to Netflix, any MCU good has had to be taken with the bad. Back in 2012, I titled my Avengers Assemble review "Big Bullies", and parsing this week's listings - and seeing the struggles of even a well-reviewed, hardly artsy release such as Eighth Grade to find showtimes - I see no reason to revise that. The past twelve years have also witnessed a decline in critical rigour (so many reviews that amounted to no more than the children's-book couplet "look at the big movie/isn't it big?"), partly linked, as Catherine Shoard posited in a recent Guardian editorial, to the emergence of a mewling fanboyism ready to pile onto anyone who doesn't hold to the established line of cheerleading. In the past few days, the MCU has also prompted a poignant two-part Twitter anecdote: that of the autistic cinema worker who posted photos of the tonnes of rubbish left behind by consumers at early Endgame screenings, then announced they felt obliged to quit after this punishing opening-weekend shift in a bid to preserve their mental and physical wellbeing. One question this series has habitually ducked, like a well-rehearsed CEO, is who pays for the Avengers, and who cleans up after them. The answer, as demonstrated several times over in the course of the past week, is people like us.
We can all agree, at least, that the series has represented spectacularly canny business. In retrospect, it seems especially telling that the lynchpins of its first cycle were Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), an arms-dealing opportunist only humanised over successive instalments by the very great skill of a newly sober Robert Downey Jr. (one unarguable benefit of these movies: restoring this crafty, intuitive performer to full working order), and Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America), dreamy posterboy for American military supremacy. Subsequent spin-offs and offshoots could pay lip service to social shifts - so there were black superheroes and female superheroes and, in Endgame, a canonically gay character handed a full three lines of dialogue - while adhering steadfastly to stout Republican logic. These movies, even the troubled Ant-Man, came in on time and budget, secured the release dates, promo slots and censor ratings required to ensure maximum visibility, and became licences to print money; unlike the more variable films of comic-book rivals DC, they earned a reputation as worthwhile investments, both for those bankrolling them and for the casual weekend cinemagoer, who knew he or she could hand over a tenner and see something on screen that would distract them from Trump or Brexit for a couple of hours. That last factor, though, suggests how this Universe has at best been apolitical - Black Panther's most immediate beneficiaries would have been Disney's majority white shareholders - and of the near-sixty hours of sound and Nick Fury the MCU has drummed up, only a handful of frames could legitimately be claimed as pop art comparable to the comics that inspired them, most of those from one of the few movies (the comedy Thor: Ragnarok) that wasn't straining for earthshaking narrative significance.
That sense of indulged and indulgent sprawl returned to me while ploughing through Endgame's 181 minutes the other night. In the 1990s, that sly romp Con Air received a measure of critical opprobrium for so flagrantly tacking on a final twenty minutes intended to sate its audience's bloodlust by killing off big bad John Malkovich in a grislier manner than was first floated. Endgame, less sly than calculated, could theoretically run its end credits after twenty minutes - the natural conclusion to the Thanos narrative set out in last year's Infinity War - but instead goes through hoops for another two-and-a-half hours, attempting to please those fans who've stayed the course by offering sendoffs to each of the 1,546 characters and hangers-on collected in the first 21 films. A few of these, granted, merit the extra time: the newly corpulent Thor, sent to comfort food after the tragic events of the previous movie, serves to symbolise how Chris Hemsworth has spent the past decade fleshing out what initially seemed an unpromising sketch of a character into jovial, even Falstaffian good company. One Captain America has always been more than enough for this correspondent, however, and the emergence of a double - via the timetravel device writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus use to reboot the plot - only set me in mind of the apocryphal story about Mike and Bernie Winters' disastrous appearance at the less-than-welcoming Glasgow Empire ("Christ, there's two of 'em"); while I'm on this particular tear, I'm also of the opinion that Thanos (Josh Brolin) could equally purge the planet of the remaining 50% of its population, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) still wouldn't be the most interesting things anybody could stick a camera on.
At any rate, no moral high ground is gained in taking this circuitous route back to Infinity War: the development merely enables more Avengers to pile on Thanos, like fanboys on any sceptic questioning whether the MCU's cultural footprint might be a tad disproportionate, and returns us where we were after the first twenty minutes, only in greater need of a wee. While not quite as egregious as the "it was all a dream" faceplant of the final Twilight instalment, the time travel is a cheat nevertheless, and one that requires so much explanation amid that dingy production design that has become a series feature. (Again, can any run of movies derived from a visual medium have been so consistently dull to look at?) Devotees have evidently been delighted by the replay of arcane series highlights that results, but heading into the fourth hour of watching grown adults setting out in search of magical coloured stones, I had to ask: really? After the minor yet appreciable dramatic achievements of Infinity War, it's a disappointment to see McFeely and Markus taking back some of that development - but then maybe they knew the squealing fatwas that lay in store for them if they didn't bend over backwards to give the fans what they wanted. After 22 films, of course, you're either in or out - and clearly the financial bottom line is that enough people are in to give Endgame the first billion-dollar opening weekend in motion-picture history, a yardstick for a moment that (like the film's finale, swarming with often naffly rendered ones and zeroes) has been about nothing if not the numbers.
The creative bottom line, however, is that this is a series that, to the last, has demanded some form of investment in the fate of a pixellated raccoon; as an admirably well-adjusted pal put it, "I have limited hours on this Earth, and spending 34,649 of them watching CG buildings being smashed does not appeal to me." (In Endgame's defence, its final battle takes place around the same dismal, uninhabited wasteland as Infinity War - a fine visual analogue for where we might now be in the culture wars - so any collateral damage will be limited to your eardrums.) I can grudgingly admire the logistical achievement - that boxset will look impressive under the Christmas tree - but forgive me for not wanting to cheer wildly as the studios abandon the practice of making movies for grown-ups and instead persist in clubbing us over the head with monthly bouts of Lite-Brite spectacle intended to reduce us to goggle-eyed, credulous infants. One of the reasons the MCU films have reopened the desperately dull debate around spoilers (another crime) is that they've been so easily spoiled: their effects ephemeral, their narrative chicanery flimsy, they beg to be knocked down as Thor does Thanos. Endgame's self-justification extends to a long walk around the VFX houses and a final zigzag up the garden path - past characters we were never properly introduced to, characters who were barely even there - intended to lend an epic dimension to a decade-long soap opera that ultimately came down to a gesture as arbitrary and trivial as a billionaire clicking his fingers. Our rattled corporate overlords can rest easy knowing that a significant swathe of humankind is still prepared to respond so favourably to such nothings; yet faced, over three hours more exhausting than exhilarating, with the prospect of showtimes opening up, hundreds of creatives being freed to pursue more adventurous and challenging work, and indeed of the return of an entirely organic, non-CG Mark Ruffalo, I found my thoughts aligning not with Cap'n America, but Captain Sensible: glad it's all over.
Avengers: Endgame is now playing in cinemas nationwide.