As the Marvel franchise reaches its 22nd instalment, has it created the superhero blockbuster to end all blockbusters? Sadly not, writes Nicholas Barber.

If Avengers: Endgame is not quite the superhero blockbuster to end all superhero blockbusters, it certainly ends all of the Marvel superhero blockbusters that have been released so far. It’s the 22nd film that the game-changing studio has put out in the past 11 years, and almost every story thread from the previous films is woven together in its colourful tapestry.

Actually, though, it was last year’s Avengers: Infinity War that felt like the culmination of everything the studio had been doing. That was the film which somehow brought together the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, along with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). That was the film which had the giant purple Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiping out half the lifeforms in the universe (the talkative lifeforms, anyway – there’s no suggestion that any plants or animals were culled). And that was the film which leapt between galaxy-spanning science fiction, Dungeons and Dragons fantasy, and good old-fashioned superhero punch-ups with an agility that was genuinely, awe-inspiringly unprecedented.

Most of the film is a knockabout heist caper

In comparison, Endgame isn’t quite so epic or climactic. It feels more like an encore or a lap of honour. Loyal fans will love seeing so many familiar faces together again one more time, but if you want the rollercoaster thrill of experiencing everything that Marvel is capable of, rewatch Infinity War.

More like this:

-       Ten films to watch this April

-       Film review: Captain Marvel

-       Film review: Dumbo

One reason why the new film is less overwhelming is simply that it has fewer superheroes. In the last instalment’s startling finale, lots of the most popular and entertaining characters were reduced to ash by a click of Thanos’s golden-gauntleted fingers, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) among them. In their place, we have one new character, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), but she sticks around for a matter of minutes. Despite being born and bred on Earth, she is far more invested in the rest of the cosmos, and so, disappointingly, she blasts off into space at the first opportunity.

That leaves Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Ant-Man (Scott Lang), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) to sit and mourn their losses before picking themselves up and taking on Thanos. Admittedly, when all those names are listed like that, it might look as if there are more than enough superheroes to be going on with, but much of the fun of Infinity War was in seeing how deftly the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, juggled so many disparate characters on so many different planets. In Endgame, they don’t have as many balls in the air.

It is slick and affectionate enough for its three-hour running time to pass quickly

The plot is less ambitious, too. Talkier, lighter and less frantic than you might have expected, the film is mostly a knockabout heist caper in which the gang splits into sub-teams to steal the life-snuffing Infinity Stones from Thanos in an attempt to undo his genocidal finger-snap. I won’t reveal what makes this Ocean’s Eleven-style heist so unusual, given that the studio has done such an amazing job of keeping its central plot device under wraps. What I will say is that, while the mission takes the characters into new territory for them, it is territory which has been explored by countless non-Marvel films and television series already. War Machine and Ant-Man even list all of the films which their latest adventure reminds them of – a shrewd way of deflecting criticism, but also an acknowledgement that you will have seen quite a few of the twists and jokes before.

One point of comparison they don’t mention, however, is the very last episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry and his pals were reunited with many of the people they had crossed paths with during the classic sitcom’s run. Endgame is a similar catalogue of past glories. It will be baffling to viewers who don’t remember the earlier Marvel episodes in sufficient detail, and even obsessives will suspect that the film-makers’ top priority wasn’t crafting a compelling narrative so much as serving up a shameless piece of nostalgic, self-reflexive fan service. But it is slick and affectionate enough for its three-hour running time to pass quickly: Thor and Hulk, in particular, evolve in amusingly surprising ways. And, to be fair, if you’re enough of a Marvel true believer to relish the prospect of a three-hour running time, you probably won’t resent all the good-natured back-patting and high-fiving.

Besides, the Russos do eventually deliver the gigantic spectacle and the gigantic emotions which audiences have been hoping for. First they stage the inevitable Great Big Battle Which Is Even Bigger Than The Last Film’s Great Big Battle, and then they bid a tear-jerking farewell to some of the franchise’s favourite characters. Yes, some of them do come to sticky ends, which, unlike Thanos’s intergalactic disintegrations, appear to be permanent. At the screening I attended, people were sniffling all around me – and who can blame them? However many superhero movies there are still to come, Endgame definitely marks the end of an era. 


Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC