Monday, April 29, 2019

Avengers: Endgame is the Series Finale We All Deserve [Contributor: Jenn]

When you’re an avid TV fan, you know the satisfaction or, conversely, disappointment that comes with watching the series finale of a beloved television show. There are great series finales but there are also some pretty terrible ones. Numerous components make a great series finale — one that feels earned on emotional and plot-based levels, that leaves the audience feeling satisfied and that, most importantly of all, feels like a fitting send-off to characters we've come to know and love.

Both TV critics Daniel Fienberg and Mo Ryan (along with others, I am sure) mentioned recently that Avengers: Endgame feels like the series finale of a 22-episode television series. Until I read those tweets, I couldn’t pinpoint why I enjoyed the film so much (there was certainly plenty to love though). But every TV-loving fiber in my body realized that this is exactly why it worked so well as a movie.

So as we talk about Endgame, I’m going to frame my discussion of it within the context of a television series finale. After thinking about it and polling some of my Twitter followers, I’ve narrowed down a few things that great TV series finales accomplish and will apply them to Endgame, while also providing you with some actual television-based examples.

(And please note that yes, I watch a lot of comedies so a lot of these examples will be sitcoms and while I love the MCU if I get a detail or two wrong here and there and/or do not remember every exact detail about the comic book canon... forgive me. Be kind, people.)

So grab your tissues, popcorn, and some movie theater-style candy (Twizzlers for me, please) and let’s get started.


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Great series finales focus on in-character resolutions and payoff.

Let’s kick off our discussion of finales with arguably the most important achievement: character-rooted resolutions and payoff. There’s nothing worse than spending years with characters — seeing them fail and then evolve — in a television series, only to have all of that fantastic character development undone in the final hours.

There are a few core character arcs in the MCU we focused on in the “series finale”: Tony, Steve, Nat, and Thor. As our premise suggests, let’s assume that the MCU really has been a series of events leading up to a finale. How did the finale’s writing do with their development?

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Tony’s arc made the most sense to me. It is your typical heroic journey from beginning to end — from a self-centered, genius playboy billionaire to a devoted father, husband, and true hero. Tony is the prime example of character growth. He’s stumbled over the years. When we met him, he was charming and funny but not always likable. He hasn’t always made the right choices and even if he has, he’s been no stranger to struggle and loss. He’s overcome his own demons and in Endgame, we got the chance to see him finally happy.

It wasn’t an unrealistic sense of happiness though that can plague series finales — a saccharine filter over years of trials or trauma. No, everything that happened in the last 22 films led up to Tony’s ultimate sacrifice for his friends, his family, and his world. His arc, as even he noted, didn’t end with a “happily ever after” coda on it, but it ended in a way that honored the man Tony Stark became and the ultimate hero he always was.

I’ve always been a fan of Tony, mostly because even in his most unlikable moments there was something so utterly real and redeeming about him. Endgame was another recognition that even in a character’s low points (that bitter speech about defeat Tony gives to the team for example), as a writer you don’t have to assassinate the character in order to make them complex. Tony went out exactly who he was. And that will always be enough.

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Steve’s journey does end with a “happily ever after” coda that I’m still trying to decipher because of time travel logistics, y’all. Time travel and branch reality issues aside, while I’m happy that Steve got his dance and his girl and lived out his life happily, it felt a little off. But I also have to remind myself that every hero’s journey doesn’t end the same way. Tony’s journey had to end in sacrifice born out of love; Cap’s had to end in rest out of a life well-lived as Steve.

And I have to assume that this means he lived a life as Steve Rogers, not “Cap.” An old Steve tells Sam that he followed Tony’s advice to live his life, but I think some part of Steve knew he was going to need to do that as himself, not Captain America. Maybe a life of normalcy is what he secretly wished he could give himself all along? As Cap told Nat earlier in the film, he just didn’t know how to get a life; he kept coming back to the heroics. I think at some point (perhaps after Tony’s death), Steve realized he’d have to return to the past and deliver the Infinity Stones as Captain America but come back to 2023 again someday as Steve Rogers.

And while it’s unclear, again, how this time travel business worked or HOW he managed to live his life undetected (is this a Captain America-less branch reality? Or is there another Cap? How did this happen?), I think Endgame!Steve wanted the thing that Tony had: something, as the TV show Arrow would say, to live for. And it needed to be personal, and it needed to be quiet.

While I know a lot of people have mixed reactions to that final scene as it relates to his arc throughout the series, I think it made sense to me in the lens of thinking about how Tony and Steve chose similar but different paths. At some point, even the people who give the heroic speeches arrive at a place where they’re not sure if they can go on anymore.

Or maybe I’m totally wrong and the end of Steve’s character arc was just a writing misstep. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, right?

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Thor’s end is another stereotypical, but no less satisfying, end to a character-based saga. Sometimes the hero doesn’t die: sometimes he just realizes he needs to switch gears entirely and move from something known to somewhere unknown. Not only does Thor do the expected “passing of the torch” of leadership to Valkyrie, but earlier in the film he also experiences the scene many main characters do: being visited and advised by a mentor.

The scenes between Thor and his mother don’t just serve as sweet, sentimental moments — they’re also critical to propelling Thor into discovering who he is. He’s spent his whole life forcing himself into what’s expected of him; with everything he loves more or less gone and everything he’s seen in Endgame, it was time for him to move forward and leave his previous life behind.

It’s time for a new journey — maybe one featuring the Asguardians of the Galaxy?

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And finally we have Nat. I’m torn with this ending, honestly. Because there’s a part of me that believes Clint’s arc would have been more satisfying had he died: an atonement for the sins of his (recent) past, giving up his life for the woman who never gave up on him, etc. Nat’s arc makes sense too in other ways (she believed in her family so much that she was going to have to give up that which she loved most to save them all), but if we’re talking personal opinion? I still think it should have been Clint.

Nat’s always been messy in a beautiful way, but in Endgame alone she spent five years desperately clinging to saving the world because it was all she knew how to do. She was scared to move on because... what would she move on to? Her whole world was the Avengers. Nat’s unwavering commitment to the cause was her strength to the very end. And the Avengers really did avenge her death.

(TV notes: How I Met Your Mother is a perfect example of what NOT to do with character-related stories in your series finale. I’ll never be over the out-of-character ending and the storyline that existed just so the show could use a years-old filmed reaction shot. The Office teetered on that line with its downhill character development of Andy in the final season or so, too.

Meanwhile, shows like Psych and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were far more successful in the character development and payoff department.)

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Great series end with hope for the future... and just a little tease.

I wanted to leave this series of the MCU knowing that even though the characters wouldn’t be perfect, they’d be okay. When a television series ends, chances are you’ve spent years getting to know the characters (main and recurring), so there’s a desire for us all to believe that the town will go on without us — that things will be okay and the next generation will be too. Thor passed the torch on to Valkyrie, so we know that New Asgard is in capable hands. Steve gives his shield to Sam. Happy comforts Morgan. Scott and Hope watch fireworks with Cassie. T’Challa, Shuri, and Ramonda look over Wakanda proudly. Clint and Wanda carry on the memories of those they lost.

Sad things happen. But the MCU is okay. It moves on, and the characters who remain carry the legacies of those they’ve lost. The world isn’t falling apart (that day), but the people who remain have been permanently changed by the people they loved. And life continues to move on. That’s what gives us hope for the new “season,” if you will, of the MCU: Wakanda is out there. Carol still patrols the skies. Heroes are being born and reborn.

That funeral shot near the end of the film made me cry both times I saw it. Apart from it being touching, it was a distinct visual reminder of everything Tony Stark helped create — of everything the original Avengers inspired.

So yes, let’s weep for the fallen.

But let’s celebrate that the MCU doesn’t die with the OGs — quite the opposite, actually. This universe continues to thrive on the examples they set.

(TV notes: We don’t speak of the final season of Scrubs, but in this instance I will. The series finale passed the torch to a series of new doctors. And even though the show didn’t work well in its final season, it’s important for those who loved the show to know that Sacred Heart changed but still kept going.

Parks and Recreation did a great job of flashing forward and showing us that the characters we loved and rooted for in Pawnee over the last seven years continued to thrive long after we left them.)

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A series finale should be entertaining and well-paced.

Avengers: Infinity War was narratively set up for difficulty. It had to cram every MCU character into an almost 3-hour film, which meant constantly jumping back and forth to different locations in space and Earth. As a result, I didn’t feel like it was a satisfying film holistically (it really served as part one of the series finale), though it was ambitious in all the plot it jammed in there and had its great moments of action and character development.

Conversely, Avengers: Endgame was three hours long but felt incredibly well-paced. Only a few scenes felt like they were stalling or rehashing old information (the Avengers taking stock of all the Infinity Stones and their history really just served for Scott to hear what he’s missed), and most of those scenes were still necessary to the plot overall. While the first third of the film was a bit slow, the final two acts — and third specifically — flew by.

Not only was Endgame engaging and well-paced, but it was also wildly entertaining. My favorite part of a second viewing in theaters was getting to witness everyone’s reactions to Scott’s taco lunch, Thor’s BIG reveal, Bruce’s fiddling with time travel, and even Hulk’s awkward lunch. So much of this MCU series was focused on the balance between humor and drama. The final film didn’t disappoint at all, and I’m glad that it managed to perfect the line between sadness and resolution.

(TV notes: Friends used the few episode leading up to the series finale to set up a lot of the plot that the show wrapped up in the series finale, which was a great move (Rachel and her job offer, Phoebe and Mike deciding on a future, Monica and Chandler moving away, etc.). Too many shows do slow builds in the series finale alone that end up making the episodes too rushed and packed with plot to breathe.)

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 A series finale succeeds when it remembers its roots. 

My favorite thing about finales is the plethora of callbacks. Throughout all of the MCU, callbacks and little Easter eggs were more than just commonplace — they were expected. Everyone waited on the edges of their seats through scrolling credits. More than any other MCU film, though, Avengers: Endgame did what some great series finales do: take a literal walk down memory lane.

In order to get the Infinity Stones in the past, the Avengers literally take some trips down memory lane (in 2012 where the battle for New York is raging, 2014 where we re-meet Peter Quill, and even in the 1970s). It serves a plot-related purpose but it’s also the kind of stuff that leaves me with little warm fuzzies. Endgame remembers where it’s been — where it came from — and it’s not ashamed of it. (And who didn’t love the culmination of that callback from Age of Ultron of Cap being worthy to wield Mjolnir???)

A lot of movie series try to move past their histories. A lot of television shows do similarly. But there’s a joy when people recognize the missteps and successes of their pasts, embrace them, and celebrate them.

(TV notes: New Girl’s series finale twist featuring a flash forward, sentimental game of True American left me with more than a few tears in my eyes. Psych and Community were the kings of callbacks in their finales and throughout their series as wholes. And Ugly Betty came full circle when Betty became a boss and Daniel joked about being her assistant. Plus how wonderful was it for the show to drop the “Ugly” from its name in the final title card?)

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A series finale deserves earned emotional moments. 

No writer should ever try to evoke emotion in a person just for the sake of emotion. The moment an emotional scene feels exploitative is the moment it loses all power and credibility. Many a television show and film have suffered from unnecessary deaths for shock value. And that’s the danger in a series finale — with a franchise like the MCU, you might expect bloodbaths and major deaths. But that’s not what was true to most of these characters. Endgame wasn’t going to give us death for death’s sake. And I’m glad for that.

The emotional moments in the film each served a purpose — to remind us of where we’ve been, to display incredible character growth, to demonstrate the power of a legacy, etc. Tony’s death wasn’t long, drawn-out, and dramatic; it was sad and simple (it did feature a heartbreaking repeated “Mr. Stark” from Peter).

Even the smaller emotional beats in the film served a purpose. I got chills when Cap’s radio began to crackle and we heard Sam’s “on your left.” I got a little weepy when Captain Marvel returned on the scene with an army of women beside her. I felt surges of joy and sadness when Tony got to say a hello and goodbye to Howard. And there was sweetness and emotion in the final shot of Steve and Peggy.

Emotion doesn’t equal sadness — good media will always understand the “why” of the emotional scene and focus on its depth rather than its tear-to-tissue ratio. If a film or television show does its job right, you should feel emotional but ultimately satisfied.

(TV notes: Parenthood was always a series that delivered emotional one-two punches and the series finale was no exception. The emotional moments were so well-earned, and the character development that led up to and through the finale was perfect.)

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Finally, a finale needs an appropriate sense of... well, finality. 

A series finale (unfortunately in the age of peak TV, this happens more often than not) deserves to be the culmination of a journey. Too many great television shows are gone so soon that their writers don’t have the opportunity to wrap up the storylines before cancellation, leaving gaping cliffhangers and holes and stories that they’ll never be able to tell.

Ultimately the goal for the series finale of a television show is for viewers to acknowledge that the arc has ended, the journey has concluded, and all — for the most part — was well with their favorite characters.

I’ve spent the last thousand or so words talking about how I feel like Avengers: Endgame accomplished this. Was the film perfect? No, but there will never be a perfect film. Did I feel satisfied with the way every character’s journey ended up? Yes, for the most part, I was. Even more minor characters in the Avengers-verse got the chance to say their farewells and continue their journeys in 2023.

Tony can rest. Cap can rest. Thor can rest. Nat can rest.

The universe is in safe hands. And Avengers: Endgame reminds us that as long as there are heroes out there — people willing to make sacrifices for strangers and loved ones and planets — there will always be hope. That’s enough.

That’s a series finale.

(TV notes: I enjoyed The Newsroom’s series finale in terms of its finality and wrapping up of storylines and arcs. Despite my earlier qualms with Andy, The Office provided great closure for every major character on the series and the assurance that they’d all be fine.

Conversely, shows that were cancelled too soon like Pitch, Pushing Daisies, Sweet Vicious, Selfie, Go On, Happy Endings, etc. ec. didn’t get proper wrap-ups to storylines and, unfortunately, left viewers hanging on cliffs forever.)

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What did you all think of Avengers: Endgame? Did it feel like a television series finale of the MCU? Sound off in the comments below!

1 comment:

  1. First, I love this approach. Endgame is different. It is a universe. If you add the 5, at least, movies yet released with the MCU cast that exists today, it will be over 65 hours of interwoven programming. Treating it as a movie, or a trilogy does not work. It just isn’t bound that way, and it is unique in the cinematic world so much that the TV lens feels perfect.

    That is why part of me does not look at Endgame as the end. The legacy will continue in the connected movies to come. This feels like a cliffhanger to end the next to last season. The next season is about how they get past the trauma of that cliffhanger and redefine themselves. If you have watched the previews for Spider-Man Homecoming, they drive that home to Spidey from Fury.

    I love the model though. I think it makes more sense to look at it as a series than a franchise. Let me start by not going out on a limb and say I concur with your approach to Tony. Tony has been the center of this from the start. He is the spark. He is the one who works it, because he sees the big picture early and can’t get over what it means. The one with the future is Thor. The God of Thunder is finally free to be himself, whoever that is. Thor, finally, can abide.

    Cap makes a choice off camera that we don’t get to watch and evolve, but I can just imagine Cap knowing that Howard Stark is going to die by his friend’s hand, and struggling every minute up to and through that moment trying to avoid changing the future. For “America’s Ass,” just sitting on it IS the impossible choice, and he finally makes it to be with Peggy, because he has saved the world. It is saved as of 2023, and the man who helped him, and made it possible, is gone. His modern family left is safe. He can move on, and in this case, it means backwards. Was it fan service? Yes, and they needed to do it. Here is Cap, going back to past to make sure time remains as it should, and all he can think about is the life he never got to live. He is the best. It is okay he puts down the shield.

    I am not conflicted about Nat and Clint though. I hope a soul for a soul means you get someone back (and who else would Cap choose amiright?), but even if that is not the future, the assassin grew to care about something more than her own life. Clint gave her a life. He brought her to Fury. She owed a debt she couldn’t repay (red on her ledger), and she never believed that debt was paid: not to Clint, not to anyone else, not in five years without hope. When she had the chance, she fought to pay it. To give to Clint everything he gave her. Clint was the steadiest of them all. He was rooted in his family until the snap took them away. Nat knew Clint would recover if he got his family back. She knew she never could.

    My only complaint (okay, I have at least two, but this one is bigger) is that the Hulk is missing: from the review and the movie. They tried to do with the Hulk what they did with Cap, and it didn’t work. Bruce, off screen, realizes that getting rid of the Hulk isn’t possible, so he finds the middle ground. He chooses inner peace. Cap could only rest in a life with Peggy. Bruce could never be without Hulk, but Hulk, the separate entity, is gone. Submerged under Banner’s identity. I get why they did it, Banner is awkward as professor Hulk, it lightens the mood of a dark movie, and Bruce is content in his choices. We just don’t know what Hulk wanted. He might have wanted to fight another “Big Monster.”

    Still, the movie was amazing. The direction was sublime. The Community cast perfectly placed. The journey was worth it, including this review.