What makes the comic book genre unique from others is that it’s the only one which has perfected the cinematic universe. This was inevitable as it’s how the comic books which inspired the films were always structured, whereas other genres are reverse-engineering their properties to connect with each other after-the-fact and to lesser results. In this way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like an entirely new form of cinema and Avengers: Endgame distils that form into a single product, which is why it’s the one piece of essential viewing for that franchise. If you can see only one Infinity Saga film, this is the one that will provide the most satisfying experience. It includes all the major characters (an almighty 45 actors receive single on-screen end credits) and journeys back to previous films (including Guardians of the Galaxy, featured on this list as #10).
This is the singular representation of the experience of having followed the Saga from its beginning twenty-one chapters prior and is the most expensively-budgeted thank you to the fans that have enabled it to exist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an experiment so far not replicated by any other production company to such popularity and Avengers: Endgame is a microcosm of that experiment. It would’ve been the perfect ending had Marvel Studios the wisdom to eventually stop in order for the story to have value in being complete. Just as Logan (#9 on this list) will, I think, be remembered as the film which was produced by a studio brave enough to end their story, Avengers: Endgame will inversely be compared as the moment Marvel Studios should’ve done the same but didn’t. How the two films’ respective legacies will develop only time will tell.
Avengers: Endgame will definitely be the more well-remembered film, though Logan will likely earn more academic favour. And yet, I’ve placed Avengers: Endgame above Logan. Why? Because, for a list ranking the decade’s comic book films, Avengers: Endgame is more representative of the whole. The Infinity Saga has been the golden age of the genre and its finale, Avengers: Endgame, is the golden statue of it, reminding us in one film of exactly what that golden age was by being the definitive on-screen depiction of comic books: a mishmash of characters from all genres and styles in a heightened reality combining themselves in emotionally stimulating adventures of epic proportions. No other film based on comic books will ever come close to better translating them to the screen because Avengers: Endgame gets it exactly right.
Those of us who’ve grown-up reading comic books and watching the films they subsequently inspired have waited our whole lives for something like this and part of the joy seeing it done so perfectly is that it doesn’t just transpose the frames to motion pictures but brings with it the same feeling so accurately as for there to be no difference in experience. This film is a generational zeitgeist that, in years to come, will serve as a preserved reminder of what growing up as a shamelessly naive comic book reader was like; the way they can switch between high fantasy action to intimately dramatic scenes as if they’re one and the same. The third act accomplishes this to a fault, making the final battle, like all the great double-page spreads of iconic whole-company crossovers, one in which everything external is an outward manifestation of the internal.
Captain America has finally overcome the greatest challenge and become worthy of Mjolnir and now finds himself, when faced with the worst threat he’s ever fought, surrounded by all the friends and allies he’s ever known or inspired – a This is Your Wonderful Life befitting of a centennial warrior who’s devoted his whole life to guiding the human race and giving them everything he can to protect them. In his most desperate moment of need, everyone he’s every positively affected assembles to help him and I found myself asking, if this were me, how many would come? Who would they be?
It’s the perfect conclusion of the dramatic half of the film, which is about trauma and learning to overcome it, and does so by exploring the question of what happens when superheroes lose? How do they cope with that? The genre exaggerates the Human experience and so, in this case, overcoming it is Thor finding himself still worthy of his name. It’s a relatable moment because it’s when he has the key breakthrough that begins to turn things around for him. Everyone has their own version of that moment. It matters because we’ve been on his journey with him through all his previous appearances, and so that moment is the culmination of the developing character arc which led up to it. This doesn’t need a cinematic universe to be possible but only a cinematic universe can develop a film character in so much detail for that kind of pay-off to be delivered – or any of the other moments of pay-off.
Every previous Infinity Saga film is somehow referenced by Avengers: Endgame – some directly, some indirectly. But that’s what makes it the perfect case study of what happens when a cinematic universe is done well, rather than just being a marketing gimmick – the result is directly proportional. That’s why I believe that Avengers: Endgame will be the essential viewing for film students in decades to come when studying the cinematic universes of the early 21st century: Marvel’s is the prototype and Avengers: Endgame was what it all led to and didn’t disappoint and so will therefore be looked back-upon as the definitive example of the kind of films that are being produced by western culture at this current time – which is what making films is really all about.