JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At the end of "Avengers: Infinity War," the Marvel cinematic cosmos had been plunged into chaos. The six Infinity Stones - those magic gems that govern all matter in the universe - fell into the hands of a giant purple supervillain named Thanos, who, with the snap of a finger, reduced half the population to ash. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk survived. But a lot of their allies, like Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, weren't so lucky. I found "Infinity War" entertaining enough, like most Marvel movies, but also jaw-dropping in its cynicism. Surely these deaths were just a stunt, a mass tragedy that could be reversed with just another snap of the finger.
It's that sense of disproportionate excess that has often made the Marvel movies such cause for frustration, despite their obvious pleasures - so much endless narrative minutiae and visual effects razzle-dazzle to plow through for so little genuine feeling in return. But maybe my last defenses have finally been worn down because I gladly surrendered to "Avengers: Endgame," which runs just over three hours - considerably longer than "Infinity War" - but feels much quicker and lighter on its feet.
As it turns out, killing off half your ensemble has its advantages. The new movie has fewer characters, which means we get more quality time with each of them. As the grand culmination of 22 tightly interconnected movies, "Avengers: Endgame" brings this initial chapter of the saga, at least, to a stirring and resonant close. As the movie opens, those who have survived the apocalypse are in a tense, ragged mood as the tragedy of losing several billion souls at once starts to sink in.
Some of the movie's best scenes are its slowest and quietest, taking stock of the characters' grief and their struggle to move on. It's consoling to be reunited with the forlorn faces of Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, also known as Black Widow, the Hulk, War Machine, Captain America and Thor, who are determined not to let Thanos have the last word. They're joined this time by Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, introduced in her own standalone movie last month, who believes she can tip the scales in the Avengers' favor.
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BRIE LARSON: (As Captain Marvel) He used the Stones again.
MARK RUFFALO: (As The Hulk) Hey, hey, hey. We'd be going in shorthanded, you know? Look; he's still got the Stones, so...
LARSON: (As Captain Marvel) So let's get them and use them to bring everyone back.
DON CHEADLE: (As War Machine) Just like that.
CHRIS EVANS: (As Captain America) Yeah, just like that.
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Black Widow) Even if there's a small chance that we can undo this, I mean, we owe it to everyone who's not in this room to try.
RUFFALO: (As The Hulk) If we do this, how do we know it's going to end any differently than it did before?
LARSON: (As Captain Marvel) Because before, you didn't have me.
CHEADLE: (As War Machine) Hey, new girl. Everybody in this room is about that superhero life. And if you don't mind my asking, where the hell have you been all this time?
LARSON: (As Captain Marvel) There are a lot of other planets in the universe. And unfortunately, they didn't have you guys.
CHANG: Robert Downey Jr. is back, too, as Iron Man, whose first movie kicked off this enterprise 11 years ago. And his deadpan yet heartfelt performance remains the emotional linchpin of the series. Even with Iron Man's technological genius, recovering the Infinity Stones and undoing Thanos' evil scheme will be the riskiest, most complicated mission The Avengers have undertaken, especially with several key personnel out of commission. They do have some help from Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, whose understanding of the finer points of quantum physics comes in handy.
I'll tread lightly over the plot, suffice to say that "Endgame" becomes a dazzling journey through time in which the Avengers must navigate and playfully manipulate a series of flashbacks from earlier movies. There are enough inside jokes and familiar faces to tickle your nostalgia. And the sense of dramatic convergence of countless threads from the entire Marvel saga finally being pulled together is thrilling, if also a little exhausting. Like most overstuffed finales, this one sometimes finds itself at narrative cross-purposes. How do you tell a story with relentless momentum while also staging a giant cast reunion? The returning directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, have mastered the kind of crowd control these movies require, and they're good at steering the shifts in tone from gravity to whimsy.
I wish the action scenes were better staged and shot. The final showdown is a murky, indecipherable blur in which you can barely tell who's smashing whom. The Marvel series has become a curious phenomenon in that respect. These are action movies in which the action itself is almost beside the point. What matters is the serialized storytelling in the superhero mythology, the irreverent humor and the memorable characters. We say goodbye to a few of those characters in "Endgame," and this time, there is nothing gimmicky about their deaths. There's a genuine poignancy and finality to these farewells.
This isn't the last Marvel movie, of course. A new Spider-Man picture is coming up in July, and the next chapter of the overarching saga is probably already in the works. I wouldn't mind if they called it quits now. "Avengers: Endgame" is a remarkable payoff and easily one of the better pictures Marvel has made, but I hope the next one this good isn't another 22 movies away.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with British actor Glenda Jackson about starring on Broadway now in "King Lear" and returning to acting after 23 years in Parliament, or with T. Christian Miller about the investigation into two separate collisions involving Navy destroyers resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK CORNELIUS' "THE INVADERS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK CORNELIUS' "THE INVADERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.