Since Marvel first teamed up a bunch of its marquee superheroes in the 2012 megahit The Avengers, the ranks of that squad have swollen. The Avengers ended with a relatively modest group of six defending New York City from an alien invasion, but by the time Marvel got to last year's Avengers: Infinity War, the movie often felt like an Avengers sequel in name only. Its dozens of crossed-over characters never felt like a coherent team so much as the movie's entire population. Avengers: Endgame, the new follow-up to Infinity War (and quasi-finale to this “phase” of the Marvel movie machine), is a better fit with the series' earlier entries. It gets back to basics by pulling way back not just on superheroes, but on their powers, too.
That's not to say Endgame is light on fantastical nonsense. Its heroes down spaceships, pursue magical rocks all across the galaxy, and experiment with time travel. Even the more stripped-down ensemble is the result of heavy fantasy — Infinity War ended with mega-bad guy Thanos obtaining six ultra-powerful jewels and disappearing half the universe's population with the snap of his fingers.
As it happens, none of the original six Avengers disappeared while plenty of popular newer arrivals (Black Panther, Spider-Man, Falcon, etc.) turned to dust. Though the new movie's carefully withholding trailers have revealed that Endgame includes an appearance from newly minted (and extremely powerful) hero Captain Marvel, much of the movie is about the original core of Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
Those last two might not make a lot of fans' lists of their favorite Marvel superheroes (especially not frequent punchline Hawkeye). Technically speaking, they're not superpowered at all. Black Widow is cunning, athletic, and a well-trained fighter; but she's a spy, not an alien or a supersuited genius. Likewise, Hawkeye is an expert marksman and a quick thinker, but he doesn't command the power of lightning or industrial-strength smashing. But it turns out that these two are a real key to making The Avengers feel like The Avengers. Most of the MCU heroes are compelling because they mix otherworldly abilities with human frailty. Black Widow and Hawkeye are thornier than that, their abilities yoked together with physical limitations and potential moral murkiness. Outside of a superhero context, they're basically government-sanctioned murderers.
Both characters disappear for long stretches of Endgame; almost everyone does at some point, because even with half the world dusted, this is an all-star cast of both actors and characters, which sometimes turns unwieldy. When the movie does find focus, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor receive the most attention, as befitting their status as stars of three popular solo movies apiece. That's where the two humans are separated in status from their teammates: Though a Black Widow movie is rumored to be on deck for the next year or two and Hawkeye will apparently star in a Disney+ streaming series, these two characters have so far only appeared as either support in other characters' stories or as members of the Avengers.
But their scarcer moments in these big movies resonate, in large part because of the work done by writer-director Joss Whedon. He wrote Black Widow as both slyer and more conflicted about her past in The Avengers (she was introduced as a standard seductive badass in an Iron Man sequel) and made her buddy Hawkeye (and the revelation that he has a loving family hidden away on a farm) the emotional linchpin in the sequel Age of Ultron. There, most of the other characters grappled with their potential to become monsters, while Hawkeye stood for decency even as mightier heroes wondered aloud what he was even doing there.
In part because their stories are blessedly free of mythic origins, and in part because Johansson and Renner work so well in the roles, Black Widow and Hawkeye have a certain unforced gravitas that other characters sometimes labor to demonstrate. One might even argue that Infinity War, in which Renner was absent and Johansson's screentime was minimal, is a feature-length demonstration of that labor. Anthony and Joe Russo, who have taken over stewardship of the main Avengers series from Whedon, didn't display his deft character-juggling abilities that time around.
But the increased presence of Hawkeye and Black Widow in Endgame seems to inspire the Russos to give character-building a better shot — just as their first Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, benefited enormously from Black Widow's expanded role. Endgame is little sketchy at first; Renner gets the opening scene, which rides a fine line between emotional shading and shameless manipulation. But — without giving too much away — the Russos do pull off a neat flip as both characters react to the newly depopulated world. Hawkeye unleashes his inner killing machine, while Black Widow searches desperately for ways to do good with a skeleton crew of heroes. As the Avengers re-assemble for a bigger mission, Endgame feels very much informed by these characters' de-powered aesthetics. Tony Stark spends more time than ever outside of his Iron Man suit. Thor is no longer such a golden specimen of manliness. The movie has a major role for Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who has a Stark-like super-suit, but lacks the genius-level intellect. The characters have room to breathe.
When Hawkeye and Black Widow do blast off into crazier territory (no spoilers!), they're inevitably and touchingly paired together. Though the MCU remains skittish about romance, the filmmakers have a stronger handle on friendship, and Endgame manages to turn the old superhero trope of heroes fighting each other into something sort of affecting. Infinity War may have proved that Marvel can pull off a massive superhero crossover event, but Endgame shows how much better these movies are when they pay attention to people, too.