Avengers Endgame: everything you need to know ahead of the big finale
As Marvel looks set to break all box office records with the latest in its superhero franchise, Paul Whitington outlines what you need to know ahead of the big finale
Superhero fans are beside themselves with excitement in advance of the release of Avengers: Endgame, which explodes into the multiplexes next Friday. Three hours long and boasting a staggering array of big-name actors, Endgame could be the biggest film of the year, and may even eclipse the $2billion grossed by its predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War.
As its title suggests, this is the film that will hopefully tie up all loose ends and settle the long-running Avengers story for good. But that's not going to be easy: across 21 films and more than a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has created so many competing and interlocking stories that it's easy to forget which superhero is which and wonder what the heck is going on.
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Be not afraid because our potted guide ought to enable you to confront Endgame with something approaching informed confidence.
Not just any old Iron
It all started with Tony Stark, the flashy and thoroughly obnoxious billionaire inventor played with such panache by Robert Downey Jr in the first MCU film, Iron Man (2008). Tony is a soulless, entitled git until he sees with his own eyes the horrors his hi-tech weapons inflict and creates a crime-fighting alter ego. Cameos are important in the Marvel world and at the end of Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) made an appearance, hinting at sophisticated adventures to come.
A 2008 Marvel movie smartened up the Hulk brand, and starred Edward Norton as scientist Bruce Banner who, after a botched experiment, is doomed to transform into the raging green monster whenever he gets annoyed. It was pretty good but didn't make money, which is probably why Norton was ditched in favour of the more engaging Mark Ruffalo for the Avengers movies.
The muscle men
Before those Avengers movies could begin, two more protagonists needed to be introduced with origins movies of their own. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a vain and long-winded Asgardian Prince who's banished from his home planet of Asgard after a dispute engineered by his sneaky brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and must lick his wounds on Earth. Thor (2011) was a lot of fun and later that same summer, we were introduced to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the 1940s weakling who becomes a pumped-up hero called Captain America after taking part in a secret US Army experiment. He gets cryogenically frozen in an Arctic plane crash and is re-awakened in the present! Any questions so far?
The first group hug
All these masked egotists were brought together in Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon's 2012 blockbuster. When Thor's brother Loki uses a wormhole in space to attack Earth, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. set about establishing a team of superheroes which will become a last line of defence for our planet. Unite they must, so with the help of Fury and two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents called Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Avengers were formed.
In the three years between Avengers Assemble and its sequel, Age Of Ultron, the good folk at Marvel/Disney were busily pumping out spin-offs: Thor and Iron Man sequels, a sombre, well-regarded Captain America film called The Winter Soldier. With great skill, it has to be said, those films created more and more back stories that would be woven into the unfolding Avengers saga, and in 2014, Marvel showed us they could do funny, introducing the Guardians Of The Galaxy to their heady superhero mix. Chris Pratt played space pirate Peter Quill, who joins forces with a band of intergalactic criminals. The Guardians will return in Avengers: Endgame.
Who the hell is Ultron?
Ultron started life as an artificially intelligent global defence program invented by Stark to protect us all from space invasion. Then it developed a mind of its own, and in Age Of Ultron (2015), decided that the best way to save the Earth was to wipe out humanity. Obviously Cap and the team were not about to stand by and let this happen. They prevailed of course, but fell out in the process, and major sulks would have to be accommodated in the next Avengers film, along with a much more terrifying enemy.
First there was the 2015 action-comedy Ant-Man, then Tom Holland became the latest Spider-Man in the well regarded 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both these characters would pop up in the Avengers films. In Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the demi-god suffered all sorts of hilarious indignities after landing on an obscure, rubbish-laden planet. And in the mind-bending Doctor Strange (2016), Benedict Cumberbatch played Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon forced rethink his life after his hands are damaged.
The hidden central African kingdom of Wakanda was first introduced to moviegoers in Captain America: Civil War when an assassination at the United Nations in New York brings T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to the throne. That led to Black Panther (2018), which showed just how sophisticated and culturally aware Marvel's storytelling had become and T'Challa would prove a key player in the denouement of the Avengers saga.
Thanos is a baddie worthy of a two-part $800m budget superhero finale. In last year's Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos (Josh Brolin) searched the universe for six 'infinity stones' that will allow him to have power over everything. In Endgame, the Avengers face a massive task to defeat him and reverse the damage he's done. I expect Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) to play a key role in his downfall.
End of days?
Not quite. Though we're told that the Avengers cycle will end with Endgame, there are plenty of other Marvel projects in the works. Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy sequels are all underway, as is a project based on the Eternals comic books, there's talk of a Blade reboot and yes, folks, I may finally get my wish - Scarlett Johansson is about to begin filming a Black Widow spin-off.
Avengers Endgame is in cinemas on April 25