About halfway through the approximately three-hour-long epic Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sums up the movie with a quick aside: “The only thing that is permanent in life is impermanence.” At first it seems like a throwaway line, tucked into a comedic ramble about Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). But no second of a meticulously sculpted cinematic event like Endgame forsakes meaning. On the contrary, a film that should feel overlong and overstuffed rings purposeful, weighted with existential truth even as it flashes before our eyes. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the superheroes of our lives.

Pardon my wistfulness, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which this entry is a kind of capper, spans 11 years and 22 films. When audiences met Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in the MCU’s first installment, Iron Man (2008), George W. Bush was still president. Our world, and the world that the surviving Avengers inhabit at the start of Endgame, is a radically different place now. Yet humans from time immemorial have feared their own annihilation, scanning the sky and contemplating apocalypse. Thus Endgame plucks a shared and existential nerve: we’ll all be dust one day.

In the preceding chapter, Avengers: Infinity War, archvillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) obtained the universe’s six Infinity Stones and then snapped his fingers, thereby eliminating half of all living creatures on earth. Endgame, set five years later, deals with the fallout of this catastrophe. The superheroes that remain—Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—struggle to cope.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who had been stuck in the Quantum Realm since Ant-Man and The Wasp’s mid-credits scene, returns in Endgame’s first act. As such, Lang is the viewer’s conduit for surveying this blasted new world. In San Francisco, he runs his fingers over tall inscribed slabs that evoke the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, searching for his daughter’s name.

Many enlightened people contend that time and death are illusions, and Endgame half-agrees. At any rate, time is indefinite, and playing with the concept elevates Endgame in both narrative complexity and—because this is a Marvel movie—irresistible fun. Though its opening scenes are appropriately funereal, Endgame is one of the funniest movies Marvel Studios has produced, and the most fulfilling. As many a comedian will tell you, great tension can give way to great and gratifying release.

What makes Endgame so enjoyable is, in part, an impish spirit that nods to Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. The team of original Avengers, tasked with saving the world from its stickiest jam yet, handle their predicament with the gravity it deserves and the high-flying vigor fans crave. Since they first assembled on-screen in 2012, Stark, Rogers, Banner, Thor, Barton, and Romanoff have become more than battle buddies. When they refer to each other as family, it resonates, and not only because of the actors’ crackerjack chemistry. Due to their interconnected journeys over subsequent films, and strong writing that has rendered each character fully fledged, these heroes—for MCU devotees at least—have earned their emotional payoffs.

Endgame is 21 minutes longer than Infinity War but feels shorter and more electrifying. What Infinity War drained from the viewer with its dismal finale, Endgame replenishes. The major characters, and some minor ones as well, move through satisfying arcs. A few twists and turns might catch the viewer off guard; but nonetheless, each culmination reverberates as fated, with the feeling of “Yes, it had to be this way.”

Cowriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, together with sibling codirectors Joe and Anthony Russo, obviously know what the Marvel enthusiasts want, but they also nimbly toy with expectations. The Russo brothers in particular, having steered the most prodigious MCU films to date (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Infinity War), are responsible for a blockbuster unlike any that has come before. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises also contained mammoth ensembles and built extensive universes; however, the number of crucial players in Endgame interacting and/or battling together in one scene, or in a single shot, is unprecedented.

Game of Thrones, now in its eighth and final season on HBO, is perhaps the pop culture juggernaut that’s most comparable. As the series plays out its own endgame, its characters, too, wrestle with existential concepts, including the nature of time and the inevitability of death. “Nothing lasts,” declares one character in the last season’s first episode. It’s a sentiment echoed in Endgame’s tagline and articulated by a character in the film itself: “Part of the journey is the end.”

Maybe, now more than ever, this is a truism that bears repeating. A culture of perpetual scrolling makes accepting endings more difficult, but endings are inevitable, even in tentpole movies. Of course, the MCU will live on and prosper; Endgame, ironically, all but ensures this. But what’s comforting about Endgame is what’s comforting about all films that we hold dear. Movies can last forever. Movies will probably outlive me, you, and everyone we know. But until our own endings, we can always circle back to our favorite films, revisit characters and times long gone, and watch the stories begin again.   v