The first Marvel comic I remember reading is What If? #1, which asked the question "What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?" Now, I must have read Marvel comics before that one, because I understood who all the characters were and I knew What If? was an unusual comic because, of course, Spider-Man never joined the Fantastic Four.
I read that comic in Shane Berthauden's room in Leaf Rapids, and it really captured my imagination. The initial counter-factual (in the context of the mainline Marvel universe) setup had an incredible cool factor, but things turn dark when the Invisible Girl, feeling overshadowed by Spider-Man, leaves the group. Things get worse after that, but by comic's end, we are reassured that these events happen in a parallel universe to the familiar Marvel world we know. Even so, the impact of that comic remains powerful, because those events did happen (somewhere), and the triumphs of and tragedies of those characters remains somehow real. They grow and change in a way denied the prime Marvel universe, because in those comics, the status quo generally reigns supreme, with major changes in characters' lives happening only once every few decades (though the pace is slowly accelerating).
Avengers: Endgame reminds me of the What If? stories because in this movie, all the chickens come home to roost; consequences are real, lasting, and permanent. Even though this movie uses a do-over as its major plot, Endgame somehow shows that there really are no do-overs. It's impossible to explain this seeming contradiction without spoilers, unfortunately. But the filmmakers manage it beautifully.
At one point in the film, a mother tells her son, who feels as though he has utterly failed as a person, that he should stop trying to be who he's supposed to be, and instead be who he is. Only today, after thinking about the film a little more, did I realize that conversation turns out to be the arc for the major characters in not only this film, but for all the Marvel films in which they've previously appeared. Whether or not you appreciate superhero movies, that is an accomplishment in film that I believe is unprecedented in cinema: character and story arcs spread out over 22 films and 11 years. That the Marvel movies, particularly the overstuffed Avengers films, are coherent at all is something of a miracle. That they're actually entertaining and have something to say about the world is astounding.
This movie speaks best, of course, to the audiences who have invested in the entire journey. I would argue, in fact, that those not so invested may be bewildered by Endgame, and its companion piece, Infinity War. And that's okay. Not all art is digestible in a moment, or an hour, or two, or a week. Some takes time to percolate, to evolve, to age at the same rate as we mortals.
Every moment in this movie is earned thanks to the rich backstory told over the last 11 years. Some of these moments moved me to silent tears; others caused elation and that "gee whiz!" sense of wonder that gave me such thrills as a kid.
What a long, strange, amazing journey it's been. Endgame is a fitting end indeed.