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‘Avengers: Endgame’: Three hours of action and emotion, and worth every second

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) aka Captain America sheds a tear during a poignant moment in "Avengers: Endgame." | Marvel Studios

They saved maybe the best for the end.

I’m not prepared to instantly label “Avengers: Endgame” as the best of the 23 Marvel Universe movies to date, but it’s a serious contender for the crown and it’s the undisputed champion when it comes to emotional punch.

If you don’t feel the tears welling up multiple times during this screen-filling, eye-popping, time-hopping, pulse-pounding, beautifully filmed superhero adventure for the ages, check for a pulse — because you might be dead.

So much hype has swirled for so long in advance of this sure-to-crack-$2-billion-worldwide insta-hit, you might have been wondering if even the combined powers of Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Black Widow, the Hulk, Captain America et al., would be strong enough to hold up under such an avalanche of expectations.

Not to worry. As the popular movie saying goes: They got this.

Thanks to a funny, well-paced, smart, expertly rendered screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; crisp direction from Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who pull off the otherworldly feat of juggling myriad story arcs and a Hall of Fame lineup bursting with well over a dozen beloved superhero characters, and the universally stellar performances from a cast filled with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees and charismatic stars on the rise, “Avengers: Endgame” actually breezes through its nearly three-hour running time with nary a dull moment or a stumble in plot development.

Go to the bathroom BEFORE you enter the theater. You’re not going to want to miss a second.

“Endgame” begins with the first of many small, intimate, human family moments, involving one of the Avengers and his family in the moments just before (“Avengers: Infinity War” spoiler alert!) Thanos snapped his evil fingers and made half the inhabitants of the entire universe (including many of our favorite superheroes) disappear in clouds of swirling black ash.

From there we cut to a core group of surviving Avengers, including Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who don’t look and sound anything like mighty warriors as they despair over their losses and wonder if they have any purpose in this new and devastated world.

Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, from left), War Machine/James Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Pau
Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, from left), War Machine/James Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) team up again in “Avengers: Endgame.” | Marvel Studios

Eventually we catch up with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.); Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd); Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Thor/He’s Just Always Thor (Chris Hemsworth), each of whom has traveled a unique journey — one finding a measure of peace in a post-superhero life, another utterly lost but eager to get back in the game, another fueled by an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, and another who has let himself go and spends his days guzzling beer and playing video games. (I’ll leave it to you to discover the particulars, which include some heart-touching moments AND some of the biggest laughs ever produced in any superhero movie in any universe.)

It’s Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, he of the super-duper shrinking abilities and the experiences with all that “quantum realm” scientific jazz, who comes up with a seemingly impossible proposition: Why don’t they expand on Ant-Man’s experience and take it to the next level? Like, go back in time to before Thanos accumulated all six Infinity Stones and festooned them to an Infinity Gauntlet, STOP him from acquiring the Stones, and that way he’ll never have the opportunity to snap his fingers and instantly kill half the populations of all the thousands of planets!

“You mean … a time machine?” asks a fellow Avenger.

Well, no, says Ant-Man. It would be more like, well, you know, it would be …

All right: It’ll be a time machine.

Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd, center) has the brainstorm about how to reverse Thanos’ destruction in “Avengers: Endgame.” | Marvel Studios
Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd, center) has the brainstorm about how to reverse Thanos’ destruction in “Avengers: Endgame.” | Marvel Studios

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This leads to a bounty of jokes about “Back to the Future” and other time-traveling movies — and then “Endgame” actually BECOMES a “Back to the Future” type adventure, that is, if Marty McFly could actually McFly and he was joined on his time-hopping missions by all sorts of superheroes on multiple planets.

Working in teams of two, the Avengers travel to the Asgard and the Morag and the New York City of the recent past, and the New Jersey of about a half-century ago, among other stops. This leads to some double-trouble encounters — Captain America encounters earlier Captain America, Nebula (Karen Gillan) runs into previous Nebula, that sort of thing — and also presents multiple opportunities for various characters to revisit loved ones who exist only in the past.

These superheroes never seem more human than when a son gets to talk to his father in a time period before the son was born, or a man sees the woman he never had the chance to be with, or a son is reunited with his mother on the day she will die.

In those moments, “Avengers: Endgame” is as emotionally affecting as any Marvel movie has ever been. But don’t put away the tissues, because even more powerful dramatic developments are yet to come. Amidst all the soaring and the blasting and the inevitable gigantic climactic battle, this is a genuinely moving drama involving certain characters we’ve come to know and love through the years.

Some of the Avengers are afforded major chunks of screen time; others have a line or two at the most. Yet somehow, all make a lasting impact. In a movie filled with terrific performances, the standouts are Scarlett Johansson, whose Black Widow has changed in so many ways since we first met her; Chris Hemsworth, providing a surprising amount of comedic relief as a very different version of Thor, and most of all Robert Downey Jr., whose Tony Stark has always been the most fascinating, complex, multi-layered, charismatic “civilian” persona of any superhero universe I’ve ever visited.

The Motion Picture Academy never recognizes great acting if it comes attached to a costume or a cape. That doesn’t mean Downey isn’t deserving of an Oscar. It’s great acting in a great film.

‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language). Running time: 182 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.