The Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to an end — not the end, but an end — in this hugely entertaining ride

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Parting is such sweet sorrow.

And so it goes with the rousing “Avengers: Endgame,” the 22nd film in the massive, sprawling, Hollywood-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe, which acts as a fitting cap to at least one phase of the MCU and a portal to several new beginnings.

Yes, the Marvel Universe goes on: there’s a “Spider-Man” movie due in July, after all, and Marvel execs have spoken of a five-year plan to continue its colorful, seismically successful superhero world.

But “Endgame” is the climax to which these films have been building, and it’s well worth the payoff. It’s masterful in its juggling of characters and storylines, its mixture of light and dark tones, and its ability to tell a hugely complex story without ever feeling overbearing or overwrought.

Put plainly, it’s everything that Marvel does right and very little of what it does wrong.  

That wasn’t the case with “Avengers: Infinity War,” last year’s lead-up to “Endgame,” which struggled to squeeze together the storylines of the “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spider-Man,” “Black Panther” films and more into one coherent whole. It was a case of a lively party with too many guests, and there needed to be somebody at the door checking IDs and being a little more strict with the guest list.

The events of “Infinity War” — it’s not a spoiler to say a handful of those superheroes turned to pixels and were blown away like dust in the wind — help “Endgame” manage its personnel.

The majority of the film focuses on a sizable but manageable group working together to undo the events of “Infinity War,” which saw major heel Thanos (Josh Brolin, breathing life and a sense of measured resentment into a mostly CGI big guy) scooping up the mystical world-conquering jewels known as the Infinity Stones and laying waste to 50% of all living creatures on Earth. It was population control with an iron fist, and Thanos was a supervillain worthy of the attention of the Avengers, which not all baddies in the MCU can say for themselves.

Here, with an assist from new-to-the-team Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) attempt a “time heist” — a complicated time travel gamble — to retrieve the Infinity Stones and make things right in the universe again.

It’s an immense undertaking, both for the Avengers and for “Endgame,” but the limber script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dices the story into digestible chunks and never allows itself to feel overburdened.

A liberal dose of humor, including references to “Back to the Future,” “The Terminator” “Indiana Jones,” “The Big Lebowski” and other pop culture sign posts, helps keep things moving, and makes “Endgame’s” titanic three-hour runtime feel like a reward rather than a chore.  

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who also steered “Infinity War” and two of the three “Captain America” outings, keep this aircraft carrier on course. They’re able to take their time, allowing for small, unassuming character moments — Hawkeye enjoying a picnic with his family, Iron Man playing paper football with Nebula (Karen Gillan), Hulk’s hilarious transformation into a hipster — that would be pushed aside if the movie were all go-go-go.

It builds to a huge fight scene, because of course it builds to a huge fight scene, but characters are given individual moments within that gangbusters 15-minute sequence, including a dynamic girl power moment that feels especially timely given the current climate.

Gripes are few, and for a project this potentially unwieldy, “Endgame” is light on its feet. The cast, especially Downey and Evans, give the film the human element and grounding it needs. 

“Endgame” contemplates big-picture themes within a superhero framework and delivers a hugely entertaining ride worthy of its monumental buildup. It has big stakes and makes viewers feel those stakes, culminating in a series of emotional outcomes that feel earned, not handed out. An endgame was inevitable, one this measured was not. “Endgame” goes out on top.

‘Avengers: Endgame’

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language

Running time: 181 minutes

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