The Ledger & Times ran a review of “Avengers: Endgame” on last week’s arts page, so this is not another review. Instead, this column reflects on the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an unbelievable pop culture juggernaut.

After family and work obligations prevented me from catching the highly anticipated movie during its record-breaking debut weekend (an unprecedented $350 domestic and $1.2 billion global haul!), I finally had a chance to see it with my wife, Sanci, last Sunday. It isn’t often that seeing a movie after it’s been out for only 10 days makes you feel late to the party, but this movie might be the biggest phenomenon to be released in theaters in my lifetime.

As someone who considers going out to the movies almost a religious ritual, it felt really weird to not have an opinion on it for the entirety of last week. But I had no choice. I worked the Saturday morning after it came out and Sanci and I held my daughter’s sixth birthday party that afternoon before taking her to see “Frozen” at Playhouse in the Park that night. I then worked most of that Sunday, including taking photos, writing a story and laying out that Monday’s news section, so there was no humanly way possible I could make it to a theater for three hours.

I tried to avoid all spoilers before going in, but that proved impossible since I had to edit the review of it last week. Still, even though it revealed a couple of surprise plot developments that happen in probably the first 20 minutes – which would not count as a spoiler for any other movie that was not so shrouded in secrecy prior to its release – I still managed to avoid enough information to keep my experience reasonably fresh. While talking about the movie here, I will try to avoid too many details, but judging from the box office numbers, if you have any interest at all, you’ve probably already seen it.

I saw all of the 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies leading up to “Endgame,” and all but three of those were during their initial release in theaters. Up until “Captain America: Civil War” came out in 2016, though, I considered myself a casual fan. I might have spent many hours watching these films, but I didn’t spend a lot of time outside of that thinking about them. If you had told me seven years ago when the first “Avengers” movie came out that I would cry multiple times during “Endgame,” I would have thought you were crazy.

“Sure, I enjoy Marvel movies and they’re a lot of fun, but they’re trifles,” I would have undoubtedly said. “I care about the characters to a certain extent, but these movies aren’t emotionally engaging enough to actually get choked up about, let alone shed tears.”

Of course, as millions of people all over the world are now learning the same about themselves, I would have been dead wrong. As far as big-budget movie franchises go, I would say “Endgame” is probably the most emotionally satisfying conclusion to a series since the Oscar-winning “The Return of the King” wrapped up “The Lord of the Rings” 16 years ago. When I walked out of the opening day screening of that movie, my friends and I were speechless until we got outside, and I remember eventually saying, “I’ve been waiting for that movie all year and knew I would love it, but it was even better than I had any right to expect.”

Although my anticipation was not nearly at the fever pitch it was for “ROTK” when I was college – after all, I have a job and family to occupy most of my thoughts now – those words could still probably sum up my feelings about “Endgame.” Although there will be plenty of other MCU movies for years to come, we are saying goodbye to some of the franchise’s most beloved characters, and most of the characters get extremely satisfying emotional payoffs toward the end of the movie. Even though I had heard the ending was causing audiences to cry, I still found myself surprised when certain moments hit me in the gut.

It helps that Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) and Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) deliver all-time best performances as the de-facto leaders of the Avengers. Especially after seeing all the conflict they went through together in “Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” it feels great to see them reconcile and work toward a common goal again.

The conceit of “Endgame” is also a brilliant way to pay homage to many of the other MCU movies. At the end of last year’s “Infinity War,” the titan Thanos is successful is acquiring all six of the magical Infinity Stones to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The Avengers find a way to travel back in time to grab the stones before Thanos can get to them, which gives directors Anthony and Joe Russo an excuse to restage iconic moments from earlier films from a different perspective. And since this so-called “time heist” is a tribute of sorts to one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy series ever, “Back to the Future” – which is directly referenced by the characters – I admit I was sold on the concept from the start.

Looking back on the last 11 years, it is still astounding what Marvel Studios was able to accomplish. A couple of years before Marvel was purchased by Disney, it took a gamble by making a movie about Iron Man, a comic book character not nearly as well-known to the general public at that time as other Marvel characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk or the X-Men. When I went to see “Iron Man” in 2008, I never dreamed it was the start of something that would lead to multiple films every year and only grow in popularity over the next decade.

As I mentioned before, although I enjoyed these movies from the start, I saw them mostly out of habit for the first few years and didn’t have a deeper connection to them than that. When “The Avengers” came out in 2012, it was almost a coincidence that I had seen all five of the movies that preceded it. But because of the huge mark the MCU left on pop culture, I continued to go see them in the theater and gradually began to enjoy the semiannual ritual more and more.

With a 1-year-old daughter at home, I missed both “Thor: The Dark World” (one of the worst-reviewed MCU films) in 2013 and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (one of the better-reviewed) in 2014, as well as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in May 2015. I came back for “Ant-Man” in August 2015, but had to do my homework before “Civil War” came out the next year by watching those movies at home. Since “Civil War” told one of the more dramatic and emotional stories in the series up to that point, it was worth it, and I’ve been fully entrenched in the MCU mythology ever since.

Even my wife, Sanci, became interested in the last couple of years. She’s seen three of the movies so far, so she’s got a lot of way left to go, but we’re both looking forward to seeing what the future of Marvel brings. Since she still hasn’t seen most of them, I guess that also gives me a reason to go back and watch them all with her.

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