The following Avengers: Endgame review contains NO spoilers outside of things revealed in the trailers and posters. (And what happened in Avengers: Infinity War, duh.)

Late Marvel patriarch Stan Lee liked to call the company’s fans “True Believers.” While Avengers: Endgame is lively, funny, and exciting enough that casual viewers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe should enjoy themselves, the movie is clearly aimed at those who live up to Stan’s nickname; the people who live and die on the Avengers’ every triumph and failure, who watch and rewatch their movies — and read and reread their comics — endlessly. Those who do not at least have a passing knowledge of the previous Avengers movies might as well just stay home. Endgame has more prerequisites than medical school.

It picks up in the aftermath of last summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, in which alien conqueror Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in collecting the six all-powerful Infinity Stones and then used them to wipe out half of all life in a deranged attempt to restore “balance” to the universe. (He presumably considered doubling the universe’s natural resources, then elected to choose a more dickish solution.) The Avengers stood against him, and in a fairly bold stroke for a mainstream blockbuster that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, the good guys lost. More than half the heroes, including Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and poor Spider-Man (Tom Holland) died in the process.

In Endgame, the survivors — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and a few of their allies — regroup and decide to set things right. They’re joined by mega-powerful new recruit Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who gives them enough muscle to make a second run at Thanos. So they head off into space to take the fight to him.

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It should go without saying that things do not go as planned — or that the trailers for Avengers: Endgame have only hinted at the full scope of the large, complex plot, which zigs and zags all over the galaxy over the course of three breathless hours. Despite the continued story and returning villain from Infinity WarEndgame feels like a very different movie, with an energy all its own. It’s brighter and lighter than Infinity War, which verged on depressing at times (and more than verged on sluggish at other times). Even with the fate of half of the universe riding in the balance, Endgame maintains a buoyant, bantering vibe that’s closer to the spirit of the first Avengers from 2012 than either of its previous sequels.

Part of that is thanks to new additions to the cast like Paul Rudd, who brings a grounded, human perspective to the extremely cosmic proceedings, and to surprising directions for some of the other Avengers, particularly Chris Hemsworth, who has done an incredible job of transforming Thor from possibly the stuffiest Marvel hero to its most self-deprecating one over the course of his last several appearancesAnd while you may find yourself missing some of the heroes who died in Infinity War, the smaller and more manageable cast is of enormous benefit to Endgame, because there’s now more screen time to go around for longtime Marvel vets like Downey Jr., Evans, Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, who all got the short shrift last time out. (Renner’s Hawkeye didn’t appear at all in Infinity War, but he plays a key role in Endgame.)

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Some skeptics have already been wringing their hands about Endgame’s lengthy runtime — “Three hours for an Avengers movie?” is something I heard more than once from several sources. But the movie doesn’t feel long. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pack in more than enough plot, characters, action, and callbacks to make the time breeze by (assuming, of course, you’ve got an emotional attachment to, say, the Hulk and his physical well-being).

There are nits to pick about some of the ins and outs of the Avengers’ plan, and I doubt I will be the only one who found it odd that this movie openly mocks a film it then proceeds to steal from for the next hour or so. Still, Avengers: Endgame largely delivers exactly what its audience wants: Huge setpieces, massive stakes, inspirational speeches, the Avengers being ride-or-die besties, and emotional moments that may or may not have made me cry. (Okay, fine, made. I cried at least two times. [Okay, fine! More than two times. I’m not made of stone like the Thing!]) No matter what comes next from Marvel Studios, this Avengers is a gargantuan love letter to the equally enormous mythology that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of their collaborators built — and to the generations of readers and moviegoers who truly believe in it.

Additional Thoughts:
-Suggested alternate title, given the villain and the size of the cast: Avengers: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Titan.

-Surprise Endgame MVP: Karen Gillan as Thanos’ daughter turned Guardian of the Galaxy Nebula. After the original Avengers, she might be the most important character in Endgame — and she steals scene after scene.

-It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be one when you see it — Marvel didn’t even film the famous shawarma sequence in the first Avengers until after the movie’s premiere — but I did not see a post-credits scene at my Endgame screening.

Gallery — The Evolution of Every Avenger’s Costume From Movie to Movie: