Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts and Feelings on Avengers: Endgame and the end of this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spoilers will be all over this post for not only this film but those prior; as one cannot talk about this film without the others.
“YOU KNOW YOUR TEAMS.”
Overall, I found Avengers: Endgame to be wildly successful as both an individual action movie and as the concluding chapter of a 22-film saga. The Russos, along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were given a very high bar to clear in order to render this experience satisfying, and they seemed to not only agree to this challenge but set that bar a few notches higher. While I do have a handful of questions and less-positive reactions to some of these choices, some of which I’ll get into below, the time I spent in the theater on Sunday morning with a sold-out house was an entertaining, exhilarating, and moving adventure with interpretations of characters I had grown to love over a course of a decade. The feat of film production that Disney/Marvel and its point-producer Kevin Feige was always one of high bravado, with no guarantees of success. This has been demonstrated perhaps most sharply by the tonal and narrative missteps of their prime competitor Warner Bros/DC, as they attempted to mimic the shared-universe concept while handing nearly all of their most enduring properties over to Zack Snyder, an auteur who seems to misunderstand not only the core of those characters, but at a fundamental level the very concept of heroism.
Feige and Marvel took a leap of faith, executed several acrobatic flips throughout the arc of that leap, and then managed to stick most of the landing. Even if I found Endgame disappointing — which I didn’t; far from it — I’d have to applaud the sincere and calculated effort that built the MCU. Part of that is to say: Miss me with all of the thinkpieces about how the MCU has destroyed cinema for good and how its record-breaking box office is somehow worse for the culture at large than any of the other films that previously broke box office records.
“I SEE BETTER FROM A DISTANCE.”
Mark me down as one of those people whose emotional investment in these characters and relationships had me well on the way to wreckage from the very first minutes of the film. I did suspect going into the film that Clint Barton was about to have his peaceful life at home utterly shattered by the events of Infinity War, but the way this loss was staged was painful to witness because of the information we had that poor Clint did not. To his eyes, his wife and children had suddenly disappeared, but our eyes could still see the floating specks of dust in the air and knew exactly what they meant. It was the first time we had seen Hawkeye onscreen for three years, since being freed from The Raft at the end of Civil War, and within minutes we were seeing something new and unsettling from who has been arguably the Avengers’ coolest head: sheer terror. It was effective, and it placed me squarely in a frame of mind to accept that we’d be seeing several of these characters in situations and mindsets that we’d never seen before, as a testament to the scale of cataclysm that Thanos had wrought.
“YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE CURSED WITH KNOWLEDGE.”
From the standpoint of narrative structure, I was impressed at the way the film decides to start us out in the coda we never received at the end of Infinity War, a mere three weeks after the Avengers had been defeated, when they still find themselves on their back foot but have not as a group given in fully to despair. The exception to that is Tony Stark, whose brush with a slow and relatively lonely death in the vacuum of deep space after watching most of his allies and his protege Peter Parker reduced to ashes have showed him the abyss of his own limitations. Even the relief of being reunited with his wife and friends cannot overcome his anger at having lost so much, which manifests as both venom and hopelessness.
Although Tony’s in no condition to join the team that heads to Thanos’s garden planet, he’s nonetheless shown to be correct, at that moment, when our heroes learn that they are far too late to grasp the only solution that might have been available to them — recapturing the Infinity Stones and reversing the deed itself. During the Chitauri invasion of New York, Tony had famously told Loki that the reason they were called the Avengers was that if they couldn’t save the world, “you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.” But that declaration is put to the test when the heroes face off against Thanos again, and everybody learns that there is no real peace to be found in having exacted vengeance. Thor taking off Thanos’s head with Stormbreaker comes across as perfunctory instead of cathartic; it is but a dangling bit of unfinished business instead of a victory, and it eats away at his sense of identity for the next five years.
“WE’RE SERIOUSLY UNDERSTAFFED.”
It is similarly bold to jump forward that many years and to show us how the world left behind has failed to become the paradise that Thanos predicted it would, the survivors both human and superhuman still struggling with the knowledge that they have been gifted with more space and resources but also inflicted with more emptiness. Endgame is painting with a very nuanced palette of grief that I struggle to recall having been used in any film of its kind before now. As the Thanos of the past will comprehend once he looks upon the imperfections of his vision, a world that suffers so cruel an amputation as half of its living beings at once can perhaps never again see itself as whole. Even when those individuals who experienced the catastrophe have passed on or moved on, as a collective there is no way to forget how something precious has been stolen. This will, unfortunately, lead the Mad Titan not to abandon his plans but to revise them towards complete annihilation, a decision that will organically amplify the stakes of the final battle to come.
Steve Rogers finds himself counseling as many people as he can to find some sort of meaning in the aftermath but he readily admits to Natasha that his own words have failed to convince him. Throughout his own story in this narrative, Steve has been defined by his indomitable spirit, his insistence on rising to face his foes no matter how often they may knock him down. The hollow ache of grief is not a foe he can strike with his enhanced fists nor that any shield can stop. No sacrifice he can make of himself will save either those who died or those who are still living. He and Natasha remain the warriors they ever were, but in the absence of orders they have made up missions that might make them feel useful. Until Scott Lang shows up at their doorstep with his unfinished theories of time travel, it feels clear that neither Steve nor Natasha are succeeding in their attempts.
“WILL YOU BE ABLE TO REST?”
Tony and Pepper, on the other hand, have managed to find some solace in the family they have built with their daughter Morgan. Tony clearly continues to tinker, his mind still never able to stop working, but if the problems he now allows himself to think about have the smaller and more personal scales of anniversary gifts and how to manage bedtimes. The level to which Tony has processed and moved beyond his greatest defeat is debatable, but it is nonetheless clear that he knows how fortunate he is. Fatherhood has changed him in so profound a way that even when faced with the prospect of reviving uncountable numbers of lost life the possibility that it might cost him the prior five years of growth and wonder is non-negotiable. Even the part of him that continues to work on the problem of time travel when it is presented to him is aware that it need not knock on the door of his office with any answer that might require him to give up Morgan.
These changes within him will also become key to reconciling the last piece of his soul he had never been able to truly heal when he encounters his own father Howard in the days before Tony would be born. Howard Stark, who was introduced to audiences as little more than a newspaper photograph in the same movie that introduced his son, has nonetheless acted as a linchpin character for the MCU’s narrative purposes, allowing Marvel to introduce the scope of human history to their universe in the same way that Thor would weave into the fabric the possibility of cosmic scale later used to greater purpose by the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and also the potential of magic that would be fully realized in Doctor Strange. Howard’s earliest chronological appearances as a military scientist and playboy in both The First Avenger and the gone-too-soon Agent Carter television series show a man with his heart in the right place but his appetites constantly in the way of his better impulses. His work and choices influence the creation of Captain America, provide the keystones for Iron Man’s arc reactors and the new element that saves Tony’s life, and are shown to play a part in Hank Pym’s messy divorce from the government. The AI that will eventually meld with the Mind Stone to create Vision is named after Howard’s valet and Peggy Carter’s occasional partner Jarvis. The truth of his and his wife’s murders at the hands of the Winter Soldier ultimately creates a rift within the Avengers that finds them estranged from each other during the universe’s greatest crisis.
On the personal level, Howard’s looming legend would over time become the standard that Tony was trying to surpass, often without the story having to spell that out for us and with Tony unwilling to acknowledge that his prickly relationship with his father was based on his drive to compete against every person he considered his equal. The gift that Tony receives here is the chance to see his father at one of the moments of his greatest uncertainty, which humanizes him in a way he could never have perceived from the lens of being his child. That this happens during one of Tony’s own most uncertain moments — the fraught and perilous “time heist” that he’s currently improvising within — takes that encounter from potency to poetry. The impact of both Howard Stark’s presence and his absence within the life of his son cannot possibly be overstated on the MCU; it leads in many ways to the climax we receive at this film’s end.
“STRETCHING ONE MOMENT OUT INTO A THOUSAND.”
The audience’s knowledge of plot and character history over the past eleven years of cinema is the leverage that the filmmakers have over our emotional responses throughout Endgame. Besides the encounter between Howard and Tony, we are given a very long series of either first encounters or reunions, each of them having their own tenor and power. Thor’s meeting with his mother Frigga, who recognizes almost instantly that she is seeing her son at his lowest point in his future, turns out to be what he needed moreso than what would likely have been an awkward attempt at charming the Aether away from Jane. For Steve, the hole in his being has always been the time he lost with Peggy Carter, but even when he first finds her again in 1970, he knows that his mission comes first, which is exactly how he lost her in 1944. After watching Tony give everything — making the “sacrifice play” that Steve once accused him of being unable of making — and knowing exactly how much he gave up, Steve is able to accept the possibility that he might be allowed a second chance at happiness, and for once decide not to be wholly selfless.
There are several other points where the film relies on this understanding to keep moving the plot forward and also to provide us with relief or joy. We know immediately why Natasha is the one to go fetch Clint, driven to the brink of madness by the opportunism of those still seeking to exploit human misery after that misery has been multiplied exponentially by Thanos, and we know what it means when her hand reaches for his. Steve steps into an elevator with a crowd he now knows to be Hydra agents and turns their secrecy against them, simultaneously taking an infamous development from Marvel Comics’ much-maligned Secret Empire storyline and turning it into a moment of triumph. Scott’s reverence for Captain America, first established when the two met in Civil War, continues to be a source of amusement and delight. Captain Marvel’s arrival at the final battle reminds us how we’ve seen spaceships fall apart in her presence, and after the fact we can imagine the desperation of the bridge crew attempting to shoot her out of the sky before she cuts through them. Our enjoyment of Peter Quill’s opening-credits dance from Guardians of the Galaxy is given a playful tweak by having Rhodey and Nebula watch him without hearing what we heard, and we’re shown how ridiculous it should have appeared instead. We remember Peter’s initial panic when he discovered his Stark-designed Spider-suit included an “insta-kill” function but for once, while facing hordes of merciless Chitauri, we’re allowed to accept it when such a function is deployed. During the film’s darkest hour, with Steve gritting his teeth and strapping his shattered shield to his arm for one last assault on Thanos, the collective weight of this saga’s history is given both a sweeping emotional high — the opening of Doctor Strange’s portals that signal the arrival of the cavalry — and a more intimate one, with Sam intoning “on your left” to assure Steve that his friend is alive once more. The notable shot of nearly all of the MCU’s heroines heading into battle at once is clearly calculated to elicit the response it gets, but it’s such a thrill to give that response, and I’ve already agreed for ten years now to follow wherever the adventure leads me. We are finally allowed the satisfaction of hearing Captain America finish the Avengers call-to-arms with the word “assemble,” mixed in with the already awe-inspiring war cries of Wakanda, and being shown once and for all that his heart was worthy to wield Mjolnir.
And Tony ends the battle he’d always been heading towards with the phrase that ended his first outing and sparked the start of the conceptual shared universe. The look that passes between him and Doctor Strange, with Strange reminding him that there was only one way this ended in victory, must have gone like a bolt of lightning through his brain. He knew that Strange had traded Tony’s life for the Time Stone in the first place, which allowed him to finally understand that Strange had seen Tony as the key to finishing the fight at all. He knows what the gauntlet will cost him and he seizes it anyway. As his last testament observes, “that’s the hero gig.”
“THE SUN’S GETTING REAL LOW.”
There is also a tragedy to be found in the ballad of Bruce and Natasha, who came close to having something special but became victims of timing and circumstance. Their relationship began in mistrust and fear, with the Hulk nearly killing her aboard a Helicarrier, evolved into affection and love, fell apart due to Bruce’s insecurities about who he was as the Hulk, and then cooled entirely after he’d been transported to Sakaar. By the time he returned he was caught in a state of being unable to manifest the Hulk at all, and Endgame finds him having finally figured out a way to assert his intellect within the Hulk’s brawn, but by this time Natasha is too haunted by their losses for the two of them to reconnect, and then she exchanges her life for both Clint’s and the acquisition of the Soul Stone.
I will admit that the trip to Vormir this time felt like the writers realized they’d created a trap for themselves that they could not get themselves or their characters out of. When Thanos sacrificed Gamora to achieve his monstrous ends, it represented a point on his journey when it became clear he could never return or be redeemed. When Hawkeye and Widow fight it out to see which of them will give their life for the other, it has different stakes yet the same ending, and I would have loved to see these two relatively un-enhanced heroes use their wits and their connection to figure out a way through that didn’t simply require the irrevocable death of an original Avenger. The Soul Stone was deemed unique among the six, and Vormir is a sort of sphinx element. This time it should have been a riddle to be solved instead of a test to be endured.
And furthermore, I wished that Natasha’s memory had been given more weight and been commented upon at the services by more of her compatriots besides Clint. Bruce and Steve have their moments of acknowledgment, but she’s meant more to each of them, as well as to Nick Fury and Maria Hill, than one might assume from the scenes we receive. There’s a justification one could make of this based on a device set up in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series that discusses the relatively low-key way spies in this world depart into death or exile, but such a justification requires a generosity we shouldn’t be asked to show. Natasha was a character whose superpower was the way she’d be underestimated by both friends and foes alike. It might have been appropriate if in death they gave her the entirety of her due.
“AND SOMETIMES THE BEST WE CAN DO IS TO START OVER.”
Shenanigans is perhaps the best way to describe the number of rules and theories spun out about the nature of time travel in this film, but what this allows us to do is see what happens when some characters see who they used to be while others learn what they will become, to both comic and dramatic effect. The Hulk confronts his past with some embarrassment and the Ancient One confronts her future with trepidation, while Frigga pointedly refuses to hear of her fate at all. Captain America assesses how often he leaned on his catchphrase and what he looked like in his prior uniform. Perhaps nobody experiences this quite as profoundly as Nebula, who through a fluke of her hardware finds her memory ripped out of linear time, giving Thanos a glimpse into what his future holds, and must then not only contend with the Nebula she used to be, but also the Gamora she eventually reconciled with. The fact that future Nebula is left with no option but to kill her younger self shows us exactly how far from redemption she truly was at that point, and as far as that timeline is concerned, now she never would be. Whenever the next Guardians film arrives, we’re going to be dealing with an interesting role reversal between the two sisters, both of them finally out from under the eye of Thanos but Nebula having spent a much longer period of time on the side of the angels, trying to help Gamora rehabilitate instead of the reverse.
Thanos is placed in a particularly interesting storytelling structure between this film and its predecessor. Infinity War was written around providing Thanos with a type of classical hero’s journey, ending with him accomplishing his goal but having been changed by its ordeal. We see nearly none of this Thanos in Endgame. Instead, we see a Thanos in his last moments, successful but not quite satisfied, defiant but somewhat defeated, and then we see Thanos at the outset of his quest, when the possibility of possessing one Infinity Stone, much less six, was merely ambition. While Infinity War is the tale of the Mad Titan’s self-actualization, Endgame is the story of his death, told twice, once through the lens of his victory and the next through the lens of his defeat. In both instances Thanos seems diminished, like he was never more himself than when his goal seemed to be an impossible task.
The other peculiar consequence of these shenanigans is that they leave us with stories that went untold for now, but which surely Marvel will find the impetus to try telling one day. The earliest days of Marvel Comics saw writer/frontman Stan Lee throwing next to every idea he had at the pages of his books and demanding Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or some other artist fill in the pencils, inks, and colors around them. Storylines or details that failed were abandoned and never spoken of again, those that succeeded would be filed away for reference later in the stories of other characters. Endgame works to maintain that spirit, and is impressive in how many threads it ties up but also in how many questions it leaves to explore for another day. Off the top of my head I can count nine: The stories of what happened to the six different realities after one stone from each of them went missing, the question of where a still-villainous Loki went when he stole the Tesseract and escaped Avengers custody, what version of Vision might yet be able to return based on how much Shuri saved and without the power of the Mind Stone, and the lengthy tale of what Steve Rogers did when he set about returning the stolen stones and then decided to take the long way back to the present.
I, in particular, am chomping at the bit to read the story of what happened when Cap went to Vormir and found himself face to face with Johann Schmidt once again, and what pleas he might have made to try and revive Natasha. I’m also amused to think of how much chaos he sowed in Hydra when they were made to believe he was one of them, and whether Jasper Sitwell’s misinformation saw him undo decades of preparation the next time he spoke to that reality’s Cap.
One of the newly announced Disney+ streaming series is based on Marvel’s What If…? series, which creates opportunities for all of these stories to be told and more. And an interview with the Russos earlier this week suggested that the reunion and long life Cap spent with Peggy happened in another reality entirely, preserving the integrity of the prior films after all and giving Marvel another toy to play with in the future should they so choose.
“THE LIVING ARE NOT DONE WITH YOU YET.”
Despite its title, Endgame is no more an ending than prior Avengers films were. The ramifications of both The Avengers and Age of Ultron fed the motivations and philosophies of individuals, and those would in turn ripple out and affect the world within the MCU. The Chitauri invasion in 2012 would haunt Tony throughout the third Iron Man film and lead him to develop Ultron with Bruce; the fallout from that failed experiment would be the casualties in Sokovia that eventually fracture the team in Civil War. What we now know about the timeline of the MCU is that it exists ahead of us in 2023, and that when Peter Parker heads to Europe in the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home it will be with a class that were themselves snapped out of existence five years prior. Save for Bruce Banner, the original Avengers are no more — Tony and Natasha dead, Steve a man well past his prime, Thor off with the Guardians on the Benatar, and Clint catching up with his family for the time that was stolen. Avengers HQ is rubble and craters, and much of the rest of the group are freelancers with nobody to guide them.
But the genius of these past 22 films is that the characters and locations they introduced to carry on the legacy leave us with enticing ideas for the next phase despite having lost those we started the journey with. While the comics universe often centered New York City as the hub of superheroics, Wakanda’s technological mastery, recently abandoned isolationism, and the richness of the society depicted by Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther creates an opportunity to center the defense of the world in a place besides America. T’Challa’s nobility, grace, and tactical mindset makes him more than capable of being the leader Steve once was, with Carol Danvers and Stephen Strange offering levels of cosmic and mystical power that replace what was lost with the departures of Iron Man and Thor. Shuri, Peter, and Bruce fulfill the task of technological wizardry that Tony also used to provide; Nick Fury remains in whatever shadows he will and Nakia is just as deadly and skilled a spy as Natasha was. The Guardians represent further possibilities to break the fabric of the MCU’s universe and are likely to do even moreso with Thor on the ship.
There are a lot of options for how this franchise can move forward, and it may be folly to assume that even the next five films can match the heights of the first 22. But it was folly, once, to think 22 films could be strung together over a course of 11 years into a single cohesive narrative with as satisfying a capstone as Endgame. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Marvel has earned my trust.