- 24 Apr 19
“We lost. And we lost a part of ourselves.” So muses Captain America in the newest instalment of Marvel's most successful film series. Grief is an almost unbearable burden for anyone, but what does it mean to not only lose, but to lose when your life has been defined by always being able to save everyone?
In this surprisingly emotional culmination of the decade-long Avengers films, directors Anthony and Joe Russo introduce us to a post-Thanos world. After the extremist supervillain (played brilliantly by Josh Brolin) assembled all six Infinity Stones, he wiped out half of all life in the universe with a simple snap of his fingers. Audiences watched in (tear-streaked, in my case) horror as many of our beloved heroes were turned to dust, leaving a bare-boned crew of Avengers left – some on Earth, some in space, all lost and grieving and without a plan.
As the heroes were left in the dark, so were audiences – to an extent. As Marvel had already released information about upcoming films for certain characters, it was clear that at least some of the vanished Avengers would return – but how? Theories about time travel, alternative universes, a reversing snap have all been thrown around the internet with abandon – but in many ways, the plot intricacies of the Russo brothers’ mammoth is the least interesting and impactful thing about it. Whether or not the superheroes use time travel to try defeat Thanos is somewhat beyond the point. Because Avengers:Endgame was always going to offer us, the audience, a form of time travel, as it reminds us of where we all started. Filled with callbacks, nostalgia and memory.
the film allows its lead characters the chance to look back on who they were not just before the snap, but before the Avengers, and how much has changed.
As an exercise in character study, this is, for the most part, deeply affecting. Family is a recurring theme throughout the film; the family one is born into, the ones we create, and how both are vital to our understanding of love, and ourselves. While previous instalments have focused on the conflicts, connections and losses in our character’s nuclear families – Thor’s sibling squabbles are well documented, and it’s safe to say that Gamora’s family could have benefited from some group therapy – Avengers:Endgame also shows how the love and loyalty within the found family of Avengers has fundamentally changed its members, including those whose entire personas were once forged around ideas of independence, isolation and apathy. These are no longer superheroes who are too cool to care; they are people who love each other fiercely, grieve their losses deeply, and will protect each other at all costs. The action of the Avengers franchise has been propelled by superpowers, but in Endgame, the plot is fuelled by human emotion.
But for the audience, too, this trip down memory lane is a layered exercise in self-examination. The Avengers franchise has fundamentally changed entertainment. It reignited our cultural obsession with superheroes, comic books, connected universes and interweaving storytelling. It defined the combination of comfort, familiarity and investment that now dominates our sequel and remake-filled film industry – but it did so for a reason, and Avengers:Endgame addresses that motivation, too.
As we see the Avengers trying to navigate a world devastated by sudden, meaningless, incomprehensible loss, there’s a clear (though thankfully unlaboured) nod to events like 9/11; events that destabilise many people’s sense of safety and certainty and security. The Russo brothers aren’t just addressing loss in the personal, tangible sense of losing loved ones - they’re addressing widescale grief and loss of innocence; the realisation that large-scale tragedies, whether natural or man-made, will occur, and seem to do so more and more frequently. As we see Natasha crumble into tears, observe Cap’s struggle to remain hopeful and watch Thor lose his Godly pride and succumb to human despair, we’re watching the Avengers struggle to accept what we mere mortals often have to in the face of world-changing tragedy: despite our best efforts, we are not always in control. We can’t always fix it. We can’t always go back. So no wonder we flock to familiar stories with characters we know, that feel familiar and welcoming, and who stick around for more than a decade and who always manage to save the day. Of course we want that.
But the Russo’s also know that sometimes, more than escapism, we need closure. And they do their damndest to give us that. Most of the characters onscreen get their due, as we see the issues each has struggled with over the years come to the fore, in one way or another. This attention can feel unbalanced; one character’s presentation of grief is overplayed for laughs; at least one character’s journey to self-acceptance is rushed through; another is treated with an unearned relevance that doesn’t match up with their prominence throughout the franchise. Some of these personal journeys are frankly too long, detracting from the pacing and needlessly slowing down the middle portion of the film – a section that already suffers some gaping holes in logic, should you think about the plot for more than three seconds.
There are also some clumsy moments that highlight how Marvel’s focus-grouped ideas about diversity and representation have often come cynically late, only when evidence showed that representing women and people of colour would be profitable. One shot in particular, designed to elicit praise for showcasing how powerful the Marvel women are, would have been far more impressive were it not over within three seconds, and had Marvel actually invested in any female-led films before, well, last month.
But the combination of slick visuals, humour and swelling music is still rousing, and the film features some of the franchise’s best performances. Robert Downey Jr. is a stand-out, as writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus allow audiences to see the different facets of tenderness that Downey, pre-Iron Man, always excelled at portraying. Scarlett Johansson is also notable, her portrayal of grief and open vulnerability showing how far her character has come from her days as a stoic, ruthless assassin. And Chris Evans gets one of the film’s genuine, Judd Nelson-on-a-football-field, air-punch-of-victory moments, that’s all the more meaningful knowing how his character has always tried to transcend the very human follies of cynicism and ego, in pursuit of the greater good.
And that’s what Avengers:Endgame is about, ultimately: the realisation that the greater good does not, can not, exist in a world based on individualism and self-interest. It’s a film about community, about family, about caring for each other and making sacrifice’s so that we’re all just that bit safer. The meat of this film isn’t in its plot or even the entertaining battle scenes – it’s in the relationships onscreen, and the overwhelming belief that some people, some values, are worth fighting for. And if we’re going to embrace superhero stories for what they are, for the idealism they have always stood for, maybe that’s the way we can show our appreciation for this decade-long run of wildly entertaining films: by doing what some character onscreen do, and taking the baton of heroism and running with it, even when it all seems a bit impossible.
Avengers:Endgame, as a slice of entertainment, may offer an emotional goodbye to some beloved characters. But as a slice of idealism, it offers a call to start living up to what we love about them: their unrelenting, irrepressible, utterly inevitable dedication to each other, and this stubborn, annoying little planet of ours. 4/5