Leading up to Avengers: Endgame, Marvel movies were fairly bad at characterization. A few villains were sophisticated characters you could understand—above all Thanos, who is tragic—but not so the beloved heroes. This tendency to create moral simpletons reached an apex with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two heroes with no moral complexity whatsoever; they are flawless from start to finish. With Avengers: Endgame, this changes, and we actually discover unseen aspects of the beloved super-hero team.
Infinity War ended with Thanos winning and half the life in the universe exterminated. This changes things—it changes our heroes (some spoilers follow here). Hawkeye loses his family in this culling, and becomes a ruthless killer, taking out his anger on every criminal he can find. His logic is more than simple vengefulness; now, life really is a gift—a gift for some that has been denied others, so criminality becomes inexcusable.
The world we see in Endgame is troubling (spoiler alert!), although it is said to be in some ways good. Everyone can enjoy the end of global warming. Mass extermination means the whales return to New York Harbor, as Captain America—he of the sunny demeanor—reports. The planet, at least, is healing. Iron Man’s wife, Pepper Potts, says she’s reading about composting. Ecological consciousness might become a new religion in a post-slaughter world.
We see memorials for the dead, with names etched into slabs of stone. But otherwise, life goes on—an utterly implausible normality dominates the environment. Our heroes want to somehow undo Thanos’ victory, since half the universe is dead, but the other half is doing just fine, more or less as though nothing had happened.
This failure to imagine any kind of social, political, or religious change is impressive—it defines the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reassuring audiences that even an apocalypse cannot really change anything in our normal lives seems to be the purpose of each and every movie, but in this case it actually depicts the apocalypse for half of us, and the other half don’t blink. For the problems that do arise, we mostly see therapeutic answers, like Captain America leading a group therapy session.
The pleasant surprises are elsewhere: most of our heroes, who were previously incapable of living with any semblance of normality, are now shockingly well-adjusted. Iron Man is not only married, but a dedicated, loving father, and he seems to embody upper-middle class ideals of playfulness and banishment of all bad thoughts. The worst imaginable catastrophe has done everything his powers previously couldn’t to get him to calm down; he’s not neurotic anymore, nor paranoid—he’s no longer building world-ending machines out of fear of bad things that might happen. For a while, we get to see Iron Man without the bellicose technology that seems to cause as much trouble as it solves.
But the Hulk is the best piece of news for mankind. He’s fully overcome that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine. He’s gotten over his hang-ups; he’s so well-adjusted that he’s forever smiling, having fun taking pictures with fans. He’s become the mascot version of himself.
At this point, you begin to think that this is an episode of The Twilight Zone. Every conflict has been solved by denying there are any problems within our nature.
What’s scary about this Brave New World begins to show up with Thor. He’s been the only really manly guy among the Avengers, and he’s now transformed into The Dude—indeed, Iron Man mocks him as Lebowski. He’s got a beer belly and long, unkempt hair, and he’s abandoned dignity, not just his royal position, so that he can play computer games. Harassing kids on Fortnite seems to be the last opportunity for striving.
That portrait mocks men who play computer games instead of living responsible, productive lives—but it also makes you think such young men are yearning for the sorts of things that once animated Thor and which have been removed from our world. Spiritedness has been annihilated in accepting defeat at the hands of Thanos. This seems to be the true reason why Thanos must be fought. People cannot remain capable of heroism if they accept such a compulsion. A seemingly unchanged world has in fact been radically transformed.
So our heroes fight off the temptation of peace and dedicate themselves to undoing the past, Thanos’ victory, and their own fates. How do you get mankind out of the dead end that looks like the End of History, where all desires have been satisfied, there are no more reasons to fight wars, and it’s not clear why we’d even bother to be human?
Since tragedy is out of the question and we’re compelled to find a happy end, our heroes not only turn to the past to get the power to stop Thanos—they also have to confront their own pasts. Fate can be conquered this way. Since there was an entire movie about Iron Man’s trying to find closure with his dead father through technology (Captain America: Civil War), it’s unsurprising that he goes to actually meet his father and become friends with him.
Indeed, Iron Man condescends to his father, reassuring him that becoming a father’s going to be alright and that he’s doing great. He quotes his father to himself, to the effect that all the money in the world cannot buy you a second of time—this, of course, is not true, not just because rich people live longer, but because Iron Man can go back in time to get closure.
Similarly, Thor has a heartwarming moment with his mother, on the day of her death, when all the drama started. She’s the pluperfect of serene, as though she had been waiting for him, and gives him the loving support he seems to need to overcome his newfound cowardice after having been defeated by Thanos. His manliness was in some sense a sham—he was a boy in a handsome man’s body—and he needs to cry and let some of those feelings out. He gets his chance at therapy as well.
It’s remarkable how sentimental the story is, after all, and you might miss these points in all the convoluted go-back-to-the-past plot, to say nothing of all the action set pieces, where there’s so much exciting fighting that you might get bored with the movie altogether. At its heart, it affirms a view of therapy as a solution to tragedy that you might find depressing if you stop to think about it. Not only are our heroes working hard to make a world where they’re no longer possible or necessary, but they are doing it because they have psychological issues. As soon as they become well-adjusted, they can stop being heroes—taking their bows and making way for other characters in future installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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