A well told story needs no further explanation from the tellers. This is not an adage the makers of Avengers: Endgame subscribe to as they continue niggling at their massive and popular hit film, like they are not done. As a writer, I get the notion that no work is ever complete but that inner conversation doesn’t need to be in the public domain. I left the cinema on the afternoon it opened feeling like certain developmental arcs for most characters were sadly but satisfactorily concluded. Yet the film also opened up possibilities for story tangents. Thor as a Guardian of the Galaxy? Yes please.
But back to Endgame.
The first half felt like an exploration of how grief manifests: in overwork, in caring duties, in avoidance, in being buried in the pursuit of everything you had previously denied yourself, in dangerous behaviours, and depression.
All this grief felt realistic, but I loathed, absolutely, the treatment of Thor. Of all Avengers Thor had probably lost more than anyone across all films: his home-world, his parents, siblings, and most of his people, not to mention his failure to defeat Thanos in a death stroke. Is it any wonder at his transformation? At his drinking, eating and his emotionalism? And if his response if proportionate, if unwise, why make him the clown? Why trivialise Thor’s mourning in the pursuit of a few unnecessary jokes? In contrast, why does Barton not get a proportionate response for how his grief manifests? What price does he pay?
My other point of contention is the treatment of Natasha Romanov. Finally, the Black Widow is in mourning, and properly buries herself in Avenging coordination work as a stand-in for Nick Fury. That felt accurate, however, the Russo’s revealing they explored an orphanage subplot for Nat…is lame. It would have been another waste of a global Avenger, a trained spy, an alien-battle war scarred veteran. It’s like writers panic about how to present a woman who doesn’t have and can’t have children. Then again in the story they did present is problematic too. The notion that Nat can die because Barton has a family can go in the bin. Then again, Romanov has always been willing to ‘get the job done’ but this time, I can’t help feeling the writers are more ok with her death drive, because a living vigilante murderer dad is better than a surviving, determined, woman without children. (Hence Romanov’s lack of memorial. I mean formerly shady women with years of sacrifice for global security but without children don’t have friends who mourn them right?)
Back to Barton, what kind of father can he be now? His transition to paternal farmer isn’t going to be sweetness and light. All this leads me to want to tie the choices the writers made about Barton and Romanov to American pro-natalism and current Handmaid’s Tale-esque level of state interference in US women’s bodies, lives and choices. Russia didn’t make Romanov a ‘monster’ – a word she once used of herself. No, this is how Romanov internalised the American view of her.
Beyond all this, any residual feelings Natasha had for either Bruce Banner or Rogers are unaddressed. The Decimation killed any hint of a romantic subplot (except for a passing grief stricken Banner moment) and I’m on the fence about that. I would have been angry had Romanov’s agency and utility had been only as a romantic heroine. And yet…
This leads me to Captain America. This film is a romance after all. Because apparently Steve Rogers deserves a romantic subplot in a way that Romanov never did, or something. The main thing I want to mention about Rogers is Kevin Feige’s explanation of how when Steve once tried to lift Mjolnir and couldn’t: he lied. That to me undoes Roger’s character progression. For one Rogers is a terrible liar. My theory is that Captain America was unworthy of Mjolnir during Age of Ultron given the egotism between Avengers resulted in them fighting themselves in Captain America: Civil War. And yes you could blame Tony Stark for their war, but Rogers is responsible too and recognises this eventually. That’s the thing about worthiness: it is a journey of becoming.
Anyway, it is right that Captain America only becomes worthy of Mjolnir in Endgame. Rogers’ sacrifices more, he goes further, and comes closer to dying than at any time earlier, all while grieving the loss of friends. As a bloke in counselling, he swaps roles with Falcon, helping others to try to come to terms with loss. His maturity is demonstrated by how he can confide in Romanov, as he realises he can’t follow his own advice. It is through all this work, rather than his physical prowess that Rogers could then wield Mjolnir in the last big fight to undo all the suffering and death.
I left the film feeling ok at about Roger’s finale though. It was a sweet moment that doesn’t bear too much thinking on, otherwise you’ll hurt yourself trying to work out how his choice upsets previous plot points and timelines (or not). There are endless explanations online if you want to explore them.
With such a large heroic cast Endgame featured less average folk doing things, like the one SHIELD dude resisting the Hydra command to launch the carriers in Winter Soldier. But the moment in counselling where Rogers just listened to a man talk about trying to date again was unexpectedly moving. How often do superheros just listen to a person who isn’t a politician, boss, soldier, or academic who is also not a comedic foil? This scene helped ground in the film in consequences of the snap.
Of course there is more to say. Like why watch and comment on a film like this? I think part of the allure is how our heroes, for all the manipulation and tragedy they endure, still have abilities to take action to (try to) achieve something, in much the same way as say the warriors of The Iliad do. And people are still talking about that epic saga.
What do we learn? In the face of immense odds, with one chance in billions of success, these people go for it anyway. It defines them as heroes. The benefit for us is we can choose to treat these films like cinematic inspo: go for the prize and in striving for what you want you might just get it. Alternatively, we can see movies like this as showing average people how only those with unique attributes and access to rare resources are able to seize moments and exert even a tiny amount of control over their destinies.
In the end, the beauty of these superhero films, including Endgame, is that they are either a fantastical escape from the real world, or a document of our age and not quite as escapist as we presume. Or both. The average viewer is free to decide.