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This is the third part of a three part series of posts on Avengers: Endgame. Check out part one here and part two here.

Endgame’s use of time infuses a humanity that bolsters the emotional stakes of the story, at least the parts that feature Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk. The other members of the original team are less fortunate. Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye are present in the film and have arcs of their own, but the absence of a meaningful history in the prior films make their journeys feel slightly less significant. The Hulk plays a much smaller role in the story, but his status as a pop culture icon (and the mythic quality of the Hulk concept) makes it easier to use narrative shorthand in stories in which he is featured. Most of those who watched Endgame have probably never opened an issue of the Incredible Hulk, but it’s likely that they know that he is an embodiment of the rage and frustration of a superficially mild-mannered man and can appreciate the significance of a mild mannered Hulk. It’s hard to imagine that many non-comics fans are familiar enough with Black Widow or Hawkeye for the changes to either character to have had much of an emotional impact.

Renner’s Hawkeye is a cipher who becomes a murderous vigilante when his family vanishes from existence and fights for redemption after a confrontation with Johannson’s Black Widow. Widow is a more enigmatic figure whose development prior to Endgame consisted of a series of asides, hints and suggestions during the first three Avengers films. We know that she is haunted by her past as an assassin and is seeking redemption. We know that she had a quasi-romantic relationship with Bruce Banner. The stories behind both – stories that could have made her a more compelling character to audiences – were left untold. Widow has become the de facto leader of what remains of the Avengers during the five year gap, but the absence of Captain America and Iron Man suggest that she is the leader by default. We’ve seen Widow serve as an able tactical field leader in the last three Avengers films (as well as the last two Captain America films), but this is the first time that she’s in charge. The leader that we see in Endgame is incredibly competent and dependable but not in the cool or compelling way that Captain America or Iron Man were in earlier films. Once the team reunites to battle Thanos and reverse the damage he caused in Infinity War, Widow mostly fades into the background until it’s time for her to sacrifice herself for her friend the cipher. It was a moment that was somehow both expected and shocking, and a reminder of both her lack of development in the franchise and the shortcomings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to date. It was also a reminder that Widow was the only one of the original cast of Avengers whose experience in the final movie largely consisted of suffering. Not everyone on the team received a happy ending, but all of the other members of the team experienced a moment of narrative closure that felt satisfying – from Captain America’s decision to retire and reunite with his old love to Hawkeye’s reunion with his family, Thor’s alliance with the Guardians of the Galaxy and even Iron Man’s opportunity to have five years with his wife and daughter before the team reunited.

A story with high stakes is less effective if everyone makes it out unscathed. Someone had to fall short and narrowly miss closure and it couldn’t be Captain America, Thor, Iron Man or the Hulk. It could have been Hawkeye, but the loss would’ve had less impact, as it would have if the victim was someone who wasn’t a part of the team introduced in the first Avengers movie. Endgame is the last film in a cycle, and it was only fitting that the focus was on completing narrative arcs introduced in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The end of this story needed a sacrifice and the sacrifice needed to be one of the original Avengers, a person who was both important to the team and story and less important to the marketplace. It had to be Black Widow.

Right?

Black Widow’s fate played a relatively minor part in the overall film, but it reminded me that there were few women in the franchises created by Marvel Studios who had meaningful roles in their sprawling narrative. In the moment she died, Endgame felt like a film that took place in a world where women were absent or in the background.

One reason why the Black Widow’s sacrifice and story feels relatively unimportant is that the audience didn’t have an opportunity to know her through a franchise of films starring the character. Although Scarlett Johannson appears in all of the Avengers movies as well as a number of the other Marvel Studios movies and played a prominent role in Winter Soldier, she did not have a film of her own in the first three phases of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe. The creative teams behind the Avengers franchise have mostly focused their energy on delivering a blend of exciting action and light dramedy with witty dialogue instead of character development. Although the audience for the Avengers films doesn’t perfectly overlap with the audience for the franchises starring the members of the Avengers team, a sizable segment of those watching the film have probably watched some of the films starring Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. The fans of these franchises have witnessed their heroes experience triumph and tragedy over the course of their respective trilogies. They know what drives and limits them. These individual franchises aren’t needed to understand or follow the Avengers films, but they do create an opportunity for the viewer to add layers of meaning to the short bursts of characterization that can be found in the Avengers series. When Captain America says he can do this all day, it is a reminder of the character growth and exploration that we saw in his trilogy. Black Widow was an enigmatic figure in comparison, and it’s hard for an audience trained to care about characters with inner lives and complicated motivations to connect with a character who seems comparatively opaque.

It shouldn’t matter that Hawkeye and Black Widow are underdeveloped, not in a movie so full of characters and moments and spectacle. And it doesn’t, until you remember that there are no fully realized female characters on the Avengers team or in the first three films of the franchise. Elizabeth Olsen joins the team as the Scarlet Witch at the end of Age of Ultron, but isn’t given the time to show audiences the character’s inner life. Age of Ultron is primarily concerned with Iron Man’s hubris (and trauma) and the brewing conflict between Captain America and Iron Man (along with some foreshadowing of the coming conflict with Thanos). The other characters don’t have too much room to breathe.

The Russo Brothers took over the franchise with its third installment (Infinity War) and added more women to the cast as a part of their larger effort to incorporate stories and casts from the Marvel franchises. The last two films prominently featured Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillan’s Nebula from the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Brie Larsen’s Captain Marvel. There are also a number of cameos from almost all other women that have played any role in the MCU, from Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts to Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Pom Klementieff’s Mantis.

It was a welcome development. The women were presented as powerful and independent individuals who played a crucial role in the plot. They were the ones who knew how to remove the gem from the Vision’s forehead or explain the nature of the multiverse or help turn the tide when hope was lost.

And yet.

They still feel like they reside in the margins of the story, along with everyone who is not one of the four prominent men who comprised the core of the original Avengers team (and whose films collectively earned over 2.2 billion dollars in the United States for Marvel Studios). The four are the subject of the narrative and the heroes of the journey. Everyone else, including the women introduced in the last two parts of the Avengers franchise, are extremely useful to the protagonists of the story. They help add emotional impact and dramatic weight to the journeys of the protagonists, particularly when they suffer or die. Gamora and Nebula remind the audience that Thanos can experience emotions (no matter how twisted) and that he is a sadist. Black Widow dies to help Hawkeye complete his narrative arc and reunite him with his family.

There are a number of prominent male characters who die during the course of the two films, and some of their deaths are in service of another character’s journey. It just doesn’t feel like they vanish as completely as the women do when they exit the stage. Downey’s Stark is haunted by the death of Tom Holland’s Spider Man in Endgame, as is Hemsworth’s Thor by the death of his brother at the start of Infinity War. These experiences of loss inform their choices and shape their destinies, but the memory of the people they lost doesn’t fade.

Thanos doesnt have a ton of screen time in Endgame, but he doesnt spend it thinking about the fates of Gamora or Nebula. Black Widow is presented as the glue that holds the team together but her absence is largely unmourned. Brie Larsen’s Captain Marvel is presented as the mightiest Marvel hero in Endgame, but she is nearly a blank slate, a roving deux ex machina and human weapon who saves heroes stranded in space, destroys giant ships and occasionally makes witty comments.

These choices shouldn’t matter in a giant effects driven ensemble film. Although most of the conversation about Endgame is focused on the heroes at the center of the plot (portrayed by actors who were given the space to give layered and nuanced performances), the movie is filled with characters who present to help the plot move forward or provide a bit of fan service for an enthusiastic audience. There are many men in this movie who aren’t the subject of this narrative, who aren’t at the center of this story. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man is there to gently deflate a film that is always in danger of seeming too self-serious while adding a human element to this story of thunder gods and genocidal aliens. We don’t get inside his character’s head or see him grow and develop over the course of the movie. Even some characters without a solo franchise get relatively short shrift. Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes (a/k/a War Machine) and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson (a/k/a Falcon) get a few interesting moments, but they are mostly present to help move the plot forward.

These choices are more noticeable when they affect the women in the film because there are so few women, particularly if we focus our attention on the characters the filmmakers are most interested in – the original Avengers. The impact is magnified. Black Widow’s fate would have felt different if there was even one other woman whose growth could have been tracked over the course of the Avengers quartet. If one woman could have had the opportunity to retire and grow old like Captain America, mature and move on to the next stage of her life like Iron Man, heal from trauma like the Hulk or carry visible scars from trauma like Thor, maybe Black Widow’s death would have felt less sour.

There is a moment in the climactic battle when the women in the cast (other than Johnson’s Black Widow, who had already died) unite in one frame to protect the Infinity Gauntlet and battle an array of faceless foes. We see Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch join Gamora and Nebula, along with Danai Gurira’s Okoye (Black Panther), Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp (Ant Man), Gwyneth Paltrow’s Rescue (Iron Man), Letitia Wright’s Shuri (Black Panther) and Pom Klementieff’s Mantis (Guardians of the Galaxy) in a single sequence.

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It is an exciting, powerful moment that suggested the possibilities of the post Endgame MCU and an empty gesture that reminded me of missed opportunities. Captain Marvel is the only one of these characters deemed important enough to be the center of her own story. The other eight actresses gave captivating performances in four extremely successful film franchises that weren’t too concerned about their characters or their stories. We are left to imagine the fun stories that could be told about Shuri or the exciting solo adventures that the Wasp and Okoye could have had in movies that were focused on their lives.

It’s important to explore the storytelling choices of the Russo Brothers (and the screenwriters) in Infinity War and Endgame, but the broader context is meaningful. As the directors of the two films, the Russo Brothers are largely responsible for the decisions about whose stories to tell, but their decisions were shaped by a decade of stories told by other creators (under the guidance of Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios and Disney) in the same fictional universe. Infinity War and Endgame served as the third act in the stories of the heroes introduced in the first wave of Marvel films. We’ve witnessed the beginning of Captain Marvel’s story in her film and the beginnings of a foundation for a story for other characters, but none of the women we see in the Marvel films are truly ready for their final act, if only because we’re still waiting for their first.

Endgame is a reminder of how film formulas and models can become a self-reinforcing loop. The initial reluctance to add more females to the avengers or take some storytelling risks (by making Black Widow more prominent) in Phase One means that some stories about certain kinds of witty men become synonymous with the Marvel formula. The formula is used in a series of incredibly successful films. The success of the films is attributed to the formula, which is followed (with some tweaks for tone and genre and to accommodate the creative vision of a director) in the next film and the film after. Rinse and repeat twenty times. We don’t need to know the internal motivations of the people responsible for the Marvel movies to recognize that they have developed a system that favors stories about witty men over stories about any woman.

This has broader implications for the film industry, if only because of the unprecedented success of Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are twenty three films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which have earned a total of 8 and a half billion dollars in the United States and over 22 billion worldwide. Even without context, these are pretty big numbers. To put it in some perspective, Marvel Studios put out only nine films over the last three years and earned more than all but two American parent studios (Time Warner and NBC Universal). Only one of the 23 films featured a female protagonist, and only one of the seventeen individuals hired to direct these lucrative films was a woman (Anna Boden, hired to co-direct the Captain Marvel movie with Ryan Fleck).

The men who perform in and direct the Marvel movies can use the experience as an opportunity to take creative risks that they wouldn’t have taken without the financial security provided by the Marvel films. They can use their work at Marvel as a way to demonstrate that they can tell stories at different scales to a wide range of audiences and as opportunities to develop their personal brands.

These decisions don’t just affect the lives and careers of those who aren’t selected, they also impact the kinds of stories that get told. There are stories and perspectives that were absent from the Marvel Cinematic Universe because women (and members of the LGBTQ community and people who aren’t white to a different extent) weren’t behind and in front of the camera to share them.

This matters because almost all superhero movies – even the ones that aren’t critically acclaimed – are popular with large audiences. These films may tend to be less personal and have more content dictated by the commercial demands of large conglomerates than the kinds of deeply personal films that win awards, but they are the most relevant art produced in the medium to a large number of people.

There was a time in the recent past when I’d argue that the absence of women among those who produce this art results in a vast narrative that feels incomplete, but the more I think about it, the term ‘incomplete’ is not the right fit. ‘Incomplete’ suggests a half-finished drawing or a Rashomon style story that doesn’t include the perspectives of all witnesses, or a puzzle that is missing a few pieces. The stories that we see, the ones that tend to exclude the perspectives of over half of humanity, are not just incomplete, especially when they are designed to depict a world that feels like the one outside our window. A world where men are the protagonists of every story or where the overwhelming majority of human heroes and villains share a gender and racial background doesn’t feel partially true or a piece of a larger picture, it just feels like a lie.

The situation reminds me of a recent trip that I took with my family to New York City. I took my son to the New York Museum of Natural History for the first time. On our way out, we were confronted with the following diorama.

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It shows an exchange between an early Dutch settler community and the Lenni-Lenape people from 1660. It was a celebration of ‘old’ New York and then President Theodore Roosevelt’s Dutch ancestry, complete with a picturesque windmill in the background. On one side, we see a pair of Dutch settlers (fully clothed in period appropriate garments) in the foreground, serious and somber, yet welcoming. One of them is Peter Stuyvesant, the man who was the last Dutch director general of New Netherland before it became New York, and the man who gave his name to the high school and the Brooklyn neighborhood (do or die…). On the other side of the diorama, there are members of the Lenni Lenape (barely clothed in loincloths and moccasins) with items for the settlers. There are topless Lenni Lenape women in the background walking towards the men of their group with their heads inclined towards the ground. There is a vague sense that we’re viewing a cultural exchange of some kind, but it’s hard to ignore the implications of the gun in the hand of Stuyvesant’s colleague or the absence of goods in the hands of the Dutch settlers.

It is the kind of image that was so familiar to the America of my childhood that I never examined its content, even as I learned about the dangers of colonialist myths. I may have valued the complex diversity within the groups and nations of people indigenous to America, but there was always a tiny space in my mind for the kind of stereotypical image presented above.

In the spring of 2019, the museum modernized the diorama with the input of Bradley Pecore, a visual historian of Menominee and Stockbridge Munsee descent. They used the window that separated viewers from the diorama to complicate the image.

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There are ten labels affixed to the window that identify some of the historical inaccuracies and add some helpful context. They introduce the viewer to the Lenape people and clarify that the Lenape representatives would have worn different attire and that the group greeting the Dutch settlers would’ve included some female faces. They explain that a real-life version of that scene would’ve included the French, the English, Jewish immigrants and people of African descent. The labels teach us that the diorama is not incomplete or lacking in perspective. It is simply false, a depiction of a scene that could never have happened.

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Marvel is in the business of showing us worlds that are impossible, where an alien who was once worshiped as a god by the Vikings fight alongside a woman who can move objects with their minds and a gamma irradiated manifestation of a man’s sublimated rage, or where an alien who looks like a talking tree partners with an alien who resembles a raccoon to defeat threats to the galaxy.

One of the reasons that these stories appeal so much to audiences is that the characters and stakes feel so grounded and human, even when they’re presented in the most outlandish terms. We want a blend of the fantastic and the relatable – something unfamiliar that reminds us of something in our world.

A world where men are the protagonists of every story or where the overwhelming majority of human heroes and villains share a gender and racial background doesn’t feel partially true or a piece of a larger picture, it just feels like a lie. It shatters the illusion that we are seeing anything that resembles the world outside our window. The world we live in is one where anyone can be the hero or villain of the story.

The Night Everything Changed?

When I started thinking about writing this post, it was about a week after the premiere of Endgame. Life happened (and continued to happen for a couple of months afterwards). As I write this, Endgame has been available for about two weeks on streaming platforms and was just released on DVD and Blu Ray.

Marvel Studios made some announcements in the interim that suggested that the studio was interested in creating a more complete fictional world in future films and television shows. At this year’s San Diego ComicCon in July, Kevin Feige announced the fourth phase of Marvel Studios’ MCU project. The films scheduled for release in theaters include a Black Widow film starring Johannson directed by Cate Shorthand, a new Taika Waititi Thor film co-starring Natalie Portman as a version of Thor comics readers became familiar with in the comics by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman and Tessa Thompson as a Valkyrie who is King of Asgard searching for her Queen. He also announced Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Simu Liu as the title character, and the Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao and starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Dong-Seoul Ma, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry and Lauren Ridloff.

Over the next few years, we will see MCU films directed by a diverse array of artists that prominently feature women, non-white people (including a number of Chinese and Latino actors) and members of the LGBTQ and deaf communities. There is always more work to be done, but there is a distinct possibility of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that feels more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a comic book.

Does this change the meaning and legacy of Endgame? Will it feel less like a symbol of the potential and shortcomings of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe, a reminder of the fatal flaw in their vast narrative? Or will everything feel like a part of Marvel/Disney’s deliberate plan to ease a global audience familiar with the non representative status quo into a vast narrative that feels richer and more honest? Will these gestures blind us to future problems and shortcomings (or discourage us from questioning whether this was a ‘deliberate plan’ or a response to criticism)? It’s far too early to tell, but my guess is that Endgame will continue to be a film that fascinates and infuriates in equal measure.