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.
This is the second part of a three part series of posts on Avengers: Endgame. Check out part one here and part three here.
One of the most interesting things about Endgame is the way the film uses time to tell its story. We are used to seeing time treated as a plot device or a stream of events and plot points in superhero fiction, but Endgame goes a step further by considering the relationship that the characters have with time and the impact that time has on their lives. Time plays a central role in the plot and theme of the film and its’ impact can even be seen in the images used to tell the story. Time serves as a limiting principle on the fantastical logic that we often see in superhero films – even in a world with time travel, the harm caused by Josh Brolin’s Thanos (the villain who destroyed half of the universe with a snap of his fingers in the original film) created half a decade’s worth of scars that cannot be erased (at least for now).
We don’t really see time move forward or impact the lives of prominent characters in the superhero comics published by Marvel or DC for a number of creative and commercial reasons, such as the need to preserve the mythic, permanent feel of important characters in a superhero universe and the perceived cost of allowing valuable characters age and die (in a lasting way). The ‘essential’ Iron Man in the comics is a brilliant and wealthy playboy inventor with a suit of armor. We’ve seen his status quo change a number of times over the years – he has been replaced by his best friend and Dr. Doom and a teenage girl and served as the Secretary of Defense and the Director of SHIELD. We’ve also seen depictions of him shift over the years – in some comics he feels like a brash young man, while in others he feels more like a mogul in late middle age – but in the end, he is always returned to his role as a youngish playboy inventor.
It’s harder to take a fluid approach to a superhero’s appearance when the superhero is an actor in a costume, even when the director has the latest in visual effects at their disposal. A fifty four year old Robert Downey jr. can’t pivot from a middle aged mogul to a young master of the universe. In the months before the release of Endgame, some speculated about Marvel’s long term plans, as many of the contracts binding key actors to the studio were set to expire and talent seemed eager to explore acting opportunities in other genres. Would Disney recast Steve Rogers and Tony Stark or put different characters in the role of Iron Man and Captain America? We’ve seen Warner Media follow the first path in its Batman and Superman franchises over the decades to great success, but they don’t ask viewers to treat all of the films as part of a single cinematic universe (although there is something fun about the notion of a Batverse style project with Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck). A live action film franchise designed to mimic the vast narrative storytelling approach of superhero comics will eventually have to confront the chief dilemma of superhero comics – how to tell high stakes interconnected stories over lengthy periods of time without changing any of the core (and most lucrative) elements of the status quo. The studio has to reward long-term hyper-committed viewers while maintaining accessibility for more casual audiences.
Endgame resolves this dilemma by telling a story about trauma and aging disguised as an epic adventure. We see this in the images that are used to tell the story and the plot of the film itself. The heroes look old and exhausted in a way that is hard to effectively communicate in comics drawn by a number of artists with slightly different approaches to character faces.
The Russo Brothers frequently use state of the art visual effects in Endgame’s action scenes and in sequences that spotlight a character’s use of their superpowers, but they refrain from using technology to obscure how the actors playing the characters have aged over the last decade. The camera appreciates the impact that time has had on the appearance of actors like Robert Downey Jr. He is weathered and slightly gaunt, but vital. When we see him after his return from space or are introduced to his newly expanded family, it’s clear how much he’s changed since we first saw him as Tony Stark over a decade ago.
The film’s interest in the ways that it’s characters can change and evolve with the passage of time extends to its plot. The story centers around a Tony Stark and Steve Rogers who are ready to retire and move on to a post-combat phase of their lives and a Thor who is grappling with the cumulative impact of personal loss and professional failure. We also see how other characters have changed over the years, from a Bruce Banner who has learned to manage his anger and a Natasha Romanov who has become the leader of the Avengers, to a Hawkeye who has become a remorseless vigilante and a Rocket Raccoon who has become a de facto team member. We’ve seen stories where prominent characters evolve, age, and are affected by their past in lasting ways, but most feature alternate versions of the characters from another universe, or are about secondary characters, or contain signals to fans that all changes are temporary. There are stories where Tony Stark retires, even ones where he dies and/or is replaced by his best friend, a teenage girl and Victor von Doom, but none (other than stories set in another universe) where he spends five years of his life as a husband and father in (semi?) retirement. The last few decades has featured a number of stories about intelligent versions of the Hulk, but none where he was truly happy and emotionally balanced 1.
I have read stories where Thor is a frog, where he believes that he is unworthy to hold his mystic hammer Mjolnir, ones where he is a young god fighting alongside Vikings and ones where he is the All Father at the end of time, but none where tragedy slaked his thirst for adventure. I’ve seen Captain America retire (and age) on multiple occasions, but I’ve never read a story in which he put the shield down because he was ready to retire, to be a symbol for the last stage of a soldier’s journey.
The heroes experience five years between the introduction of the movie and the beginning of the action in the first act, and the passage of time has made them feel more human, even ordinary. Those of us who were introduced to the characters in comic books are used to seeing the heroes face changing circumstances, but rarely see them grow in response to those shifts the way people typically do over time, especially when that change runs counter to the demands of the companies that own these characters and the marketplace. The version of the Hulk that we see in the comics in 2019 is different from the Hulk that rampaged through the comics of my childhood, but he’s still a ferocious giant doing battle with monsters, not the stable behemoth we see sipping coffee and explaining time travel (poorly) in Endgame2.
1. An Aside About the Hulk. The closest that comics readers have come to seeing this version of the Hulk was in Peter David and Dale Keown’s version of the Hulk from the early 1990’s or Mark Bagley and Gerry Duggan’s version from 2015. David and Keown’s Banner worked with a therapist to merge his (then) three personalities into an integrated whole, but the Hulk that resulted was a man who was trying to find peace and emotional balance (and was unable to achieve his goal). Bagley and Duggan’s Hulk was extremely intelligent, but he was actively suppressing the Banner side of his personality (and more importantly, was driven by hate). The stories that feature both of these versions of the Hulk strongly suggest that he may evolve into the Maestro, a future version of the Hulk who has become a villainous despot.↩
2. An Aside About Time Travel. Time travel is used in the film as a tool to revisit and learn from the past, not to rewrite it (unless your name is Captain America). It may be overly complicated and nearly incoherent as a plot element, but it does serve as an effective reminder of all of the past events that shaped the lives of some of the central characters. We see the experiences that cemented the Avengers team and traumatized Iron Man. We are reminded of how Thor was shaped by the losses he endured in Dark World (and while this was not intentional, one could almost see the lighter tone (and high stakes) of Ragnarok as a response to his traumatic experiences in the prior film). We also visit moments of the past that give us some new insights into familiar characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen)’s Nebula or John Slattery’s Howard Stark. We even get a semi-coherent explanation of time travel in the Marvel Universe from Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One.↩
I saw Endgame on the Sunday after it was released in theaters during a work-related conference in Chicago. I bought advance tickets for a screening at the ShowPlace ICON at Roosevelt. The theater featured “industry leading customer service”, reserved stadium seating, the ICON-X enhanced xperience with Dolby Atmos, upwards of 60 individually powered QSC speakers and 40 QSC digital amplifiers, and a fancy lounge with fancy cocktails. The screens were nearly 1500 square feet.
My hotel (and the conference) were in Hyde Park, a gorgeous diverse neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. As I explored the neighborhood, I stumbled by the Harper Theater, a local spot that had screened films for the local community since 1913 (with a break in the early aughts). It did not have stadium seating or an ICON-X enhanced xperience. I don’t know how large the screen was, but it was not nearly 1,500 square feet. The theater was screening Endgame but there were no lines or fuss, just some posters promoting the movie and people casually milling about the theater. There was something about the casual atmosphere and the friendly environment that felt appealing. I decided to return my ticket at the ShowPlace and buy one at Harper.
The theater didn’t serve much food but was near some great places that did (props to Ja’Grill Hyde Park). It also featured a ticket taker/usher/bartender who made a mean (and inexpensive!) Jack and Coke.The projection was perfectly fine and the sound was clear. The theater was full, but I got there a little early to get a good seat. The audience was perfect, engaged but not loud enough to be a distraction. It was a terrific viewing experience. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, surrounded by satisfied families and fans, I thought that Marvel had finally produced a legitimately great film that captured the experience of reading an epic superhero comic.
I had breakfast with a colleague at the conference the following morning. We chatted about work, family, Game of Thrones and Endgame while sipping coffee and absentmindedly picking at bagels. We both grew up on comics and were surprised at how excited we always were for the latest Marvel film, even when we had mixed feelings about the actual product. They chuckled as they told me that they took Friday off work to watch the film after closing out a particularly challenging case. I told them that I saw the film immediately after a networking dinner at the conference to wind down. They shared their mixed feelings about the film – they enjoyed moments and the spectacle, but the film was far too long and didn’t make much sense. I nodded thoughtfully. I shared my thoughts about the film. They asked me whether I liked the film. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t know.
Endgame is the second part of a story about the epic battle between almost every hero introduced in Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) vast narrative (including the Avengers) and Thanos, a hypercompetent nearly omnipotent super villain with plans to reduce the population of the universe by half that began in the Infinity War. The film is partially inspired by Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim’s classic Infinity Gauntlet miniseries from the early ‘90’s. It features the surprising team ups, epic battles and astronomical stakes that one might find in a classic superhero event crossover. For those of us who read superhero comics when we were children (and many who continue to read the books), this pair of movies combine to form a single expensive, perfectly designed nostalgia machine.
The film blends melodrama, situational comedy, slapstick, space opera and action to create an entertaining viewing experience, but it also values emotional resonance and fan satisfaction over storytelling logic and meaningful stakes/consequences for character actions. The film alternates between dialogue and banter heavy scenes and pedestrian action scenes with state of the art visual effects in a way that feels thrilling in the theater but quickly fades from memory upon exit. Endgame tantalizes the audience with a world of imaginative possibility that feels absent of civilians or characters who are not superheroes (by this point in the narrative, the Avengers are mostly protecting and avenging one another).
Endgame exemplifies the strengths and shortcomings of the MCU project as a whole. It is a film that captures the sense of discovery and excitement that readers like me felt when reading superhero comics as children, appeals to a global audience of people who are only familiar with the Marvel characters as brands and feels somewhat weightless and insubstantial.
I saw the first MCU movies (the first ‘phase’) in the theater. The sense of awe I felt watching Iron Man on the big screen diminished with each film that followed. After Joss Whedon’s Avengers, I mostly saw MCU films on a streaming platform on nights when my wife went to sleep early. They were more densely plotted and serialized than procedural shows like Law & Order and not as intellectually taxing or emotionally draining as shows like the Americans. They scratched an itch. The best of these Marvel films were thoughtful and entertaining, but other than a few standouts – Captain America: Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok – the scenes and images faded shortly after the credits rolled.
I never got completely used to this experience. I’ve loved superhero comics and film for most of my life, and one of the things they have in common are the images that lingered in my imagination.
The woman emerging from the sea as a god surrounded by flame. The man who realizes that he’s going to leave his wife and child and stay with a near stranger in France. The woman who embraces her rage and allows her exterior to reflect her interior. The door closing on a woman who allows herself to realize what she suspected all along – that she lost her husband to his family and their business a long time ago. The makeshift family who momentarily put aside their troubles to enjoy each others’ company, if only for a moment. A sequence that asks us to imagine a near future America that feels as uncertain and unsafe as the unstable countries we all read about in the newspaper (never mind that we were always more uncertain and unsafe than we thought and some of those places may have been more stable).
I will never completely understand how the marriage of superhero stories and film in the Marvel Studios films has produced so much entertaining work with so few memorable images and moments.
The excitement that I felt in Chicago’s Harper Theater surrounded by enthused families and dedicated Marvel fans faded into respect for the craft involved in creating the film as I walked back to my hotel room. It took me a few days to notice that Endgame’s plot (and the film’s overall role in the MCU vast narrative) left more of an impression than any image or visual sequence in the film. There were flashes – the exhaustion on Robert Downey Jr.’s face, the calm expression of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk – but very little that lingered in the imagination.
As I sat through workshops and chatted with colleagues from peer institutions over the following days, I found myself returning to the storytelling choices of the filmmakers and Endgame‘s place within the larger MCU vast narrative. There were elements and ideas that were still fascinating, but others which had a distancing effect, a reminder that I was watching a commercial product.
2. Endgame: The Pedestrian Puzzlebox
Endgame is the last chapter of the most successful film franchise of the last decade, a visual effects extravaganza designed for theaters with top of the line sound and projection systems. It’s also one of the few action franchises that feel more driven by dialogue than compelling action scenes. The visual effects are state of the art but the action scenes are relatively pedestrian, lacking the brutal beauty or poetry that can be found in the John Wick or Raid franchises.
I didn’t have the sense of awe or magic that I get from watching films from the Star Wars franchise (which is even effective on a smaller screen). One of the things that separate great action films like the Police Story or Mission Impossible franchises from lesser films is the use of action sequences as a tool to add layers of meaning to the overall story. The fights aren’t just a way to get from point A to point B or an opportunity to thrill the audience, they help us understand the characters involved and gain insight into their respective journeys. We see combatants display their strengths and vulnerabilities and learn from mistakes. The scenes tell a story through movement that complements the scenes with dialogue.
Tony Stark’s sacrifice is foreshadowed in the dialogue-heavy scenes in Endgame and occurs at the close of the film’s biggest action sequence, but the opportunity to use the action and movement to tell the final part of his story was lost. His final battle with Thanos and his army did not look or feel meaningfully different from his prior conflicts with Thanos and other antagonists, except that the outcome was not the same. In an early scene, we do see what Thor learned from Infinity War (don’t pause when you’ve got a kill shot against a genocidal maniac), but it would have been interesting if Thor’s approach to combat in the final battle in Endgame was more clearly informed by the prior film. On first viewing, Thor’s ferocity in Endgame doesn’t feel much different than the ferocity that he displayed in the closing battle of Infinity War.
The action in Endgame may not have the beauty or meaning that one might find in the best action movies, but even after a decade, there is still something novel and exciting about engaging with a franchise that isn’t just composed of a number of smaller franchises with interlocking stories, but has incredibly fluid narrative boundaries. Each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stands alone as an individual work or as part of an independent franchise, but could also be viewed as a piece of a larger story that shifts the audience expectations of narrative extent from the confines of a two-hour film to a ‘cinematic universe’ that includes nearly two dozen films and which represents the entire output of a film studio.
Some viewers can engage with the film as a part of a single vast epic narrative that begins with 2008’s Iron Man, but for others, this film is simply the last in a quartet, or most interestingly, as a part of a loosely connected string of films that have some familiar faces. There were some in my audience who were ardent fans of the MCU and others whose knowledge of Marvel consisted of vague memories of Iron Man and the first Avengers movie and crystal clear recollections of Black Panther (the crowd erupted when Wakandan warriors made their appearance in the final action scene) and Infinity War.
We can treat each film as a chapter of a story or a piece in a giant puzzle, but not only do we not need to experience all of them to understand the larger narrative, the shape of the story itself changes based on the number of Marvel films one has viewed. A story about heroic sacrifice can be one about the limits of duty or another one of a series of zany misadventures. It can even be a prelude to a story where your favorite franchise moves from the margins of the narrative to the center.
These qualities help make Endgame feel like the perfect Marvel Studios film, a work that can appeal to different slices of the audience who are engaged with one or more of the lucrative franchises within the larger MCU. It is interesting to think and talk about, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that the film is essentially a nostalgia machine filled with unremarkable images and scenes. Is this why it was so hard answering my colleague’s simple question?
Did I like this film at all? And if I didn’t, why am I still fascinated by Endgame?