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‘Avengers: Endgame’ and the Denial of Death

Plus some other random thoughts about the blockbuster Marvel movie

(Warning: We’re going to be talking about Avengers: Endgame, and there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, maybe don’t read this if you’re inclined to be mad about spoilers. Why not try this article about alt-right’s fascination with modern architecture instead?)

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, a lot of characters die. Or, at least, it seemed like they did, with many of our beloved superheroes fading into dust and blowing away. Any sane person’s reaction to that finale was twofold: (1) That was a lovely, haunting image; and (2) Oh, c’mon, they’re not really dead. So the expectation was high for Avengers: Endgame to not only resolve what happened in Infinity War but also answer the question, once and for all: “Okay, seriously, which Avengers are actually dead?”

Of course, comic books have a rich history of insisting that iconic characters have kicked the bucket, only to have them magically return from the grave. But with Endgame billed as the culmination of this first batch of Marvel Cinematic Universe films — and the fact that franchise veterans such as Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. have completed their contracts — there’s an expectation of finality with this new movie. And with that, viewers might imagine a storyline that’s more momentous, more tragic, than what came before. If earlier installments flirted with death, Endgame is where the MCU gets officially funereal.

Well, not exactly.

(Seriously, here come the spoilers.)

I like Endgame — it’s funny and exciting and emotional — but I also found myself wishing for a sobering and more thoughtful depiction of the subject matter that’s at its core. Some characters do die in Endgame, but a lot of people don’t — instead, they come back from the Great Beyond where Thanos (Josh Brolin) sent them with that finger snap. Superhero movies are great with life-or-death stakes, but they’re terrible with actual death. These characters have astounding powers, but none of them can deal with mortality.

As the new movie begins, the surviving Avengers track down Thanos, only to discover that he’s destroyed the Infinity Stones. Angry and grieving, they realize that their mission has been futile, so when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) chops off Thanos’ head with his mighty axe, there’s a profound sense of pointlessness to the act. For all their strength and heroism, the Avengers are too late — it’s hopeless, and they’re going to have to live with their failure.

We then cut to five years later, where the world is still in mourning from what Thanos did by snapping his fingers and reducing the galaxy’s population in half. Those left alive have had to move on without their loved ones. Some things, even superheroes can’t fix. Except, maybe they can: Just then, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the Quantum Realm with the realization that the surviving Avengers can go back in time and stop Thanos by retrieving the Infinity Stones before he got his purple hands on them. All that sadness, all that pain, could be reversed after all — they can bring back those they lost. It’s a risky plan, but Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and the rest are willing to do it to rewrite the past.

This, of course, is not how actual grieving works. In fact, one of the core agonies of grief is the permanence of the thing you’re grieving. Your mother is gone. That job ended. Your partner found someone else. Grief is a state and a condition, and you cannot outsmart it by going back in time. Sure, one of the foundational appeals of fiction is that it provides us with a break from reality — the impossible can happen in a superhero movie because of the nature of the characters — but Endgame flirts with real pathos before quickly running away from it. Before you know it, the Avengers are busily working to save the day and undo Thanos’ devastating act. Endgame may be three hours long, but apparently there’s little time for genuine grief beyond a few stray tears.

And then there’s the unspoken repercussion of the Avengers’ plan, which New York critic David Edelstein mentions in his Endgame review: What happens to people in the post-Thanos world who have bravely learned to adjust to the tragedy?

“My daughter wondered about the effect of 50 percent of humanity returning five years after they’ve disintegrated as opposed to, well, not disintegrating in the first place. What about the people who did, indeed, ‘move on with their lives’? They have new relationships, kids, houses maybe… It’s bound to be an emotional shitstorm that dwarfs anything Thanos could come up with.”

The Leftovers dealt with this in some ways, but it’s telling that Endgame never stops to consider that the Avengers are, essentially, playing god and tampering with the lives of so many innocent bystanders. The film takes it as a given that everybody would be bereft and desperately wanting everything to go back to the way it was. In other words, Endgame assumes that everybody on Earth has the same attitude that the filmmakers do, which is that death is terrible and that the only way to get over it is to rewind so that nothing bad ever happened.

Of course, we’d all wish that was possible, but part of life is learning that that’s not the case. We have to go through hard times, we have to grieve and feel loss, in order to grow. What the Avengers do in Endgame is sidestep those unavoidable emotions, never questioning what the consequences might be for millions who have found the strength to rebuild themselves, only to discover that the deceased love of their life is suddenly just… back. Part of grieving is acceptance and moving forward — painful but necessary steps on the road to healing — but the Avengers blithely ignore the world’s mourning process in the name of “doing good.” If my wife had disintegrated in the Big Thanos Snap of 2018, would I be overjoyed to see her five years later? Absolutely. Would I be seriously messed up and need extensive counseling for the rest of my days? Probably.

Eventually, though, there are some actual deaths in Endgame: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow sacrifices herself so that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) can acquire one of the Infinity Stones, and Iron Man later sacrifices himself so that Thanos can’t destroy the entire galaxy.

These are legitimate, this-is-final deaths — at least they’re treated as such in the movie — but notice how they’re essentially painless. Black Widow’s death happens in slow motion, and plays as ethereal and beautiful. Meanwhile, Iron Man gets to have the climactic death-scene sendoff that all valiant fictional heroes receive. His loving, patient wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has had to constantly put up with his I-need-to-save-the-world fixation, looks into his eyes and conveniently tells him that he doesn’t need to worry about her or their child — she’s not going to be selfish about being devastated that he’s a goner. Of course, Tony Stark has given his life so that others can survive — it’s an eminently noble deed — but it’s one of the rare sorts of death that Marvel has been comfortable depicting. Nobody dies in the MCU because life is unfair or you made a stupid mistake — death is always massively heroic, noble and worthy.

Endgame won’t even let characters grieve for characters who were dead before Thanos snapped his fingers. Captain America has struggled with the fact that his World War II love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) died of old age in Captain America: Civil War. Well, don’t worry, because Endgame allows Cap to go back in time and live a life with her. Never mind that she got married, had a family and learned to move on without Steve Rogers: Endgame’s ending insists that none of that matters because she should be with him. On the one hand, it’s rewarding to see characters we like get what they want. On the other, there’s a selfishness — a complete denial of reality — that Endgame engages in.

The Spider-Man story is synonymous with a famous maxim: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It was a way of warning young Peter Parker that he had to take his gift seriously. That he couldn’t simply use it for his own purposes or his own pleasures. It was something he needed to share with the world and those most in need. As much as I liked Endgame, it’s built on a childish repudiation of that edict. The MCU brain trust has great power, responsible for crafting one of the biggest franchises in film history. But in terms of grasping the depth of what these films represent — especially their depiction of life, death and grieving — they too easily shirk their responsibility of being thoughtful, mature storytellers. Sometimes, we don’t need someone to save the world for us. We just have to be heroic enough to accept reality and discover the fortitude to keep on living.

Here are three other takeaways from Avengers: Endgame.

#1. So, what’s the deal with ‘Endgame’ not having an intermission?

As you’ve no doubt heard, Avengers: Endgame is 181 minutes long. For most viewers, that’s very long. Maybe too long, which has prompted some to question why the film doesn’t have an intermission. It’s an old-fashioned movie thing, a little break of about 10 minutes inserted into longer movies of yesteryear like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia that allowed audiences to use the restroom and shake off body cramps. Intermissions still happen in theater all the time, but it’s rare for movies — mostly because it’s unusual to get a three-hour film from a studio. (The Hateful Eight was the last American film to feature an intermission.)

Kevin Feige, who produces all the Marvel films, didn’t seem interested in doing an intermission for Endgame, saying, “I think running time is the least interesting thing about a movie,” later adding, “We are not fans of laborious lengths for no reason. We are fans of movies that you wish didn’t end. … And movies that you just don’t ever find a good time to run out to the bathroom. That’s when a movie’s working.”

Yes, but that doesn’t mean a viewer wouldn’t mind a break. There have been sufficient online arguments about why Endgame would be better with an intermission — and that, in fact, we need the break to return to reality briefly before diving back into the land of make-believe. Seemingly, theater owners would welcome the opportunity to sell more concessions during this cinematic halftime. But the truth is, studios decide whether a film has an intermission, not theaters, and studios don’t want to risk losing any more time between potential screenings by including a 10-minute break. No matter how much we’d like to rhapsodize about the sanctity of the theatrical experience and how an intermission could make a movie feel more like an event, it’s a losing argument unless you’re someone like Quentin Tarantino who has the clout to insist on one for you film. Other countries do intermissions — and will for Endgame as well — but it’s a pipe-dream at this point that we’ll get them in the U.S.

And now, I’d like to confess something: I actually don’t like intermissions. Honestly, I don’t even like them in plays. In theater, there’s a natural cliffhanger or dramatic plot point that occurs at the end of Act I that then sends us into the lobby as we prepare for Act II. But I don’t enjoy being ripped out of the fiction. For me, it’s always so jarring — and so less exciting — to be back in real life. I’m too jazzed about what’s going to happen next in what I’m watching. 2001 is my favorite film, and the only thing I don’t like about seeing it in the theater is that they include the intermission. I want the whole movie from beginning to end. In this way alone am I a true binge-watcher.

#2. Let’s salute some folks who guessed the ending correctly.

For months now, Marvel fans have been hyperventilating about the possibility of Iron Man dying in Endgame.

So the fact that Tony went to the Big Stark Industries in the Sky shouldn’t have been that surprising. But I do want to give a shout-out to two Twitter users who were surprisingly dead-on about what ends up happening in Endgame. (And, no, neither of them bought the whole Thanos/Ant-Man theory.)

First, meet Moderately Okay Cosplay, who made this prediction the day before the film’s world premiere:

That’s really impressive! Other than Thor dying, MOC basically nailed everything correctly.

I also wanted to show some love to 90sBellaDonna, who wasn’t just right but is correct about why this plot point would be so irritating:

No word yet if 90sBellaDonna has seen Endgame, but when she does, I predict she will not be pleased about being right.

#3. A lot of people have turned down making Marvel movies.

Because the MCU has been insanely popular, one might assume that most filmmakers would jump at the chance to work on the franchise. Not so, although plenty of directors have at least taken meetings with the Marvel brass. Roughly speaking, we can break down those directors’ decision not to get involved into three categories:

1) Creative Differences. This industry term generally means “You and I don’t want to make the same movie, so let’s stop trying.” That seems to be what happened with Edgar Wright (who was long attached to Ant-Man and ended up with a writing credit) and Ava DuVernay (who was approached about Black Panther). Directors in this category tend to be pretty diplomatic about the whole thing, with DuVernay saying, “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me.” Wright chose his words even more carefully: “The most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. It was a really heartbreaking decision to have to walk away after having worked on it for so long.” There’s a bit of saltiness that’s understandable in these directors’ responses: They want to let you know that they broke up with Marvel, and not vice versa.

2) Time Commitment. Doing a Marvel movie isn’t like an ordinary film. As with most big studio projects, an MCU installment is a massive undertaking that requires a massive time commitment. And that makes some directors wary. “[T]here was a moment where Marvel was interested in us taking on one of their properties,” Mark Duplass said in 2018. “It would have been a $150 to $180 million budget and about three years of our lives.” In the same interview, his brother Jay admitted, “The problem was, by the time Mark and I were making movies, we already had kids. We were changing diapers and making lunches, so we couldn’t be the concubine of a studio at this stage in our lives.” Amy Seimetz, an indie director (Sun Don’t Shine) who co-created the TV version of The Girlfriend Experience, recalled that Marvel courted her, but she ultimately said no. “They told [me] it had to be a three-year commitment, and that they were very collaborative,” she told IndieWire. “As an auteur, I was like, ‘That sounds like a lot of notes. I want to cut this meeting short by saying I love what you do, but I don’t think this is going to work out very well.’” Directors in this category always sound a little relieved to have passed on Marvel. Sure, it would have been a huge opportunity, but spending three years thinking about Thor would probably be pretty draining.

3.) The Realities of Being a Female Filmmaker in a Male-Driven Industry. This is probably the most interesting subset of directors. Filmmakers as different as Patty Jenkins and Lucrecia Martel have talked to Marvel, but came away feeling uncertain about the proposition because they’re women. Jenkins, who later went on to great success with Wonder Woman, was initially approached about doing the first Thor sequel. Jenkins balked. “There have been things that have crossed my path that seemed like troubled projects,” she said in 2017. “And I thought, ‘If I take this, it’ll be a big disservice to women. If I take this knowing it’s going to be trouble and then it looks like it was me, that’s going to be a problem. If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake that the studio made. But with me, it’s going to look like I dropped the ball, and it’s going to send a very bad message.’ So I’ve been very careful about what I take for that reason.”

On the other end of the commercial spectrum, Martel is a celebrated Argentine art-house filmmaker (Zama, The Headless Woman) whose movies are small, cerebral and hypnotic. It’s not a great comparison, but imagine Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch making a Marvel movie, and you get a sense how weird this partnership would have been. Nonetheless, Marvel talked to Martel, who was disappointed in their meeting. “Marvel and other such production houses are trying to involve more female filmmakers. … What they told me in the meeting was ‘we need a female director because we need someone who is mostly concerned with the development of Scarlett Johansson’s character,’” she recalled.

Martel was also bummed that the Marvel brass tried to reassure her by saying they’d handle the action scenes in-house — not realizing that she wanted to do her own action scenes. “Companies are interested in female filmmakers, but they still think action scenes are for male directors,” she said. “The first thing I asked them was maybe if they could change the special effects because there’s so many laser lights. I find them horrible. Also the soundtrack of Marvel films is quite horrendous. Maybe we disagree on this, but it’s really hard to watch a Marvel film. It’s painful to the ears to watch Marvel films.”

Yeah, it’s probably not a surprise that the meeting went nowhere. Chalk it up to good ol’ creative differences.