It was Christmas Day 2009, and my father and I were eating cheeseburgers at Denny’s and talking about a movie. It was one of the most common things we did. The film was Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes, and regardless of our feelings about Richie playing fast and loose with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales, we were both taken with Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. A year before, Downey had played the lead in some superhero movie about a third-tier comic book character I’d vaguely heard of. I’d missed Iron Man in theaters, and I was confused by the blurry, illegally recorded clip people kept sharing, taken at the end of the credits and showing Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch saying something about an “Avengers Initiative.”
What a decade it’s been. I caught up with Iron Man and started watching the rest of the films in what would become the groaning behemoth known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I cheered my way through 2012’s The Avengers, and even as I felt my interest wane with later entries, I knew I was going to see Avengers: Endgame if only to have a definite stopping point for myself. It was a fitting one, too, because — SPOILERS AHEAD — Endgame ends with Tony Stark’s death. The film had a level of poignancy I was not expecting to feel while watching, and it’s because my father is no longer here to watch movies with me. More importantly, he’s not here to talk about movies with me.
Dad was in a rest home when I seriously started following the MCU. He was steadfastly refusing to cooperate with the around-the-clock care he needed. He was losing his memory. I moved away, and every time we talked on the phone, I could sense more and more that he knew I was someone important to him, but he had trouble remembering my name. Marvel films became an escape in those years. Hanging out with these characters I’d grown an affinity for was a reprieve from reality, if only for a few hours.
Then, in 2015, my father died — a messy and chaotic death. And in that year, a character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a messy and chaotic film, reminded me, “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”
The MCU was the first film series I watched without talking about it with my father. And it will always carry that weighted memory, regardless of my feelings about the films.
I recognize the contradictions. I love my father, while at the same time, I could be exhausted by his moodiness and temper and have to avoid him. I enjoy a lot of Marvel films, even as I recognize their kudzu-like dominance of the cultural landscape. I know how much better for entertainment at large it’d be if parent company Disney were broken up on antitrust laws.
Those very contradictions are in Tony Stark himself. He’s grotesquely selfish and ridiculously generous. An egomaniac, but desperate for his father’s approval. He repeatedly saves the world, but repeatedly causes problems that almost end it. Viewers are never given the one clean narrative, the one uncompromised hero we want. Life and relationships are about navigating a mess of contradictions.
And for all it flirts with a conventional Hollywood ending, Endgame has a thread running through it about loss and death. Someone will always have to go — and not come back. Black Widow gives her life so a team member can see his family again; Tony Stark makes the ultimate unexpected sacrifice.
The MCU as we know it — each film part of one ungainly story about a core group of characters — has come to an end. There will be more Marvel movies, but there won’t be more Marvel movies about Downey’s Tony Stark. And Tony Stark was always the crooked heart that drove the main plot thread of this story.
Going into Endgame, I expected square-jawed Captain America to be the one who laid down his life to save many. It’s how he ended the film that introduced him (Captain America: The First Avenger), after all. But perhaps the biggest surprise in Endgame’s finale is the reversal of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s fates. Captain America finally choses a bit of happiness for himself. He stays behind in the past and builds a family with a lost love. Tony Stark — who, when we met him in 2008, desired nothing more than excitement and to run through life unattached to anyone and anything — leaves behind a legacy in the team he helped build and in his own family.
Downey’s scenes with Lexi Rabe, who plays Stark’s 5-year-old daughter, Morgan, are some of the sweetest and best in the film. They underline how Stark has changed and how much he stands to lose if he rejoins the fight. But if we’re lucky, we have the kind of parents who fight for a better world for us — even if that can cost us dearly.
Morgan Stark likely will have only vague memories of her father. She’ll be told stories of what he did and who he was, but it will be her alone at the end of them. I lost my father in my late 20s, and while I have more memories to come back to, every day my father becomes a little harder to recall clearly. And, like Morgan, I’m alone at the end of those memories too. I don’t know how to put a neat pin on that feeling. I can’t, really.
But I think I might do what Morgan does at the end of Endgame. I think I’ll go have a cheeseburger.