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My 66-Year-Old Mom Knows More About the Avengers Than You Do

She’s not a big Spider-Man fan, though

On Friday, Avengers: Infinity War opens on more than 4,200 screens across the country, catering to legions of comic-book nerds and action-movie fans. Also: My mom. Debbie Grierson is a 66-year-old retiree in Central Illinois who’s been married for nearly 47 years. She’s a mother of two with four grandchildren. She’s a self-proclaimed wimp who doesn’t like horror movies or gross-out comedies. Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman movies were too dark for her. And yet she can’t wait to see Infinity War — if she can get anybody to go with her, that is.

“Very few of my friends want to go see that kind of stuff,” she tells me over the phone. “Getting someone to take me is always a trick, but usually your dad will say, ‘Yeah, come on, let’s just go see it.’ People say to me, ‘I cannot stand science fiction — how can you stand to go see that?’ And I think, You don’t know what you’re missing — they’re great.

Growing up, I never thought of my mother as an action buff. She and my dad took me to the Star Wars movies and the Christopher Reeve Superman films, but she always struck me as a gentler person who didn’t necessarily love all that violence and explosions. Plus, I knew that certain things about intense movies really bothered her. One of my earliest movie memories is of my mom telling me how much One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest upset her — specifically, what they did to poor Jack Nicholson at the end. She refused to see Titanic because she didn’t want to watch the main characters die. (To this day, I’m not sure if she knows that Kate Winslet gets out okay.) In retrospect, it was probably a blessing that my nephew (and her grandson) told her before she saw The Force Awakens that Han Solo dies: “I would’ve been so shocked to not know that,” she admits. “I would’ve had a hard time dealing with that.”

A few years ago, when I recommended Gravity — which starred one of her favorite actresses, Sandra Bullock — she expressed reservations about putting herself through a potentially emotionally wrenching experience. “If I know she ends up okay at the end of the movie,” she told me at the time, “then I’ll go see it.”

Yet she talks about the characters in the Marvel movies with the casual familiarity usually reserved for friends. “I always like Thor, and I always like Captain America,” she tells me. “I love the Guardian of the Galaxy movies, and I really liked Black Panther.” But she can also be discerning: “We saw [Spider-Man: Homecoming], and we were just kind of ‘eh,’ He never was one of my favorites — I like the ones with more superpowers.”

She’s not quite sure where this Marvel fandom came from, but she does know she went to see the first Iron Man back in the summer of 2008, intrigued by a film that seemed different than DC’s brooding Dark Knight films. “It was a new superhero type of person,” she explains. “I just thought it sounded interesting. I’ve always liked hero-type people like that.” But in true motherly fashion, she doesn’t always approve of Tony Stark. “You just wanted to smack him sometimes,” she says. “He can be very sarcastic. He can be very self-centered. But I think that was part of the draw and why I did like him so well. Superman was the All-American — everybody loved him, kind of like Captain America. But Iron Man was a superhero with flaws. He was more human, more likable — he wasn’t just an on-the-pedestal kind of superhero.”

Of course, I’d argue that the appeal of Nolan’s Batman movies was that they were awash in such ambiguities, but to convince my mom of that, someone would first have to drag her to a theater that was showing The Dark Knight. I remember her seeing Batman Begins, partly on my recommendation. She was unmoved by a movie that I felt reinvented the superhero film. “The Joker was one of those characters that, to me, was much scarier,” she tells me when I bring up The Dark Knight. “He made me uncomfortable.”

She’s never dealt with scary stuff that well. She can still recall being in grade school and watching The Twilight Zone with her older brother Steve, who got me into movies at a young age. “I used to be terrified to watch Twilight Zone,” she says. “It used to scare the bejeebers out of me.” She laughs. “I’ve always been a wimp. I remember very vividly sitting on the floor behind my brother watching Twilight Zone over his shoulder, so that anything that would happen, he would protect me from it.”

She didn’t read comics aside from Casper the Friendly Ghost, but perhaps the first hint of her future Marvel love came in her affection for James Bond. “I loved those movies,” she says, adding, “Of course, I liked Sean Connery — there’s no two ways about it. I liked the way he acted — I liked listening to him talk.” But she also found comfort in Bond films because of “the good-versus-evil-type thing. It’s true with the [Marvel] movies, too: I know, for the most part, that good is going to triumph at the end.”

It’s hard to blame her. In the last few years, she’s lost both her parents and recently she had surgery on one of her feet, a procedure that forced her to have pins in her foot for weeks and left her unable to drive. My mom doesn’t complain about those things — she’s the most positive person I know. And even though she knows life isn’t all rainbows and ice cream, she doesn’t think we need to necessarily seek out such reminders at the movies — or on TV. “Since I’ve been not able to get out that much [after the surgery], I’ve watched all kinds of NCIS and Law & Order: SVU back-to-back during the day,” she says. “And in one of the shows, he wasn’t a main character, but he’d been on quite a bit, and he ends up dying. I mean, I just sat there and cried. I get so involved with these characters that — even if they’re fictitious — they become something special to me.”

The death of bad guys in a Marvel movie doesn’t bother her because she sees it as just fantasy, but if a film is more realistic, it can haunt her. She still remembers being a young woman and seeing Old Yeller in the theater. “Old Yeller ends up with rabies, and they have to shoot him at the end,” she tells me. “That was extremely traumatic. People love this dog, and then it has to be killed. When someone who really loves somebody and then something happens… [Old Yeller] is the one I remember the most that really, really shook me.”

The more I talked to my mom about where her love of Marvel movies came from, the more I realized I should be careful not to tell her something I knew about Infinity War — which is that, supposedly, at least one major character will be killed off. So, instead, I asked her if she had any expectations for the new movie. “When the trailers come on — or the commercials come on TV — I kind of just disregard it,” she says. “I mean, I know there’s big machines and stuff like that, but I try not to pay too much attention to it.” When I tell her that that’s how I prefer going into a movie, too — without any idea of what to expect — she then says, “I just hope none of the superheroes are going to get killed.”

“Well,” I replied, “I guess that’s the worry when you have that many characters.” I asked her if there would be any characters she’d be okay with never seeing again. “I don’t know,” she says, reluctantly. “I’d say the least superhero-y of the superheroes is Hulk. But no, I don’t want any of them gone.”

I suggest that maybe somebody like Hawkeye would be expendable — the dude just shoots arrows — and my mom allows, “Yeah, he’s not in there very much. There are lesser superheroes — you can see them dying or something, where I can’t imagine Captain America, Thor or Iron Man [dying].”

She pauses, thinking for a moment, before bringing things back to her least-favorite arachnid. “The fact of the matter is… I’m not a huge Spider-Man fan. So if he didn’t come back, I wouldn’t care.”