Vision: Avengers: Endgame
Avengers Endgame is the last of a mammoth anthology of films from Marvel Studios. There have been twenty-two films thus far with apparently more to come. Avengers Endgame was an incredibly expensive film (over $356 million) and also remarkably successful, earning a reported $2.3 billion worldwide. At 181 minutes in length, the film asks a considerable amount of the viewer but in spite of this has achieved decidedly positive reviews and ratings.
The film is set five years following the apocalyptic cataclysm that ends Infinity War. The survivors of what is uncannily reminiscent of a ‘rapture’ event are coming to terms with grief and loss. Poignant scenes in this regard are played by Hawkeye, Black Widow, Hulk, and Thor.
While a plethora of former Marvel heroes have cameo roles or play minor roles in the story (or, at least the half that remain), the main action of the film is carried by Iron Man/Tony Stark. Tony Stark is an intense and troubled promethean character in all his Marvel films. In his story arc throughout the films he has played a tragic hero. The critical tension of straddling two contradictory and irreconcilable worlds adds a further layer: his domestic world consisting of his employees, enterprises, and now wife and daughter, and the role he plays with the Avengers; super hero, world saver and ‘messiah’.
Tony Stark first enters the Marvel Universe in the film Iron Man when he is kidnapped by terrorists and forced to build a weapon. Naturally, he builds a robotic exoskeleton instead and in spite of his drastically damaged heart manages to escape the fortress. Of course, this foregrounds his propensity to resolutely play by his own rules even to the death. He projects a shady external character: billionaire, genius, inventor, weapons manufacturer, and playboy in sneakers. He is a lonely man, seemingly making up for the poverty of his personal relationships through his obsession with robotics and corporate success. He keeps others and the world at a distance with his contrary personality and flippancy. At the same time, he evidences an inner moral compass and a steely adherence to a kind of universal ethics, which means he never fails (eventually) to step into the breach for humanity as is the case in Endgame. In each of the films he, more than other Marvel heroes, battles human frailty. For much of Endgame he struggles with physical and mental duress in his incarnation of Prometheus, particularly grieving the loss of his young prodigy Spider-Man, but resolves to fight the ultimate battle all the same.
As per the other Marvel films, the Endgame universe is unrealistically polarized into a simplistic good and bad, with Thanos, the face of the bad. Thanos is a complicated character who believes, through a random thinning of life throughout the universe, that he can restore some kind of ecological balance. The Avengers curate a strategy to use time to reverse the damage done by this calculatedly utilitarian solution. The strategy requires a complex return to story arcs in earlier films. The success of this venture means the restoration of the ‘raptured’ fifty percent but will result in the loss of things gained in the subsequent five years. It will also mean the ultimate price for several primary players. For Tony Stark, the fabrication of an alternate reality could conceivably result in the loss of his young daughter. This presents a conundrum oddly reminiscent of the Book of Judges (ch.12) and the character of Jepthah who wagered the future of Israel on the life of his child.
Natasha Romanova/Black Widow is one of the very few prominent female characters in Endgame. She plays a stereotypically maternal role, pushing through her own grieving process to attempt to hold together the family of Avengers who survived. Black Widow has a clear pairing with Barton/Hawkeye, for whom the loss of his family has triggered a grossly violent bereavement. With the simulacrum of Red Skull and the Vormir scene in Infinity War (with Thanos and Gamora), Barton and Romanova now in Endgame must also sacrifice to acquire the key to the resurrection of half the planet. In this instance, Barton and Romanova struggle with each other, making clear that love rather than economy is the guiding value of “the Good.” Barton feels, given his earlier grief-stricken and murderous rampage through Japan, that he must bear this cost – Romanova, however, ultimately signs for the soulstone in her blood. Her reasoning is that he has family while she does not.
The final portion of the film consists of a magnificent showdown between the forces of good and evil. Captain America, naturally, plays a luminous and implicitly patriotic role here but cannot prevail. The serendipitous return of Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) turns the tide in a pleasingly spectacular way, and this spectator was hopeful to see a truly glorious, female superhero lead the alliance to victory. It was not to be, however, and the plot’s football was quickly flicked back to Tony Stark who would perform the honours with the final win of the game.
What is intriguing about Avengers Endgame and the other Marvel films is its curious implicit play with religion and politics. The experience is a melange of religious symbolism that merges with a global, western mythos. Avengers Endgame draws strongly upon the Greco-Roman Pantheon for the inspiration of its superheroes after the figures of Zeus, Mars, Athena, Achilles, Prometheus but also Nordic Mythology in the characters of Thor and Loki. Yet in response to increasing multicultural sensitivities, Buddhist characters have also arisen like Dr Strange, Wong and the Ancient One. The Ancient One in the film is also apparently inspired by Celtic paganism. Captain America plays strongly to the ethos of the American/Republican patriot, with his relation to the marines, his blonde hair/blue eyes, dressed in the colours of the American flag and his evangelical, puritanesque self-discipline. Tony Stark, conversely, is the very epitome of American secular consumerism and worships at the altar of technological advancement. What remains however, and perhaps due to the age of the originating comics, is the overwhelming representation and agency of the white American male in the film and the limited or diminished roles of women and other cultural representations. For example, one can note the utter paucity of Asian actors, the secondary, supplementary, transferable or passive roles of both women and African-American actors. Another example is the attribution to non-American characters (like Thor) of personal or character flaws such as alcoholism and obesity. Captain America even acquires Thor’s hammer in one outrageously gratuitous scene of cultural appropriation.
Endgame assures the spectator that the preeminent values, attitudes, and
beliefs from its vantage point are those of self-sacrifice, brotherly love, friendship,
loyalty, and steadfastness, with surprisingly minimal interest in romantic love
or any other bodily passion. Also invoked are values of family, parent-child
relationships, fidelity, and an increasing acceptance of plurality. The particular
code of ethics held by the primary characters are in the main universal and highly
admirable, such as resilience, self-discipline to the point of ascetism, the
continued search for hope, personal and corporate responsibility, and the
dogged overcoming of adversity. However, another implicit and unfortunate
paradigm is the setting up of a false binary between the value of people versus
the value of the environment – both are important, and certainly the former cannot
exist without the latter. The earth was a clear loser in the film as it is turned
into a battleground again, and in the environmentally catastrophic final scene,
its lakes and forests burned bare.
Yael Klangwisan is the Head of Education in the School of Social Practice at Laidlaw College.