Avengers: Endgame and the Inevitability of Death

“I am Iron Man,” Tony Stark said before Snapturing Thanos and his army into dust, avenging Earth and all that were lost to Thanos’ grand plan to bring balance to the planet by wiping out half the population. Stark said this knowing the power of the infinity stones would kill him, yet he did it anyway. He also said it immediately after Thanos refrained a line of dialogue he had stated two or three times prior, “I am inevitable.”

Avengers: Endgame, the capstone to 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the direct sequel to Avengers: Infinity War- the movie where the villain won, and made us question “was he right?” Over the 22 movies, we’ve been told stories about individuals who grew and changed and faced insurmountable odds but surmounted them with their superpowers.

These were powers that came from a place of brokenness, a classic tale where someone was considered too weak, too angry, too arrogant, too manipulated by Cold War era governments to matter. Then, through their growth, they found they could help people, stop evil, and use their powers for good. They had a responsibility to.

One knock on all these movies (not the CGI or acting or plausibility, but the stories), was there weren’t stakes. They were good, sometimes great, tales of morality often targeted to adolescents in their formative years about what it meant to be aware of weaknesses and form strength out of them. But, the heroes never faced death.

Thanos, the existential threat who motives were born out of his own broken history, sought to rid planets of overcrowding, pollution, and misused resources. He was powerful and arrogant and ruthless. He was arbitrary. But, he was doing Earth a favor, in his eyes. It’s also a clever bit of story telling by the movie makers because Thanos’ source material was a crazed supervillain who brought death and destruction to places because he wanted the affection of the personification of Death- a female Grim Reaper type. If it sounds as crazy as it reads, it’s because it is, and it’s also from a comic book aimed at telling stories to children.

In the movies, Thanos is death. He is inevitable. But the argument of this movie isn’t that death won’t happen or that it shouldn’t. It’s that death doesn’t get to be decided by someone else. It’s an interesting bit of American individualism, and I’d suggest an indictment on our view of life. We tend to suck our all the marrow from life, ignoring the reality of death. This movie forces the audience to confront death and then suggest the most heroic thing you can do is live your life with your mortality in mind, making decisions knowing that one day you too will meet your demise.

To save you a recap from a three hour movie that capped off nearly two dozen two-plus hour movies, the heroes find Thanos with Captain Marve’s help in the first fifteen minutes. They attack him and kill him, and they are left hollow. Avenging isn’t about punishing the bad guy, it’s always been about protecting and bring life to those who can’t do it themselves. Each hero retreats to a new life where they grapple with failure.

Tony refuses to fight Thanos again because he got the family he always wanted, living in safety on a lake in a beautiful house. Clint lost his family and wanted to take vengeance on every evil person who was spared by the arbitrary nature of the Snapture. Steve and Natasha doubled down on their personal crusade to bring justice to this unjust world. Steve brought empathy and concern through grief groups and Nat ran SHIELD. There are more examples, but in short, each surviving person found a way to grow and change in the face of a cruel and arbitrary universe. Even Hulk found a healthy balance between his calm, brilliant banner and the rage monster HULK to become a well balanced celebrity. (There are so many characters and arcs to recount. Nebulas was perfect plot and character writing; Thor’s was exactly how Thor would act. Also, I’m aware you can’t get all your favorite stories and people, but more Black Panther please.)

The movie is clear. Tragedy forces us to grow, and the most heroic thing we can do is live a healthy life giving to others in the small, mundane parts of this vast universe.

Then they find a way to bring everyone back. Let’s pause here and say if you’re caught up on the plot mechanics of time travel, then you’re doing it wrong. This movie goes to great lengths to tell and show the audience that time travel is fraught with impossibilities and logical holes. That’s not the point. The point is what should heroes do if they can save others but it cost them everything?

To be honest, I don’t know if I’d give it all up. I’ve lost a child, and the thought of Tony losing the life with his wife and daughter seems untenable to me. Yes, the movie brings his arc to resolution by having him find security in his decision via a time travel conversation with his father about responsibility and certainty and family. But it gutted me when his daughter was sitting on the bench with Happy Hogan at Tony’s funeral.

Then again, I think about the very real heroes that have sacrificed themselves for people who don’t know them, because the fate of the world depended on it. Rarely does a superhero, punch ‘em up movie bring such real personal stakes. Usually, it is about one man’s quest for revenge- usually it is solitary and the stakes are just for one person. This time it is losing a lifetime raising a child, and it is about a little girl growing up without a father. The explicit message is that the she, the Earth, and the universe is better off because Tony died. He had to. Thanos was going to destroy it all.

And therein lies the messages. In the face of death, what choices do you make? How do you pattern your life knowing that one day it will come to an end. What do you value- literally, where do you spend your money or your skills and abilities? And for what? Most importantly, where do you spend your time, the most valuable of all our commodities.

Steve grew to the place where he went back in time to spend it with the person he valued most, Peggy. Natasha didn’t have anything else in this world, so she gave herself for what she valued above all, the Avengers- her family. I hated her death. I wanted Natasha to get the life Tony had and Steve earned. I’ve heard others suggest Nat used her sacrifice to wipe off all the remaining red on her ledge. I’d posit it differently. Nat didn’t have anymore red because SHIELD gave her a new start. She finally came to a place where she didn’t need to earn her place anymore, she needed to give to someone else. She found her worth in the Avengers and knew they needed her sacrifice. Her face just before she forced Clint to let her go wasn’t one of resignation. It was one of loving sacrifice.

I thought filmmakers were smart to keep Captain Marvel at bay. Her character has been maligned for Brie Larson’s performance, her overpowered nature, or her deus ex machina relationship to the story. Those things can be true, but I think the subtext of the story is that even the godlike savior of the universe that arbitrarily comes and goes saving planets around the galaxy could not even defeat Thanos. She stood up to Thanos, but she didn’t have the glove at the end, and if she did, it wouldn’t have hurt her. It’s a startling honest admission, and it underlines the premise of the film. If you had all the power in the galaxy, but it cost your life, would save others?

The best things in life come at a cost, and unlike Captain Marvel (or even Captain America), we only get one life to live spend on them. When Dr. Strange held one finger up to Tony signifying the 1:14,000,000 scenario of this battle ending in victory, it was significant because it meant Tony had to lose.

This movie was great because of all that came before it, because the performances, the quiet moments, the humor, the spectacle, et al. It was also great because it did what many superhero movies don’t do, it brought real cost to the humans of the story, and we the audience got to experience it first hand. It was no longer a power fantasy, it was a real story- one we can all relate to. There is an End for all of us. The Endgame is how we live with that knowledge.