Everyone else has already moved on to the next big thing…Detective Pikachu, I think – so time for me to finally post my thoughts on Avengers: Endgame.
~ Spoilers Beyond this Point ~
I liked it a lot more than Infinity War, and that’s because Endgame pretty much does the thing I said Infinity War didn’t at the top of my review of that movie – Endgame gave these characters endings and irreversibly changes the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark does what Captain America accuses him of being unable to do in the first Avengers movie: makes the ultimate sacrifice to save everyone else. (Tony pretty much did this at the end of The Avengers too, but…forget about it, I guess?). Likewise, Steve Rogers finally gets to do the thing he’s wanted since the end of The First Avengers: comes back from the war to settle down with Peggy Carter.
These are good endings for these characters. These are earned endings that are a payoff to a decade of movies. Tony’s was the second best funeral in the MCU (after Yondu’s, natch.) and Steve Rogers is able to finally live for more than just to serve – and passes on the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson! And before this paragraph ends I want to reiterate that I liked Endgame quite a bit.
But I also left the theater feeling a little emptier than I stepped into it.
In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” feminist poet and writer Adrienne Rich coins the term “Compulsory Heterosexuality” to describe how heterosexuality as seen as “normal” and other expressions of sexuality – primarily lesbianism – as somehow secondary, deviant, or unnatural. She writes how the “institution of heterosexuality” is reinforced, in part, by popular culture. The man is always the hero, and the man always gets the girl at the end. And, as much as Endgame’s last-act parade of women superheroes would like us to think otherwise, the movie is still very much made with the institution of heterosexuality’s approval. (Metaphorically. There is no literal institution of heterosexuality headquartered in a physical building somewhere minting out medals of approval, so don’t @ me.).
Endgame’s first scene in the movie shows us that Hawkeye’s motivations over the course of the movie will be the recovery of his wife and children. When Tony dies, he’s survived by his wife and child. The final shot of the movie is a married Steve Rogers finally dancing with the woman he’s pined after for the better half of a century.
And besides the prioritization of heterosexual relationships and the men in them, Endgame short-changes many of its female characters. We’ll start with Captain Marvel, the most powerful character in the franchise to date – who is absent for most of the movie, gets one scene to really show her stuff, and is then punted into orbit. Sure, you could say that it would be boring to watch a character who is essentially playing on New Game Plus with all 7 Chaos Emeralds any % speedrun Avengers: Endgame, but there are ways to write around characters rather than write them out. But this is complaining about the movie we could’ve gotten rather than the one we did, which isn’t very useful criticism. And the one or two things Carol does get to do in Endgame are some of its most badass, so, not really a huge strike against it.
An actual strike against Endgame is the movie’s treatment of Black Widow, whom I’m not sure I can say is even focused enough on to have gotten fridged. Ostensibly, the goal of Natasha’s series-long arc has been to erase the red from her ledger – to do enough good to make up for the bad she did in her past, and earn the second chance that Clint gave her. This is a perfectly fine story, and is even made juicier by Natasha giving Clint a chance of redemption after the loss of his family drove him to become a murderous vigilante. The ugly part of this is threefold: 1. The way the movie tells us that Natasha finally earns her redemption is through dying; 2. Her sacrifice also redeems Clint so that; 3. He can return to his heterosexual nuclear family. And it isn’t even so much that her death is a catalyst for Clint to develop as a character so much as it allows him to return to the status quo, and all for the price of one of the MCU’s foundational female characters.
An smaller part of the movie, but an actual example of a fridging is, appropriately enough, Thor’s mother, Frigga – who gives Thor the pep-talk he needs to snap out of his funk before fat-shaming him and dying for the second time in the franchise.
The female character treated with the most nuance and dignity is Nebula, but even her story ends pretty much where she was before the beginning of Infinity War, only now she’s had to kill herself to get there, and seemingly lost the relationship she had built with her sister Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 due to time-travel shenanigans. She also has the responsibility of telling Gamora that she’s supposed to end up in yet another heterosexual relationship with Star-Lord, so there’s that, too.
But heterosexuality wasn’t the only obligation that Endgame had to deliver on – there was also the fanservice. And, as a total chump mark for this kind of thing, I very much enjoyed seeing things and characters like New Asgard and Korg, Captain Marvel ram though another spaceship, Spider-Man do anything, etc. – the single biggest piece of fanservice in the movie: Steve Rogers finally wielding Mjolnir – felt, as I wrote about in my last blog post, predictable.
And that’s not to say that it wasn’t awesome to finally see on the big screen, but is it more awesome than, for example, Black Widow wielding Mjolnir as a sign that she’s finally worthy and not defined by her past?
But it had to be Steve who led the charge against Thanos with Mjolnir in hand, just like it had to be Tony who makes the final sacrifice to save the world. For better or worse, Endgame revealed the Villanelle structure of the MCU thus far. In many ways Endgame is cashing checks that previous films already wrote. It may have been fun for Endgame to have swerved, but it would have ruined the scheme of everything that came before it.
What I feel that the biggest loss of this is, however big a pop-culture moment Endgame turns out to be – what will it be remembered for besides being the conclusion to an unprecedented feat of film production? As an event, I’ve heard Endgame being compared to The Empire Strikes Back – but what is Endgame’s “I am your father” moment?
That’s not rhetorical, by the way. If you can make an argument for a swerve as effective as that from Endgame that could become a part of the cultural lexicon, I’d love to hear it. Sincerely.
However, what works about Endgame’s finality is that it is indeed a finale. As I mentioned in my review of Infinity War and at the top of this article – things have changed. I doubt Marvel has any plans to bring back Tony or rejuvenate Steve. And casting entirely new actors to fill these roles isn’t as easy as hiring a new artist to draw some new comics. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, unlike the comics universe, now seemingly had to find a way to continue without them.
So where does the MCU go from here?
One of Endgame’s biggest strengths as a story, especially over Infinity War, is it’s focus on fewer characters – primarily Tony and Steve. However, this focus isn’t without sacrifice. I already wrote about the movie’s sacrifice of female characters, but most of the men don’t make it out too much better, in terms of narrative.
Bruce Banner finally coming to terms with the Hulk and learning to share one body is another excellent conclusion to his character arc that began with “I’m always angry,” and left off with Hulk’s refusal to appear in Infinity War. It’s also development that happened entirely off screen.
After losing his home, his people, and going through an entire tiny existential crisis, Thor learns to…be himself? Could just be me, but abdicating the responsibility he took on at the end of Ragnarok to go faffing about with the Guardians of the Galaxy feels a little regressive, no?
And as much as I absolutely love the idea of Steve Rogers passing the mantle and shield of Captain America onto Sam Wilson – as I did when it happened in the comics – did he really earn in it in the narrative of this universe? There’s five years of time he probably spent with Steve, along with the two years between Civil War and Infinity War – but like with Hulk, that’s all stuff that happens off-screen. Kind of like Steve and Mjolnir, the passing of the shield feels like another obligation demanded by the idea of “as seen in the comics.”
And that’s not even mentioning the heroes who were barely in this movie like Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Black Panther – all of whom were introduced after Age of Ultron; and contributes to Endgame feeling much more like a thematic sequel to that movie rather than a conclusion to everything that’s come after it.
But this is also a bright side. All those unanswered questions, all these characters that weren’t developed – these are all possibilities. And with the main threads that have been hanging over the MCU finally tied-up, and no after-credits sequence to tease the next movie, those possibilities are wide open.
I felt empty coming out of Avengers: Endgame, but that equally means that I’m ready for more. Not knowing what comes next out of this mega-franchise is genuinely exciting, and if there’s some good to come out of Disney’s monopolization of global media, it’s the possibility that they might be willing to take another gamble as big as the original idea for The Avengers.