Avengers: Endgame is the only other Marvel film, apart from Black Panther, that possesses emotional acuity
Endgame is not only the best Avengers movie, it is, along with Black Panther, the only other one in this 22 strong series that possesses emotional acuity.
Before I watched Avengers: Endgame for the second time on Monday on an IMAX screen, I was debating whether to sell my ticket.
I was immensely delighted and moved by the movie after finding Avengers: Infinity War a choppy disappointment but wondered if rewatching it was essential. Still, I headed to my screening. Then as Alan Silvestri’s gorgeous, operatic score played over Iron Man sleeping in the opening scene, I involuntarily burst into tears. With the release of Endgame, I realised that emotional investment can be retroactive. Endgame is not only the best Avengers movie, it is, along with Black Panther, the only other one in this 22 strong series that possesses emotional acuity. In a series filled with post-credit teases for what the future holds, we finally have a melancholic denouement.
I watched the first Iron Man in a dingy movie hall in Chennai with a cousin. My knowledge of Marvel comics at that point of time was limited to story arcs featuring Spider-Man or the X-Men. Iron Man, on the other hand, seemed inaccessible and uninteresting. Superheroes were about underdogs, like a nerdy high school kid bitten by a radioactive spider or mutants hiding their true abilities in the face of discrimination. What was interesting about a playboy billionaire, particularly one without the lingering trauma of Bruce Wayne, who becomes a superhero? Yet the movie drew me in immediately.
From Robert Downey Jr’s assured deadpan comic performance to the quaint screwball romcom banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, and the timely encapsulation of America’s role in foreign warfare to, Iron Man truly felt like a superhero film grounded in the real world. And then when Samuel L. Jackson turned up to introduce the Avengers initiative, it became clear that the movie was going to be a gateway to the vast cosmic eccentricities of the Marvel universe.
If you had told me that several years later, millions of audiences would shriek at the top of their lungs for the likes of a gun-toting racoon and a Norse god with an indestructible (don’t tell Hela) hammer against an alien villain who tosses a planet at our superheroes, I would have laughed at you.
Yet, over the years, as I got increasingly drawn into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), first passively then actively, and I had a significant problem. The fate of the world always relied on apocalyptic, end of the world stakes and yet these characters were rarely in mortal danger. Agent Coulson, one of the few major deaths early on in the MCU was a minor character who dies in The Avengers but then promptly returns as one of the leads in the TV series Agents of Shield. The snap in Infinity War wiped out half the universe but who really expected that Black Panther or Spider-Man wouldn’t return when Disney made billions off the box office and merchandising? After all, even Thanos is no match for the commercial mandate of Mickey.
The worse flaw in the MCU was that characters kept returning to basic templates and discarding their character arcs. Tony Stark went through a pivotal moment of growth when he decides to hang up the suit in Iron Man 3. He almost promptly returns to it in Captain America: Civil War. Drax remains a one-note butt of jokes despite a tragic beginning. No one was the biggest victim of this other than Black Widow, the only woman among the original Avengers who seemed to get a new hairstyle and personality change in every movie. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Natasha Romanoff finally felt like a flesh and blood character enlivened by sharper writing and Scarlett Johansson’s chemistry with scene partner, Chris Evans. Sadly, she went back to her unidimensional self in Avengers: Age of Ultron, her emotional arc filtered through male writers who unsurprisingly relegated her to pining over Bruce Banner and mourning her infertility.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have high expectations from Endgame given the MCU’s emphasis on exhilaration over existentialism. Yet what makes Endgame surprisingly bleak for a $300 million polished corporate product is how it emotionally commits to the conceit of a universe where half its denizens have vanished.
Endgame features a five-year time jump in which Steve Rogers is trying to hold on to his optimism, Thor is drinking away his emotional burdens, Natasha is in charge of a much thinner group of Avengers barely keeping it together, and Clint Barton has become a murderous vigilante. Only Tony Stark has moved on, finally settling down with Pepper Potts and raising their cherubic daughter. Even the movie’s introduction to the messy time travel gambit (which involves alternate timelines) is admirable for its emphasis that people can be brought back but trauma and the lost time of those left behind can’t be erased.
In particular, in a series where the superhero life is not that different from a space soldier, the theme of sacrifice looms large. In The Avengers, Tony tells Steve Rogers that he only really fights for himself. By the end of that movie, as Tony takes on a life-threatening dare, it’s clear that his selfish, individualistic façade masks his paternalistic virtuosity. It’s no coincidence that this character who welcomed all of us into the cult of the MCU is framed as a messianic figure in the series (Just look at how he’s framed with his outstretched arms in the Infinity War poster).
In Infinity War, Thanos reiterates how he’s the only one willing to make the sacrifices necessary to effect cosmic change. “The hardest choices require the strongest wills.” Yet in Endgame both Natasha and Tony make the hardest choice of all to bring everyone back – give up their own lives. This is moving and maddening in the case of Natasha, a former assassin who finds a foster family with the Avengers and becomes another example of the series’ blindspots when it comes to women. Tony’s mortality, on the other hand, has always been in threat from his first appearance. Yet, it comes as a surprise in a movie that deifies fatherhood even as Tony’s heartwarming moments with his daughter and his father foreshadow the end.
When Pepper tells Tony, “We are going to be okay. You can rest now,” it is a lump in the throat end to his journey. And in a series where resurrections are common, it seems unlikely that he will return.
The antithesis of this sacrifice motto is Steve Rogers who finally hangs up his shield and settles down into a civilian life in 1945 with Peggy Carter (the MCU’s best love interest). This is a man who was frozen in ice and displaced in time, his anachronistic idealism truly exemplifying the MCU’s emotional core. It’s only a fitting ending that he gets to experience love, ageing and have the dance he promised Peggy in Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie poignantly ends on their slow dance to the strains of Harry James and Kitty Kallen’s 'It’s Been a Long Long Time', a 1945 song that was written to commemorate the return of soldiers after World War II.
Of course, Endgame is both moving and thrilling in equal measure because it stuffs itself with call-backs, functioning as a bereavement letter to fans who are seeing Iron Man and Captain America for the last time. Everything from its greatest hits medley allowing its superheroes to travel to the settings of past MCU movies to the dialogues reinforces this. Sam returns in the climactic battle by telling Captain America, “On your left,” the first dialogue Steve Rogers exchanged with him in Winter Soldier as he jogged past him. Tony Stark’s final line to Thanos is “I am Iron Man,” the same line with which he reveals his superhero alter-ego to the Iron Man movie.
Both Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have been the emotional centres of these films. In Endgame he suffuses Tony Stark with a great deal of gravitas, a sense of weariness by a man who plans to hang up his suit after one last ‘save the world’. The funeral scene attended by all of Marvel’s prominent superheroes (and even Jon Favreau who directed Downey Jr. in the first two Iron Man movies), seems less designed for the characters than Marvel fans to have a moment to say goodbye to Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. Like a hand on the shoulder, Tony’s final pre-recorded address accompanies the scene. “I hope when you play this back it will be in celebration.”
Some might rightfully be cynical about the sentimentality seamlessly conjured by a multibillion dollar brand owned by a monopolistic media conglomerate. But corporate brands can also be highly attuned to the archaic ways in which myth works. In Tony Stark, we saw both a flawed man who was all too human and a superhero who redeemed himself for all of humankind. Capitalistic catharsis anyone?
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