Disclaimer: this article includes spoilers starting in the third paragraph, so I wouldn’t read too far if you haven’t watched Avengers: Endgame yet. It also won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched Endgame and the Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, and Captain Marvel films.
With the release of Endgame the weekend of April 28th, 2019, Marvel Films completed a remarkable achievement: the conclusion of a story that took twenty-two films to tell. Endgame itself is virtuoso storytelling, wrapping up multiple story and character arcs in a single, deftly told, gripping film. Despite being three hours long, the film wastes no screen time beyond occasional but needed comic relief. I think it’s fair to say that Endgame is this generation’s great epic film, our Ten Commandments. Given the resources invested in this film cycle, I think it’s worth spending little bit of time thinking about what the MCU has been saying to us over the last eleven years. I think the MCU is telling us that we still, collectively, haven’t overcome the trauma of the Holocaust, and it’s pointing to a possible way that we might begin to do so.
Immediately after watching Endgame I went back and rewatched the first MCU film, Iron Man (2008). While the MCU encompasses twenty-two films (so far) and dozens of characters, many of whom have their own stories and character arcs, the only characters with completed story lines from origin to end-of-life are Tony Stark, Captain America (to old age, though, not death), Vision, Black Widow, and Thanos. Of these, Iron Man and Captain America are the focal points of three films each (unlike Vision and Black Widow), and Thanos is the chief antagonist within the MCU, so this twenty-two film story arc is best understood as a contest between Iron Man and Captain America on the one hand and Thanos on the other. But since the MCU begins with Iron Man’s origin and Endgame concludes shortly after Tony Stark’s funeral, this series of films is fundamentally about Tony Stark vs. Thanos. Captain America is important to the series, as he represents a different kind of foil for Tony Stark, taking the form of a different way of being a hero, but occupying that position makes him a secondary character in relationship to Stark, who in the end, as the MCU series protagonist, is the one who defeats Thanos.
The question, “Who is the protagonist of the MCU series?” seems silly and academic, a fun exercise for a high school English class, especially given the range of characters and number of films, but I think we need to take seriously the fact that the Infinity Stones story, and the MCU itself, for that matter, begins with Iron Man’s creation and ends with Tony Stark’s death. The central image from Stark’s funeral, his first miniature arc reactor encased in a ring that said, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” originated in the first Iron Man film as a gift from his future wife, Pepper Potts. It was a wry joke at the time, the idea that Stark the billionaire playboy weapons manufacturer needed proof he had a heart – and that this proof would take the form of a high-tech gadget in a case – but the centrality of this device I think encapsulates the MCU universe’s commentary on the real nature of the contest that it’s representing.
Tony Stark is America after World War II: weapons, tech, war, and hedonism. The MCU is assessing not the greatest generation, the one who beat Hitler, but the Baby Boomers, their children; what we did with our parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, and how we inherited their fears and managed them. I mean this “we” literally. I was born in 1964, so I was among the last of Baby Boomers, and Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Tony Stark, was born about eight months after me in 1965. In the world of the MCU, Stark was born around 1970. People our age are of the third generation after World War II: our parents didn’t fight in the war, but our grandparents did. My grandfather served during World War II while my father was in the Army during the Korean War. So the MCU represents our grappling with the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust from an American perspective, documenting three different responses to this legacy distributed across two to three different generations.
The first response is Thanos’s, who is driven by his own personal holocaust, the literal loss of his world described by him in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and how he sought to prevent that loss from happening on a cosmic scale by wiping out half of all life in the universe. He thought that with less competition for resources life could thrive again. When he realized life couldn’t move forward after such cataclysmic loss, his plan B was to wipe out all life completely and start again. I think we need to come to grips with Thanos’s psychology of death. The trauma of his holocaust was so internalized by him that he sought to repeat it. His desire was never to preserve life, but to be the controller and distributor of death, to be the source of the next holocaust rather than its victim.
Tony Stark, on the other hand, illustrates how our desire to build a shield around the world to keep the Holocaust from ever happening again is what is killing it. His first shield around the world was Ultron, who nearly destroyed all life on Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In the next Avengers film, Infinity War, Stark and the Avengers failed to stop Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe by finally acquiring the Infinity stone that Stark placed in Vision, whom he built to stop Ultron. We learn from Stark’s character that our powerful defensive measures in themselves can create the repeat holocaust they are intended to prevent. Therefore it’s no coincidence that Stark is a defense contractor. He embodies the profits and hedonism of this industry, its love of tech and power, a love that is disseminated throughout American culture, embodied in superhero movies themselves, and extended across the globe through US foreign policy. The MCU’s Iron Man originated in the Middle East with Stark’s discovery that his weapons, which were intended for the defense of the United States and its allies, were being sold to terrorists. Our real shield around the world, we should learn from the MCU, started out with a desire for protection and has descended into the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of all principle.
Stark’s other foil, I have observed, is Captain America. If Tony Stark represents a pragmatic and corrupted response to the Holocaust, Captain America/Steve Rogers represents the imaginary form of our uncorrupted ideals, the Greatest Generation itself, who in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was frozen in time in 1945 to be later resurrected in the present generation to battle evil once again. The perfection of his character reached its apex in Endgame when he demonstrated the worthiness to wield Thor’s hammer. But his presence alongside Stark led to a civil war among the good guys in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Stark, on the one hand, wanted to bring the Avengers under the control of world governments while Steve Rogers, on the other, seeing how Hydra had infiltrated the top levels of governance – further commentary on what we have become – no longer trusted the system with that power. A civil war among the good guys was inevitable because both sides were right. Superhero power, if it existed, would need to be held accountable to governmental oversight, but those who would provide this oversight can’t be trusted. The MCU only resolves this dispute by pitting them against a common enemy that represents nothing less than universal death itself, Thanos, the embodiment of our own internalized death instinct.
But Stark was the one who defeated Thanos in Endgame, not Captain America. I think we should consider carefully just what the Infinity Gauntlet, powered by all of the Infinity stones, really represents. It’s a cliché: if you could snap your fingers and change just one thing, what would it be? Thanos would snap his fingers and wipe out half the life in the universe, and then, when frustrated, all life itself to start over. Stark snapped his fingers to wipe out Thanos and his forces. The problem is that both sides still think the only way to win is to kill everyone on the other side. Worse than that, even Captain America thinks like Thanos: early in Endgame, Captain America says that if we can’t move forward from the massive loss of life experienced at the end of Infinity War, then Thanos should have killed us all. When Thanos realizes that life won’t move forward from the loss incurred at the end of Infinity War, he reasons exactly like Captain America: if they can’t get over it, kill them all and start over.
Since the Infinity War plotline is about the prevention of two cosmic holocausts, one involving half of all life and the other involving all life itself, I think that the MCU cycle of films reveals to us how much the Holocaust, the real one we suffered in World War II, continues to scar us all: we beat the Nazis but have become them. We think killing all the bad guys is in the end the only real solution to our problems. The Nazis demonized the Jews and wanted to kill them all. We demonize the Nazis, and as soon as Stark had the chance, he snapped his fingers and wiped Thanos and all of his forces from existence. If you don’t believe we think the only way to win is kill off all of our enemies, why all the nukes? What better way to kill them all, how more efficiently, than with nuclear weapons? Why do you think we have so many? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the real villains of Captain Marvel (2019) wound up being the Kree, an intensely technological, highly diverse federation of planets? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the “terrorists” in Captain Marvel were minority victims of the Kree? Who here most resembles the United States? But more importantly, what a massive failure of the imagination it is to think that the only solution to our problems is mass death. Why couldn’t Thanos snap his fingers and make all life consume only half as much resources to survive? Why couldn’t Stark snap his fingers and change Thanos’s mind, maybe by showing him a different future? Why can’t we snap our fingers and keep the world safe in a way that doesn’t involve bigger and faster planes, missiles, and troops?
A new way of thinking is needed here, a way that the MCU teaches us we haven’t learned yet but, maybe, Captain America did. At the end of Endgame, Rogers completed his mission, returning all of the stones to their original locations in time, but then he didn’t come back. He stayed in the past, married the love of his life, Peggy Carter, and lived a full life with her. Captain America’s character in the MCU teaches us that we don’t move forward until we learn the solution to our problems won’t be found until we stop killing. The cure for our universal death instinct is to learn to love life.
Incidentally, Captain America returning the stones to their original locations at the end of Endgame didn’t solve the problem of creating an alternate reality, as Thanos’s time travel forward created two timelines: one of the current Infinity War / Endgame chronologies in which Thanos lives until 2019, dying when he is beheaded by Thor, and an alternate one in which Thanos leaves that timeline in 2014 before recovering any of the stones and never returns to it, traveling forward in time to later in 2019 to be finally defeated by Iron Man. Steve Rogers stayed in this alternate reality, married the woman he loved, and then caught up with the Infinity War reality as an old man. I think Rogers just appearing naturally in the Endgame timeline, showing up on a bench, was a mistake as well. He lived his life in the alternate timeline. He should have only been able to return to the Endgame timeline in a quantum travel suit.
Either way, while the MCU teaches us that we haven’t learned, the MCU also teaches us that we really learn when we quit being soldiers and start having a life. It is perhaps a bit frightening that the only character to accomplish this task, Captain America, is an ideal human who lived this life in an alternate universe. Do the MCU writers believe this option is a real one when the cynical pragmatist, Tony Stark, is the only one who could beat Thanos in the end? The best of us, the Greatest Generation, did move on to better lives for the most part, but they also gave birth to the modern military-industrial complex. They were Captain America, and they were Tony Stark. We are their children and grandchildren, and we picked up the military-industrial complex and ran with it. Our grandparents beat the Nazis, and as a culture we’re still like Tony Stark, partying on war profiteering. We’re still in love with death. We should learn from the MCU films that as of right now, on our current course, in our real history, we’re racing toward the next holocaust. The MCU also teaches us, however, that we have other, better examples before us. So, in the end, it asks this question: will we follow our better examples, or will we stay on this path until we kill everyone again? We can only prevent the next holocaust by being in love with life more than we are in love with death.