Academics on Avengers: Endgame, Part 1

Avengers: Endgame is a cinematic generational event. The epic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first arc that began with 2008’s Iron Man and encompasses twenty-two films. As of this posting, Avengers: Endgame has grossed nearly $2.7 billion and has a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In other words, Avengers: Endgame is an unquestionable success.

This film is also a one-of-a-kind cultural artifact which will undoubtedly inspire countless academic projects. While we at Sequart can’t wait to see the articles, chapters, and books that scholars will one day write about Avengers: Endgame, we wanted to collect some quick thoughts about this film from academics who just watched this movie. As such, we reached out to academics who professionally study popular culture and mass entertainment, and asked them to share their thoughts on what type of scholarship Endgame could inspire.

And we got so many contributions that we had to split this piece into two parts. Below is Part 1, and Part 2 will be uploaded soon.

With that said, please take a moment to take in what these amazing scholars have shared with us.


This was your spoiler warning. If you don’t want spoilers for Avengers: Endgame then stop reading…and get off the internet.

They probably figured someone like me would put a fist in the air and cheer when Captain Marvel was surrounded by all of the superwomen of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But by the time I realized it was happening—maybe two seconds—it was over.

The two seconds couldn’t make up for the twenty movies that came before Captain Marvel that all starred men and had women as 11-25% of speaking characters, or how only half of those movies pass the Bechdel test, or the lack of a Black Widow movie, or that the men had triple the screen time of the women in Endgame (and Natasha had the least of the original Avengers).

The two seconds didn’t lessen the sting of the one original female Avenger sacrificing herself, in the way that women have been written to do so often in fiction. Or how she was so mourned by the several remaining male characters, they didn’t notice or care that the only other woman around, Nebula, had a different arm and wasn’t in the room while they were making plans. The writers told The New York Times, “We have this male lens and it’s a lot of guys being sad that a woman died.” Sad enough to miss the betrayal of Nebula, but not sad enough to give Natasha a memorial service.

The two seconds didn’t offset that Peter Parker had thought that Captain Marvel would need help, and told her so. Did he think that she (a superpowered woman) couldn’t get as far with the Infinity Gauntlet as he (a powerless boy) did, even though she had just destroyed a giant starship single-handedly? Maybe the screenwriters somehow knew that her at-that-time-unwritten solo movie would focus on how she had been underestimated her whole life. But that seems unlikely.

Does the “splash page” of the women of the MCU in Endgame look really, really cool? Yes. But quantitatively and qualitatively, Marvel can and should do better.

Carolyn Cocca, PhD
Department of Politics, Economics, and Law
State University of New York, College at Old Westbury
Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation

AVENGERS: ENDGAME’s Resurrection Game: Given that I, with colleagues, had written extensively on the formation of a studio equipped to mount an interconnected fictional universe stretching beyond a decade (in The Marvel Studios Phenomenon), I had expected my responses to Endgame to be defined by thoughts about the tying-off of narratives, or Easter Eggs towards the future, or the way the studio’s identity was affirmed by its most ambitious, and likely most profitable, release. To my surprise, I instead found myself thinking about the re-appearance of several of the saga’s ‘smaller’ characters – and actors – who had not featured for a while, as well as the general aging of one of the most beloved extended casts in popular filmmaking.

One of the key pleasures, and an emotional crux for me, was the encounter (owing to a ‘time heist’ device) between John Slattery’s Howard Stark, and his diegetic son, Downey Junior’s Tony. Well-written, and justified by the narrative, the short, affecting, kind scene looked ahead to characters set to withdraw from MCU activity, while also maintaining hopes for a diegetic past about which adventures could still – feasibly – be told (the younger Dominic Cooper having played Howard in earlier films and on TV’s Agent Carter). In this precious bubble of time (a CG-adapted ‘hippy’ Stan Lee having just roared past in a sports car), Slattery’s return released joy: a favourite actor of mine since his key ‘man out of time’ role of Roger Sterling in Mad Men. Howard embodies the generation gap that the forty-something Tony Stark of 2019 can comprehend and empathise with (since the Stark in this timestream will be barely ten years old). Aging of the actors, as well as the characters evolving and approaching narrative fulfillment or completion, was very much on my mind.

There were other scenes to compare to the one between the Starks; they tended to bring together generations (Thor and Frigga; Happy Hogan and Stark’s daughter Morgan). Some depended on the idea of time running out. Here we were: perhaps waving goodbye to key players, some of whom had chalked up double figures of MCU movie appearances; others, whose total was inflated by TV appearances. Much like the feeling of watching the end of the Harry Potter saga (where the inhabitants of key roles had gone from cute schoolchildren to twenty-somethings), or, in a different way, the leads of Richard Linklater’s long-in-production Boyhood (2014), it felt like they suddenly were revealed at a new age, and we wonder: where has the time gone? Had this been happening all along? Fittingly, the movie virtually closes on a rapidly-aged hero – finally, an impressive aging job in a popular movie! – revealing that he beat the timestream, to steal (…time heist!) a middle-age of stable love and companionship. We even see one of the last talismanic figures of an older Hollywood, Robert Redford, sundancing his way back into the role of the disgraced S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Alexander Pierce, along with other characters (many, villains), played by skilled actors, briefly and thrillingly resurrected from MCU oblivion. It was an unexpected pleasure, and as much as I look forward to more from some of the younger stars whose fictive selves are barely out of adolescence, a major part of this film was its thoughtful approach to bowing out.

Dr Martin Flanagan
School of Arts and Media
University of Salford, UK
The Marvel Studios Phenomenon

The tremendous theatrical success of Avengers: Endgame was enabled by repeated viewings and an enthusiastic fan outpouring on the internet.  Demonstrating the term Marvel zombies didn’t just apply to comic book buyers back in the day, the film offered little new to the story arc aside from widely anticipated resurrections and some closure for Iron Man and Captain America.  But nothing new is the key to its success as an enactment of a blockbuster action formula and more particularly the Marvel superhero playbook.  The film rewarded the fan community with funny and dramatic moments that hinged on recognition: when the present Captain American stops the past Captain America from uttering his catch-phrase and when Iron Man saves the universe and ends his life with the words “I am Iron Man” (the words that ended the first Iron Man film and created the Marvel cinematic universe).  This notable fan-serving practice makes viewers feel like a privileged part of what is really now the largest fan club in the world: the allusion/illusion of exclusivity is what makes interpolating consumers so effective.

Although it would be easy to criticize Endgame for repeating the formula covered in the work of Richard Reynolds and Peter Coogan, that would be a bit like criticizing classical myth for repeating the formula described in the work of Joseph Campbell—except that this film was manufactured in the hyper-aware, consumer culture of neoliberalism.  And so if we refer to superheroes as a modern mythology, we should do so in terms informed by Roland Barthes’ Mythologies and think about Disney as a vast enterprise built on hegemonic storytelling.  Consequently, when this company built on family values makes calculated moves to increase diversity, these obvious attempts seem tepid at best.  Undoubtedly motivated by a growing awareness that people not male, white, and heterosexual watch superhero films, Endgame still plays well enough with its conservative base.  In addition to the satisfaction of being part of a club that did not formerly welcome them, “other” fans can forgive the awkwardness of attempts at diversity because the blockbuster action film quickly moves onto the next explosion.

The artificial line-up of female superheroes in the midst of the final battlefield scene accentuated that, in ten years, Marvel only produced one female-led film immediately before Endgame.  Moreover, attempts to broaden family (i.e. cultural) values become more strained in a strange confluence of sexual and racial representations.  When Steve Rogers leads a support group, he lends encouragement to a traumatized gay man relating a story of a recent date.  Representing 1940s idealism/conservativism, Captain America is an unlikely candidate for open acceptance of alternative lifestyles.  However, it could be argued that he was inspired by Sam Wilson, a contemporary black man and fellow superhero, who led a support group in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Since Sam was “killed” in Infinity War, his absence made his big, post-resurrection moment in Endgame less clearly motivated by the plot: when an aged Steve hands off Captain America’s shield.  Unfortunately, the starting point for a black Captain America also feels like tokenism because Sam, a relatively underdeveloped character, sidelines Bucky in these final moments of the film.  Captain America’s film story is overwhelmingly about Bucky that it led to gay fanfiction (that the directors, the Russo brothers, publicly rejected).  Eliminating Sam from that support group scene and using him to definitely “break up” Captain America and Bucky suggests that the Marvel/Disney corporate machine’s representation of “others” is a simultaneously limited and overly complicated negotiation.

Terrence Wandtke, PhD
Professor of Literature and Media, Judson University
Author, The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics
Editor, The RIT Comics Monograph Series

In innovation & management studies, there is a traditional view of a business as having to choose between either being experimental & searching for new business opportunities through radically targeting new markets, or being exploitative of the successes it already has & incrementally improving on existing offers. Then, from the 1990s, came the thought that organizations could be ‘ambidextrous’ (Tushman & O’Reilly, 1996): to be experimental & exploitative, radical & incremental at the same time.

These are fundamentally ontological considerations. They are about how an organization views itself, about the shape it creates in the world in the delineation of its edges – where it allows flows in & out or blocks them – & about its relations to others occupying the same landscape (customers, supply chain, regulatory bodies & so on) & those working within.

I have wondered whether this model of ambidexterity is too limiting & that multiplicitous dynamic ontologies are possible & preferable. For the MCU, however, ambidexterity is not an option. Not only is choice limited to radical innovation or ‘business as usual’ exclusively of each other, but it’s a zero-sum game too: choosing one entails the complete destruction of the other position. Thanos’s radical response to the universe’s rampant overconsumption of resources cannot live with keeping the universe as it was. Not only that, but his realisation in Endgame is that those left behind in his radically redesigned cosmic ontology will never be able to accept the gift he has given to them. Only a total reworking will do.

This will, obviously, not do for the forces of reaction & his dreams of a different future must turn to dust.

Tushman, M.L. & O’Reilly, C.A. (1996) The ambidextrous organizations: managing evolutionary and revolutionary change, California Management Review 38(4), pp. 8–30.

Dr Jamie Brassett FHEA
Reader in Philosophy, Design & Innovation
University of the Arts London
Programme Research Director
Central Saint Martins
Visiting Professor in Design
Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Dessau

While much has already been said about the handling of “fat Thor” in Avengers: Endgame, and there are valid points made on both sides, I strongly believe that Thor’s physicality itself is one of the most important aspects of the visual narrative told in the Infinity Saga.

Starting out in Thor, we see the title character struggling to prove himself only to rise as he learns how to properly wield his power. He would continue to grow in power reaching his full potential right before losing it all. And my use of all is only slightly hyperbolic. He loses his hammer, the realm of Asgard, more than half its citizens, and even his brother. The change of his hair in Thor: Ragnarok reminds the viewer of these losses when we see him again and primes the fans for the other physical changes in his future. Even with his hair being nonconsensually cut as a way of stripping away his individuality, and the symbol of his strength and status according to Norse mythology, he still rose as the God of Thunder. In other words, he is shown to be more than the sum of his parts. The trauma he experiences lingers though and his desire to defeat Thanos becomes all-encompassing as he tries to reclaim the recent power he feels he lost. Subsequently, his failure to save the rest of the world causes him to mentally crumble.

The Thor we see in Avengers: Endgame has isolated himself, gets triggered by the name Thanos, has panic attacks, and generally feels helpless. He is also unkempt and heavier than we have ever seen him. Just looking at him, we can see how he is coping with his mental illness instead of healing from it. It is only after his mother tells him “Don’t be who you’re supposed to be, be the best version of who you are,” that he begins to see himself as worthy again. Once again, we are given a visual symbol of this when he is able to claim Mjolnir once again. He may not have saved the universe like he thought he was supposed to, but he is still a hero. Furthermore, he finds acceptance, which is exemplified by his partial transformation at the end of the movie. Just as before, his costume changes with the lighting, but, with the exception of his hair and beard becoming coiffed, his physical form stays the same. This is a Thor who is just as heroic as he was at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, while also embodying the traumatic journey he has been on. In other words, through healing and acceptance, he has finally become the best version of himself.

Ignoring everything else, when looking at the visual narrative of the Infinity Saga, “Fat Thor” shows us what a hero’s journey looks like in a way that is both relatable and inspiring. Could it have been done better? Undoubtedly yes. Was it a misstep to make Thor’s physical presence change? Undoubtedly no! In the end, we have only scratched the surface in our discussions of “fat Thor” and I can’t wait to see what further analysis brings forth.

Jennifer DeRoss
Early Outreach and Referral
Lane Community College

Thank you for taking the time to read Part 1 of what these scholars had to share. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below, and keep an eye out for Part 2.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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