Academics on Avengers: Endgame, Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1, we got so many contributions that we had to split this article up into two parts. Below is the second half, and we hope you enjoy it.


If you don’t want spoilers for Avengers: Endgame then stop reading…and get off the internet. Seriously, why are you reading this if you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame yet?

Near the end of Avengers: Endgame (dirs. Anthony & Joe Russo, 2019), Dr. Strange holds up a single finger, signaling to Tony Stark/Iron Man that our heroes have found the only solution—from the 14,000,605 futures he surveyed in Avengers: Infinity War (dirs. Russos, 2018)—and that Stark can use the Infinity Gauntlet to thwart Thanos. Tony snaps his gauntleted fingers, rebutting Thanos’ declaration “I am inevitable” with “I am Iron Man.” This of course works, dusting Thanos and his minions, but fatally wounds Stark, whose death and funeral occupy the next bit of the film. The sequence closes the film’s main time-/film-hopping main plot, while at the same time closing off the pair of Avengers films and the more than twenty-film run that have thus far formed the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), starting with Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008). But beyond these somewhat obvious functions, this sequence further aligns the film’s narrative method (revisiting of its own backstory and canon) and the knowledge it presumes viewers possess, presenting the film’s climax and the revisions to the MCU that took place along the way as the only solution possible.

Viewers of Endgame are expected to recognize Strange’s gesture and thus be sure that Stark will succeed, and then immediately have their knowledge rewarded as Thanos and the rest of the heroes on screen come to the same recognition we have. This is not your typical dramatic irony but something more—a kind of franchise meta-knowledge that establishes new terms for the kind of closure possible only because of the filmic cycle that has played out over the last decade. So, Endgame’s plot directly revisits scenes and locations from Marvel’s The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012), Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor, 2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn, 2014), and Infinity War. But it also trades on knowledge, in-jokes, and canonized knowledge from across the MCU films. Endgame only makes full sense if viewers know about the elevator fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dirs. Russos, 2014), or Peggy Carter’s arc from Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011) to the Agent Carter television series (ABC, 2015-16) to her death and funeral in Captain America: Civil War (dirs. Russos, 2016), or even the specific weirdness of the quantum realm from Ant-Man and the Wasp (dir. Peyton Reed, 2018) or even the previous locations of the Infinity Stones.

This meta-knowledge is part of the film itself. When Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Bruce Banner/Professor Hulk, Rocket, and James Rhodes try to puzzle out how to stop Thanos by traveling to the past, they map out the trajectory of our knowledge about the Infinity Stones in the MCU films—coming to realize that three of them appeared in New York City at the time of their battle with the Chitauri in 2012 during the Battle of New York. This requires the characters (and us as viewers) to line up knowledge from The Avengers, which identified The Tesseract as the Space Stone and Loki’s staff, which in subsequent films we learned contained the Mind Stone (used to create The Vision). But the characters (and we) also know that the Time Stone, in the Eye of Agamotto, must have been in the Sanctum Santorum in New York, with the Ancient One, before the events of Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson). Their plan thus hinges on being certain of this knowledge and on the quantum-realm time travel whose causality seems to allow for a variety of interactions with past films: Cap can fight a previous version of himself in Stark Tower, Peter Quill/Star Lord can be knocked out an never steal the Power Stone, and Tony can meet his one father, Howard, in the 1970s, achieving a form of inter-personal closure that he was unable to attain in Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau, 2010) or via hologram or learning the truth about his parents’ murders in Civil War.

As such, Endgame rewrites the rules of the MCU—with time travel and alternate universes, nearly anything is now possible—but from a canon of knowledge it presumes of viewers. We are not satisfied, as our heroes are not, by the early status quo of the film, with half the life of the universe gone, their lives avenged by beheading Thanos. Instead, the film makes a case for itself by implicating us in its solution, as we and its characters mine our own knowledge to find a way though, all while asserting that new narratives can rise. Interestingly, the film doesn’t erase the trauma of having lost half the world, but revels in the possibilities of finding narrative solutions from the texts of the past. Thus, Endgame becomes a narrative machine that rewards viewers’ knowledge of the particulars of those earlier films, which can now be brought into the present to achieve a kind of new, unprecedented filmic closure.

Shawn Gilmore
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Editor, The Vault of Culture

The trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home that played before Avengers: Endgame assured viewers that Endgame wasn’t really anything like the end of the MCU. And Endgame succeeds in setting up as much as it settles. Hopefully we’ll be treated to smaller scale stories instead of more global apocalypses for the next while. While depictions of violence can be metaphorical, tales with smaller stakes provide for more complex explorations of character in comparison to smash-mouth spectacle. The near six hours’ run time for Infinity War and Endgame were heavy on excitement but short on the kind of developments that make us care about these characters. That said, Endgame did endeavor to offer wrap up the story arcs of Captain America and Iron Man, two of Marvel’s sort-of Trinity, in compelling fashion. The third member of that core group, Thor, reverted to a version of the boob and buffoon he was prior to his maturation throughout the films so far. Making him a hanger-on within the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seems like a significant demotion. I have to trust that storytellers will treat this as an opportunity to depict someone who takes responsibility for working their way back up from rock bottom, and not just continue with comedy barely worthy of a Chris Farley sketch.

As befits his station at the start and center of the MCU, Tony Stark was awarded the biggest emotional beats in both Infinity War and Endgame. In Superhero Ethics, I admit, I am rather harsh on Iron Man, as a character who generally lacks self-awareness. For a man who knows so much about what’s out there, he understands what’s inside himself so little—and I argue that maybe, on his own terms, that’s for the better. What’s interesting about the MCU that makes it different from the comics is that they’re able to, even dramatically required to, give him an arc that reaches a conclusion, or rather a culmination, in which he achieves a certain degree of self-knowledge. He had a whiff of it in Iron Man 3, but he seems to have forgotten all of that by the time Age of Ultron comes around. Infinity War effectively ends with Peter Parker practically praying to Tony Stark to save him. The character of Peter Parker should not be praying to Tony Stark for anything. Apparently, Tony realizes how wrong that was. They revisit that scene at the end of Endgame with roles reversed, and contrary to everything that has defined him so far, Tony not only cannot find a solution to the final problem facing him, he seems to be okay with that, all things considered. Doctor Strange rightly read Tony’s soul well enough to refuse to tell him about the necessary sacrifice he would have to make, deducing that if Tony had foreknowledge of it, he would try to avoid it, to everyone’s ruination. Tony would have to act in the moment, as a moral agent, and not engineer something in advance, as a technologist and “futurist.” Tony’s character development in the films is something that the comics can’t really allow. As indefinitely ongoing stories in which the core of each character has to be restored after each digression, Tony in the comics will always rebuild his body and restore his brain from some prior backup and just keep on Tonying.

I find the resolution of Cap’s arc in Endgame especially satisfying. In Superhero Ethics I argue that Steve’s dour and sometimes sullen disposition comes in part from his having to be the Captain of America, a society that for all of its noble principles is not worthy of him in practice. The sort of person he represents is better fit being for the king of an idealized ancient polis than a citizen of a modern liberal democratic republic. Consider how Black Panther, who possesses the same type of soul as Captain America, is the most privileged member of the most privileged society on earth—making T’Challa luckier and therefore happier than Steve Rogers. (In the DC Universe, it’s Diana, Princess of Themyscira, whom Steve should envy.) But in telling the Myth of Er in the Republic, Plato has Socrates say that Odysseus, the greatest of the Achaean kings, would choose the life of a private man who minds his own business for his reincarnation. This, it seems to me, is exactly what Steve Rogers does, upon returning the Infinity Stones and Mjolnir to their rightful places in the past. Having already lived the life of the active man to its fullest, he knows better than anyone else what it is lacking. Having dedicated himself to justice his whole life, he discovered that was his soul longed for most was love, love being a higher and more fulfilling virtue than justice. And having successfully fought for justice his whole life, surely nobody would begrudge him that.

Travis Smith
Associate Professor of Political Science
Concordia University
Author of Superhero Ethics

Avengers: Endgame brings the story of many characters to a close, deftly balancing a celebration of their past journeys with an interesting storyline. The Avengers travel to the past in order to fix their future, not to wipe the past clean. So, it is strange that Captain America, a symbol of the US, finishes his story almost where it began, erasing much of his character growth throughout the film.

Steve Rogers has always symbolised the best of America’s past, but that depiction has always been balanced by the characters surrounding him. In the Avengers films, he and Tony Stark represent the past and future of America. Matthew Vernon’s work on the Winter Soldier views Steve Roger’s yearning for his life in the 1940’s as representing the rose-tinted nostalgia which considers the past a simpler and better place. Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ childhood friend turned brainwashed and tortured assassin, subverts that nostalgia; he is an acknowledgment that the carefully curated Captain America exhibit only tells the good parts of their story.

Comments by Endgame’s writers indicate that with Bucky ‘fixed’, Steve felt able to leave him behind to have his life in the past with Peggy Carter. Others have already discussed the problematic way in which this deals with mental illness and privileges heteronormative narratives, but is no acknowledgement that his life and personal growth in the years since Captain America: The First Avenger could be more important than a relationship which the MCU itself moved on from some time ago (given the uncomfortable attempt to set Steve up with Peggy’s great-niece, Sharon). Instead, the film suggests that refusing to move on from the past is a romantic gesture which will eventually be rewarded. Steve Rogers’ nostalgia for the 1940s is stronger than any benefit or growth gained in the present. Bucky Barnes, the means through which that nostalgia was challenged and subverted, is abandoned.

Nostalgia for this era is nothing new in superhero comics, where the 1940s are considered the ‘Golden Age’, but it is also theme which has grown increasingly obvious in modern political discourse. In the UK, Brexit is founded on taking Britain back; in the US, Trump wants America to be great again. This nostalgia is inextricably tied to prejudices far more socially acceptable in Steve Rogers’ time. When his story ends the only character growth he has retained is his new body and new relationship, signifiers which would allow him to partake in the privileged prosperity of an idealised late 1940s. The audience first met Steve Rogers prepared to take on all the injustices of the world. In an otherwise hopeful film, it is jarring to see him giving up a full, if messy, life for a nostalgic dream. The parallels of this privileging of the past with modern politics are disturbing, and the film’s unthinking celebration of Steve Rogers’ decision deserves further exploration.

Holly Roberts
MLitt, Comic and Graphic Novels
University of Dundee

While I found Avengers: Endgame to be a wildly inventive, esoteric, and deeply affectionate weaponization of low-brow, ‘comic-booky’ temporality and fan service rendered narratologically relevant, I was nonetheless somewhat disheartened by the franchise’s seeming commitment to heteronormative mediocrity through Hawkeye-as-cipher and through the legacy of Black Widow.

Much of the problematic resolutions for me are in fact holdovers from Avengers: Age of Ultron, namely Joss Whedon’s revelation of backstories that suddenly and radically recast the societal worth of both characters in reductively gendered and heteronormative parameters. Rather than committing to the bathos of Hawkeye as the most expendable Avenger – à la Fraction and Aja’s refreshing take on Clint Barton – Age of Ultron shoehorns in fully realized exposition in the form of an anonymous Midwestern set of wife, kids, dogs, and farmhouse in tandem with the nostalgic familial values to which such iconography is tied. Clint’s familia ex machina automatically elevates him from puzzling superheroic element to an embodiment of What We’re Fighting For (although an argument could be made for Barton’s latent mutant power to be outliving far more capable characters).

This awkward re-evaluation of Barton is particularly egregious when paired with a scene from the same film, in which Natasha equates her inability to have children with Banner’s monstrosity. The horror of coerced sterilization somehow migrates onto Natasha’s framing of herself; she is monstrous in her incompleteness as a woman (and potential mate, given the context of the conversation). The fact that this nascent romance is unceremoniously elided in the following films restricts responsibility and repercussions for the impetus and fallout of the relationship to Natasha alone; the ghosted Black Widow’s persisting melancholia is jarringly nullified by the surreal, meta Professor-Hulk-in-a-diner sequence. (Captain Marvel was an exuberant paragon of a romance-free female narrative, but the deficiency of gravity and reciprocation in Natasha’s case reinscribes her within the limiting affective conditions of a conventional love story even in its absence.) Banner’s desultory, rote expressions of anger/regret following her death cannot sanctify it with the negligible honour of serving as fridging, as her sacrifice comes halfway through a sufficiently motivated story arc.

As such, Hawkeye is pitted against Natasha as the Soul Stone sacrifice (Is it the person you love most, or just your random, unlucky Vormir hiking buddy at this point?). To his credit, Hawkeye attempts to spare Natasha, but Endgame’s lengthy intro scene – the Kate Bishop allusion notwithstanding, still a variation of a dad playing catch with his kid while his wife prepares dinner offscreen – is codex enough that only one of these Avengers has accrued the kind of value that enables (in fact, is enabled by) certain posterity. Both lament the impossibility of redemption, despite Natasha having spent the last cinematic decade clearing her ledger, and Clint (in painful Akihabara pilgrimage cosplay as Ronin) still speckled with yakuza blood. While Natasha’s tribute is to her chosen family, the deployment of inescapably female tropes that inform her trajectory are unworthy of an original Avenger never restricted to her sex.

Tiffany Hong, PhD
Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies
Earlham College

Avengers: Endgame was an epic beyond anything Marvel Studios has produced so far. With all of the heroes coming together to undo Thanos’ snap at the massive final fight, the film was everything the fans had been hoping for. For me, however, there was one massive letdown: “Fat Thor”. While trying to depict Thor’s descent into depression after he missed his opportunity to kill Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the film failed to give any depth or dignity to Thor’s misery and made his obesity into the comic relief of the entire film. While Tony Stark turned to his family at the time of desperation, Steve Rogers tried to help others deal with their grief, and Natasha Romanoff continued the work the Avengers had been doing before the snap; Thor’s grief was turned into something pathetic and hilarious at the same time. Once a mighty, muscular god of thunder, he was reduced into a wallowing drunk. And it would not be a problem if his misery had been treated with the same dignity as everyone else’s ways of coping with the disaster. Instead, the film gave us endless fat jokes as the camera panned across Thor’s beer belly, his friends made fun of his obesity, and we even saw his own mother telling Thor to “eat a salad” after he had opened up about his misery.

Unfortunately, this kind of fat shaming is an inseparable part of the media culture surrounding us, whether we are looking at romantic comedies or superhero comics. This does not make it acceptable. It is a shame that Endgame, on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, is spreading a message of body shaming and reinforcing the trope of the fat sidekick as a comic relief. As Katariina Kyrölä writes in The Weight of Images: Affect, Body Image and Fat in the Media (2014), fatness has become perhaps the most central signifier for loss of corporeal, mental, and moral control. Fatness signifies a lack of desirable characteristics; it even poses a threat to the health of nations, and of course is a common sign of comedy (2). As viewers are invited into encounters with Thor’s appearance in the film, from the beer belly to the messy hair and beard, to his dirty clothes, to spending the past five years on his couch playing video games, the image repeats and reinforces the stereotype of a loser. Into the image of a fat loser is coded the shared reaction of laughter.

During the final battle, it seemed that “Fat Thor” would finally get his redemption. After all, he had gotten his beloved hammer Mjölnir back and looking back at Avengers: Infinity War Thor could definitely be the one to end the battle. Instead, we see another character, Captain America, wielding Mjölnir in a spectacular way and everyone in the movie theater cheering him on (it was a fantastic moment to be sure). Although Thor participated in the battle and was not completely cast out (despite of “cheese whiz” running through his veins), he hardly received a similar treatment than when he was his normal, muscular self. Although Thor is, even in his miserable state, still worthy of his hammer, Captain America using the symbol of Thor’s powers reinforces what we have seen during the course of the film. Fat Thor is not the god of thunder we have known.

Laura Antola, PhD student
Media Studies
University of Turku, Finland

Thank you for taking the time read what these scholars had to share. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below

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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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