I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame twice now. It’s a wonderful conclusion to a twenty-two film arc and eleven years worth of storytelling. But there’s something about this film that struck me beyond the ‘our heroes save the world’ narrative that exists. It’s more complex, more subtle, and I think it’s done so beautifully. What I’m talking about is the way this film deals with failure, loss, and depression.
And in case you haven’t already guessed it, this is full of Endgame spoilers. So you have been warned.
They failed. Our heroes failed in Avengers: Infinity War and then they had to live with that failure for five years. Each of them took different paths after failing to deal with this failure. Steve is helping people in a support group because he needs to help other people not feel the way he does. Natasha is trying to be on top of absolutely everything because she feels so helpless and like she didn’t do enough before. Clint is out there killing people that he doesn’t think are worthy of having survived in droves. Tony seems a little more stabilized than the rest of them because he’s moved onto a life with Pepper and now having a daughter (and Morgan is absolutely adorable), but he cannot rest with the weight of everything that happened on his shoulders. Bruce is the one who has come out of all of this the best because he’s finally happy with himself and the Hulk and how he’s both of them. (I loved the Bruce stuff because a lot of it is about accepting yourself for who you are instead of fighting against it, and how the person that you are has a purpose that you were meant to fulfill.) More on Thor in a minute.
I also love how when we first revisit them after the five year time jump, they all seem stuck. Cap even says it when he tells Natasha that he’s always telling people to move on, some do, but not them. They want to fix things, they need to fix things, and they see no way to fix things. This is so relatable. I feel stuck all the time. When Scott shows up and gives them a little bit of hope on how they can maybe fix things, it’s almost like a breakthrough in therapy when you realize that not all is lost. It’s important, it’s needed, and it begins to drag them out of the state that they’re in.
Their visit to Tony’s house shows that Tony has clearly thought about time travel as a means to fix things but that he hasn’t been able to crack it. (I don’t believe that he just completely solved time travel that night.) He knows enough to know that what they are talking about doesn’t seem possible but it also gives him new thoughts and ideas on what to try. When he does solve it, he’s so taken aback by the thought that he might be able to fix things that he has to collapse down into a chair. The bit with his daughter after that is great, but it’s the part with Pepper that drives home my point about how Tony was carrying the weight of everything despite what I imagine were a lot of attempts to tell her otherwise. When he says that he could drop the research into the lake, she has to give him permission to go on and save the universe because he wouldn’t be able to rest otherwise. And that’s important too, because when you’re mired in a state that you can’t see a way out of, sometimes the permission of someone close to you to do something that you didn’t think you’d be able to do can do wonders.
But my favorite depiction in all of this is Thor. People are laughing about fat, drunk, Lebowski Thor but it was so relatable. He is the one who could have stopped all of this from happening if he’d just gone for the head in Infinity War and the weight of not having done that is crushing him. Thor has lost everything. His mother, his father, Asgard, his brother, the half his people that Thanos murdered. Everything. So when they go at the beginning of the film to confront Thanos, the only thing he can do to try and alleviate the guilt and loss that he is feeling is to chop Thanos’s head off even though he knows that it won’t fix anything. But as time has passed and we rejoin him five years later, you can see how that didn’t help. And how many times in life do people do something to correct a so-called failure and then find it only makes things worse? A lot. So his loss, and his failure, and his guilt lead to depression, and depression is all-consuming. Him putting on weight makes sense. Him constantly needing beer makes sense. He’s trying to self-medicate something that he thinks he cannot fix. His conversation with his mother later in the film during the time travel segment is so necessary. He needs that intervention to tell him that it’s okay that he failed. Everyone fails. And no one in this film could have delivered that message but his mother. It makes perfect sense to have brought Rene Russo back just for that scene. I was so happy to see that because we all need a little motherly love now and then, no matter where we get it from. Thor taking Mjolnir is important as well because it shows him that despite everything, he’s still worthy. It’s a metaphor for self-worth and I thought it was done perfectly. Towards the end, when they’ve got the stones and they’re assembled in the new gauntlet, he wants to do it even though it might kill him just to prove that he’s useful again. And that’s also so relatable. Trying to prove that you’re useful to people you think you’ve failed is another part of depression. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tried to prove myself useful to my parents or my friends because of some thought in my head that didn’t actually exist outside of it. Thor also wants to do it because he feels like he should be the one to fix things since he believes that everything is his fault. Everything is his fault and he has to fix it because the only way things are going to be right is if he is the one who makes up for his mistake.
Thor is a perfect depiction of how someone can be consumed by failure, and loss, and guilt, and depression. And while lots of people are making fun of it or are angry that the Russos “ruined” his character, I think it’s perfect for the situation they’re in. I’m really happy that they didn’t make him all lean and buff as soon as he really takes up the mantle of Thor again. He’s got the hammer and the ax and he has a purpose again. He can actually fix what he did before, but he has realized he needs the help of his friends to do it. He needs help just like we all need help when we’re in a place like Thor is and cannot get out of it. He’s not thinking that he can fix things alone anymore like he was only a few minutes earlier when he wanted to do the snap himself. He’s finding another path to redemption. How many times in life do we end up finding another path than the one we thought we were on? It’s so relatable.
In the end, Tony has to sacrifice himself and the life he has with his family to win the war, and he does it. But before he lets go, before he can stop clinging onto life and be at peace, he needs reassurance and permission from Pepper again. They’re going to be okay. He can rest now. And while I’ve never been in that position nor will I ever be, the reassurance and permission aspect is something I can understand and relate to. Things are going to be okay. Rest your mind. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be okay. Find some peace. Personally, I don’t strive for happiness because I think that it’s completely and totally unattainable. Because if all you have is happiness, you don’t have any sadness to balance it out and you’re not whole because of it. Happiness and sadness in your life make you whole, and for me being whole means being at peace. I’m not overjoyed about absolutely everything and I’m not sad about absolutely everything. I’m at peace. And it’s not easy to obtain peace, and it’s not easy to keep the peace once I get it, but reassurance and permission to think things and feel things help me obtain it so much. So while that moment is incredibly sad because one of my favorite characters is going to die, it’s also absolutely beautiful because it’s a wonderful depiction of finding peace. Peace for Tony means something completely different than it does for me, but it’s something that he’s been striving for from Iron Man on. He’s seen what war can do, he’s seen what his part of it is, and ever since he’s been striving to end wars, protect everyone, and save the world. With his final act, he does it. He achieves his goal. I just think his character arc from the first moment we see him in Iron Man to the last moment we see him in Endgame is so wonderful and complex and flawed. It’s beautiful because of it.
Cap and Natasha both achieve peace in this film as well. Cap has been a man out of time who longs for the life he could have had, and with the time travel that they now can accomplish, he decides to go back to the time he’s from and live the life that he always wanted. I knew what was coming when I saw the different goodbyes from Cap to Sam and to Bucky. To Sam, it was see you in a few seconds. To Bucky, it was I’m really going to miss you. I knew in that moment that Cap as we knew him wasn’t going to come back. Seeing Old Man Cap sitting on that bench was a wonderful sight. Seeing that wedding ring on his finger was a wonderful sight. And despite not wanting to tell Sam about her, that dance with Peggy at the end of the film was a perfect conclusion to Cap’s character arc and showed that in being able to live that life, he’d finally achieved peace for himself.
As for Natasha, we’ve known since Marvel’s The Avengers that she had red in her ledger and she wanted to wipe it out. When she reaches that moment on Vormir with Clint, she realizes that this is her opportunity to finally erase that red and do something that will bring her peace. Does it suck that they killed the only female Avenger currently alive halfway through the movie? Yes. Do I think Natasha should have had more of a memorial than the men standing around talking about her that we get? Yes. Do I think it was fridging? No. I think what it is, however, is a depiction of finding peace. Not everyone will achieve peace in their lifetimes. Not everyone will find a way to be whole. And both Natasha and Clint are struggling with that at that moment. Clint feels like that’s the only way he’s going to be at peace after all the killing he’s done so he feels that he’s the one who should sacrifice himself for the soul stone. But Natasha takes control of her own destiny and pursuit of wholeness and peace. She knows that Clint has a family that they are trying to save. She knows that there is more for him once things are fixed. For Natasha, her destiny is to help facilitate that, to finally do something that really helps to save people, and to wipe the red out of her ledger. Natasha had taken many lives in her past as an assassin. It was time for her to sacrifice her own to bring them back. She struggled to find her identity again after the snap, and that was evident in the first scene we saw her in after the time jump. On Vormir, she found purpose again and she did what she had to do to finally achieve the peace she had searched for.
All of these things make for more fascinating characters than just your typical superheroes. That’s the one thing that makes this film great. They really took the time to put real character moments into a film about the aftermath of basically the apocalypse, and I find each one of them more beautiful the more I see it. I look forward to watching this film hundreds of times to pick up more of the themes that I know I’ve already missed. There is so much to take in with this film and it’s not all about time travel and the final battle. It’s about overcoming failure, dealing with guilt and loss, finding a purpose again, and achieving peace.