One of the many, many things the Marvel Cinematic Universe has severely lacked is a sense of poetry — visually, verbally, thematically, or otherwise. But what strikes me about Avengers: Endgame is that it is a small but significant step toward reversing that trend. The film contains a surprising number of poetic touches and grace notes, and it also — in a “meta” move fitting for a time-travel movie — retroactively casts the rest of the MCU into something of a poetic form. Of course, like so many of its predecessors in this massive franchise of franchises, Endgame is still a seriously flawed film — and likely never could have been anything but flawed. Even so, I would argue Endgame is one of the finest films in the MCU, mainly because of its poetry.
I say the film is poetic for two reasons. First, Endgame is poetry in the way George Lucas called Star Wars poetry: “It rhymes,” both in its plot points and in its thematic preoccupations. (If you aren’t familiar with Star Wars Ring Theory, I highly recommend Mike Klimo’s ground-breaking essay, as well as Timothy Lawrence’s “Explication” essays here on FilmFisher.) Just as rhyming poetry employs patterns of repetition and variation across a series of lines, Endgame employs a number of doublings within the framework of a five-part chiastic structure. (It has a prologue with a recording from Tony Stark; a first act in the film’s present day; a second act in the past; a third act in the film’s present day; and an epilogue with a recording from Tony Stark.) It also rhymes with its twin, last year’s Infinity War, thanks to still more doublings and a parallel structure. (Both films include: a ship stranded in space and a confrontation between Thanos and Thor in the prologue; the heroes deliberating about how to respond to Thanos in the first act; the heroes going on separate missions in the second act; a sacrifice on Vormir at the end of the second act; a massive battle in the third act; Thanos sitting down at the battle’s end.) Endgame even rhymes with The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, so that all the Avengers films resemble a four-line stanza. Captain America: Civil War, the center-piece and hinge-point of the Avengers saga, provides even more connections. And then there are the rhymes formed between Endgame and all the other MCU films it implicitly echoes, explicitly references, or literally revisits. It has now been two weeks since I first saw the film, and I continue to have small epiphanies about all the genuinely clever and thoughtful ways Endgame dialogues with its predecessors.
Admittedly, the web of motifs drawn between Endgame and roughly twenty earlier films is never as intricate, elegant, or profound as the one that unites the soon-to-be nine films of the Skywalker saga. But so much of Endgame’s success does depend on how satisfyingly it weaves together so many disparate threads into a finished tapestry. Miraculously, this tapestry has a relatively orderly, complementary color scheme and quite a few pleasing symmetries and tessellations. Endgame is an admirable exercise in creating gestalt.
Second, Endgame is poetic in how it mimics poetry’s ability to convey indirectly — and often beyond the control of the poet — what cannot be communicated directly: the sublime, the uncanny, the ineffable. Specifically, the film alludes to eternal truths and spiritual realities in ways that elude the intentions of its architects. The poetry of Endgame, in the first sense, impresses me because I have been following this cinematic story since 2010. I was delighted to see all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place ten years later. But in the second sense, the poetry of the film moves me, because I have been following another, greater story — what Tolkien and Lewis called the “true myth” — ever since I was old enough to comprehend it in the words of my parents. As good as the finale of the MCU’s “Infinity Saga” may be, it is a poor imitation of the grandest of finales it unknowingly foreshadows. For those of us who know how the true myth ends and who long for that end, Endgame has the ability to stir that longing. For us, the film’s poetic beauty comes from how it exposes the ache we often suppress and awakens the hope we often forget.
What I want to offer here is not really a review, but a reflection on how Endgame is poetic in these two senses. The film may be short and shallow on text, but because of both kinds of poetry it is expansive and rich in subtext. I have organized my reflections into five sections. Each begins with a line of dialogue from the MCU that I consider poetic and that captures the theme of that section.
“Pain’s an old friend.”
Endgame is a film about loss.
Specifically, it is a film about how the six original Avengers — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye — respond to loss. Some of these characters are responding primarily to the loss of a battle — to failure, to regret. Others are responding more to the loss of loved ones — to grief, to suffering. But each of them have lost, and each responds in a unique manner consistent with their histories and characterizations.
Iron Man and the Hulk — arguably the ones who lost the least — adapt to the new normal in generally healthy ways, while Thor and Hawkeye — certainly the ones who lost the most — adapt in decidedly unhealthy ways. In the middle of that spectrum, Captain America and Black Widow remain stuck in the past. Their grief does not cool off or boil over, but simmers slowly. Though Captain America talks a good talk about “moving on” when he sits in a support group — like the Falcon’s support group in Winter Soldier — there is something fake and forced in his words, and he knows it. What is more, despite all his more recent losses, he is still grieving a loss that occurred, from the perspective of his support group, 80 years prior. All the rest is salt on an open wound. Meanwhile, Black Widow ignores her pain as much as she can by burying herself in work, seemingly the only original Avenger who wants to stay one. This recalls her desire in the first Avengers film to clean out the “red in [her] ledger,” by doing enough good to atone for the evil of her past. Not much has changed. She looks restlessly for more missions to take on — even wondering how to “handle” an underwater seismic tremor — as if to make up for the one mission that failed.
Though the film does not say so, ultimately its verdict on loss, grief, and suffering is an extension of a startlingly wise notion expressed in an earlier film. In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch utters the four most poetic words in the entire MCU: “Pain’s an old friend.” Suffering, viewed rightly, breaks in order to make whole — indeed, more whole than ever before.
The friendship of pain finds its fullest embodiment in the MCU not, as it turns out, in the character of Doctor Strange, but in the character of Captain America. It may seem that Steve Rogers is a static character. As a moral exemplar, he is a catalyst for change for other characters, but he does not change himself. He is ever the upright man, always resolutely walking the straight and narrow and never turning back. But the scene where Cap summons and wields Thor’s hammer signifies much more than giddy fan service. The MCU is always tempted to verbalize ideas rather than visualize them, but here there is no comment or explanation, save for a great one-liner from Thor: “I knew it!” The message is clear. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers was already a good man. By the beginning of Age of Ultron, he had suffered some and could make the hammer budge an inch. Now, having been refined several times in the furnace of affliction — the death of Peggy, the fight to save Bucky, the dissolution of the Avengers, the isolation of the fugitive years, and the loss of half his new family — Captain America emerges as a truly “worthy” man. From his first film until his last, Steve Rogers’ arc has been one of gain through loss, strength through weakness, life through death.
“There is grace in their failings.”
Endgame begins as a film about failure, and it becomes a film about redemption.
Hawkeye essentially joins the ranks of the many MCU villains who do evil because of warped principles and twisted logic: Ultron, Kaecilius, Vulture, Killmonger, and especially Thanos. In the midst of an unusually sophisticated tracking shot — a far cry from Children of Men, but I’ll take it — he tells his mark that he should die because he survived the Snap while others did not. The film could have delved deeper into the motivations behind this vendetta and its repercussions. In any case, Hawkeye needs redeeming. In the first Avengers, Black Widow explained how Hawkeye once rescued her from an evil path and gave her a second chance. In the same film, she responded to that grace by freeing him from an enchantment that bent his will toward evil. Now, in Endgame, Black Widow rescues Hawkeye from an evil path and gives him a second chance, and ultimately frees him from a different enchantment, this time at the cost of her own life.
Nebula’s entire life has been a series of failures to do good. Her story in this film begins with her learning a new way to live and expressing kindness for the first time, and it ends with her rather Pauline decision to literally put her old self to death.
Thor’s arc in this film may be played for laughs too often for some to take it seriously, but I found that it works surprisingly well. From losing his mother in The Dark World, to losing his father and half of Asgard in Ragnarok, to losing his half-brother and another half (quarter?) of Asgard in Infinity War, Thor has been taking a heavy beating lately, and therefore this next phase in his development seems appropriate. The moment he regains his hammer is touching, and I appreciate that he is not in shape or fully sobered up when he faces off with Thanos again. Heroes do not need to have six-pack abs, and no one should wait until they are “all cleaned up” to do the right thing.
But the most compelling redemption story in this film belongs to Iron Man. Some of Endgame’s best scenes are in the prologue, when Tony Stark is at his most weak and vulnerable. He berates Steve for not being there to help him fight Thanos, and for not supporting his plans to “put a suit of armor around the world.” But his words only indict himself. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Tony’s heart, always bent on gaining control and avoiding suffering, is more agitated than it ever has been, and he can no longer conceal its true nature. Especially in Iron Man 3, Tony’s suit was an extension of his self-serving worldview. In Age of Ultron, he tried to save the world from suffering through technological control, and the plan backfired horribly. Then, in Civil War, he tried to atone for his earlier failure with yet another disastrous scheme to reduce suffering, this time through political control. In Infinity War, he faced his worst nightmare, and all his preparations for the long-dreaded doomsday scenario still failed him. At the beginning of Endgame, Tony is stranded in space, having lost all control and suffering a slow demise. In the end, it is not his own ingenuity that saves him. Later, in a fit of rage, Tony ends up confessing his total failure and utter helplessness. He takes off his arc reactor, and collapses. In sum, the prologue of Endgame reduces the Iron Man to a mere man — a frail, foolish man.
Fast-forward five years, and Tony is practically a new man. Failure has humbled and rebuilt him. The entire film is full of echoes and reversals of his past life. No longer living alone in an East Coast or West Coast mansion, Tony now has what Hawkeye had in Age of Ultron: a cabin in the countryside and a family. Whereas Tony raised an evil son in Age of Ultron, he now raises a good daughter. (It is not insignificant that, in their first appearances, Ultron and Morgan both wear copies of the Iron Man mask.) In Civil War, Tony told Steve he broke up with Pepper because “I never stopped. ‘Cause the truth is I don’t wanna stop.” Now, he tells Pepper he is ready to stop trying to save the world, if that is what she wants. The last time Iron Man and Captain America were on good terms was in Age of Ultron, when Tony got into a sports car and drove away from Steve and the Avengers complex. In Endgame, the two reconcile when Tony drives up to Steve and the Avengers complex in another sports car. In Civil War, he took Cap’s shield. In Endgame, he returns it. In Civil War, Tony created a simulation reenacting his final memory of his parents, and he rewrote the memory so he could tell his father, “I love you.” In Endgame, he gets to see his father in the flesh and say, “Thank you — for what you’ve done for this country.”
Recently on FilmFisher, Aaron Gleason wrote that Iron Man is the true villain of the MCU. If so, then Endgame is the story of his redemption. As Timothy Lawrence would surely want me to point out, this hypothesis fits with the film’s strong resemblance to Return of the Jedi. Like Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Tony Stark/Iron Man is “more machine than man,” but he becomes fully human again (“Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”) by sacrificing his own life to destroy an evil overlord and save his child (both Morgan and “the kid,” Peter Parker). And like Anakin Skywalker, Tony Stark also reappears at the end of the film as a blue ghost.
“No amount of money ever bought a second of time.”
Endgame is a film about redeeming the time, especially with family.
From a certain point of view, the line “No amount of money ever bought a second of time” is patently false. The Avengers surely needed money to build the time machine, and Hank Pym needed money to manufacture the (conveniently short-supplied) “Pym Particles.” What is more, Disney executives must laugh their heads off every time they hear the line, because they bought almost the whole world’s time by financing this franchise.
But from another point of view, Endgame handles time travel in a way that does not devolve into wishful revisionism. According to the logic of the film, the Avengers are not resetting their past so much as setting a new course for their future. Despite the possibilities of the science-fiction construct, there is still no way to truly change the past. Our heroes are not buying back lost seconds but making the most of the time already given to them, thanks to the unexpected gift of a few rations of, well, time-travel juice.
Tony makes it clear the time-travel missions should not tamper with the past any more than is absolutely necessary, and the moments where our heroes deviate from this rule are not planned. Thor does not embark on his mission with any intent to talk with his mother, nor does Tony even expect to encounter his father. These opportunities to find closure or reconcile are also unexpected gifts. Moreover, these moments do not really affect the parents in the past. They affect the children in the present.
In a conversation piece last summer, Timothy Lawrence and I talked about the persistent theme of failed father figures in the MCU. In keeping with this trend, Endgame’s second act is less about time travel than it is about family. In each of the four time-travel missions, a hero must face a family legacy and respond to it. First, Tony is reminded of the flaw he inherited from his father, Howard. As Howard puts it, “The greater good rarely won out over my own self-interest.” In the finale, Tony will change that legacy. Second, Thor’s mother reaffirms her love for him despite his failings, and he reclaims his birthright. Third, Nebula encounters Thanos, and pleads with her sister and her past self not to follow the path he has set for them. Finally, even Black Widow and Hawkeye’s mission to Vormir is about family. Red Skull identifies the two by the names of their parents, and Black Widow believes he is trustworthy because she never knew her father’s name until that moment. To some extent, her life has been defined by the legacy of an absent father, and she dies in Hawkeye’s stead so that his children will not experience the same absence.
In our real world, with our own problematic pasts, there is no time travel, and it would have been unkind of the filmmakers to portray characters reconciling with others in ways we never could. Instead, they give us a reminder that we have a chance for reconciliation today, for a better tomorrow. Indeed, every second counts, and every one of them is a gift.
“Part of the journey is the ending. . .”
Endgame is a film about endings.
In previous articles on Infinity War and the rest of the MCU, I’ve lamented how, by design, this franchise is built to be endless. No doubt there will be another twenty-film arc and another two-part finale in the next decade. But, mercifully, this film does not have any mid- or post-credit scenes, and if there are any hints dropped as to where the MCU is headed next, they are quite subtle and unobtrusive. At least for this cycle of stories, and at least for these particular characters, this seems to be the end. At last.
In Age of Ultron, Tony expressed the wish that all the other films deferred and Endgame finally grants: “Isn’t that the mission? Isn’t that why we fight, so we can end the fight, so we get to go home?” Ironically, Tony himself does not get to go home. He embarks on the time-travel mission under the condition that Pepper and Morgan would be waiting for him when he got back, their timelines unaltered. But to preserve their future he has to give up his. Even so, I am intrigued by what Pepper tells Tony as he dies: “You can rest now.”
Rest. Of all the beautiful, unlikely ideals that this frenetic franchise could champion, rest is the most beautiful and most unlikely. After all his restless labors to protect himself, protect his own, and protect the world, Tony Stark finally enters into his rest. After all his journeys in and out of time and all his battles saving the little guy from would-be dictators, Steve Rogers retires, and at the end of his long retirement we find him relaxing on a park bench, serene and joyful. After centuries of being prepared for leadership and years of failing at it, Thor hands over the reigns to more capable hands, and is relieved to discover he has nothing left to do or to prove. No longer a depressed outcast or a violent menace, the Hulk has made peace between his two warring selves, and presumably he will continue doing awkward selfies with the kids at his local diner. Hawkeye goes home.
In the immanent frame of the MCU, this is as good as rest can get. But if this is the muddy stream at the bottom of the mountain, there is purer water further up and further in.
“. . . Everything’s going to work out exactly the way it’s supposed to.”
Endgame is a film that would be about divine sovereignty if it had the courage to be Christian.
Whether it knows it or not, the entire film silently screams that all will be well, not because of the strength or skill of our heroes, or because of “sheer dumb luck” (as Professor McGonagall would put it), but because some sort of higher power must be at work.
In Infinity War, Doctor Strange said there was only a 1-out-of-14-million chance of defeating Thanos. In the faith that this one chance was worth pursuing at the risk of all the others, he surrendered the Time Stone to Thanos. In Endgame, it is the Ancient One’s trust in Doctor Strange — a man she has not yet met — that convinces her to give the stone to the Avengers. Unsurprisingly, both of these characters originate from the most spiritual branch of the MCU.
The entire plot is set in motion when a rat scurries over some buttons and accidentally releases Ant-Man from the Quantum Realm. There are just enough vials of Pym Particles to make the mission possible. Some of the Infinity Stones are just barely, barely obtained. When the Infinity Gauntlet is made, only the Hulk has the ability to wield it. As he explains, in a line that brings his own multi-film arc to a close, “It’s almost like I was made for this.”
But the most convincing evidence for the film’s latent theological leanings is found in the three-fold repetition of the belief that “Everything’s going to work out exactly the way it’s supposed to.” These are among Tony’s final words in his funeral message. They are foreshadowed in the words he tells his father, and in the words Pepper tells him as he dies. Yet these words are utter nonsense if there is no one wise enough and good enough to determine what is “supposed” to happen. These words make no sense if there is no one sufficiently powerful and abundantly faithful to make all things “work out exactly” according to that plan.
On that note, I would like to conclude this lengthy (and honestly scattershot) reflection on Avengers: Endgame with a mildly autobiographical comment. To keep self-disclosure to a minimum, suffice it to say that 2019 so far has not panned out the way I hoped it would. There have been a number of disappointments. There have been interpersonal conflicts. There have been painful reminders of my failings. There has been a lot of anxious toil, precious little rest, and never, ever enough time. There are recurring regrets about the past, and gnawing doubts about the future. In a word, 2019 has been tough.
In the midst of all this, I sat down to watch Endgame. And it has revived some of my hope. Not because of what it is or does in and of itself, but because of what it truly represents and signifies.
Is it possible our pain will befriend us and help make us whole? Is it true there is grace in the midst of our failings? Do we still have time to redeem the time? Will there be an ending, and will it be happy? Is there a God who is both all-powerful and all-good, who works all things according to His pleasure, who acts in justice and mercy, who will one day make all things new?
“Yes,” this film reminds me, “yes.” Coming from a flawed film about flawed people, made for flawed people in a flawed world, that word is enough.