Endgame Essay

~ an essay on Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is the end. Not the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, certainly. Disney will continue to pump out films as long as they can, moving beyond Phase 4 and into the stories of Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and many more heroes across the big and little screens. But this film, the fourth Avengers team-up event, is the end of an era. It’s the denouement for the prime heroes Marvel has painstakingly established and cultivated over the last decade {and which have helped them build their popular empire}. Our Avengers are given fitting endings, both the icons afforded franchises all their own — RDJ’s cavalier Iron Man, and Evans’ idealized Captain America — and the more human, more focused specialists and franchise outsiders of Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. This is their story, alongside the wayward trails of Bruce Banner’s defeated-to-reconciled Hulk and Chris Hemsworth’s hearty, despairing and ultimately worthy Thor. Altogether, their story is one of tragic origins and heroic battling against cosmic evils, coming together for victorious heroism and coming apart amidst the spoils of worldly compromise. Their varied final departures within this film are made more meaningful by a grandly banded 22-film tapestry. They’ve all played separately pivotal roles to arrive here. And each of these battles requiring greater assembly served as touch points leading on to Thanos: galactic tyrant, cosmic boogeyman, consolidator and user of grand powers even the Avengers struggle to prevent — or avenge.

With the fate of the universe on the line {or a random half of it}, our favorite superheroes failed. The snap. This is where we left off, in shock and in despair. In the realization that the Avengers lost, the audience preps for an endgame where everything will be made aright. We know this, primarily because we know what kind of experience we are dealing in {comic book escapist fantasy + planned sequels for the dusted new guys!}. The fun comes in the journey, and how we get to that climax of victorious resolution.

The sequel to Infinity War, and the finale to the saga of the Infinity Stones {the ultimate comic book McGuffins}, Endgame is truly a ‘part two’ of the most trying collective moment for our original six Avengers. It has the complex task of 1) crafting an intriguing plot of renewed conflict from the remnants of the MCU post-snap, and 2) offer up a satisfying conclusion to the story arcs of the characters that started it all. It does so in the form of a ‘time heist’ … and it does it marvelously.

We’re in it now …

So here is my branching essay on Marvel’s momentary endgame.

~

Final Fantasies

Endgame begins with a contentedly out-of-the-fight Clint Barton tragically losing his family to Thanos’ universe-shattering snap. Rather effectively, it conveys the implications of the previous iteration’s conclusion localized to one of our absentee heroes. It’s personally affective due to the pathos developed for the Bartons’ in their off-grid farmhouse in Age of Ultron {a pivotal MCU film, and harbinger of everything happening here in the storyline}. The opening scene carries on the tone of the ending of Infinity War — of sudden and tragic loss. Hawkeye’s family getting dusted right out of the gate viscerally conveys the results of a seemingly irreversible failure by a set of superheroes we aren’t used to seeing not win.

Cut to space. Stark and Nebula play paper football to the tune of Dear Mr Fantasy by Traffic, presumably another of Starlord’s readily available classic rock tracks upon the Benatar. This strange duo are the only survivors of the fight from Titan. They are running out of time, out of hope.

Dear Mister Fantasy, play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

~ Dear Mr Fantasy, Traffic

These lyrics encapsulate the film’s events, and the desire for Endgame’s run to salve the character’s — and the audience’s — sincere pain.

And it delivers. A show of spectacle and of the highest possible stakes, Endgame is high art fantasy. In my opinion, the Infinity War Saga {IW+E} showcases the best comic book-to-cinema adaptation of all time. Here at the end of Marvel’s bombastic, Bifröstic, CGI-laden road of fantasy so painstakingly carved out, is a feast. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, and the heart. It is a celebration of itself, and its universe, and the natural endpoint for an era of assembled superheroes and heroines. It’s the stuff of fantasy fun, the type of film you go to to steep yourself in the grandeur of it all, forgetting all but its wild world.

Infinity War is no direct adaptation of a particular comic, although it is inspired by the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War runs in the 1990s. That being said, these 3rd and 4th Avenger films contribute all the necessary beats of a great comic book event — the culmination of characters, narrative arcs, and action all in service toward one another, and to the truest spirit of escapism. One of Endgame’s most impressive feats was creating a compelling plot to develop, given the apparent finality of the conflict from the events within the saga just previous. The film moves surprisingly fast at the start, picking up right where we left off. The surviving Avengers discover where Thanos is hiding, hunt him down, discover the stones are gone and he’s dead within the prologue {“I went for the head…”}. The audience has no idea what direction the plot will go next or how it might all come together. And yet it does. Over the movie’s 3+ hour runtime, directors Anthony and Joe Russo {once again} expertly manage a wide-ranging cast of characters in strides through time and space to ultimately restore balance to their cinematic universe.

Along the way, we see the long-game fruitions, payoffs and electrifying visual and narrative delights of the whole span of the MCU come to life before us upon the big screen. Via the potential escapades of the quantum realm and a desperate plan to put things right, the Avengers plot a ‘time heist.’ A mass exodus back into time, before the stones were destroyed, in which they jump back into their own movies, dodging past iterations of themselves, in a redux hunt for the Infinity Stones. Their small group travails mirror Thanos’ individual journey over the course of Infinity War, but in a wonky, and ultimately more satisfying way. And through their meddling in time, and of 2014 Thanos’ designs, it indeed meddles back. Ultimately, their actions bring everyone back, succeeding in their mission. But they also bring the conflict right back to him. They face the Titan in one final fight for more than they lost in the first place.

It’s rather incredible. The plot does actually make sense {in the context of a comic book universe of superpowers, magic, and wieldable cosmic infinity stones}, given one understands how time travel works within this universe. In short: time travel does not change your own reality, it creates new ones, alternate ones, from the moments and for the times you travel back into. Professor Hulk’s paraphrased explanation to a confused Rhodey and Lang: ‘When you travel into the past and do things, that becomes your past. Your future, from the perspective of the past you are traveling into, is already set. Instead, your time meddling creates an alternate universe there and there alone, altering an alternate future.’ This is unlike most time travel stories, but fits an interpretation of what traveling through time might actually mean. Given the rest of the unreality in these movies, to let the ridiculous paradox of time travel seriously alter your enjoyment here is to miss the point.

The time heist serves its purpose quite wonderfully. It gets us to restoration, and to the finale. And Endgame’s final fight alone is worth the price of admission. Once more, it comes down to the Avengers vs. Thanos. But this time, the players are different, and so is their positioning. The big three {Iron Man + Captain America + Thor} are firmly united in their opposition to the Mad Titan. Even more than its vistas of thunder-crackling violence, the eye-widening, spirit-soaring true Infinity War taking up the wide IMAX shots in act three is clarion call proof of the power that this shared world has engendered over these eleven years. This scene is one holy hell of an eleven year payoff.

“Part of the journey is the end,” is what Tony Stark says. And it’s true. The Russo brothers say that the best stories, the most memorable ones, are the ones where the end is the best part. So it is with the Avenger’s and its big finale.

Many of my all-time favorite MCU moments are delivered within this film {and in Infinity War}:

  • Cap calling over and wielding Mjölnir in the heat of the fight against Thanos, followed by Thor’s elated “I knew it!” is one of the best moments I’ve seen in any movie. You can’t help but … marvel at Captain America throwing down upon the Mad Titan with hammer and shield in tandem, using absolutely everything in his power as the last man standing, to try and put down the Avenger’s greatest foe. An uppercut fling, using the shield and hammer throw in a combination shockwave, calling down lightning. Ultimately, Cap fails to thwart Thanos in his 1v1 but he survives long enough for help to arrive …
  • “On your left.” Sam Wilson’s voice crackles into Cap’s comms, right before dozens of portals open chock full of allies to stand beside their fearless leader. Moments before, while his monstrous armies pour forth from his mothership, Thanos tells a weary, nearly defeated Cap the he will personally enjoy destroying his stubborn little planet. With Thor and Iron Man momentarily incapacitated, and the rest of the remaining Avengers trapped underneath the destroyed compound, the situation looks increasingly hopeless for the heroes. And yet, Cap tightens his broken shield around his arm and stands his ground. Alone, one man against all the forces of darkness, ready to fight until he cannot go any longer. This shot of Captain America captures his essential character more than any stirring series of words ever could.
  • Cap’s relieved exultation at the sight of Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, the Asgardians, and all the rest is genuine; in the chaos of Thanos’ attack, Cap doesn’t yet know Hulk’s un-snap has worked. His fierce delivery of the iconic “Avengers assemble” nearly rouses the audience into charging right into the fray against Thanos.
  • The re-creation of the elevator scene from Winter Soldier. Only this time, Cap outsmarts the goons instead of out-punching them, with a perfectly set up rendition of a whispered “Hail HYDRA.”
  • Thor getting to share his journey and receive much-needed counsel from his mother in a heartfelt exchange. Thor finally understands that failure has been an essential part of his journey, despite the lofty, idealized aspirations placed upon him from the beginning — and that his journey is not yet over. This is mirrored by Tony seeing his dad in 1970. Awestruck and struggling to gather his words in such a short meeting, Tony finally gets to see first-hand how much his father, a complex and hardened man later in life, truly loved his son — and the mere dream of him — before he was even yet born. In the midst of such a busy and action-packed picture, the filmmakers give these characters the time they need, in the most absurdly perfect circumstances afforded via time travel.
  • Tony reuniting with a hyper-excited Peter 😭
  • Ant-Man’s all-around show-stealing: … ya it’s a time machine … we’re calling it a time heist … Back to the Future is bullshit! … as far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass! … *delivers haymaker to space behemoth*
  • Cap hijinks: “I can do this all day! >> “I know, I know.” /// “… that is America’s ass.”
  • ‘Lebowski’ Thor, drunk-crying and trying to explain the plot of Thor 2: The Dark World, to the chagrin of everyone in the room — except for Scott Lang, who is righteously fascinated.
  • Peter frantically swinging around with the Infinity Gauntlet, to be saved by the women of the MCU.
  • *Doctor Strange extremely holding up the 1 finger*
  • Stark’s final maneuver to steal all six of the Infinity Stones from Thanos right before he can snap away all of existence and recreate it from the ground up, grateful and unknowing of his tyranny … This moment is special for a number of reasons. “I am Iron Man” being Stark’s final words. The visual of the stones appearing upon the armored knuckles of his right hand, the rainbow energy coursing through his body, as a stunned Thanos looks on. His vengeant snap upon the nigh unkillable Titan and his whole fighting force instantly ending the Infinity War … His saving of the universe. But there is something else. Stark isn’t just the only one that could’ve done this because of his positioning there within the fight. Thor and Cap are down, Captain Marvel is bested by Thanos’ ingenious use of the Power Stone. Stark stands alone, and he is able to wrest the stones, and not the gauntlet, away from Thanos via his own engineering prowess. The gauntlet itself was created by him, for one of the Avengers to wear to restore all the lives lost across the universe. And with that iron, wrought of nanotech, Stark pulls a sleight of hand of infinitely consequential proportions, drifting the stones along that pseudo-liquid iron from Thanos’ gauntlet onto his own. This little feat makes all the difference, and was marvelous to witness.
  • Steve Rogers finally getting that dance with Peggy.

In reflection, some of these moments — and the feelings of excitement they generated within me in my seat in the theater — are unmatched across all my moviegoing experiences. Endgame’s collective builds and thrills are as unprecedented as the MCU’s consistent stellar box office performances. It feels like a privilege that these movies get to exist at all, let alone be good. At the end of all this, it is clear that the filmmakers and actors alike understand what kind of fantasies to deliver to the fans of these films, as well as what needed to be done to deliver a satisfying ending to it all. And so, I say bravo to this final fantasy.

The Will To Win

A recurring theme within comic books & the MCU, and explored to its ultimate end here in Endgame, is winning and losing. In fiction {and often within our reality}, from a zero-sum contest between two forces staunchly positioned in their opposing ideologies, battle commences. There is a simplicity in battle, and in fights that can objectively decide upon with a ‘winner’ and ‘loser.’ Battles are cinematic, fight scenes effectively convey the conflict at hand, and they make it damn exciting.

You could say that every superhero story is essentially about winning and losing. The hero(es) vs. the villain(s). Who will win the day? We know who will. But it’s fun to watch the battle at hand, and how the hero will best the villain, who often holds some mysterious purpose or advantage in hand. This formula works; this is why we keep coming back. That isn’t to say that comic book stories are without nuance, or that there aren’t shades of grey. Within Marvel cinema and comics alike, there are explorations of themes beyond power, ancillary to strength and the imposition of will. Sometimes there is no winner; sometimes there is no true villain. Sometimes battles are meaningless. Sometimes the heroes figure out they must lose on purpose, falling in a current battle to win a future war.

Regardless, the core conflict is always some kind of battle. It’s part of the genre. The strivings of the heroes and the villains come into violent contact eventually. The will to win is as compelling a theme that we have. Because winning grants one all the rest, the important stuff — love, companionship, home and hearth, a future. The Avengers, despite the godlike proportions of their conflicts and their lives, are seeking these same things. Consistently, the passions of humanity are on display within the MCU. Every Avenger — and Thanos himself — has something to protect, something they strive to attain. And so our colorful cast of powerful persons come up against one another, for the sake of the world, their legacy, a future.

It’s important to note, at the end of the day, the Avengers are fighting against trickster demigods, rogue A.I., and cosmic despots — and not climate change, widening income inequality, an intensifying monopolistic corporatocracy, and the modern existential ennui consuming the world’s youths brought about by social media and changing cultural norms. There is good reason for this. It’s easier, for them, to fight Loki and his cosmic invaders. Ultron is their own science experiment gone wrong, a Promethean consequence of hubris. They are fighters. This is their responsibility. And they are damn good at it. It’s also easier for us to deal in as observers. For the filmmakers, it is certainly much more cinematic. A coherent story can be crafted out of these grand conflicts. And a solvable solution may be presented at the conclusion of it all, to the delight of the audience. This is the game. The problem needs to be able to be knocked out with punches. {Except in Doctor Strange!}

Steve Rogers: You’re saying it’s our fault?

Vision: I’m saying there may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict… breeds catastrophe. Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand.

This exchange between Cap and Vision in Civil War is a precursor to the emergence of the Mad Titan into their purview. A foreshadowing to a challenge to their group’s ascendancy from far beyond, leading on to catastrophe. Vision, Jarvis-turned-android overman, is one of the only positive products out of Stark and Banner’s whole Ultron debacle {aside from a nuanced perspective on the power of science, and of preventative measures towards war}. He wields this thinking for the sake of favoring the Sokovia Accords — a worldly check upon the movements of the Avengers. Stark, Vision and the supporters of it believe reigns can be good, and playing ball with world leaders via regulation is the only long-term solution to ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ continued work upon Earth. Stark and his co-signers comprehend that there is only so much the Avengers should be able to control, even concerning their own actions. Cap, however, believes the best hands to steer the fate of the Avengers are still their own, in spite of past mistakes and the collateral damage they inevitably cause. His mistrust of institutions is well-founded, concerning the reality of S.H.I.E.L.D. and its internal virus of HYDRA. This disagreement concerning their relationship between power and responsibility drives the conflict between Stark and Cap, which divides the Avengers and ultimately disbands them. There is no clear winner at the end of their ideological-battling-turned-physical. And yet, its resolution holds quite salient meaningfulness for the battle to come.

If you run it back to the first Avengers, each battle and each conflict leading up to Infinity War is a natural progression to where we end up at its start:

  • Avengers — Loki arrives on Earth to use the Tesseract — the Space Stone — to bring about mass devastation via an army of cosmic hellions known as the Chitauri. The Avengers win, but narrowly. The alien invasion changes the world, and Tony Stark’s thinking, considering his responsibility to protect the world in innovative ways only he may be capable of executing.
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron — Stark, reeling from visions of coming catastrophe from a second invasion, uses the power of the Mind Stone to try and a develop ‘armor around the world’ in the form of an A.I. He wishes to end the fight, so he can go ‘home’, so that they all can. Ultron goes rogue and tries to destroy humanity, using his artificial singularity’s reasoning and mass computational power to come to the conclusion that humanity is the true problem and the Earth is in need of a new meteor. Once more the Avengers defeat their foe, a monster of their own making, but at great cost to the small country of Sokovia, and their stature in the eyes of the world.
  • Captain America: Civil War — Cap is presented with the Sokovia Accords, a natural consequence to Ultron and their prior failures as a team. Stark comes down on the side of checking their avenging power and thus the ‘civil war’ of the Avengers is born. By the end of it, the Sokovia Accords in tandem with the revelation of Bucky’s murder of Stark’s parents, shatters the Avengers. There is no clear indication concerning whether either Rogers or Stark was correct in their assessment of the Avenger’s responsibility to the world. And yet, they and their cohorts now operate independently from one another. ‘The Avengers’ is no more.
  • Avengers: Infinity War — Thanos enters the fold, the Avengers are disjointed and weaker for it, and they lose. It stands to reason that if they had been in a position to stand up to his existentially threatening mission together, the Avengers would’ve won. We discover the true loser to the long game of events unfolded up to now is exactly half of the universe…

I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless.” ~ Thanos

Infinity War introduces us fully to Thanos, The Mad Titan, a cosmic tyrant entering the fold of the Avengers’ collective life due to his quest for the Infinity Stones. He is presented with a clear, and madly aberrant philosophy concerning the whole of life in the universe. And he knows what it is like to lose, to be exiled and cast out of his former standing. With wiping out half of all life, Thanos speaks of cultivation, and of a collective flourishing unlike any have ever seen. He speaks from the perspective that he is the one that knows best, the only one. His hero’s journey, from his own point of view, is the one of an intergalactic savior. The subtext is that it’s a path to a desired godhood, and one borne of utterly calm and calculating psychopathy. Thanos wishes to “smile upon a grateful universe” after his ‘work’ is complete {work = killing trillions of living beings}.

Thanos’ entry into the field, and his win, casts our heroes’ internal conflicts and their pride in a truly damning light. More than anything else, the Infinity Saga’s most substantive feat may be the creation of a villain equal to the task of truly challenging the Avengers. Thanos is an existential threat. He isn’t trying to manipulate his way onto any throne, or in any way obfuscate his vision for his own endgame. Thanos is on a path of blood, executed via power alone. On Titan, he speaks of ‘the strongest choices requiring the strongest wills.’ And both 2018 and 2014 Thanos certainly wield the will to win, matching and exceeding that of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. Thanos straight up defeats the Avengers. It doesn’t come easily, or without sacrifice. But he accomplishes his mission. For the surviving Avengers, the weights of their collective failure weighs heavily upon them. The burden of that loss is what drives them to return to form, to finally assemble and to do everything they can to make things right.

An intriguing turn in the midway point of the saga is the fact that the Avengers are forced to use their minds moreso than their might to devise a plan to achieve their new objective: the unsnap. The time heist, while holding improbable odds of success, is a chance. Time is their only ally left, other time(s). And they are working with limited resources. They’ve got one last desperate shot, “no do-overs.” And in this case, their opponent is no longer Thanos {2018 version of him is dead, who can no longer help them anyway}. They are battling back against the dire new reality he has created.

Until they aren’t, and Thanos is back on the field, challenging the Avengers once more, trying to do a whole new ‘snap.’ This Mad Titan is as violently convicted in his mission as the unified Avengers are. One of the most frightfully satisfying revelations from Endgame was just how dominant Thanos is as a fighter — without any the Infinity Stones. 2014 Thanos runs a clinic on the big three Avengers, wielding only his dual-blade and a newly Machiavellian-minded madness to throw at them {no more infernos, planet-busting moons and black holes}. Fighting like a giant, brutal tactician, Thanos knocks Stark unconscious by using him as an intercepting shield against Mjolnir. He beats Thor to a pulp, then catches his only solace in Stormbreaker, and uses it to almost kill him — just as Thor used it on him originally {or a version of him}. He shatters Cap’s shield and almost knocks him out, AFTER getting the hammer & shield work + lightning battery laid down upon him. Thanos is an indestructible, nigh unstoppable force with or without the empowering infinity gauntlet. Thanos is terrifying.

In the final fight against the titan, Stark’s hopelessness seems warranted. This then leads on to his choice to sacrifice himself … to win. Stark’s will to win matches Thanos’; and it is their life’s journeys which most closely mirror one another in this saga — as protector and destroyer. And in the Endgame, they meet an equal fate in death. But only one of them can be considered a winner. It took everything the Avenger’s had, and then some, to earn that expected moniker of victory. “Whatever it takes.” This fact makes the Infinity Saga as much as anything else.

The Original Six

It seems the primary purpose of Endgame was to end the arcs of the original six Avengers, and give them each time to earnestly experience moments of heroism and victory. This is ultimately their story. And so we see them grapple with the stakes of their conflict, both external and internal of themselves, and give everything they have to see it through. This is Marvel’s denouement for the characters that provided the foundation — the heart and soul — of this grand cinematic universe. And Endgame sees them off beautifully. We see the original six at their best.

Natasha Romanoff & Clint Barton // Black Widow & Hawkeye.

The non-superheroes of the bunch. Their stories are intertwined. Romanoff is a former KBG operative, a hyper-competent and emotionless assassin. She is hunted and not killed by Barton, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, in their early days of dual black operations. As Widow concisely explains it in Avengers:

“Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call.”

Their companionship is a grounding touchpoint for the audience in the Avengers films amidst all of the god-like powers and world-ending stakes in play. Through even short interactions with one another, the audience is conveyed their genuine companionship.

Their key difference is their penchant for continuing “the job”, as Nat calls it in Endgame. Barton has a family, which he keeps off the grid and safe from the reprisals his job might invite via a negotiation with his employer. There’s a sense he’s willing himself into retirement before Ultron, no longer wishing to put himself into Avengers-level harm’s way — as just a guy with a bow & arrow — for the sake of his family.

Natasha, on the other hand, is alone in the world save for Clint, and Nick and Steve and Tony and the Avengers. They are all she has. They are her family.

“I used to have nothing. And then I got this. This job… this family. And I was better because of it. And even though they’re gone… I’m still trying to be better.”

The events of Endgame hit her and Clint especially hard because they each lose everything — Clint his family and Nat hers. She feels lost, without purpose and any efficacious way of righting Thanos’ wrong. Clint finds a new purpose, as Ronin, in amorally hunting and murdering criminals who he feels unjustly survived the snap.

And thus it’s a fitting end to their storylines that Nat saves Clint, just as he did for her long ago, from his dark hunt, bringing him back into the job, tempting them both with hope.

I thought their fight against one another on Vormir, for the opportunity to die for the other, was a perfect way to viscerally convey their genuine mutual sibling-style love, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to secure their family’s safety. It was an absurdly touching interaction and truly tragic way for Black Widow to go.

Bruce Banner / Hulk

Back in the first Avengers movie, I remember one of the moments that set me off balance, adding a ton of weight to plot and character alike was Bruce Banner telling the Avengers this:

“…in case you needed to kill me. But you can’t. I know, I tried! … Yeah. I got low. I didn’t see an end, so I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out.”

Banner openly telling all these other heroes of his past suicide attempt, and the off the cuff vulnerability of it, took my breath away. Stark’s quietly pained reaction toward a burdgeoning friend was not unlike my own watching it for the first time. The fact that this superhero team-up blockbuster would go into this dark territory, out of nowhere, said a lot. In the heat of a pitched conversation between every major character, with this single declaration, we understand the depth of Banner’s struggle. We empathize with him, AND we get to see every other Avenger empathize with him here in this moment. It’s an incredible scene, one of the best, and the wider arc of this whole fraught conversation sets up conflicts for films to come.

Banner’s struggle is of course in the duality of his condition. Bruce Banner and the Hulk are entirely different beings. Their essential natures are in opposition to one another; Banner is a mild-mannered pacifist and brilliant scientist and the Hulk is a raging monster of uncontrollable destruction. We learn in Avengers he managed to gain some measure of control over his Hulk-outs by simply being always angry. This doesn’t seem like a long-term solution. And in Ultron, we learn it isn’t. Hulk loses control and levels a city. After helping to fend off Ultron’s army and his plot, Hulk makes the decision to launch himself off the planet, into an uncertain future in space.

Through intimate moments with Natasha previously, we learn of Banner’s fears for their romance, or for any kind of life for him in the long run. As long as there’s the “other guy” he can’t be with her. He can’t be happy. In Thor: Ragnarok, we see the Hulk thriving in a new environment: an arena of constant fighting, with minimal consequence to those he does not wish to harm. Banner has been exiled somewhere deep within the big green guy. Thor brings him back. But then Thanos happens, and Hulk is the one exiled, in fear of defeat.

And so, Banner’s arc concludes quite copacetically in Endgame where we see the perfect medium between his dual identities. No longer a disease worthy only of a cure, the Hulk and Banner fuse into the best parts of each of them. And in this form, he helps the Avengers. He brings trillions back with the un-snap he was seemingly built for, heroically absorbing the Gamma radiation once again.

Thor

Thor’s life seems to be one big Shakespearean tragedy. Rocket, and the audience, gets the full rundown in Infinity War. Thor is trying to live up to a mythic legacy he feels he needs to live out — in order to make his fallen father proud — in order to make vengeance for the people of his homeland of Asgard — in order to feel worthy.

😊

Much of Thor’s whole character arc centers around his relationship with his weapon, as much as Loki, Odin, Heimdall, Hela, Banner or any of the Avengers. Thor is a fighter, and Mjølnir is his most loyal companion through his many campaigns of righteous conquest. The myth of Mjølnir is that in order for anyone to wield it, they must be “worthy” of its power. Worthiness is an objective measure, based on an individual’s heart and their behavior. No man or woman can lift the hammer, regardless of their strength, if they are deemed unworthy.

In Thor, he is deemed unworthy by his father Odin, and is stripped of his title and of wielding Mjølnir. Everything following this — his bonding with humanity, his work in saving Earth as an Avenger, his commitment to his brother Loki — can be seen as a response to his father’s ill-fated dictate. As we see, much of Thor’s whole identity is tied up with his hammer; on an unconscious level, he is Mjølnir. It’s more than just a tool to him. And in Ragnarok, we see that this is one of his biggest problems, and what is holding him back from the truth of his person. The destruction of Mjølnir by Hela frees him.

But then Thanos comes. The events of Infinity War, following the final death of Loki and the elimination of half the Asgardians, are just as much a culmination of Thor’s journey as it is Thanos’. Thor just happens to lose in the end.

“I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest in a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance. Fate wills it so.”

Over IW’s events, he overcomes his despair, albeit temporarily, to nearly sacrifice himself in the forging of a new weapon, one to kill Thanos. After the snap, Thor blames himself. He wallows in his failure, and after hope of restoration is gone, he retreats to New Asgard in a repressed state of escapism. His sense of his own worth has faded into oblivion. Thor’s rehabilitation comes via the time heist, via Rocket and his mother listening to him and providencing a new path for him.

By the time he’s back on the battlefield against Thanos, fighting alongside Cap and Iron Man, Thor is back. He’s worthy of the title of strongest Avenger. We learn that his destiny was never going to be rulership — or what it was supposed to be — and instead is a destiny of his own worthy choosing.

Steve Rogers / Captain America

Captain America is undoubtedly the indomitable spirit of the Avengers. He is the heart of the MCU. An ideal man, soldier, leader. He’s an uncompromising idealist. Representing the best of humanity, Cap inspires it amongst those he fights alongside. He is selfless, never gives up, and is willing to die for what he believes is right. Captain America, a paragon for heroism.

Back in 1943, Steve Rogers was the runt of the draftees. As physically unimpressive as a young man could be, he still wished to fight in the war of his time. Others were laying down their lives for their home, and he believed with conviction he had no right not to be out there too, fighting the good fight.

An indelible image from Captain America: The First Avenger, is the moment when Steve jumps onto what he thinks is a live grenade and fiercely waves everyone away. There’s maybe no better scene to convey the whole of Steve’s character. Even before being injected with the super serum, forging his elite squad of Nazi fighters, and taking on Red Skull himself, Steve Rogers was a hero.

“This is why you were chosen. A weak man knows the value of strength. And … compassion.” ~ Erskine

In the modern day, after spending 70 years on ice, Steve Rogers is a man out of time. He’s still in his prime, ready to continue the war he helped to win. But of course everything is changed: the enemies, the stakes, his allies. Everything he knew is gone. The first thing he considers when the truth of his new reality dawns upon him, is the fact that he missed his dance with Peggy Carter.

Over the course of the MCU’s run, Cap’s characterization is not one of rising, of becoming a hero and a leader of men. He’s already all those things. His arc is one of reconciling himself with the realities of the modern world. Cap has to change the way he fights, and whom he fights, in order to retain his idealistic candor of protecting and serving, as a good soldier does. This means sometimes moving outside the bounds of the institutions overseeing his efforts, while never bending from his own internal code.

When he learns of HYDRA’s long-game treachery within S.H.I.E.L.D., and the freedom-compromising antics of their preventative super weapons, Cap goes rogue. When Stark and Banner develop Ultron in secret, he admonishes the action while doing his best to appreciate the motive and doing everything in his power to rectify the new problem. When an intrinsic piece of his past returns, in the form of his best friend Bucky Barnes, he tears across everything in his path to secure his safe return.

“You’re my friend.” / “You’re my mission.” ~ Steve and Bucky

“God’s righteous man, pretending you could live without a war.” ~ Ultron

When faced with the cosmic threat of Thanos, Cap unites Earth’s forces to fight back. But he never stands a chance against Thanos’ final march upon Wakanda to secure the Mind Stone. In Endgame, Steve remains vigilant as leader of the Avengers, lifting people’s hopes even while he suffers himself from the losses exacted by Thanos. As soon as an opportunity to turn things around presents itself, he’s back in the saddle as Captain America, ready to lead the Avengers on the fight of their lives. He puts up the best fight against Thanos. And his long overdue proclamation to “Assemble!” is powerfully well earned.

“I lived my life. My only regret is that you didn’t get to live yours.” ~ Peggy to Steve

In the end, it is fitting for Steve — who’s done nothing but selflessly serve the greater good his whole life — to do one selfish thing, and return to a time to afford him the chance live out his days with the love of his life, Peggy. I thought his passing of the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson, after a life finally well-lived, to be the perfect ending to his arc.

Tony Stark / Iron Man

Tony Stark is an original. The audacious, eccentric, self-aggrandizing, self-anointed “genius playboy billionaire philanthropist.” He’s the one that started it all. Tony’s character arc can be viewed as the core overriding tapestry of the whole of the MCU’s 22-film pantheon. Perhaps Marvel’s filmmakers’ most impressive achievement is making the audience care so deeply about an arrogant womanizing asshole CEO of a weapons company. Of course, “I am Iron Man” changes everything.

But not really. Like Endgame itself, that ending shot from the first film — the first MCU film, Iron Man in 2008 — is really a denouement to Tony’s most integral journey. Stark’s truest ‘hero’s journey’ takes place here at the start of it all, before Thanos, before Ultron, before Cap, before The Avenger’s Initiative.

Tony, playboy CEO of Stark Industries, is out in the Middle East showcasing his latest tool of destruction when he’s attacked by rogue operatives in the desert and taken hostage. There, with only the company of Doctor Yinsen {pivotal MCU character!}, he barely survives the shrapnel in his chest, courtesy of one of his own missiles. In the cave, under the threat of death from his captors he is forced into recreating his missile for their nefarious use. It’s here that he finally bears witness to the worldly, human cost of his work as a weapons manufacturer. Of course, instead of building the Jericho missile, he surreptitiously builds a suit of iron combat armor and deftly fights his way out of the cave.

The rest is history. From then on, he is as much Iron Man as Tony Stark.

Stark’s change of heart, a natural result from his visceral ordeal, turns his life’s journey onto its head. He creates for himself a new destiny from scratch. Instead of using his company to build weapons to wage wars all over the world, he builds for himself a suit of armor he can use to protect it. This new path uncovers villainy within his own ranks, invites his past harms to haunt him, and constantly places his own life onto deathly stakes. Over the course of the Iron Man trilogy, Stark is forced to face up with his decision again and again. To fight, and risk death. Or to rest, and spend his life with Pepper. His struggle is always that he must have both.

“I shouldn’t be alive … unless it was for a reason.”

Stark’s arc over the course of the Avengers quadrilogy is one of the escalating stakes of imminent threats facing Earth, and his role as a defender {and later avenger} of it. With Loki’s invasion, he and the rest of the Avengers are introduced to cosmic threats. They are ones they are unprepared for. But not entirely so — due to the foresight of Nick Fury and his theorization of the Avenger’s Initiative.

Ultimately, they fend off the space invaders AND humanity’s own ill-fated defense in the form of a nuclear missile. To save New York City and the millions of lives within it, Stark makes the “one-way trip” through the portal into deep space and does precisely the thing Steve Rogers tells him he’d never do.

Stark’s Promethean quest in Age of Ultron is a logical consequence of his own fears concerning Earth’s long-term vulnerability to the dangers from beyond humanity’s understanding. His solution is artificial intelligence; a proverbial “suit of armor” around the world in the form of a set of autonomous, ever-vigilant, indestructible robots capable of defending Earth long after the Avengers have had their run, and more effectively. And despite Nick Fury’s biting declaration midway through the catastrophic outcome of Ultron’s birth, Tony did hesitate before creating his monster. He and Banner consider the implications of even trying to develop A.I. using the Mind Stone and the Tesseract in unison. In the end, they decide based on their limited time frame with these powerful objects, and the potential threats upon the horizon, they don’t have time to debate the ethical issues with Cap. Perhaps more pressing upon Stark’s psyche in this decision is his prescient vision of the future — of the extinction of the Avengers, and of humanity.

“You could’ve saved us. Why didn’t you do more?”

This sentiment is at the core of Stark’s whole struggle: that of the inventor and the defender bearing the weight of the world with his every step. He’s a genius, capable of creating anything; we see Stark as being capable of saving the world. But we, like him, question if he’s worthy of the role. He certainly gets significantly better at being Iron Man over time. The progression of his suits alone conveys this; their transformations become more seamless and their capacities for versatile fighting more potent. But with more power comes more decisions, and more responsibility. While building his world-beating machines, improving his own armor, he’s also trying to build a legacy beyond himself.

Stark’s decisions carry forth with truly god-like consequences. A self-made overman and by Cap’s estimation, “Earth’s greatest defender,” Tony only has so much time, and so many maneuvers left in him. Thanos knows him. The Mad Titan tells him, quite ominously, that he’s “not the only one cursed with knowledge.” Only Stark doesn’t hold god-like aspirations. He wants the fight to end, he wants to go home. And so, in the Infinity Saga, we see just how much he’s willing to sacrifice in defense of humanity, in the service of his original mission as Iron Man, when that home has finally been earned.

This exchange between Tony and Pepper in Endgame illuminates his innate hero-complex, as well as their mutual understanding of that truth:

Tony: Can’t help everybody.
Pepper: It sorta sounds like you can.
Tony: Not if I stop … Something tells me I should put it in a lockbox and drop it in the bottom of the lake, go to bed.
Pepper: But would you be able to rest?

In the end, he can’t help himself. He’s Iron Man. Stark can’t avert his eyes, because he has the power to change things. And he does, with a snap of his fingers. The most powerful, lasting, and indelible image from Endgame has to be Tony Stark wielding all six of the infinity stones within his armor and using them to save the universe from its would be annihilator. He does so, knowing full well the consequences of his action. With his last act, the great Tony Stark marvelously defies his greatest fears — of everyone around him dead, of him not doing enough, of his own self-interest triumphing over the greater good. At the endgame of his life, Tony Stark can rest upon a protected universe and one that will undoubtedly remember him. He was Iron Man. ~