Grief, Consequences, And AVENGERS: ENDGAME’s Dead Superheroes
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
The best storytelling decision in Avengers: Endgame consists of three words: “five years later.”
Marvel as a studio has never been big on depicting consequences. Seismic story turns and character arcs are often paid mere lip service, having been dealt with between films. Tony Stark quit being Iron Man, but got back in the saddle utterly unseen. The franchise keeps trying to tell us we care about Bucky Barnes, but most of his character development takes place offscreen. Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD, and the response to it, met the same fate. The MCU might be semi-serialised, but rarely does one film affect another in any significant way.
Infinity War’s cliffhanger, and the nature of these films as a two-parter season finale, defied that. So when Thor chopped off Thanos’ head mere minutes into Endgame, and the film jumped forward five years, the Avengers essentially defeated, I nearly leapt out of my seat in oxymoronic misery-guts glee.
On a global scale, Endgame presents an Earth (and a universe) that has collapsed, and where the remaining half of the population just...has to deal with it. Scant time is spent on societal changes instigated by the Decimation (like in The Leftovers, the explosion of cults would surely be enormous), but we learn that governments are struggling to maintain order; neighbourhoods have fallen into disrepair; and as expected, everyone who remains is emotionally devastated. Memorials to the vanished barely ameliorate the survivors’ profound grief. It’s so bad that when Thanos eventually travels through time to see it, he almost (but not quite) backs down on his goals.
Worldwide events can be found in every Avengers film, though, and they’re always a bit abstractified. The deaths of billions of people are hard to fathom, but empathising with a character who is sad is second nature to all but psychopaths. That’s why the Avengers’ personal responses to their dual traumas - experiencing the Decimation, and failing to stop it - are so important: they're how Marvel finally marries its galactic-scale plot stakes with personal ones. Each hero mourns differently, and they also (likely intentionally) mourn in such a way as to represent the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief.
While on the surface Tony Stark might seem well-adjusted post-Decimation, enjoying a lakehouse and a new family, he actually represents grief’s “denial” phase. His retreat from society and single-minded focus on his wife and daughter, coupled with solitary workshop tinkering, is that denial. Rather than face his failure, he literally turns his back on it, quitting the superhero life far more convincingly than at the end of Iron Man 3. So deep-seated is his denial that he even flat-out refuses to help his friends in their attempt to bring back their lost loved ones. He’s got his new life, and that’s all he wants. Only his stubborn need to solve problems brings him back into the fold.
The “anger” phase falls to Hawkeye, or rather to Clint Barton, who arguably ceases to be Hawkeye after his entire family vanishes. Once again, Barton is short-changed by the movie’s priorities, his actions mostly taking place offscreen, but those actions would have been difficult to watch had they not. Clint turns into a store-brand Punisher in the Decimation’s wake, taking out his rage on criminals the world over. Such is the scale of his violence, he even becomes a target of the remaining Avengers. It’s a shame we never really got to know Clint or his family, because Jeremy Renner is a fine actor, and once again he’s given only the bones of a story here.
Black Widow and Captain America share the weight of the “bargaining” phase, exhibiting it in different ways. This phase represents desperate attempts to fix the unfixable, to solve the problem of where you, personally, went wrong against the inevitable. A shadow of their former glory, the pair lead a new Avengers team against small-fry issues, failing to absolve their guilt in the process. Steve Rogers spouts empty platitudes of acceptance in group therapy sessions, but his actions are those of a man who’s unwilling to move on. That’s his primary motivation: his resolve to reverse Thanos’ acts, “whatever it takes,” is what propels the movie forward. Even his happy ending is one of a man who refuses to accept fate; reuniting with Peggy Carter for a second life, he has his cake and eats it too. As for Natasha Romanoff? She’s forcefully intent on giving her own life to reverse the situation. Grim.
Thor’s response is classic depression. Sulking off to the colony of New Asgard, he spends his days drinking endless booze and shouting at PlayStation opponents with Korg and Miek. His slackerdom is played for laughs, which minimises the impact of depression upon it, but is, admittedly, rather funny. Upon reuniting with his mother during the Avengers’ time-heist, though, his deeper psychological issues emerge to the fore. As always, there’s a loss closer and more personal weighing upon him than the obvious tragedy, and he has to deal with it to move forward. His journey in Endgame fits his his series arc of chafing against responsibility, expressing it both negatively and positively. Only after acknowledging his demons can he abdicate his born leader status to someone who can handle it, and accept who he truly is.
The only Avenger who seems to reach the “acceptance” phase following the Decimation is also the least-likely to: Bruce Banner. After several films wrestling with his alter ego for several films, he’s finally found a sense of balance. Biggish, green, very strong, but possessed of Banner’s personality and more-recognisable facial features, he’s a delight to watch, and seems delighted by things in ways the rest of the team isn’t. Given that the duality of the Hulk is the character’s defining trait, this is a significant change. The Hulk’s psychology has always seemed ripe for drama, but his solo films haven’t managed to crack how to dramatise it. Endgame’s solution is to basically nullify that drama. I’d like to see Banner’s personal healing process actually take place on screen at some point, but I acknowledge that virtually nobody except me would enjoy such a film.
Finally, the Avengers’ story as a group represents the biggest denial of all: literally turning back the clock and ripping through dimensions in order to undo death. Even Thanos calls them out on it - their grief is the biggest obstacle in his way. Thankfully, the film's second-best storytelling decision comes into play here: the fact that the Avengers specifically don't erase the past five years, deeming their experiences worthwhile - no matter how traumatic they were. They'll value their loved ones all the more now, as weird as that will feel to those loved ones.
Speaking as someone who adores seeing his depression reflected back at him on movie screens, I could have watched an entire movie of the Avengers wallowing in misery. Obviously, the film doesn’t go into that depth - there’s a time heist to stage, after all, and like most Marvel films, the characters’ psychologies are painted with broad strokes. There’s no time for detailing; no time for true nuance. Probably not much time for reflection in subsequent films, either.
Endgame doubles the population of its new-normal universe, and kills off several significant characters. If previous films are anything to go by, the consequences of Endgame will be referenced at the start of Spider-Man: Far From Home, but the film will mostly go off and do its own thing. Will Peter Parker and his also-Decimated friends, now five years younger than their other schoolmates, discuss the existential mindfuck of having been disintegrated, then reintegrated out of thin air five years later? Probably, for a bit. Will Tony Stark’s death weigh on Peter? Probably, for a bit longer. Will the film mention the inevitable food shortages faced by a world now missing half its farmers and accustomed to feeding half as many people? Unlikely.
There’s a deeper problem, too, in that time travel technology exists in-universe now, rendering the film’s own consequences somewhat impermanent. The Infinity Stones aren’t necessarily gone for good, though God knows the MCU needs a new MacGuffin, and one has to assume that neither are any of the deceased characters. All the talk of Natasha’s death being unable to be undone rings moderately hollow when the similarly-executed Gamora gets brought back via time travel in the exact same movie.
None of that takes away from the emotions felt within Endgame itself, though - finally, dramatic emotions more complex than grim determination. For one precious act of the story, we saw superheroes actually deal with the weight of the things they’ve done, and the things they’ve failed to do. The Avengers might have strayed into space, time, and other untold dimensions - but sooner or later, everyone’s got to come down to earth.