“Avengers, assemble,” Captain America said to his army as it poured into the battlefield. At the center stood Thanos, the villain who, with a snap of his fingers, killed half the life in the universe. He did it to stop overpopulation. Now the dead have been resurrected and join the fight against him. If they and the Avengers fail, Thanos will erase all life in the universe and start “fresh.”
Audiences cheer and cry as they watch the film. Many of them have seen the 21 films that preceded it, which makes Avengers: Endgame a cultural event. Driving global ticket sales to almost $2.5 billion is a Hollywood liberalism that gives relief from today’s rising fascism. Endgame is the climax of a decade of movies that tapped into American anxiety over the war on terror, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and now climate change to give the audience a liberal catharsis.
You have seen this movie before. You have felt these emotions before. Using the plot devices of the bank heist and war epic, Endgame transcends genre to become political mythology. It is an origin story for millennial progressivism.
“The characters represent the transcendent feeling we all have inside us,” Jack Kirby, a founder of American comics and a WWII veteran, said in a 1982 interview. “We want to do better.”
Out of Kirby’s pen flowed heroes. He co-created Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and Iron Man. They fought America’s enemies. Captain America punched Hitler in the jaw. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, was captured by the Communist Wong-Chu, a racist Cold War stereotype. A gamma Bomb test ignited Dr. Banner’s DNA to become the Incredible Hulk, an allusion to the fear of atomic weapons.
Marvel superheroes began as “liberal” defenders against totalitarian enemies like the Soviet Union and become liberal critics of our own militarism. In 2008’s Iron Man, Stark (a wily Robert Downey Jr.) was captured not by Communists, but al-Qaeda-like terrorists. Yet his true fight was with his own greed. He transformed from a war profiteer into a humanitarian and refused to supply weapons for the U.S.’s war on terror. In 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America (played by earnest Chris Evans) discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret organization he worked for, is a surveillance state front for Hydra, a terrorist group. His true fight was against his naivety.
Marvel’s liberalism was in conflict with the white male roster it inherited from the comics. The crisis of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement forced a reckoning in media. Black Panther was a long overdue racial integration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The #MeToo movement also made the lack of a woman superhero, a glaring absence, finally addressed by 2019’s Captain Marvel.
The villains posed a threat to the liberal values of individuality, egalitarianism and liberty. Whether it was corporatist Obadiah Shane (in Iron Man) or dictator Loki (in The Avengers) or genocide-plotting Ultron (in Avengers: Age of Ultron), they were totalitarian. Thanos (played with Shakespearian pathos by Josh Brolin) was a cross between Hitler and Thomas Malthus. He feared life would choke itself by overgrowth and cosmic genocide was a Final Solution.
“Titan was like most planets. Too many mouths, not enough to go around,” Thanos told Dr. Strange in the last scene of Avengers: Infinity War. “When we faced extinction I offered a solution.”
“Genocide?” asked a disbelieving Strange. After a climactic battle, Thanos took the Infinity Gauntlet with its all-powerful stones and, in a finger-snap, dissolved half of life. His plan to avert environmental collapse fits our zeitgeist as our increasingly panicked ruling class realizes it has run out of time.
Endgame starts five years into the aftermath of Thanos’s apocalypse. Half of humanity has evaporated. Cities are empty. Cars and boats look like thrown away toys. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo position the “gaze” of the film from the point of view of the Avengers, and we see through them how this desolation is our possible future, one in which many of us are dead and those who survived are forced to live with the absence.
The film’s gaze into the future is a warning about the looming collapse of civilization if climate change gathers more force and power. In the social unrest, it’s possible that totalitarian strongmen like Thanos will offer deadly rationing or war or walls to keep out the hungry. (In fact, they already are.) In the panic predicted by the U.N., people may willingly give authority to whoever promises to keep them safe. By the time they realize the fascist solution never keeps anyone safe, it will be too late to turn back the clock.
Which is why the “time-heist” plot in the film is a way of returning that liberal gaze back from the destroyed future to demand change in the present before catastrophe hits. It is through the Avengers that we “see” the price of political failure. When Ant-Man (a comedic Paul Rudd) comes to headquarters with a Quantum Realm travel machine, the team reassembles, goes back in time, steals Infinity Stones and puts them on a Gauntlet that Stark made to snap everyone back to life.
One so-called American value that is the subtext of the plot is we can recreate ourselves. The U.S.’s image as the land of opportunity is displaced onto time itself. The message is that we have the freedom to choose. It is the hope for redemption, a “second chance” that may be a necessary element in the superhero genre, but betrays the U.S. reality. Millions of people are locked into lives of poverty and despair. Our nation is not a “second chance” for them and there’s no past, present or future where they can find redemption.
Affirmative Action Movies
In the final battle, the liberalism that began with Jack Kirby is realized in the heroic deaths and transfer of power from one age of heroes to another. What follows is an affirmative action sequence where new diverse characters get moments of cinematic glory. The Avengers snap everyone back to life. Thanos arrives in a rage and unleashes his army of dog-like creatures and ships that swim in the sky like metal manatees. The three white male leads — Thor, Captain America and Iron Man — try to beat him and fail.
Sizzling bright portals open and a diverse coalition (imagine if Obama voters had superpowers) enters the battlefield. A patchwork army of individuals against a monotonous enemy symbolizes the victory of diversity over totalitarianism. It is the visual trope of Hollywood war films like Braveheart, Independence Day and Lord of the Rings. In Endgame, wizards led by a strong Asian character Wong (a wisecracking Benedict Wong) join Black Wakandan troops led by Black Panther (a solid Chadwick Boseman) and godlike Asgardians rallied by Valkyrie (a focused Tessa Thompson) rush Thanos. It is the affirmative action scene and the goal is to keep the gauntlet away from him or he’ll snap away the universe. Black Panther grabs it and runs as if dodging an NFL defensive line. When he falls, the women heroes take it and do an eye-popping daredevil relay race.
The climax taps into Christian theology because in this war film, as with many others, heroes must sacrifice themselves for the greater good. When Thanos gets the Infinity Gauntlet, Iron Man pickpockets the stones and snaps his fingers. The screen goes white. Thanos dissolves to dust. Stark, burned by the energy, stares blankly at his friends and dies.
Liberalism is refreshed as one by one, the white male leads are honored and replaced by a new diverse cast of heroes. Iron Man has a moving funeral. Thor cedes his kingship to Valkyrie. Captain America goes back in time to replace the Infinity Stones so the timeline doesn’t split but stays in the past with his lost love. When he reappears, he’s old and wrinkled on a bench and gives his shield to his partner Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). “I’ll do the best I can with it,” Falcon says heavily, knowing he represents the nation. Captain American responds, “I know, that’s why you have it.”
So far, at least 100 million people have seen Endgame and have likely left the theater with a sense that they can be a hero in this world. It is what movies do. They cast us into larger-than-life stories that strike a deep need for myth. But in this one, we’re being asked to save ourselves from a future that doesn’t have to happen.