Avengers: Endgame – Catharsis Of The Arses
No, this is a post about grief. Anger. Survivor’s guilt.
I wasn’t really expecting those things to be quite so prevalent in a superhero movie. Especially not one as huge and hyper-promoted as Avengers: Endgame.
But lo and behold, there they are, rich and surprisingly touching in a fashion that feels like a punch to the crotch, demanding more than one tear from you by the film’s close.
That’s right, kids: I’m going to get emotional and psychological about a superhero film. Welcome to my Friday evening.
First things first:
HERE THERE BE
I usually don’t give a shit about posting such warnings, but I do have some sense of how big this film is, and how people are going to react to it. Herein I am not only going to blab about Avengers: Endgame but there’s a good chance I’ll end up blabbing about some of the (many) related movies. Or unrelated movies. Or the source material.
With that in mind, I am not explaining a thing here. No “in case you haven’t watched it” summary or any such shit: there’s just too much going on to summarise twenty-something movies for you.
You probably know this, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
While it wasn’t intentional, I am going to start with Chris Evans/Steve Rogers/Captain America’s ass though. #SorryNotSorry
In this contect, it’s not just an ass though: it’s a tone.
Avengers: Endgame is a very serious movie, and it is only appropriate that within such a lengthy running time (THREE FUCKING HOURS), there’s a need for some lighthearted beats relief. While much of this comes at the end of the film (more on this to follow…at length), this is a film that is very aware of its audience, or at least the commentary from that audience: people have been watching the Avengers films for some time, expecting scenes of gratuitous (male) shirtlessness, a curious vision that usually plays more to the (potential)-female/gay-male gaze than anything super-hero related.
The male body in the world of the Marvel superhero is somewhat stripped of its masculinity, amended to make it unthreatening, even somewhat sterile. Such shirtless scenes usually come with a moment of weakness, whether watching a character dealing with his injuries following an action scene (Paul Rudd in Ant-Man), or watching a character being introduced as the new guy (and only human) in prison (Chris Pratt in Guardians Of The Galaxy). Or, as in Captain America: The First Avenger, to show off how very strong and powerful (but totally not threatening) a character can be after overcoming his previous pitiful inadequacies.
It’s a not-so-subtle marketing tactic, guaranteeing a certain type of audience (perhaps the individual whose date or partner has dragged them to an action film) while highlighting the fact that the hero has a heart, a soul, and is approachable.
And maybe, to the male viewer, this is the type of man you could aim to become.
But on the other hand, why are are those characters somewhat emasculated in this process?
After all, we’re talking about a world of superheros, literal and figurative gods amongst men. It seems somewhat appropriate that those gods are recreated in a somewhat different physical image than that of an average man. Yet it also makes one wonder where and why actors are stripped of their own “power” (well, chest hair)? Does it succeed at making the character they are playing less threatening, more relatable and more likeable?
Of course, less chest hair means it’s far easier to show off those muscles. Maybe I should learn from that myself and…y’know, get some muscles?
Maybe I too could be a hero just like that man right there…
I don’t want to linger on that matter: I’ve talked it to death, as have many other people, perhaps to the point that Marvel have indeed tried to edge away from this marketing methodology. The muscular adult man of unidentifiable age has been replaced by the nerdy teenage Spider-Man of Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming), powerful women like Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Benedict Cumberbatch of Dr. Strange. Yes, I know that Spider-Man: Homecoming portrayed its own shirtless beat, but I would suggest that this was more about showing that character for his youth and weaknesses than anything to with the any vaguely-sexual gaze.
But that said, I also might just be too old for such a young superhero.
The above heroes have pivotal roles to play in Avengers: Endgame and it’s somewhat telling that this film goes out of its way to undo that partly-sexualised element that has been touched inappropriately in the other films. This film’s single shirtless scene is played solely for comedic purposes wherein a drunk and very depressed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is shown shirtless in lounge-ware, his hair and beard re-grown and unkempt with what can only be described as a (hairless) dad-bod.
This is a beat that is played for somewhat comedic value, but there’s a sense of honesty in Hemsworth’s delivery that proves a surprisingly powerful punch to the crotch: Thor has, it appears, given up on the world (and his faith in his own powers and abilities) because of the fact he has failed: failed to protect his fellow Asgardians and his universe.
As a matter of fact, Thor is so pathetic he can’t even ‘protect’ his housemates from the trash-talking kids they’re playing video games against.
However, Thor is fully aware of how broken he is: his words come through a shaking throat and unstable breath, a man who is about ready to break into tears and punch things at the same time.
The rest of the Avengers aren’t faring much better.
Avengers: Endgame, within the first twenty minutes sets up a rematch between our heroes and Thanos (Josh Brolin) following the events of Avengers: Infinity War only to have an angry Thor decapitate Thanos, leading to a five-year time-skip. It’s a somewhat disconcerting moment for many reasons: such a time-hop, so early in a film that picks up mere days after its predecessor, feels uncomfortable, and it works surprisingly well in this context, treating us to views of still-empty streets, abandoned cars, and misty views of empty stadiums rich in pathetic fallacy.
This is the world in which Thor (an already highly-functioning alcoholic, mind you) has drank himself into uselessness; Captain America (Chris Evans) has become little more than a glorified group-leader at PTSD counselling sessions; Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, unseen in the film’s predecessor) has lost his family, becoming an angry vigilante, striking fear and taking lives in a very non-Avengers fashion.
It’s somewhat surprising that even in this world, there is significant emotional weight being carried by Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Stark has appeared in more Avengers-related movies than I care to count, but Johansson’s Black Widow has never been given a chance to grow: she’s a tell-don’t-show origin story, the only woman on a team of men whose solely emotional character beat involved monstrous commentary on her inability to have children (therein making her somewhat less human and less feminine?) That remains a jarring moment in the franchise’s growth, and does little to develop the Widow as either a hero or a standalone character.
On the other hand, the Natasha of Endgame is a woman aware of her broken emotional self, of what defines her and what that means: this is a woman who needs to (and has) built her own version of family in her friends and colleagues, and she is broken when that is challenged. It’s a powerful narrative touching on the different sides and beats of grief: it’s undeserved in such an undeveloped character, but it seems like Marvel Studios is finally doing something right by giving this character enough screen time to let her develop.
And then she goes and kills herself.
Natasha’s is a noble death, sacrificing herself to get the Soul Stone (jumping from the same cliff that Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was thrown from in the last film.
And yeah, doing such a similar beat with two female characters is pretty fucking sexist, especially when you have so fucking few of them.
In comparison though, Natasha’s death is a willing sacrifice, and one that carries the right elements of emotion for both the viewer and her team-mates.
Our heroes manage to restore their world in the film’s closing scenes, giving us an epic fight scene between (nearly) every single superhero (except Natasha), as the heroes face a slightly younger version of Thanos. Yep, same guy as was killed earlier on in the same film. Tme-fuckery. Just go with it, kids.
Watching beloved characters return to the screen is a surprisingly powerful and cathartic moment of cinema after the grief of the first few acts, giving this a finale that got breaths of surprise and excitement in the cinema as beloved characters returned, as the the audience considered who and what was likely to come next.
Namely that ass-kicking finale.
Most of the characters get a beat, perhaps even a few lines of dialogue for some.
But there are many characters that are also nothing more than a blur of colour in an epic fight scene. If you support or liked that character, you will notice them and you will smile; but don’t be surprised to look and go “wait, who was that that just punched that thing on the top left of the screen.”
In amongst all of this release, there are many moments of this scene that stand out: it’s hard not to love these moments, to feel emotionally empowered when Cap pics up Thor’s hammer or when Captain Marvel (easily) destroy’s Thanos’ ship.
But some of those beats are undeserved: Captain Marvel has spent several years on the bench in this universe, only to be introduced a bit too late to truly fit in, especially when this film brings her in and out of the narrative multiple times, moving her from meaningless absence to super-important deus ex machina on two separate occasions.
Similarly, amongst the hyper-drama and emotion of the narrative, the film embraces a few too many comedic moments (Cap’s ass, Thor’s alcoholism, Ant-Man embodying the voice of the viewer.) These moments are much needed alongside the darker emotional beats, but are also jarring, as if the producers don’t want the viewers to be taking things too seriously.
Avengers: Endgame is an event-movie, and like a comic-book events, many characters get a single panel to shine, but there are some that just aren’t as important as others, and as such get nothing more than a single moment.
This is a film that brings to a close the story of some of the universe’s bigger characters, no doubt working to make space for its newer and smaller characters who have been somewhat irrelevant here. Whether these characters can remain important remains to be seen. Can we invest as highly in a female superhero who can fly through space as we did with a hot man-ass who survived World War II?
And perhaps more important, when I watch this film again in a few months time, will it still stand once the excitement has passed?
I’d hope so.
Because even if there are plot-questions galore and no shirtless men, this is a cinematic experience that I just was not expecting, and a very fucking high bar has been set for the future.