Avengers: Endgame, one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, does not disappoint. Endgame is smashing box office records left and right as it takes us past Thanos’ epic snap of 2018 and into an epic conclusion of the journey. If you have not seen the movie, read no further! There are MAJOR spoilers ahead.
You’ve been warned!
A Universe of Heroes
The Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches an 11-year culmination with Endgame. Beloved characters—in particular the original 6 Avengers—see their character arcs completed as Marvel paves the way for a new era of heroes. There’s something objectively impressive about the fact that Marvel producers and directors have contrived such an expansive and interconnected franchise. (Endgame alone references every single movie in the past 22 years with at least a subtle nod).
However, there’s more than just cinematic excellence in this movie. From a Catholic Christian lens, there are deeper lessons to be learned—about identity, heroism, relationships, and sacrifice. For each Catholic, the goal of earthly life is heroic, saintly virtue. And true, our heroism doesn’t involve flying and fighting aliens, but it is still not a far cry from the life of a superhero. Heroic sanctity entails putting on the armor of Christ, fighting for the most vulnerable, and living with a commitment to a higher cause. Whatever it takes.
Despite the jokes and the fiction, Endgame is a story that allows our imagination to explore these themes and to grapple with what it means to truly be a hero.
Here are some of the deeper messages I encountered in Endgame:
How not to Cope
Endgame made its characters (and the audience) feel the full weight of the Snap. We hear Tony’s voice hitch as he tells Captain America, “I lost the kid.” We see the denial and desperation as the remaining heroes band together to kill Thanos at the Garden. Then, we feel the heaviness as they realize their efforts are in vain. As the words “Five. Years. Later,” slowly appear across the screen, audiences gasped.
A post-Thanos world bears a heavy sadness. The streets are empty. Places of recreation sit abandoned. Some people move on, but not the Avengers. And for some, their way of “moving on is” healthy. But in one case, we see exactly how not to cope: the once-mighty Thor, god of thunder.
Thor’s physique and gaming/beer habits provide comic relief for the movie, but I can’t help but see something deeper in his change. Thor once thrived off of his ego and his strength; he bested any opponent who faced him. He coped with Loki’s death in Infinity War by convincing himself he could get vengeance. So when that vengeance fails, when he fails…his world comes crashing down. He had built his foundation on vanity and self-reliance, and with failure, this foundation could not stand.
The strange thing is… Thor’s lifestyle is not too different from modern notions of recreation. Alcohol, TV shows, and video games–though not inherently bad things–must be used in moderation. When the come at the expense of authentic human interaction and serve as an escape from facing reality, they can slowly destroy us. Endgame does a great job emphasizing that such a lifestyle is an absolute hindrance to that virtue that makes heroes, well, heroic! Everything that once made Thor a hero becomes contaminated by his sloth, his gluttony, his lack of commitment to a higher cause. The “strongest Avenger” could have wielded the Stark Gauntlet and saved the universe… were it not for his vice.
In Thor’s coping mechanisms — or lack thereof –we see that little vices, though subtle, are dangerous. Such vices can strip us of the very substance that make us heroic.
Tony Stark, on the other hand, copes better than expected. We see a tender side of Tony five years after the Snap, committed to his wife and his daughter. We see how important his family has become to him, his “second chance.”
This is not to say he is without grief. The loss of Peter Parker, the closest thing Tony had to a child before Morgan, still weighs on him. It’s the memory of Peter that gives Tony the final push to fight again, to consider the team’s suggestions and reverse the Snap. And when they succeed at this goal, it is Peter that Tony embraces, utter relief and gratitude etched across his face.
Tony’s not the only one fighting for his family. We see Scott Lang’s (Ant-Man) bittersweet reunion with his daughter post-Snap. Thor meets with his mother and regains some of his purpose. Hawkeye finds hope that he can restore his family again and leaves behind his evil ways to fight for good again. Even Natasha, who has no biological family, comes to connect with her team as a family in her time of need. And it is family—settling down and marrying Peggy—that finally concludes Steve’s story at the end of the movie.
The Corruption of Evil
Family isn’t reserved for the heroic. Even Thanos values his family, his daughters Gamora and Nebula. However, this familial love is distorted; it is corrupted by evil and manipulation.
Thanos grows progressively more and more corrupted by this evil as we follow his story. In Infinity War his intentions were at least posed as good: kill half of the universe so the other half may live freely. It was twisted to be perceived as “merciful,” with evil means justifying a good end (not too different from the logic modern society uses to justify morally questionable actions). However, in light of any threat to his success, Thanos becomes overtaken by evil. Objective actions now become highly personal. Half of all life is no longer enough, not while the other half refuses to recognize the “gift” given to them. So Thanos ventures even further into the grasps of evil: all life must be eradicated, so that it may have no recollection of former ways. The new life he will create, then, will remember its creator with gratitude.
It is a distortion of God, in a way. Thanos views himself as king and creator, able to give and take life with ultimate authority. And after completing his work, he rests in the Garden. Sound familiar? Thanos seeks to create life, but only by destroying it—an anti-creation story of sorts. Thanos makes his children earn his affection. He punishes them when they fail. He distorts the image of the loving Father and Creator into its evil twin: the authoritative ruler, who courts death and rewards error with vengeance.
A Christ-like Hero
How do we know Thanos is so different from God? After all, God has allowed evil to happen, right? Is the Snap just a cinematographic depiction of Noah and the Flood?
Here’s where Thanos and God differ: God sent His only Son to die for us, out of love. He endured pain so that we wouldn’t have to. Thanos makes no such gift.
Just look at the Soul Stone for proof. Thanos’ idea of love is taking of life, not giving of self. He pulls his daughter, against her will, to her death so that he can acquire his goal. Contrast that with Nat and Clint on the very same cliff. They both race to give of themselves for the other. They fight for the chance to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. There is a drastic difference between those two shots: Gamora lying dead versus Natasha. One life was taken. The other was freely given.
The truth is, our conception of heroism will always be framed by Jesus Christ. Before Christ’s life and death, the archetypal hero was the epic warrior, the brave ruler. And while these things are still relevant to a hero’s identity, nowadays the noble hero is inherently the one who sacrifices himself for those he loves. Look at any good story or movie: the hero’s accomplishments often mean very little if they don’t come at a price, if they don’t suffer on behalf of another.
That’s why Tony Stark had to die. He had everything he could need: a wife and kid, the return of Peter, restored community his team. But his story doesn’t end with a happy retirement, as comfortable as that would have been (for both Tony and the audience). Though the actual ending to his journey was much more painful, it was more impactful—because it cost him something.
His entire arc had been leading to his moment of sacrifice. “Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life,” Yinsen told him in the cave in “Iron Man”. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play,” Captain America told him in “Avengers” 1, before he flew the nuke into space to save the city. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, Cap haunts him in his dream: “You could have saved us. Why didn’t you do more?” After seeing all of his friends dead, he tells Nick Fury, “that wasn’t the worst part.” The worst part was that he was alive, burdened by the guilt that he didn’t do more to save them.
His own father, as they reunite in 1970, told Tony he hoped his son did not inherit his greatest flaw: putting his own self-interest before the greater good. And in that final battle, Tony conquers this very flaw. Recognizing the good life he would be leaving behind, he snaps his fingers. For years, Tony had been unable to rest until the threat was conquered; but in this moment, he has given all–even his life–to protect those he loves. In this moment, he can finally rest. He ends his journey as Iron Man with the same words that started them: “I am Iron Man.”
It’s a tragic ending (yes, I audibly sobbed, no shame). But it is satisfying and fitting. It is only right that a hero sacrifice so that others may live, that they suffer for another—whatever it takes, no matter the cost.
Go be a Hero
There’s a reason I have a picture of Iron Man right next to a picture of St. John Paul the Great on my wall of heroes. These fictional characters can lead us to heroic virtue (even if it’s not quite on the same level as real heroes like JP2). So, go channel your inner Captain America, your inner Tony Stark. Your inner Tho—no, wait never mind, maybe not Thor.
All this to say, you can’t kill Thanos…but you can still be a hero. Heroic virtue is the little sacrifices, the little commitments to discipline that build your character and develop sanctity. Some people settle for mediocrity—but not us.
Go set the world on fire with heroic sacrifice. You’re not Iron Man, but you’re the child of an even greater Hero.