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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

It should be noted that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not as cohesive as its architects or fans would suggest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not a pop cultural monolith. Not every film in the franchise has the exact same perspective or outlook. Some of the the films offer very different interpretations of core characters and ideals. For example, there is something very endearing about how much pride Thor: Ragnarok takes in its title character’s idea of heroism. In Ragnarok, Thor adores the trappings of heroism. He enjoys Surtur’s big villainous monologue so much that he wants to experience it as intended, wrapped in chains. He still struggles with the timing of summoning his hammer to him, but he tries to do the right thing “… because that’s what heroes do.”

Watching Ragnarok, there is a sense that being a superhero is fun. And there is something exciting in that, the power fantasy of being able to fly or summon thunder or cross the universe. However, Ragnarok also underscores that this sort of heroism comes with a sense of obligation. Thor might enjoy being a hero, but he understands the responsibilities that come with it. When Loki suggests abandoning Asgard and remaining on Sakaar, Thor refuses. Later, inspired by his brother, Loki decides to risk his life to show up and fight for the people of Asgard. More to the point, realising that the institutions of Asgard are built on exploitation and suffering, Thor makes the bold heroic choice to sacrifice the Asgardian Empire. He then assumes his role as leader of his people.

This is a surprisingly nuanced and balanced idea of superheroism. Historically, superhero stories have tended to approach the sort of power associated with superheroism as a mixed blessing. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man II cleverly and repeatedly put Peter Parker and Spider-Man at odds with one another, the title character often caught between his desire to do what he wanted to do and his greater sense of right and wrong. It is a cliché (and a misquote) to suggest that “with great power comes great responsibility”, but that was a recurring motif of the superhero stories of the twenty-first century. The X-Men movies depicted outcasts fighting to protect a world that “feared and hated” them, because it was the right thing to do.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a conscious and gradual push away from this idea of power as a burden to be handled with responsibility and with care. As with Ragnarok, a lot of the Marvel Studios movies openly celebrate the power fantasy of being a superhero. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Popular cinema should be exhilarating and fun. The “driving with the top down” sequence in Iron Man remains a genre highlight, capturing the sense of wonder and adventure of being able to fly. Superhero stories are supposed to be escapism, and there’s something very powerful in watching a character literally fly away from grounded reality. Not every movie needs to be as weighty or reflective as The Dark Knight.

However, it is possible to strike a balance – to feel the thrill and exhilaration of power while also underscoring the obligations that come with it. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is perhaps the best recent example, as the film perfectly captures the sense of wonder and adventure of being able to swing between buildings and jump off rooftops while also encapsulating the sense of responsibility that comes with such power. Mile Morales’ journey isn’t simply getting a set of kick-ass powers, Miles Morales’ journey is becoming the kind of person that he is supposed to be and realising his potential, which fulfilling his obligations to both the people around him and the wider world. (Shazam! puts Billy Batson through a similar arc, learning to be less selfish and self-absorbed.)

To be fair, the early Marvel Studios films do make a point to codify and quantify these arcs. The Incredible Hulk makes a point to emphasise the obligation that Bruce Banner has to protect the people around him from a mistake that he made. Thor forces its central character to learn humility and to prove himself – literally – “worthy” to hold “the power of Thor.” Even Captain America: The First Avenger takes care to emphasise that what makes Steve Rogers special is not the super-soldier serum coursing through his blood, but his willingness to volunteer his life for the greater good and to take a principled stand to fight against fascism despite his small stature. These are all good. (Even Iron Man features Stark taking ownership of his place within the military-industrial complex.)

However, later films push very much against this. It is suggested by Iron Man 2, when Tony Stark makes a very strong and principled stand that he will not submit to government oversight. “My priority is to get the Iron Man weapon turned over to the people of the United States of America,” Senator Stern states. Tony is having none of this. “Well, you can forget it,” he insists. “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude, or prostitution, depending on what state you’re in. You can’t have it.” To be fair, there’s a good argument in here. Would anybody trust the United States government (or any government) with that technology? However, that is not the issue.

Iron Man 2 never makes a good case why anybody should trust Tony with that technology. What has Tony done to earn it? What holds Tony to account? To be fair, Iron Man 2 is at least intentionally ambiguous on this point, broaching the fact that Tony is a person of privilege who has access to the Iron Man because of both his tremendous wealth and his family connections. Vanko exists as a more marginalised character trying to assert similar power, his family erased from history by those in power. Iron Man 2 at least raises uncomfortable questions about the power that Tony has centralised within himself without any accountability. However, later Marvel Studios films make a point to play up the sense of entitlement while consciously dialing down the ambiguity around it.

Perhaps reflecting the somewhat polarising and divisive reputation of Iron Man 2, the other Marvel sequels tend to avoid over-complicating their navigation of the question of power and oversight. Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks like it should be a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power; of overreach in the era of NSA surveillance and drone warfare in the Obama era. However, that is not actually what the movie is criticising. The Winter Soldier seems to genuinely believe that this sort of power would be fine if it remained in the hands of Nick Fury or Steve Rogers, with the villains being the people overseeing Nick Fury. (The Winter Soldier also retroactively reveals the Senator grilling Tony in Iron Man 2 was a pseudo-Nazi all along, smoothing that over.)

Thor: The Dark World is decidedly more explicit in its approach to power. The Dark World hinges on the revelation that Thor’s grandfather was complicit in the genocide of the so-called “Dark Elves” millennia ago, and the villainous Malekith is motivated by a desire to revenge this atrocity. Like The Winter Soldier, the moral arc of The Dark World seems straightforward; it should be a fable about unchecked power and cycles of retribution. Instead, The Dark World seems to argue (entirely sincerely) that the only problem with the attempted genocide of the Dark Elves was that it wasn’t thorough enough. Thor would not find himself in this current mess if his grandfather had done a more thorough job of his ethnic cleansing. It is a horrifying idea, one that Ragnarok reacts against.

This is one of the paradoxes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly once it gets past the origin stories. The typical narrative arc of a Marvel Studios film is to have the hero do something ill-advised, have that fail with dire consequences, possibly have the hero scolded for doing the reckless thing in the first place, and then have them attempt the exact same thing against despite all the people warning them not to, inevitably succeeding in the final attempt. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a prime example; Tony Stark builds an artificial intelligence to protect the world, but it becomes genocidal, so… Tony Stark builds another artificial intelligence to protect the world and it works out okay.

In many ways, this is a direct rebuke to the idea of humility and responsibility when it comes to wielding power. In other movies, the logical thing to do might be for a character to take stock of the mistake that they made, humble themselves, and then adopt a new course of action incorporating the lessons that they have learned. However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not believe that power should be humbled. Power should be celebrated, and those who presume to tell these heroes what they should or should not do simply need to be taught a lesson. This is the moral arc of Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Peter Parker repeatedly violates instructions from Tony Stark, only to prove his worth in an insanely risky and destructive manner.

To a certain extent, this feels like an extrapolation from the long-standing issue with superhero sequels. Although critics might complain about the ubiquity of superhero origin stories, they are favoured because they work. The superhero origin story comes with a basic structure baked in. The hero is fundamentally changed over the course of the story, transforming from who they were into who they are supposed to be. As such, there is room for growth and evolution in these stories. The issue arises with sequels, because sequels do not have the luxury of such an arc. Superheroes begin the sequel as a hero, and they end the sequel as a hero. The sequel has a clear status quo which limits the storytelling opportunities.

This is why, historically, superhero sequels have tended to focus on the hero surrendering their power. Superman II found Clark Kent becoming human so that he could be with Lois Lane, only to subsequently reclaim his power and the responsibility that goes with it. Spider-Man II had Peter Parker throw away his costume and abandon his alter ego, only to learn the importance of using his power for good. Even The Dark Knight suggested that Bruce Wayne was grooming Harvey Dent to replace him so that he might retire. The Marvel Cinematic Universe rejects this typical superhero sequel formulation. The heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe very rarely learn those lessons about responsibility and obligation.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, heroes very rarely learn lessons. Instead, they dispense lessons. The primary lesson of the post-original slate of Marvel Studios movies is simply that people are wrong to doubt or question or call out these heroes. This isn’t always a bad thing; Captain Marvel is an empowering story of a woman asserting control of her own body over men who presume to control it, demonstrating that this sort of story has its place. It also isn’t always the case; Black Panther is the rare Marvel Studios film where the hero actually changes his mind after the confrontation of the villain, T’Challa changing the entire course of Wakanda following his confrontation with Erik. (Ragnarok does something similar, with Thor accepting that Asgard must be destroyed.)

However, these are very much the exceptions rather than the rule. The most illustrative example of this theme remains Captain America: Civil War, which makes sense given that the film is from the same creative team (writers and directors) as Infinity War and Endgame. At the start of the film, Steve Rogers brings an untrained hero into combat, resulting in massive civilian casualties. The issue is compounded by the fact that the hero in question is a former terrorist who was responsible for a lot of the chaos in Age of Ultron, including unleashing the Hulk upon a heavily populated (unnamed) African city. This (quite justifiably) leads to arguments that there should be some oversight or accountability in how the team operates.

The movie never considers this idea as in any way meritorious. Most obviously, the most vocal proponent of regulation is revealed to General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the villain from The Incredible Hulk whose last major appearance in the franchise made him complicit in unleashing a creature known as “the Abomination” on Harlem. More superficially, Tony Stark is aligned as supporting registration, but even his support seems more pragmatic and half-hearted than sincere and principled; it often seems like Tony doesn’t seem to support regulation because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the easiest thing to do. Most obviously, the film is handily titled Captain America, suggesting the perspective with which it expects audiences to align; that of Steve Rogers.

Steve opposes regulation. There are some vague suggestions that he has principled objections to the centralisation of power, building off the mistrust in institutions established in The Winter Soldier and cast backwards over Iron Man 2. Again, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, power is something that is best invested in individuals without pesky oversight or accountability to tell them how to use it. Steve’s objections are given extra weight given his status as the “moral centre” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Civil War very quickly reveals the cynicism of this position. Although Steve’s position is given a light ideological framing, it quickly becomes clear that his central motivation is the fate of his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes.

Again, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s politics of power come into play here. Bucky has been transformed into an unstoppable killing machine with a metal arm and a set of lethal skills. There is no debate, Bucky has killed people. Most notably, he murders both Howard and Mariah Stark. He later tears through a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Now, Civil War makes a strong case that Bucky is not morally responsible for his actions. He was being mind-controlled. However, this just underscores the danger that Bucky poses. Bucky cannot control his powers, and cannot vouch for the safety of those around him. To a certain extent, his predicament recalls that of the Hulk. Bucky is a walking, sentient, faulty weapon. Trying to restrict the damage that he can cause is the only moral response.

Of course, in the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to try to curtail or regulate a character’s power is tantamount to assault. This is also apparent in how Civil War approaches the character of Wanda Maximoff. Wanda is a terrorist, who deployed a weapon of mass destruction in Africa. Several years later, she returned to the continent and killed a number of innocent people during a botched superhero mission. In Civil War, Wanda is placed under house arrest until it is decided what can be done with her. This seems a prudent move, given her powers and her history. Indeed, it is quite the luxurious house arrest, funded by Tony Stark. (Although she may have to live with the coffee grinds in the sink.) However, Civil War treats this as a monstrous violation of her civil liberties.

Tony Stark’s characterisation in Civil War also underscores the manner in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe prioritises the pursuit of power above all else. Tony is motivated (in part) to support registration because he hears the story of an untrained teenager who died during a big super-powered punch-up. This should make Tony more wary about using his power. However, he almost immediately recruits an untrained teenager to participated in a super-powered punch-up at the climax of the film because he needs an advantage that he can employ against Steve Rogers. It is never explained why Peter Parker is so vital, or why Tony would endanger a young man’s life like that.

It is interesting to contrast this with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Released the same time as Civil War, Batman vs. Superman prompted an incredible wave of outrage among comic book movie fans. At least part of this was rooted in the movie’s portrayal of a more introspective and insecure Superman, and a version of Batman who had completely embraced his worst impulses. Batman vs. Superman had more than its share fair of flaws, but it seemed to draw a lot of criticism for presuming to question the morality and integrity of the way in which its leads applied their power. Batman vs. Superman allowed its characters more introspection than most Marvel Studios films, and it provoked the wrath of an angry fandom for this.

There was a sense in which audiences were much more comfortable with the unquestioned power fantasy of Civil War rather than the deconstructionist tendencies of Batman vs. Superman. There was a very strong moral objection to Batman vs. Superman, an argument that the eponymous characters weren’t “really” heroes. In this context, it is interesting to note how those critics who objected to the portrayal of Batman in Batman vs. Superman will respond to the approach that Endgame takes to Clint Barton. Is the “darkness” in Batman vs. Superman simply a matter of colour saturation? Or is the “darkness” a result of consciously drawing an audience’s attention to some of the previously unspoken assertions of superhero cinema?

All of this leads through to Infinity War and Endgame. Infinity War is an interesting film, because the nominal leads often have very little agency in it. The protagonist is arguably Thanos, the demicidal maniac. Thanos plots to wipe out half of all life in the universe, which is a monumentally silly villain plan. There is nothing wrong with monumentally silly villain plans; the superhero genre is absurdly heightened. However, Infinity War takes its villain’s journey very seriously. This is very revealing of itself. Infinity War does not devote much effort or consideration to the internal logic of Thanos’ plan. It makes no sense. However, Infinity War is very interested in the mechanics of Thanos’ plan.

Infinity War gives Thanos the most relatable and universal motivation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanos is motivated by the will to power, the desire to assemble the Infinity Stones no matter the cost. Infinity War seems to envy Thanos’ monomaniacal fixation on the prize. It is telling that Thanos’ single-minded purpose is something that he shares with Steve Rogers, the moral centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Steve is just as committed, repeatedly vowing to do “whatever it takes” to win. In Civil War, Steve even offers the very Thanos-friendly sentiment, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in they eye and say, ‘No, you move.'”

When Thanos confronts Strange on Titan, their conversation suggests the measure by which the film takes the two opposing sides. “The hardest choices require the strongest wills,” Thanos boasts. Strange responds, “I think you’ll find our will equal to yours.” In some respects, then, Infinity War is a story about the battle of the will to power. After all, the heroes do not lose because of any choice made during Civil War; Tony is willing to call Steve, but is interrupted when Thanos’ ships arrive in New York. Infinity War and Endgame seem to suggest that the heroes lose in Infinity War simply because their will to power isn’t strong enough, that they are not willing to do “whatever it takes.”

The film seems to envy Thanos his commitment, painting him as an almost heroic figure. Thanos’ murder of his daughter in Vormir is portrayed as tragic, but for him. The movie asks the audience to feel sympathy for the villain who murders his daughter by throwing her to her death, in pursuit of absolute power. (There is another article to be written about how the portrayal of Thanos here mirrors the way we talk about the real-life perpetrators of familicide.) At the end, Thanos is confronted with his deceased daughter. “Did you do it?” she asks. Thanos responds, “Yes.” She inquires, “What did it cost?” He answers, “Everything.” The movie expects the audience to take all of this at face value, including the assertion that Thanos loves the daughter that he abused for decades.

Then again, there is something very revealing about how the internal logic of Vormir works in both Infinity War and Endgame. Vormir is home to the so-called Soul Stone, and it has a special test for those who would wield it. The Soul Stone is guarded by the spectre of the Red Skull, in another of the weird attempts to de-Nazify Captain America’s rogues’ gallery across media. It says a lot about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the ultimate punishment for a villain like the Red Skull is “banishment” to Vormir “guiding others to a treasure [he] cannot possess.” Power is so central to the worldview of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that even punishment exists in its orbit; the worst punishment is to be near power, but never to hold it.

Even the stripping of the Red Skull’s ideology reflects the uncomfortable moral vacuum at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The First Avenger took great pains to clarify that HYDRA was not a Nazi organisation. The comic book Red Skull had always been a Nazi, often defined by his close relationship to Adolf Hitler. However, The First Avenger stripped that away. The character murdered his Nazi handler, allowing The First Avenger to neatly sidestep the particulars of human experimentation in Germany during the Second World War. In some ways, this foreshadowed the approach that Civil War would take to its leads, insisting that its characters operated without the outside influence of ideology on their actions.

The depoliticisation of the Red Skull in Infinity War and Endgame is striking. Thanos and Gamora do not mention it in Infinity War, because neither has any interest in the history of Earth. However, both Barton and Romanoff get to meet the Red Skull on Vormir in Endgame. Both are trained military operatives who have worked with Captain America, so must know something of the history of supersoldiers. Romanoff helped to bring down HYDRA in The Winter Soldier. Neither character mentions that the Red Skull is a Nazi. The Red Skull himself gets no real characterisation in this regard, serving primarily as an exposition machine. Then again, it makes sense. If Captain America has no core ideology, then why would the Red Skull? All that matters is his relationship to power.

The Red Skull explains the logic of the Soul Stone to Thanos. He states, “To ensure that whoever possesses it understands its power, the stone demands a sacrifice.” That sacrifice is the murder of a loved one, thrown down the cliff face. Like Thanos’ plan to depopulate the universe, this seems like a very silly test. After all, surely the kind of people willing to throw loved ones over the edge of a cliff in pursuit of unlimited power are exactly the kinds of people who shouldn’t ever get unlimited power. However, there’s something very revealing about how much stock Infinity War and Endgame put in this test. They seem to genuinely believe that a willingness to sacrifice is a marker of worthiness to power.

After all, Vormir reappears in Endgame, with Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff visiting the planet to claim the Soul Stone. The scene is obviously set up to mirror Thanos’ visit, to offer an ironic twist on it. After all, Steve repeatedly asserted in Infinity War that heroes “don’t trade lives.” Weirdly enough, Endgame seems to take the exact opposite approach. Clint and Natasha don’t figure out a way to beat the test. Instead, they fight one another for the opportunity to sacrifice themselves for the Soul Stone. It’s a grim and depressing spectacle, albeit one undercut by the knowledge that a Hawkeye miniseries and a Black Widow film are both in development. However, Endgame adheres to the rules set out in Infinity War.

It seems a willingness to sacrifice lives for power was a weakness on the part of the Avengers. Endgame seems to suggest that the biggest mistake that the heroes made in Infinity War was trying to stop Thanos from assembling the stones and using their power, instead the heroes should have claimed that power for themselves. Notably, Endgame features the heroes using the power of the Infinity Gauntlet twice; once to reverse the snap from Infinity War and again to defeat Thanos’ assembled forces. Again, Endgame argued repeatedly and consciously that power and a willingness to use it are all that matters. Tellingly, the Thanos from Infinity War is murdered by the Avengers when he uses the Infinity Stones to destroy the Infinity Stones, effectively disarming himself.

One of the interesting aspects of Endgame is how eagerly and enthusiastically it embraces the idea of power as an end of itself. This is most obvious with the characterisation of the Hulk, which has come a long way from The Incredible Hulk. To be fair, the recasting of the role from Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo did a lot of the heavy lifting; Norton seems like a man with a monster in his soul, while Ruffalo seems like a guy who might spend too long on your couch. More to the point, the characterisation of Ruffalo’s Banner has increasingly shied away from the idea of the Hulk as something monstrous and terrifying, towards something to be embraced and encouraged.

In The Avengers, Banner asserts control over his transformations, having come to the realisation that he is “always angry.” By the time of Age of Ultron, the Hulk is controllable enough that he can be deployed tactically for raids on enemy bases. Ragnarok bucks the trend slightly, by reverting to the idea of the conflict between Banner and the Hulk; Banner is afraid that if he transforms into the Hulk again, he may never revert back. Again, Ragnarok is more wary of the idea of unchecked and uncontrolled power. However, this anxiety is erased by Infinity War, where Banner’s big character arc involves the Hulk’s stubborn refusal to allow Banner access to his power. This is treated as a monstrous betrayal, with Banner labelling the Hulk a “big green asshole.”

With that in mind, it makes sense that Endgame finds Banner having asserted control of the Hulk. Banner spends most of the movie in the form of the big green monster, with his own intellect intact. Endgame naturally glosses over all manner of vaguely uncomfortable questions about what happened during Banner’s eighteen months in a gamma laboratory, such as what happened to the Hulk’s previous personality. More to the point, the film never asks why Banner would want to be like the Hulk all the time. After all, as various characters repeatedly assert, Earth is in no immediate peril and there are no immediate threats. In contrast, having the power to crack people’s skulls open like nuts or pop heads like pimples seems like a very dangerous power to have all the time.

The reason that Endgame never bothers to answer this question is because the film takes the answer to be self-evident. Of course Banner wants access to that power and of course there is nothing wrong with him having access to it. Banner’s reluctance and unease to embrace that power in earlier movies, such as The Incredible Hulk, represented a major character weakness on his part. This represents a progression for the character, a sign that his own will to power might have evolved to the point where it can be measured against that of Thanos. It is a rather unsettling implication, but it is not the only time that Endgame makes the suggestion that the heroes need to be more willing to use their unfettered powers.

Clint Barton has an interesting arc in Endgame. In the movie’s opening (and most effective) scene, the character loses his entire family. This leads him to something resembling a breakdown. As a result, Clint goes on a nihilistic killing spree, murdering criminals without trial. There is something vaguely unsettling in the way that Clint seems to specifically target non-white criminals; Mexican drug cartels and Japanese gangs. There’s something unsettling in the implication that his former allies (including the “moral centre” of Captain America) really don’t care about these unsanctioned executions. Rhodey is tracking Clint down, but not to stop him. Natasha wants a chance to bring him back into the fold, even letting him complete one last spree before talking to him.

There is a sense in which, like Banner’s embrace of the Hulk’s power, Barton’s willingness to use his skill without reference to due process of civil institution reflects growth for the character. Somehow, Endgame suggests that Clint is more qualified to be an Avenger after murdering dozens of people. He gets to fly into space, and is dispatched with Natasha to Vormir. Given how often The Avengers and Age of Ultron joked about Hawkeye’s somewhat limited usefulness in a superhero film, this feels like a very pointed upgrade for the character. Suddenly, Clint is rocketing through the cosmos and meeting dead supervillains, and holding the Soul Stone in his hand.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely lost sight of characters who exist outside the immediate eye-line of its superpowered leads. In The Avengers and Age of Ultron, there is some nod to the civilians caught in the middle of various warzones. In Infinity War, the only hint of civilians in New York is a single line of dialogue about calling first responders and a quick shot of Stark and Banner helping a woman out of a crashed car. Otherwise, our heroes seem to exist within a world of cardboard, throwing each other through computer-generated buildings or airports without any concern about collateral or economic damage, let alone civil disruption.

To be fair, the films are explicit about this. Civil War goes out of its way to explain that the airport is abandoned during the fight scene, while both Infinity War and Endgame make a point to have Thanos lay siege to the heroes away from any densely populated areas. Again, there is a sense of wanting to alleviate the audience of any guilt or discomfort in watching displays of power on such a large scale. These arenas are specifically chosen so that characters can fire rockets at one another or shoot laser beams or smash concrete. These are empty worlds that exist purely to showcase the level of power that these characters have to hand. It is no surprise that the battle at the end of Endgame reduces upstate New York to a postapocalyptic wasteland.

This also has the effect of making the Marvel Cinematic Universe seem especially small. It has a large cast by the standards of a blockbuster film, but the world only seems to expand so far in various directions – its boundaries marked by figures like “Happy” Hogan or Erik Selvig or Sharon Carter. Outside of these characters, it frequently seems as though the Marvel Cinematic Universe might as well not exist. There is no sense of place or community like there is in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films nor Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. (The worlds inhabited by these characters seem more like the Metropolis suggested by Man of Steel, a space populated by plot functions and exposition machines rather than people.)

This reinforces a sense of disconnect between the nominal “heroes” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the people that they are supposed to protect. In these films, it frequently seems that a person’s importance is dictated by their degree of separation from a superhero. Steve doesn’t plan to fight registration in Civil War, but then it impacts his best friend Bucky. Tony doesn’t have strong feelings about bringing Steve in, but then he discovers that Bucky killed his parents. It’s telling that the disappearance scenes at the climax of Infinity War purely affect named characters from established franchises, with little sense of how it affected regular people. Endgame has a single scene of Steve attending a therapy group.

It is interesting to wonder whether the heroes would be so motivated to reverse the snap in Endgame if their immediate friends and families weren’t affected by Thanos’ finger-snap. Even the standard “heroes at work” sequences that open both Age of Ultron and Civil War make sure to keep the scale of heroism personal. In Age of Ultron, the heroes are recovering the sceptre that caused so much trouble in The Avengers. In Civil War, Steve is still hunting Brock Rumlow in The Winter Soldier. There is little sense that Steve or Tony ever actively save the world from threats that are not directly related to them; Thor’s brother Loki in The Avengers, Tony’s creation in Age of Ultron, Tony’s nightmare in Infinity War and Endgame.

However, it is the ending of Endgame that offers the most insightful definition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s attitude towards power, and how much that attitude is anchored in the unfettered and unqualified application of that power. Endgame offers a very peculiar definition of “heroism”, particularly with regards to the resolution of both Thor and Captain America’s arcs. Much of Thor’s arc in his three films has involved the idea of the character accepting the responsibilities of leading Asgard, and the growing up necessary to temper an adventurous spirit and unlimited power with a sense of civic duty and faithfulness. Thor might now want to be King of Asgard, but it is a solemn duty that falls upon him. It comes with his power, inherited from previous kings.

By the time of Endgame, the Asgardians have suffered a lot – often as a direct result of the machinations of both Thor and Loki. In Ragnarok, Thor destroyed Asgard and turned his people into refugees, promising to lead them to a new home. In Infinity War, Thanos brutally murdered a lot of those refugees in order to reclaim the Tesseract from Loki. Presumably, at the end of Infinity War, the remaining Asgardian population was also affected by the snap. That is a lot of damage to inflict upon a single people and culture, and a lot of it stems directly from Thor and his family. The Asgardians would be entirely justified to exile Thor, to depose him, to install democracy. Instead, they have never shown Thor anything but loyalty. It seems fair to say that Thor has a responsibility to them.

Endgame brushes aside any sense that Thor’s power should be used in service of the people who have lost so much because of him. Endgame ignores any implication that Thor owes the Asgardian people his best efforts or his best intentions. Instead, Endgame suggests that it is unreasonable for anybody to expect anything of Thor, and that his own gifts and powers would be best applied however he would want to apply them, rather than using them in pursuit of the greater good. Thor is repeatedly assured over the course of Endgame that he doesn’t have to grow, or evolve, or try, or learn. “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be,” his mother tells him, soothingly, suggesting that any effort at self-improvement is so pointless as to be counterproductive.

Thor’s arc in Endgame is perhaps the ultimate extension of the same self-centred character arcs that informed earlier films like Age of Ultron or Homecoming, films that scoffed at the idea that heroes might actually need to learn or grow or change. “I’m going to be who I am,” Thor tells Valkyrie at the end of Endgame, running off to abandon his people so he can fly around the galaxy having wacky adventures, “not who I’m supposed to be.” This is a truly horrifying definition of power. Endgame doesn’t just reject the idea that with great power comes great responsibility, it treats the assumption that any attempt to make anybody responsible is a monstrous act of cruelty.

This theme also plays out more subtly in the resolution of Steve Rogers’ arc. Endgame closes with Tony Stark sacrificing himself to use the Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos, effectively seizing the kind of power that defines gods. With Tony dead and Thor off-world, Earth is in a state of transition. Of course, there are qualified heroes around like Rhodey and T’Challa. Carol Danvers is also keeping an eye on Earth, but she had a hard time doing that in a universe that was only half-populated. Still, there is a sense that things are in a state of transition, and that there may be a need for some institutional memory to stabilise all of this. Steve might not have any legal obligation to ensure a stable transition of power, but he is supposed to be the “moral centre” of the universe.

Part of the effort to stabilise things after Tony’s funeral includes a plan to send the displaced Infinity Stone back in time. Steve is chosen to spearhead this, a mission that might take him a little while, but which should only take a few seconds to outside observers. However, Steve doesn’t come back. He returns the stones, and then unilaterally decides to re-insert himself into his old life. There is something poetic in this. After all Endgame is very much a nostalgic tour of the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, explicitly evoking the highs of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and… eh… The Dark World? It is a film about wanting to relive the past, so it makes sense that Steve’s journey should end with him taking that message on board and literally retreating to the past.

Steve’s decision is exceptionally selfish and irresponsible. Endgame repeatedly emphasises how easy it would be to damage the timeline, and how careful these characters need to be when navigating the time-stream. Steve doesn’t do any prep work to determine that his plan is safe. In fact, he seems to suggest that the decision was made impulsively and in the spur of the moment. Again, this reveals a lot about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe treats power. The franchise genuinely believes that the entire point of power is to use it unfettered and without hesitation. What makes Steve a hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is his unwillingness to put the safety or comfort of others ahead of his own. Steve his the will to use the power that he has, damn the consequences.

The self-centred and reckless nature of Steve’s decision is reflected in his reunion with Bucky and Sam after the fact. Steve passes on the iconic shield (and the mantle) to Sam. It’s a nice touch, and a good choice, but it underscores how reckless Steve’s decision was. What if he got hit by a truck? What if he had a heart attack? What if Steve never lived long enough to have that conversation with Bucky and Sam? Would they have torn the timeline apart looking for him? Would the world have been abandoned completely by Iron Man and Thor and Captain America? This is an exceptionally reckless use of power, but it is very much in keeping with how Infinity War and Endgame believe power should be used; however strong people want it to be used.

There is something similarly cynical in how Endgame chooses to resolve Tony’s arc. Tony Stark sacrifices his life to defeat Thanos at the climax of Endgame, realising the one future that Stephen Strange visualises in Infinity War. In the heat of battle, Stark seizes the Infinity Stones, sticks them to his suit, declares “I am Iron Man” and clicks his fingers. He wipes out the invading alien army and Thanos himself, sacrificing his own life in the process. It is hard to feel too sorry about this. Thanos is an unstoppable demicidal maniac motivated towards a singular purpose, and his armies are presented as grotesque monsters and sadists. If ever there was an army deserving this sort of response, it is that of Thanos the Mad Titan. Stark dies saving the world. It is a heroic death.

It is also an incredibly bleak one in the larger context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark’s entire arc from the original Iron Man has been in trying to reverse the destruction wrought by Stark Industries, the weapons that he manufactured that claimed so many innocent lives – a subject broached as recently as Age of Ultron. Tony Stark’s arc is one of redemption. As such, it feels incredibly cynical that his last act in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to essentially become a weapon of mass destruction and die wiping an army from the face of a planet. It feels like a major regression for the character, and a betrayal of his arc. Iron Man staked Tony’s redemption in a rejection of the philosophy of weapons of mass destruction, but Endgame stakes it on embracing it.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, power – whether Infinity Stones, time travel, the Odinforce, lethal force – is not to be treated with awe and reverence. It is to be seized and acted upon. It is a strange relationship with power, particularly when contrasted with the more humble approach of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies or the more reflective tone of the Dark Knight trilogy. There is no room for introspection or doubt. There is only room for action. It is tempting to wonder if – like the explosion in spoiler culture – this is simply another expression of how modern pop culture preferences plot above concepts like theme or characters. Of course the Marvel Cinematic Universe is invested in the use of power, these films are about characters doing things.

There are other unsettling possibilities. After all, the explosion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the pop cultural mainstream coincides with the global resurgence of a radical political right. Politics in the United States have skewed consciously authoritarian in recent years. More than that, there is an entire cultural movement on the political right built up as an angry response to feelings of impotence and powerlessness finding expression horrific ways. Radical and disruptive movements – often exercising power without any real sense of a long term plan – boast proudly about their objective to “take back control.” Power is frequently tested in these turbulent times, along with the possible restrictions or limitations upon it.

It has been argued that the democratic institutions of governance are under attack in previously stable countries such as the United States. In the United States, Donald Trump has repeatedly attempted to use executive power to evade constitutional checks on his power. Trump’s style of government is perhaps best suggested by the fact that he has signed more executive orders than any president in fifty years. The Republican Party has taken procedural steps to minimise potential disruption to the appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court. Many important government jobs remain unstaffed and there has been high turnover in other senior roles, limiting the effectiveness of the institutions of government.

All of this is to suggest that the fetishisation of power in popular cinema may reflect broader cultural concerns. Perhaps this is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe places such emphasis on power, to resonate with a generation that is increasingly preoccupied with the idea of unfettered and unrestrained power. If political movements in the real world are increasingly straining against democratic norms, why should characters like Thor or Captain America or Iron Man subject themselves to oversight or hold themselves to account? The fantasy of superheroes lies in their unchecked power, and that resonates with the current political status quo.

However, there may be other factors at play. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is defining the notion of heroism for a culture that feels increasingly fractured. Studies and surveys suggest that people are feeling increasingly disconnected in the modern era. One of the paradoxes of the modern world is that everybody is at once networked and isolated, that the old bonds of community seem to be eroding and decaying. This might be one reason why “family” is such a frequently recurring theme for modern blockbusters. People increasingly live in carefully-constructed “bubbles”, with little care for what lies beyond it. “You can’t be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man when there’s no neighbourhood,” Peter states in Infinity War, a more insightful comment than he realises.

This might explain why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has historically been so indifferent to the idea of pain and suffering outside of the superhero community, why characters like Ross or Zemo are presented as unsympathetic monsters in Civil War for daring to challenge the superheroes’ authority and why movies like Infinity War and Endgame care so little about anybody but the immediate friends and family of the franchise-anchoring superheroes. The modern world is so fractured and chaotic, and modern life so disconnected and arbitrary, that it is almost impossible to imagine Tony or Steve or Thor caring about the lives of anybody that they don’t know personally or who exists outside of their eyeline.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a very selfish and self-centred definition of “heroism”, one short-sighted and narrow-minded. There is something deeply ironic in assertions that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more hopeful or optimistic than other works in the genre. The motivations of the central characters are often deeply personal and self-involved, focused primarily on their own satisfaction and sense of righteousness. These are ruggedly individualist heroes in the most literal-minded of senses, characters invested with great power who very rarely have any obligation to use those powers to protect anything but their own interests. (Carol’s eventual protection of the Skrulls in Captain Marvel is a recent endearing exception.)

After all, Endgame pays very little attention to the logistical or moral challenges of resurrecting half of the universe’s population. What happens to those people and families who did move on after the events of Infinity War? How horrific must it be to have lost a child, and suddenly have that child reappear five years later as if not a second has passed? What must it be like for somebody to come home, to discover their partner five years older and possibly having started a new family? These are very real logistical concerns about the heroes’ plan, but they are never even acknowledged or addressed. These lives do not affect the heroes, so they may as well not exist. (Tellingly, kids still look for selfies with the Hulk even after the heroes’ failure in Infinity War.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful movie franchise in history, and a large part of that is because it taps into the zeitgeist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe speaks to an entire generation of movie-goers, who respond to the themes and ideas underscoring the films. To be fair, some of this reflects an audience looking for hope and enthusiasm on the big screen. Black Panther and Captain Marvel both resonated with under-served audiences looking for blockbuster films that spoke to them. However, it also seems likely that the franchise’s themes resonate with the current cultural moment, revealing a lot about the anxieties and mood of the modern world.

 

10 Responses

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful writing, Darren.

  2. About the accountability thing… One of the many things I love about “The A-Team” and its spiritual successor “Leverage” is the simple fact that their heroes are outlaws. They have a lot in common with the kind of people who star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But their writers understand that, if your protagonists are going to be a self-directed group of people who go around dishing out justice while being accountable to no one and respecting no laws, the proper term for such people is “criminals.”

    This was also a nice moment in “Triple Frontier” much more recently, when Ben Affleck’s character tells everyone that if they do this, they’ll be criminals, they’ll be violating all the oaths they took when they were soldiers, “and we need to own that.”

    It’s amazing how much more palatable those kinds of stories become (for me at least) when you simply admit that. (Instead of having entire plotlines about how anyone who wants to stop you must be a horrible fascist).

    • The other big difference being, of course, that the A-Team and the Leverage crew are all about using their power on behalf of other people – generally, people who’ve fallen through society’s cracks, that the law should have protected but didn’t. In stark contrast to the Marvel heroes’ focus on the personal.

      Mind you, some of the best parts of the MCU are about this too. Like the middle part of Iron Man, where he goes back to Afghanistan to smack down the ISIS-like group that’s grown powerful on his weapons. Honestly, I’d have been happy watching an entire trilogy of nothing but “Tony Stark flies around the world fixing his own messes.” Or the first Captain America movie, where Steve keeps trying to join the war effort out of duty to his patriotic and/or antifascist principles. But as you say, that ends up being more the exception than the rule.

      • Yep. The first movies are generally quite solid on this front. Even Thor lays down his life to protect the innocents around him, proving himself worthy. It’s insane that Endgame requires no similar sacrifice or gesture from him to prove he’s deserving of holding that much power.

    • Yep. It’s really that simple. Is it Batman vs. Superman that has a moment where Batman tells Alfred, “We’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals.” And superheroes kind have to be, if they aren’t going to be monstrous. (Just like other mythical individualist American heroes like cowboys or con men or gangsters.)

  3. A very interesting article!

    It seems that Marvel is trying to present a more positive image of embracing the things -the power- that are given to you. This seems to work fine for heroes like Captain Marvel, who represent polyphony in a period where one voice tries to establish its dominance and normativity feverishly. Yet, problems seem to arise when this same principle is applied not to the underrepresented but to the priviledged, i.e. the American super-hero, such as Tony Stark or Captain America. When they claim power, they do so not from a state of repression, such as can be argued is the case for Captain Marvel, but already from a position of dominance, skewering the balance even more.

    Additionally, like you seem to suggest, Marvel doesn’t seem to get that embracing power and growing as a character can go together. At least, their current slate of films appears to suggest this. Perhaps with a new crop of heroes who represent different voices, Black Panther, The Falcon, Captain Marvel, or who have an explicit care-taking role, such as Doctor Strange, there is the possibility for a less ego-centered development.

    Then again, the argument can be made that to expect moral from a film, even a crowd-pleasing one, is old-fashioned…

    One final thing. You say (both here and in your Endgame review) that ” Endgame repeatedly emphasises how easy it would be to damage the timeline, and how careful these characters need to be when navigating the time-stream”. It doesn’t really, though, does it? It explicitly states that it is impossible to change the past. This provides a safe sandbox for the film to play around in. Instead it seems to suggest that the heroes don’t so much go back in the past as go to a parallel universe (creating the multiverse!). The hulk’s conversation with the Ancient One does indeed suggest that their mocking about with the Infinity Stones is incredibly dangerous. The problem, however, is not their time-traveling. It is the removal of an Infinity Stone. This would leave the timeline they are in, or rather, the universe they are in, without a natural protection. As long as they are returned, things ought to be fine. (What this means for the main universe, which is now Stoneless… Who can tell?) Anyhow, rather than emphasizing the vulnerability of the timeline, the film seems to underscore its rubustness. Sure, go up meeting or fighting with yourself. It doesn’t matter. Even if it does change the events in that different timeline/universe, that is okay. It will still go on, stranger things have happened than meeting someone from another universe. Just don’t go stealing the most powerful objects in that timeline. According to this logic, which the movie seems to represent, Captain America’s decision to stay with Peggy Carter is not really dangerous. Only, as you say, irresponsable. It doesn’t harm the alternate timeline/universe, it only changes it.

    • That’s probably fair.

      It’s more that taking the stones in the first place risks an entire universe. The way the Ancient One talks about it makes it sound more serious than just “oh, and we won’t have the stones to fight Thanos”, because in theory removing one on the stones should actually make the universe safer since Thanos can’t assemble the gauntlet. It sounds existential. (And it is time travel related, I think since – as you point out – the regular universe survived half a decade without the infinity stones and – if anything – got more stable following their destruction.) And they take the stones from four different universes, endangering each of those timelines and knowing that the stones can be damaged or destroyed.

      That said, the primary risk with the Captain America thing is that he won’t get back to talk to Falcon and Bucky or to hand over the shield, which he must have stolen from another universe like Thor “borrowed” his hammer. Following Iron Man’s funeral, when Earth is in a state of flux with Thor going off-planet and Black Widow dead, it is a risky choice to make. Although you’re right that it’s not risky to history, rather to the present. If he hadn’t made it back, would Bucky and Sam and Hulk gone looking for him? (I think the writers imply that Bucky knew about Steve’s choice ahead of time, but it’s hazy in the film itself.)

  4. I couldn’t say you’re wrong, but you haven’t managed to identify what the MCU is trying to do, and so have never actually engaged with that.

    Let’s roll back to the start.
    “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude, or prostitution, depending on what state you’re in. You can’t have it.”
    To be fair, there’s a good argument in here. Would anybody trust the United States government (or any government) with that technology?

    That isn’t the argument the movie is making. Not in that quote. He’s saying—I’m not sure how to make it clearer than the text. That he *is* Iron Man. That the suit is part of him, is him, is part of his identity.

    Part of why I couldn’t possibly argue that you’re wrong is that it’s such a weak theme, but that’s what it is: “be true to yourself”. Be who you are despite the pressures of the world. Film Crit Hulk gets this, in the article you link to. The “I’m awesome!” thing—rather better when the pressures are “patriarchy” than “government oversight”.

    So it’s good that Banner embraces and integrates the Hulk, because that’s literally half his personality. It’s good that Thor realises he isn’t meant to be king just because he’s the son of the last king, and hands the formal title over to the black woman who’s been doing all the work for the last five years.

    Warmed-over from anything, American Beauty to afterschool specials, but they are trying to do something.

    • The problem is combining the noted “you’re awesome!” empowerment fantasy with the fixation on power within the genre. So “you’re awesome…” evolves into “you’re awesome… and you should absolutely unquestioningly be given access to unlimited power with no responsibility or obligation to others.” One flows from the other. It’s not that I missed that point, it’s that I connected that point to power fantasy common to the genre and followed it to its logical conclusion.

      I don’t dispute that there’s a “you’re great just the way you are” message to this. I’m just illustrating what happens when you apply that to characters that have always been metaphors for American power in the American Century.

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