Real atrocities make everyone weaker, not stronger. Is repurposing them as action-movie tropes actually heroic?
About halfway through “Avengers: Endgame,” War Machine (Don Cheadle) asks his fellow heroes why they can't just go back in time, find their evil antagonist Thanos when he was a baby and strangle him. It's the hoary baby Hitler moral puzzle: If you had a time machine, would it be right to murder the innocent infant to prevent him growing into the monster he'll become?
The film is completely uninterested in this ethical dilemma; but it's not an accident that it comes up. “Avengers: Endgame” is a machine designed to turn atrocity and genocide into an entertaining game. It's kind of fun. But it also makes you wonder what it says about us that we want to have fun in this way.
“Avengers: Endgame” is a machine designed to turn atrocity and genocide into an entertaining game.
At the end of last year's “Avengers: Infinity War,” as most filmgoers will remember, the giant purple prune-like villain Thanos used the so-called Infinity Stones to turn half the living creatures in the universe into dust in order to conserve ecological resources (yes, everyone knows it doesn't make any sense.) Among the dead were a number of major Marvel Cinematic Universe characters: Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and so on. “Endgame” takes place five years later, as the heroes realize they can potentially travel into the past and undo Thanos' victory by collecting the Infinity Stones and using their power for good.
There are, then, really two parallel stories in “Endgame.”
The first is about the aftermath of the single worst genocide in the history of the planet. Billions and billions of people have died; it's a catastrophe of overwhelming horror, terror and grief.
And then the second story is a wacky, old-school video game plot where you try to collect the stones to win.
The two storylines are connected, of course. Specifically, the atrocity is supposed to give emotional depth to the nonsense adventure plot. The characters are motivated by losing loved ones, or by a general sense of guilt and failure at letting Thanos commit genocide. Some turn to alcohol, some to vigilantism. You see empty streets; a boy on a bicycle glances over his shoulder with a look of bitterness, anger and cynicism; an average citizen talks about weeping on a date. You see memorials with lists of names.
But while tragedy is evoked, it isn't exactly depicted. The film's three-hour runtime doesn't include a lot of meditation on what would actually happen if half the earth's population was destroyed — it's a superhero movie, not speculative science fiction. Nor does “Endgame” try to piece together fragmented meaning in the face of an absurd reality. No one who goes to an action movie wants to see "Waiting for Godot."
The movie acknowledges as much with an insouciant wink. The heroes go galloping back through time, revisiting the scenes and plots of a number of earlier MCU films. This functions as a special reward for folks who binged the entire series before showing up for the final installment (how else could you remember the plot of “Thor: Dark World”?)
But revisiting the older films also shows just how little has ever been at stake in the MCU. The fight against the aliens in “Avengers,” the takeover of SHIELD by Hydra, relatives dying, friends returning to life — they are all just Easter eggs to rearrange on a Titanic that isn't actually sinking. It's a spectacle you can rewind and fast forward and rewind again. Things blow up; quips are quipped. The deceased aren't really deceased; they're just part of the plot. Three billion people die because when you have that many superheroes in a film, you need high stakes.
You go to a movie like “Avengers: Endgame” to see cool feats of daring and to root for your heroes as they attain victory. It's not unlike watching a sporting event — as a super-powered, quasi-football sequence near the end makes clear — though the choreography is more predetermined. Whichever character is your favorite, you can be assured that they'll get their 30 seconds of heroic screen time. There's even a carefully arranged sequence in which (almost) all the women of the MCU join together to kick ass.
The problem, though, is that while Thanos' atrocity isn't real, some atrocities are. “Endgame” cannibalizes not only earlier MCU films, but historical tragedies as well. As he prepares to try to make his genocide permanent, Thanos sneers at the heroes for being unwilling to accept or face their failures. It's a typical supervillain rant — but he does have a point. Real atrocities make everyone weaker, not stronger. Is repurposing them as action-movie tropes actually heroic?
What's most disturbing is that “Endgame” isn't that unusual in its cavalier narrativizing of death. It's one thing to try to learn from tragedy, or to invoke the names of the dead in an attempt to change the world for the better. But too often the dead are clumsily transformed into simplistic means to an end. These people over here were murdered, so we should invade that place over there in their name. This was done to us, so we must do this to you. Should we kill baby Hitler? And why do we care about this nonsense counterfactual anyway, when we've got a real fascists to fight?
Like most MCU movies, “Endgame” does what it sets out to do pretty well. Fans will cheer, laugh, recognize some in-jokes and probably brush away some tears. It's a reasonably enjoyable way to spend three hours, if you're bladder holds out. But at the end, I was left wondering whether this efficient entertainment delivery system really requires the compulsive evocation of genocide. Maybe we'd have a better sense of our past if we weren't constantly erasing it to glorify our current heroes, or just to pass the time.