It was raining. My family had joined our dad on his annual business trip. This year, 2012, it was in Lake Placid, New Jersey. On the walls of the antique-looking Palace Theatre, along Lake Placid’s small streets, a poster for The Avengers galvanized me. Already, I had caught the buzz. I realized with most of the world that The Avengers was more than a hit. It was cinematic history—the iceberg that would sink Titanic from second to third among the highest-grossing movies of all time. But more importantly The Avengers made real a boyish dream I didn’t know I had or that I didn’t believe was possible: superheroes from separate worlds sharing one movie. And tonight, it was raining, so my family made its way to the faded-yellow-lights of the Palace Theatre and joined the tens-of-millions who that year experienced The Avengers.
After that night I anxiously measured time by the space in between installments of The Marvel Cinematic Universe. September and October weren’t months, they were a test of patience until the next Thor movie, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, or Guardians of the Galaxy. I spent these periods analyzing set-photos and reading fan-theories like a new convert devours the scriptures of his religion. And I wasn’t alone—I shared this fandom with millions of others.
Communities, visible and invisible—physical and web-based—form around Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic mythology. In numerous ways these comic-book adaptions surpass mere entertainment. Like the Greeks’ ancient myths, the stories we choose to share within such vast fan-communities tell us about our desires as a culture. John Hunter, a comparative humanities professor at Bucknell University, argues that we can analyze blockbuster movies as a reflection of our society’s unspoken desires. Every second of a film with a budget over 200-300 million dollars is scrutinized by producers, editors, and directors, and designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. These massive Hollywood productions please us by manifesting our most obvious desires and avoiding our most pressing anxieties. Avengers films, along with the majority of recent movies, explore intertextual fantasy worlds rather than ordinary life.
Seven years and fifteen films after the first Avengers movie, Marvel has released Avengers: Endgame in which, by no accident, memory is a central theme. After Thanos’ triumph over the Avengers in Infinity War—with the infinity stones he disintegrated half of all life on Earth into ashes—the surviving superheroes swim in a milieu of anchor-less despair. Remarkably the Avenger’s dystopia is not the typical Orwellian world-dominant regime. Instead, it is a future where our heroes have failed, and the survivors consider their defeat without hope of redress. As our heroes wrestle with the memory of their mistakes and the realization of their impotence, we discover their dark potential for murderous revenge, self-indulgent addictions, and a willful denial of reality.
But as we all expected, the Avengers regroup. As a means of paying penance for their failure they plan a hail-Mary attempt to turn back the clock and reverse Thanos’ annihilating work by capturing the infinity stones through time-travel. The exploration and manipulation of memory is the crux of the Avengers’ plan and the film’s primary narrative structure: Endgame pulls its heroes through settings of previous Marvel movies. By doing so, it asks the audience to reinterpret their memory of previous films as familiar scenes are shown from a new angle, overflowing with jigsaw-like connections to characters and organizations we’ve become familiar with over Marvel’s twenty-two film saga. In the past, our heroes encounter fathers and mothers who are deceased in the present, and duel with past-doppelgängers of themselves. Paradoxically, the mind of one character is invaded and mined by Thanos for its memories of the future.
Accordingly, the emotional relationships which give the film its weight rest largely on the audience’s recollection of previous Marvel installments where these emotions were explored more deeply, and relationships developed over time. The Russo brothers, who directed this film and Infinity War, use Endgame to investigate (with varying degrees of depth) the responsibility of fatherhood, the emotional cost of sacrifice, the repercussions of revenge, chance, fate, and the loss of secure identity that accompanies mourning. But as film critic Richard Brody notes, the attention the Russos give to these themes is always in deference to the film’s primary “aesthetic of scale:” bigger is better.
How long can a narrative thread extend and maintain its integrity? The experiment that is the M.C.U. posed this question to filmgoers and proved that one movie can contain far many more superheroes and interlinked storylines than we thought. Capitalizing on this interconnected quality of the films the Russos never miss a chance to cash in on the lucrative Hollywood commodity of intertextuality: when one film references an idea, a scene, or an object from another film.
If you look at the some of the most popular films in the last few years you can observe a surge in movies that center around intertextuality. Think of the sequels to Star Wars and Pixar movies, the reboots of Ghostbusters and Men in Black, and the live-action remakes of Disney animated movies like Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Jungle Book. These sequels, reboots, and remakes elicit an emotional reaction akin to nostalgia and euphoria when they reference beloved films. But when filmmakers use this emotional currency in place of strong narrative and characterization the result is hollow upon re-inspection, even if initially compelling.
Endgame exploits memory more often than it explores it. The final battle illustrates how the Russos prioritize massive-scale over experimentation. Superheroes as multitudinous as the members of the Greek pantheon clash with Thanos and his legion of beast-like minions. Additionally, Black Panther’s army of Wakandan soldiers accompanies the Avengers, making the conflict look from a birds-eye-view as if two emotionless waves are crashing into each other. Fantasy and surprise are absent in this clash of titans. Superheroes with powers as diverse as the ability to shrink to quantum scale and to conjure mystical forces from magical realms are ignored in favor of duels with Thanos where the deciding factor is who can punch the hardest. Topping this all off, the entire battle is set against a colorless-gray background of rubble. Undeniably, I felt surges of childish glee at seeing my favorite heroes duke it out in this battle of fates; Endgame’s scale is remarkable. But it seems to come at the cost of creative exploration.
While Endgame is a monumental cinematic achievement, it misses its opportunity to be mythical. Nowhere can you find the deeper themes which made certain Marvel films stand above the rest: the commentary on warfare profiteering present in Iron Man, the debate over state surveillance in Captain America: Winter Soldier, continued in Civil War, and the political allegory embedded in Black Panther. Like a snake eating its own tail, Endgame avoids thematic connections to the real world in favor of referencing films within the M.C.U. It chooses the pleasures of memory over the depth of mythology.
But there are virtues that belong to superhero movies which go beyond their mythic potential. Maya Phillips writes an article in The New Yorker gathering the experience of critics who attended marathon screening events of M.C.U. films preceding the release of Avengers films. This year’s event which included all existing M.C.U. films culminating with Endgame extended to just over fifty-nine hours of screen time. As film followed film, one critic noticed that the conversation between fans shifted away from the movies themselves and towards people’s experience of when they first saw each film. A common question became, “where were you when the first Avengers came out?” The theme of memory extends beyond Endgame’s self-referencing narrative. If the Avenger’s saga falters in forming a compelling mythology, it succeeds in creating a community out of filmgoers.
Joseph Reigle is an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying City and Regional Planning.