The following review will be meaningless to you if you have not seen Avengers: Endgame.
“When I drift off, I will dream about you. It’s always you.”
It’s weird, you know, because I remember walking out of Iron Man with my mother and seeing a smile on her face. This was, in itself, rare; our tastes in films rarely aligned, and to see a similar expression on her face to mine right after a movie was glimpsing a blue moon. As it turns out, she was a fan of “that charming Roger Downey” (my mom’s seemingly pathological inability to remember any celebrity’s name was a running joke in the household), and she spent a few minutes in the car ride home regaling me with stories about his struggles with addiction, his fading star, and what an interesting choice the film made by having him play someone who obviously reflected parts of his actual personhood. We were both in agreement, though: a little light, and surely there wasn’t a whole lot to go on for a sequel?
I didn’t really know or understand comics at that point; my awakening to the medium was not to be truly calcified for a little while. I knew what I instinctively thought of as “cool”: The Punisher, Batman, Spawn, the general things you’d expect an edgy 17-year-old to glom onto with every fiber of his being. Iron Man? He had a metal suit, and it had a jetpack, and he used it in cool ways. He was It, he was Interesting, he was just what young Banner needed. And most importantly, “he” was Tony Stark, an alcoholic weapons dealer who grew a conscience and had to come to terms with the kind of person he’d been for most of his life. I couldn’t give voice to this at the time, because I didn’t understand myself in the slightest, but he was me. The same kid who was about to start planting John McCain ’08 signs, the little snot who’d been both bullied and the bully for his teenage years, who had no conception of life beyond himself, who was soon about to reckon with the realization that he was not the hero he thought of himself as being. He was insensitive, and callous, and deeply angry, and pretty much every “phobic” descriptor you could attach to one person without them tipping over into the pile of their hatred, now strewn untidily about the ground beneath. He was me, and I was him, and it didn’t fully click with me until just now, writing this; introspection is simultaneously one of my strongest and weakest qualities.
My new best friend and I went to see Iron Man 2 together, one of our first acts as cemented “friends”; this was a big deal to me, as I’d spent the majority of my teenage years mostly without companionship, and was relishing the opportunity to feel like I belonged, like I was finally worthy of something that had eluded me for much of my life. We had a blast; I spent the car ride home telling him about Roger Downey’s (I explained my mother’s snafu to him) struggles, his fading star, and what an interesting choice it was for Marvel to cast him as someone who so clearly reflected parts of his actual personhood. My friend and I laughed and shared a joint and made plans to see all the Marvel movies with each other from now on, through thick and thin; “there’s only gonna be a few more, so we might as well ride them out. Make it a tradition?” And we did, right through this one, when we dropped acid, and watched Avengers: Endgame like we’ve watched all the previous MCU movies.
Which was a mistake on my part. And one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.
I’ve really been struggling with suicide ideation in the last couple of years. It’s waxed and waned, but it always sits in the back of my mind, and comes to the fore with alarming regularity and alacrity, spurred on by any reminder of what my life has turned into, of how all the hopes and dreams I’d had for myself had been dashed upon the rocks long ago, leading to a tenuous situation in all aspects of existence. I wonder whether I’m worth being alive, whether I’ve truly “earned” anything, about whether I used to be “good” or “bad”, about the vague sense that I’ve blown all my chances and will soon turn into human driftwood, sitting in the sea, unnoticed by anyone. And then I see Tony Stark, the weapons dealer, the amoral businessman turned literal savior of the Marvel canon. I see him as he unites with his friends, and family, and all the assembled (!) denizens of the almost impossibly dense, impressively vast universe that the films have painstakingly established. It’s the boldest artistic gamble ever made in the medium, bar none, and whether the films are for you, it’s still capable of leaving one in awe. The scale, the wizardry involved, the uncountable gears at every level of the process, turning in almost non-Euclidean ways, contorting to turn this infernal, magnificent machine. It’s reminiscent of a mural, crafted carefully and studiously over years and years, leaving something that aspires to evoke majesty…This here, this exclamation point on the end of the longest sentence in pop-culture history, is a film that should not exist. And yet it does. It is glorious, in the truest sense of the word.
The film is people, and aliens, and creatures, and all the characters we’ve now known for over a decade, as they struggle with their ultimate failure, and the feelings of hopelessness in the face of a life led astray. It’s bold of a film, in a genre that often is content to fill the spaces in between handfuls of candy and popcorn and nothing more, to burden itself with such heavy emotions. It’s important, I think, to show them making the occasional joke, to sometimes bicker and banter, as the malaise of depression, of bone-deep sorrow, sometimes relents, and we can express humor and find meaning in mundane actions and words. It’s friends trying to live after the end of the world, and not in the glum, dour way that “post-apocalypse” as a descriptor tends to imply. At times, I was reminded of The Leftovers, the sublime HBO series that dealt with similar themes, of the search for an answer when none is to be found, of how to reach for something new after your world has been shattered. That show dealt with people ricocheting off each other, and the events that spiral out of anyone’s control. Avengers: Endgame, perhaps out of necessity for the franchise to continue to propagate itself, deals with the survivors in a timey-wimey plot that survives to the “drive home” portion of thought and no further, and yet I wasn’t bothered. It’s not like I expect the series to suddenly concern itself with metaphysics, or turn into a gigantic-budget take on Primer. It’s Bruce Willis banging his hand on the table in Looper, telling his younger self to stop worrying about the “How?” and concern himself with the “What’s next?” And it works beautifully for those purposes – a series of fan-favorite scenes, designed to hit your nostalgic center with pinpoint accuracy, to remind you of how far we’ve come from those original six heroes standing in a perfect little pose-circle in New York City.
And Tony Stark is dead. Like my mother is dead. Like my family is dead. Like several of my old friends are dead. Like I want to be, sometimes, when I’m reaching for the answers to my life and finding nothing to hold onto. Here lies the corporate warlord, a hero to us all. There I would lie, a martyr to a cause only I can understand or perceive. Nobody would call me a hero. They’d call me a coward, or a tragedy. In this moment, I wish I were Tony Stark. Here is his family, the one he’d agonized to preserve while fighting for everybody else’s. They are crying now, and I am too.
Maybe it’s me. Well, that’s silly; of course it’s me. I am my thoughts, and my thoughts tend towards cathartic emotional climax. There’s a common thread between me loving Return of the Jedi, and loving Return of the King, and weeping at the image of Otacon hugging a laptop display of his former lover turned sacrificial lamb for humanity’s soul in Metal Gear Solid 4. I am drawn towards ultimate acts of sentimentality, the moments of ecstatic release when the ardor reaches unbearable levels. I normally react very poorly to maudlin displays; I tend towards despising works of art that I perceive to be emotionally manipulative in ways I personally deem “unfair.” So when something operating on this level works for me, I am broken. I am renewed. I long for something in my own life to shake me, for someone to tell me I am important and loved, to show that I am a figure they would sacrifice for. I am a ghost, who walks though walls and doors and humanity, who leaves no imprint on the physical world. And I desperately wish otherwise. I do not wish to be the anchor of a now dominant pop-cultural force; I know myself well enough to understand that I’d wither under the spotlight of fame. But I looked at my audience – the one that gasped at all the revelations, that cheered when the money shot of reborn heroes strolled through the magic gates, that let out an audible cry when Tony Stark’s chest light went dim – and I see the appeal.
It’s been eleven years since I saw the first in what would be a long, now seemingly unending line of MCU films. I’ve changed in so many radical, unbelievable ways since then. So much LIFE has happened. So many things came and went, each one a little slap of a river’s infinite water droplets against a rocky surface, leaving jagged edges, scars, and then smooth lines where great gouges were once made. The river will never stop coming, and though I occasionally wish for a dam to come along and stop the flow, I know one will never come. There will be more MCU films. They will continue to make money on a scale comparable to a small country’s GDP. And I will hopefully continue to see them with my friend, one of the few things left from that time in my life, when the future seemed boundless and infinite, stretching beyond the horizon. When my existence was so small. When I had my mother to tell me that “Gwennett Paltrow” was so pretty, don’t you think? She mattered so much to me, and I’m kept awake at night with knowing that I never had the presence of mind to tell her. I was the largest wave in her ocean, and she never let a day pass without letting me know.
The MCU movies matter to me. It seems so odd, to let the world know that a carefully manufactured tapestry of commercial artworks have left such an indelible mark on your psyche. And yet I know it is true for me, and for the audience who clapped for Tony hugging his proxy spider-son, and for a great many people, who will all go on to live in each other’s rapids. I hope one day to feel worthy of joining them.
I think I’m gonna text my friend and tell him I love him. He needs to know that he matters to me.