The Legacy Of Character in Avengers: Endgame

I HAVE SEEN REVENGERS: BLAMEGAME.

*checks notes*

I HAVE SEEN REVENTURES: EDAMAME.

*squints*

I HAVE SEEN AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

*whispers to self: “nailed it”*

My very brief non-spoilery review is this:

The first third is solid — it’s total bedrock.

The second third — the middle! — is plotty, and a bit draggy.

The final third is holy shit.

Just that. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT. It is so holy shit, in fact, that it is a mushroom cloud of pure comic book awesome whose blinding white heat and light washes away any of the film’s other notable imperfections. (At least, temporarily. Eventually, one’s sight and good sense is likely to return.) It puts every other GIANT COMIC BOOK CROSSOVER ACTION EVENT to shame. It is every two-page spread of pure superhero action glory writ large, on screen. If you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, I suspect you’re unlikely to be disappointed. There are aspects and angles that might stir disappointment (from mild to severe depending on your particular expectations), and for me those are worth talking about as a part of the overall whole.

If you wanted, you could dissect this movie from the plot side of things, because there’s quite a lot of plot to chew on. And it’s plot that’s been threading throughout the MCU for ten goddamn years. Comic books and blockbuster movies by their nature tend to be heavier on plot — and not organic plot, not the kind driven by character, but I think where the MCU deserves real credit is that they have given us, by and large, a massive world populated with characters who rise and fall, who change and shrink and grow, who are the anchors to everything. I’m never not ranting about how the best plot is Soylent Green — “it’s made of people!” — but the MCU mostly takes that pretty seriously. That’s no small thing. It’s a strong lesson to lead with feelings, with character arcs, with ideas about who these people are — and what they want, what problems they’re trying to counter in themselves and in the world-slash-universe — because that’s why we actually give a shit. Ten years of plot-heavy movies where character isn’t a focus would get pretty fucking boring. (Don’t get me wrong, the MCU has flirted with being boring now and again, but overall, I’d argue it’s pretty impressive as a whole.)

Which is why, for me, it’s worth looking at this last movie from that one angle: from the angle of character. It’s why we’re here. It is the single most important give-a-fuck factor in storytelling.

So, let’s do that. Let’s unpack the character legacies on display here.

Let’s see what works, what doesn’t, and what yet befuddles us. (The royal “us,” meaning, mostly, me.)

BUT FIRST, WE NEED SPOILER SPACE.

I’m going to cut and paste a nonsense passage from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. When that passage ends, you know it’s A ONE-WAY TICKET TO SPOILERTOWN.

Buckle up.

So This Is Dyoublong?

Hush! Caution! Echoland!

How charmingly exquisite! It reminds you of the outwashed

engravure that we used to be blurring on the blotchwall of his

innkempt house. Used they? (I am sure that tiring chabelshovel-

ler with the mujikal chocolat box, Miry Mitchel, is listening) I

say, the remains of the outworn gravemure where used to be

blurried the Ptollmens of the Incabus. Used we? (He is only pre-

tendant to be stugging at the jubalee harp from a second existed

lishener, Fiery Farrelly.) It is well known. Lokk for himself and

see the old butte new. Dbln. W. K. O. O. Hear? By the mauso-

lime wall. Fimfim fimfim. With a grand funferall. Fumfum fum-

fum. ‘Tis optophone which ontophanes. List! Wheatstone’s

magic lyer. They will be tuggling foriver. They will be lichening

for allof. They will be pretumbling forover. The harpsdischord

shall be theirs for ollaves.

And we’re back.

Spoilers begin now, awooga, awooga.

Iron Man: Tony Stark

It began with ol’ Tony Stank, and it ends with ol’ Tony Stank.

Tony is a character driven by his own ego, though that has changed, somewhat, over the course of the films: his worldview expands greatly, opening up to include Pepper Potts and Happy, to eventually encompassing the whole world. And then it shrinks down somewhat, too: he takes to Spider-Man as a sort of pseudo-father-figure, possibly as a way to bandage over his issues over the loss of his own father. And in this movie, there’s been an extension of that to include his own new family: he and Pepper have a daughter together. But, all that being said, Tony’s never really taken his ego out of it. It’s arguably grown alongside his need to do good; ego, as it turns out, is a little like a balloon. It can be inflated to great size, but still be filled with a whole empty air. That’s not knocking Tony as a character! It’s the opposite. He’s for a very long time been something of a narcissist. And one who has been flirting with self-destruction since the very beginning. (Hell, he tries the self-sacrifice thing in The Avengers.) Here, he finally negotiates his anger, his ego, his father issues, and in that finds a reason to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

It’s strong. It works. A character arc is as much an arc as it is a bridge — like in a bridge-building game, you need at least two points to anchor the bridge, and only two points gets you a shit-ass bridge. A droopy rope bridge, at best. More anchor points get you across the chasm — just as it gets the character from where they were, to where they are, and shows us where they’re going.

(“The other side,” if you will.)

Tony’s arc is probably the strongest in this film — maybe strongest in all the MCU. Part of that is simple economy: he’s had the most screen-time. But it’s also shown a diligent vision to bring this guy from somewhere in the pit of his own vapors to somewhat more elevated, a man of higher purpose, not singular need. He’s like the anti-Batman. Still rich, still a prick, but likes the sun, not the dark, and the guy under the mask is more of a legacy than the mask itself. People care about Tony Stark, not about Iron Man. Which is a helluva feat, itself. To make people care about the character more than the icon is really, really tough, and honestly runs counter to what we think about a lot of superheroes. That is what the MCU helps to give us.

And speaking of all that —

Captain America: Steve Rogers

If you would’ve expected anybody to sacrifice themselves, it’d be Steve Rogers. Here’s a guy who has given himself to service. Service to his country, to its laws, to its wars, and eventually to higher ideals — Steve becomes the embodiment of the spirit of the law more than its letter. He cleaves to a greater code, a higher honor, than you can simply write on a document or carve into a tablet. He’s the North Star to Tony’s spinning compass. He’s the rock.

And at the end of this, he goes the other way. He crosses with Tony. Tony gives himself up for a greater cause after loving himself too much — Steve gives up the greater cause in order to learn to love himself. (And by proxy, to love Peggy Carter. I wept. If you didn’t weep you’re dead to me.)

Endgame gives him strong moments, and lets him be his very best self. You know, someone like Rogers is easy to get wrong — he’d be easy to make annoying, or to be just a series of character traits shoved in a costume. Some kind of shallow Dudley Do-Right dipshit. The writing — and Chris Motherfucking Evans — serve the character well, and elevate him beyond some patriotic pastiche, some hero-for-the-sake-of-heroing. And it’s sad to see him gone. He and Tony were the two counterpoints to this thing — if the entire MCU had a character arc, these guys were at opposite ends of it while still being connected. To lose them risks the whole MCU, and again, it’s a testament that I don’t think they will lose it. It’ll hold together, I expect.

Black Widow: Natasha Romanova

Well, it can’t all be aces. Here’s where we get into a sort of… issue, and one that traditionally comes at the expense of women characters due to a sort of institutional sexism baked into, well, *gestures broadly* everydamnthing. I think Black Widow is probably the most capable character on the whole team, because they all have superpowers. She just kicks people. And yet she holds her own, every time.  But is that enough? Maybe not so much. Because classically, in blockbuster movies, we end up with Sexy Action Figure characters — aka, women who seem powerful because they can win fights, but who are ultimately posable dolls with minimal agency of their own. And that’s… that’s kinda a little bit Black Widow, isn’t it?

Think about it: she’s a character stolen from her former life, has no background, no parents, no children, no anything. She’s taken, trained to be a killer, and later ends up with SHIELD and then with the Avengers and… that’s it, right? She’s a useful tool. And there’s not a lot of recognition for that. Endgame, to its credit, tries. She deals with having no family, and the Avengers being her found family — and that’s no small thing. But it never really sells it, and it feels too-little too-late —

Especially with what comes after.

Which is, she’s kinda fridged. Or fridged-adjacent. She has to die to yield the Soul Stone to Hawkeye (oh no). And there are two levels to this: one, as a character, she does have some agency in this choice. She’s not thrown there, murdered. And I like that she competes with Hawkeye for this purpose. But the second level is, these characters aren’t real. Writers write them. And at that level, she’s still someone who is there for the purpose of dying in order to move plot and make men feel things. Hawkeye needs to feel redeemed so he can go back to his family. Bruce needs to feel sad she’s gone because — well, I dunno, they never really fulfill that arc much. The two of them were a thing, until they weren’t. It still flirts with the idea (Infinity War’s “that’s awkward” line from Rhodey, I believe), but never pays it off. Mostly Bruce is just sad. Hawkeye is honored, and sad. And she’s dead, never to come back. (In theory. There’s supposedly a film, and in comics, nobody’s ever dead).

We see her body. Blood dashed out of her head. It’s a touch grisly.

And that’s the conclusion of her arc. A self-sacrifice, like with Tony, but with minimal underpinning. Hawkeye arguably had a reason to die — he’s gone so deep down the pit in terms of his own morals, he can’t come back. And it would work to have him die so that his family may live. She dies in a way that feels rote. As if she has recognized her own purposeless and lack of arc. And it leaves us with one less woman character in a universe that doesn’t always have a lot anyway. It also leaves the team being incredibly bro-heavy, especially with Nebula off and away.

(Plus: Thor can get his hammer back, but we can’t get Black Widow? Mmkay.)

Again, Endgame tries — it gives her some good moments. And Scar-Jo is legitimately good as the character. It’s just sad to feel like they never knew what to do with her, only to ultimately discard her. And beyond that is a good storytelling lesson, to boot — a disappointing ending is often the fault of a weak beginning. Bad foundation means the structure will always wobble, lean, and eventually collapse under its own poor construction.

Hawkeye: Clint Barton

I mean, I guess it’s telling I forgot what his actual name was. I had to Google it. (I also have a brain like a mouse-eaten shoebox, so.) Endgame probably does the best with him it could — it gives him a place of ruination and guilt, and the movie starting with the loss of his family is truly impactful. But he’s still Arrow Guy, and I hope in the next arc of stories, they find for him a better angle.

The Hulk: Bruce Banner

His arc is pretty simple — veering a bit toward simplistic, maybe. On a character sheet, you’d almost be tempted to write two traits: BANNER and HULK, and leave it at that. The films never really grapple with who Bruce is other than a genius nerd with a monster inside. Or a monster with a nerd inside? I dunno. So, the PB&J sandwich that becomes Bannerhulk in this is the most sensible outcome — I don’t know that it’s emotionally satisfying, but it makes fun visual, comic book, cinematic sense. They almost had something in Infinity War suggesting Banner had some real reconciling to do with his own alter ego — and it was a little disappointing that all that seems to have happened off-screen. But oh well, it was fun.

Still, though, the Banner-Black Widow thing is still puzzling to me. It’s one end of a bridge that has no second anchor. So it’s just hanging limp, over the cliff. Untraversable.

Thor Odinson: God of Hammuhh I Mean Thunder

Thor. Thor! Thor.

Boy, I don’t know what to make of this. Thor has been in the past a bit shallow, far as character goes. First few movies, he’s just a kind of half-baked pseudo-Shakespearean son who is, uhhh. I guess torn between being a hero and being a prince? Torn between Earth and Asgard? Between… beer and not beer? He’s a bit daft and very pretty and okay, whatever.

And then Thor: Ragnarok happened, aka the best film ever. And we got a funnier, lighter Thor that simultaneously felt like a Thor they’d figured out — a bit daft, in conflict with himself, a guy suffering the heroic-version of The Yips, also a guy who has Daddy Issues —

(Dang, the MCU has its share of Daddy Issues, doesn’t it? Tony. Thor. Nebula. Gamora. Quill. Peter Parker, a little. Maybe a little heavy on the dude-based problems.)

We got a clear picture of a Thor in command of himself. In command of his destiny and his people. And then Infinity War comes along, and okay, it rattles him — I like that. You can’t keep him all confident and awesome. He has to be kicked around. And his godhood was confirmed in that one, though he also started to lean again on needing a weapon instead of being the weapon…

And now, Endgame.

Where Thor gets fat. Which is okay. I don’t care. But the movie cares. It’s a negative, not a positive. It’s a joke. And he gets fat because… arguably he’s traumatized. Right? He’s got some kind of god-version of PTSD. Which I also like! But the film can’t seem to decide whether it thinks his PTSD is a serious trait or something to mock him for. And the end leaves him kind of rudderless, a spinning compass again — no longer a leader of anyone or anything, even himself. It’s like a weaker version of Steve Rogers — he goes out to live life, not because he realizes he misses it, but because he has no other purpose. And he gets his hammer back (until he gives it away again), allowing it to determine his worthiness… which Ragnarok decidedly told him he didn’t need. He’s not the God of Hammers. So, I don’t feel like they had confidence as to what to do with him? Which is a shame. I think he’s a peculiar one to write, and maybe that’s why Taika Waititi got him so well. Which is to say, give Thor 4 (Fthour?) to Taika, now, please. FTHOUR: THOR AND VALKYRIE SAVE THE UNIVERSE or some shit. Cool? Cool.

(Sidenote: getting his hammer back is also where this movie’s plot starts to make no sense. Time travel plots rot fast, like bananas. The moment you think about them for five minutes, they unspool like a ruptured testicle. How moving the stones would create off-shoot realities but not the loss of Mjolnir — where presumably the Thor of that timeline still needs it? — is beyond me. It’s why the middle feels muddy and rote — we kinda know the “time heist” is gonna work out to a certain degree, and mostly we’re just watching the clockwork mechanism go through its motions.)

Nebula

In a movie that doesn’t do very well by its women characters — Nebula is an outstanding and welcome change. I don’t know that she gets a huge arc, and it’s not super well-shaped through the other films, but there’s payoff here for those who have been waiting to see someone really come to terms with her anger, with her sisterhood, with her shitty father, and with her maybe actually being “good.” She, like Tony and Nat, sacrifices herself — she just sacrifices her old self, while keeping who she has become. It’s good. It’s also a bit of sadness that she doesn’t get more moments — it’s already an overstuffed movie, but given how Thanos literally tortured her I think I wanted her to at least land a few meaningful hits on him. It felt like, at the end, they just threw her into the scrum.

And here it’s worth highlighting that one moment in the scrum, the fracas, the battle tableau — the one moment where it’s LADIES NIGHT, all the ladies, kicking ass.

It’s an awesome moment.

I loved it.

And it’s also a little shallow.

Like, it feels a bit cheeky to have a three-hour runtime with very little girl power, only to stuff it all into one moment. Like, I’m happy they’re kicking ass! I am. But again we run into the potential SEXY ACTION FIGURE part — “Hey, don’t forget we have women who can fight, too, and here they are, fighting together. Woo, Ladies Rule! NOW BACK TO MANPAIN.”

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of seeing this sheer torrential female force of pure power on the screen. It’s great. It’s also just important to recognize that none of that is a proper substitution for character growth and agency.

Ant-Man: Scott Lang

I dunno that the movie does a ton with him, but it starts strong — I think there’s something to a Scott Lang trying to do right by the world and his daughter while also still being a really talented thief? It’s got something there, and I think he’s more vulnerable here than he’s been before. It’s less an arc and more the start of something, though, I feel — like we’re on the upward tick-tick-tick of a roller-coaster on the hill, and we really haven’t seen the top, yet — or the drop on the other side.

Iron Patriot: Rhodey

I wish he had more to do, or be. There’s a nice moment between him and Nebula on Morag — that really needed more beats, though, because without it, it feels a little shallow. But again, we’re talking an overstuffed movie already with a lot to do. It’s just a shame that the people most likely to be shortchanged in these narratives are the women or the one black dude. (Black Panther isn’t present for most of the movie.) He’s cool. He seems to get a weird new suit at the ending and I’m not sure how? I wish he had more to do.

Thanos McThanosface

Thicc Daddy Thanos. The ego being. Bad parent. Galactic warlord and genocidal dickhead. I think Endgame gets to the heart of him, which is an egomaniacal dictator who doesn’t really care about balancing the scales so much as he cares about being obeyed and adored. The ending bears that out. And justice is served. It’s hard in a way that you don’t really know who you want to kill him? (Even though spoiler, he dies twice in the movie.) Tony is right on, a good choice — though regrettable that Nebula and Gamora have almost no part in it. Quill gets to kill his own Space Dad, but not Gamora? Not Nebula? Ennh. Unfortunate. That would’ve been a nice bow to tie in the narrative ribbon. But then you lose Tony’s sacrifice — I suppose the way to do it is to give Gamora and Nebula some time in the ring with him, so to speak. Just the same, I was glad to watch that motherfucker go to dust. A great villain with a spectacular death. Eat shit, you big purple dong.

Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers

And now, my second greatest disappointment in this film.

(First being: Black Widow’s weird sacrifice.)

One of the things we like to do with story is pay-off the promise of the premise. And the MCU has for the last two movies been promising one thing:

Captain Fucking Marvel. 

Fury in the post-credits scene dials her up. Then we get a whole movie showing her realizing her potential and shedding her male-given metaphorical shackles. Then another post-credits scene that is about her showing up and then —

Endgame where she gets like, five minutes of screen-time.

And all of it is her acting as a gun.

That’s it. She’s just a weapon. We get zero character beats. She’s just a hero who heroes, a gun who shows up and fires big noisy blasts, boosh, kaboom, fhhhzzt. She’s utterly wasted after the promise she’d be some kind of leveraging, balancing factor — some key character in the war. But she’s not. She’s a bookended deus ex machina, at best. And it’s really a shame.

There’s More

We could talk more. There are others — though many were Dusted. Rocket is there. I don’t know that he has much of an arc, if any. Thor gets a nice moment with his mom. I liked Howard Stark. I didn’t so much like having to hop back and forth through the other movies, because it felt a bit fan-servicey-greatest-hits-recap-episode. FUCK YEAH KORG. I liked it. I liked it a lot. I want to see it again. It pays off Infinity War, mostly. It earns a lot of beats, while significantly failing a few important characters. It’s honestly a major fear of narrative engineering and is unparalleled in cinematic history. Hell, it’s better than what you get in most giant comic book crossovers. Its failings are its failings, and they shouldn’t be excused — but rather, learned from. But they also don’t destroy what is really something very strange and special that shouldn’t have ever worked. And yet, it did. One out of 14 million kinda chances. And it all began with Tony Stark.

Congrats, MCU. You did it. (Mostly.)

P.S. these are all just my thoughts, not facts, so you don’t need to be upset by them or offended by them if you disagree — it’s good to disagree! This shit ain’t math with hard-and-fast answers. It’s ideas and opinions, ones here that I’m trying to see through the lens of character arcs and beats, but we needn’t agree. Now, REVENGERS, REASSEMBLE!