Note: This article openly discusses the plot of “Avengers: Endgame.” Spoilers abound!
With almost $20 billion in box office grosses, and the kind of worldwide cultural saturation that’s typically reserved for wars and pandemics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without question one of the most successful ideas in Hollywood history. However, as “Avengers: Endgame” underscores with each of its 182 minutes, this 22-film mega-franchise has always been a portrait of failure. It may be the biggest story ever told about people letting down the ones they love, time and time again, until they start to lose faith in the very idea of salvation.
For all of the power they wield, all of the times they’ve guarded the galaxy from oblivion, the Avengers are really just a ragtag group of humanoids (and one space raccoon) who define themselves by their deficiencies. The more heroic they act, the more harmful they become.
By the time “Endgame” begins, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are convinced that the entire universe is suffering for their shortcomings. It’s Thanos who teaches them otherwise, by showing them that perfection is the real enemy of the good. Thanos may not be the most compelling villain in recent memory — he’s basically just that swole kid in your freshman philosophy class who read one book on utilitarianism and decided to start cancelling anyone who complicated his worldview. But his master plan is what allows “Endgame” to feel like such a fitting resolution to “The Infinity Saga,” and finish off this epic tale in a way that compensates for much of the assembly-line homogeneity that turned Marvel into a monolithic force.
Traces of that idea can be found in films as early as “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but “The Avengers” writer-director Joss Whedon deserves much of the credit for making failure the foundational bedrock of the entire MCU. There’s a reason why, seven years and 16 movies later, Agent Coulson’s death is still the single most pivotal moment in the entire franchise. It’s not because Captain America loses his biggest fan, or because S.H.I.E.L.D. loses their most competent go-between; it’s because of how Nick Fury weaponizes the Avengers’ inability to protect the person who believed in them most.
In a desperate (and low-key deranged) act of showmanship, Fury takes the Captain America trading cards that Coulson kept in his jacket, rubs someone’s blood all over them, and throws them in the Avengers’ faces. He tells them that Coulson died believing in the idea of heroes. In that wild moment, Fury has the wherewithal to recognize that saving a million lives is less of a burden than forfeiting a single one — that success doesn’t make you second-guess who you are — and he uses that knowledge to pierce a hole right through the hearts of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It’s a hole they will never stop trying to fill, and it makes them human.
In another, friendlier cinematic universe, this could be summed up by saying that “with great power comes great responsibility.” But Coulson’s death steers the MCU in a different, more personally liable direction; it lays the groundwork for Peter Parker to swing into the series a few movies later and frame things in much starker terms: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then bad things happen? They happen because of you.”
Other prominent themes naturally wend their way through the franchise (e.g. personal interest vs. the greater good, America’s military imperialism, the value of self-sacrifice for a team of heroes who refuse to trade lives, the effect of Chris Evans’ facial hair on the Twitter community, etc.), but all of them feed into the bigger idea that failure isn’t an option so much as it is an inevitability — a fact as inevitable as Thanos, himself. The various Avengers, all of whom are paragons of excellence and none of whom are ever explicitly wrong, each come to that same conclusion in their own painful and protracted way.
Captain America is the one who most implicitly understands that failure only feels like the antithesis of success if you’re not strong enough to grab it by the hand and let it guide you forward. Reborn into the 21st century after saving the world but standing up Peggy Carter for a dance (“I had a date…”), Steve Rogers comes to the Avengers having already lost the brightest light he’ll ever know, and missed out on the best years of his own life. Self-sacrifice comes easy to him — even before he’s transformed into an all-American thirst trap — but he struggles to do the right thing in a modern world that only seems home to wrong choices and trolley problems. The Nazis were so unambiguous, but Ultron, Hydra, and Thanos? They all want peace. They’re just willing to trade lives in order to get it.
For Steve — who tends to see the world as he wishes it could be, and always follows his moral compass even when he isn’t sure where it’s pointing — his greatest challenge is forgiving himself for the people he loses along the way. It’s the struggle of an idealist trying to reconcile the rigidity of his morals with the reality of his mission. And it isn’t easy.
When “The Avengers” begins, Steve is taking out his frustration over Bucky’s death (and everything that followed) on a pile of unfortunate punching bags. And even though Bucky is one of the most bungled elements of the MCU — a character for whom the franchise completely neglects to establish an emotional bedrock, and then repurposes as a rickety bridge into Black Panther’s story — Steve’s anguish over him is still vivid. He blames himself. And in “Captain: America: The Winter Soldier,” that failure comes home to roost, as his feelings about good old Buck are turned inside out.
But spending a little time looking into the gray area between good and evil allows Steve to recognize that heroism isn’t the ability to save the world, but rather the courage to keep trying. And by the time “Civil War” rolls around, Captain America’s failure has allowed him to become as grounded and fallible as any of the Avengers. “We try to save as many people as we can,” he says. “Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that… next time, maybe nobody gets saved.”
Needless to say, Tony Stark has always been a little more results-oriented. His trajectory is perpendicular to Steve’s, as Tony is introduced as an egocentric pragmatist, only for the PTSD he suffers from the events of “The Avengers” to force his manic attention outwards to other people. While Captain America has experienced enough failure to learn how to harness it, Iron Man has glimpsed just enough — first through portals above Manhattan, and then through dark visions in his own mind — to obsessively try and overcompensate. As Wanda reveals to him in “Age of Ultron,” failure is Tony’s greatest fear, a stranger that terrifies him from a distance.
Tony is so consumed by the idea of preempting any possible sorrow that he puts the world at risk. His need for a perfect safety net gives rise to a homicidal A.I. that takes his protective streak to its logical conclusion, and convinces the rogue billionaire that he has to temper his high-minded ideals with a human element. Ultron is Tony’s greatest mistake — but defeating that snarky robot teaches him the most valuable lesson he gets to learn in the MCU. As Vision puts it: “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings.” The difference between the heroes and villains in this franchise is that only the former ever figure that out.
The acceptance of failure leads to the possibility of forgiveness, which is why the largely misbegotten “Captain America: Civil War” only justifies its existence once these characters stop retreading old grudges (and wasting everyone’s time with that boring airport brawl), to put their newfound humanity to the test. It’s hard to buy that Black Widow — who owes her life to Hawkeye’s mercy — would fight him over a civic disagreement. On the contrary, it’s much easier to believe that Steve and Tony would finally meet in the middle and hurt each other by trying to protect their fellow Avenger from pain. The fact that both of these Avengers are right in “Civil War” makes for a frustrating movie, but the common ground they ultimately find helps reaffirm the series’ ethos that compromise — and the good faith that it implies — is often more heroic than conviction.
The bigger these movies got, the more the Avengers failed, and the more human they became. All of these characters were introduced to the screen as sexy avatars for their inflexible archetypes — an approach that really only suited Steve Rogers. It wasn’t until the MCU stirred the pot and diluted its heroes that the franchise began to embrace the gray areas between right and wrong, victory and defeat.
That’s why Thor managed to forgive Loki, why Yondu was able to become Mary Poppins, and why Peter Parker found himself with a very conflicted surrogate father. It’s also why Phase Three was far and away the most eccentric and surprising part of “The Infinity Saga,” as the same studio that once fired Edgar Wright for his auteurist touch (on “Ant-Man”) allowed James Gunn to make a planet-sized space epic about paternal abuse; it also allowed Taika Waititi to place Thor at the center of a comedy about the horrors of colonialism, and Ryan Coogler to bring Afrofuturism into the blockbuster era with a movie that sincerely wrestled with the value of political violence. The Avengers grew more human as they were forced to share their cinematic universe with each other, and so this mega-franchise actually became more textured as it took over the world; the films were good once their heroes weren’t perfect (and, as we saw in the disappointing “Captain Marvel,” the opposite was also true).
“Infinity War” was such a slog because Thanos — an ideologue whose logic was so weak that even Neil Degrasse Tyson could dunk on it — represented everything the MCU had moved beyond. The film reduces the Mad Titan’s backstory, so rich and morbid in the comics, into the kind of half-assed Phase One philosophy that made reluctant converts (like this critic) feel as though they’d been wrong to think the franchise had turned a corner. However, by climaxing with the Avengers’ ultimate failure, “Infinity War” positioned its sequel to expose the soul of a corporate mega-series that often felt as though it didn’t have one.
On a plot level, “Endgame” doesn’t make a lick of sense; screenwriters Christoper Markus and Stephen McFeely somehow found a way to turn all the usual time-travel headaches into bonafide migraines. And yet, that doesn’t really matter; the film’s ridiculous premise allows “Endgame” to directly address the franchise’s most overarching theme.
It’s the most melodramatic title card in movie history: “Five…years…later.” In an audience-coddling franchise that has always been shy about subverting the status quo, the unexpected decision to go full “Leftovers” forces the MCU to put its foundational convictions to the test. A universe that’s been randomly cleaved in half? That’s worse than any nightmare Tony has ever had. Not only were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes unable to stop Thanos, they also played a role in expediting his plan.
The bleak first hour of “Endgame” is as raw and relatable as anything in the MCU. Steve Rogers spends his days in support groups, where he even has to convince one of the film’s directors to keep fighting. Tony Stark has repressed the Snapture as best he can, as he raises a daughter in the countryside and falls to pieces every time he hears Thanos’ name. Clint Barton is a terrorist, Natasha Romanoff gets emails from a raccoon, and Thor is barely strong enough to swing a Wiimote. For the first time in the MCU, the Avengers have given up. They’ve resigned to a failure so vast that it’s made them forget what they can do with it.
But thanks to a deus ex Larson and some late-night epiphanies, Tony and the gang come to grips with the core truth that brought each of them to this point, and allows them all to serve a common purpose. With a little help from an “It’s a Wonderful Life” tour through the highlights of the MCU, the Avengers remember the big idea that brought the, together in the first place: They weren’t heroes because of the people they saved — they were heroes because of how they kept fighting for the people they didn’t.
When all is said and done, Thanos is defeated because he fatally misunderstands the core truth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “You could not live with your failure,” he says with a smirk on his dumb purple face before the final battle. But he hasn’t been paying attention.
Maybe if he had come down to Earth from the start instead of just sitting on his space throne and sending the Chitauri to Manhattan in his place, he would have realized that he’s gotten things backwards: Thanos might believe the Avengers can’t live with their failure, but if he’d watched any of these movies (or familiarized himself with the work of Joseph Campbell), he’d know that the Avengers could never have survived without it. He’d know how they let go of the incompatible futures they saw for themselves, and worked towards the only one they could actually share together. By discovering the grace in their failings, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have finally become powerful enough to fix them.