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Avengers: Endgame - “We’re going to plunder the pits of hell”

Today, apocalypse sells like mad. Not just the threat of it, but its reality. And especially its aftermath.

How to Survive the Apocalypse, Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra


 


*SPOILER ALERT!*


Some critics argue that the Marvel franchise is basically hollow, money-making, escapist entertainment, with very little substance worth talking about. And whilst I admit that these films may not be the best movie-making we’ve ever seen, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here worth exploring, or even simply enjoying.


The popularity of these films fascinates me a little. It surely suggests something about the society in which we live, perhaps that there is a common appetite for a certain type of narrative. The characters may vary, but the content of these films are all fairly similar: action-packed CGI battles, witty one-liners, and back-stories that provide inspiring tales of characters overcoming their weaknesses and saving the world.

All of these factors may appeal to a fairly wide audience and yet I can’t help feeling that these films also reveal a deeper societal longing, something that is more than the simple desire for a bit of light, pop-corn entertainment. For all the commercialism surrounding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these superhero stories are not devoid of emotional substance and metaphorical significance.


Endgame particularly stood out as a film that invested a surprising amount of time exploring the emotional lives of its characters. The action scenes are interspersed with some (dare I say it) genuinely poignant moments, whether it’s Captain America and Black Widow talking over a peanut butter sandwich about their struggles to move forwards with their lives, or a grief-stricken Pepper clasping her husband’s head in her hands, as she gives him permission to breathe his last breath.


This film provides an interesting portrayal of the different ways we deal with grief. The inclusion of Tony Stark’s funeral felt like a departure from previous Marvel films, where too often death is trivialised or mainly avoided (for example, the ethical dilemmas surrounding the killing of aliens are largely ignored.) In this funeral scene, we are momentarily grounded in reality: we witness a very human ritual, and one which reminds us that we are all fragile beings. Yes, even the strongest, most resilient amongst us will eventually face death.


Now I won’t go too far in my praise of this film’s depth. It’s depiction of grief and death isn’t exactly nuanced. I wasn’t too sure what to make of Morgan’s cheery request for a cheeseburger after her father’s funeral. It may be a funny reference to Tony's own love for cheeseburgers, but it was also jarring. Was it meant to be an attempt at realism - a reminder that young children may be unable to grasp the concept of death, or that even in the middle of bereavement, the loved ones left behind must go on living life in all of it’s stomach-rumbling, fast-food-addicted mundaneness? Or was it a “don’t worry” signal for viewers just in case we can’t cope with this level of realism, a glib reassurance that this cute little girl is going to be just fine. She’s got friends, family, and cheese burgers to cheer her soul and to help her grow strong like her father….What more could she want?!


But sarcasm aside, this film’s emphasis on grief and death, whilst not complex, is striking nonetheless. As I left the cinema, I found myself with these lyrics going round my head:


"We're gonna take back

All the enemy has stolen

We're gonna plunder the pits of hell"

Take Back, United Pursuit


I can’t say that Marvel films normally bring Christian songs to mind, but of all the Marvel films Endgame perhaps most obviously speaks of our hunger for the possibility of resurrection, redemption and justice. The Marvel Universe does not leave us in the state of apocalypse that we see at the end of Infinity War. Of course, that’s all part of the money-making, cliff-hanger tactics of the movie franchise, but it also reflects a deeper human yearning.


In “How to Survive the Apocalypse”, Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra discuss the current trend for apocalyptic cinema and TV. They suggest that the very genre of apocalypse relies on religious assumptions about the world, as opposed to the secular worldview of our society:


The most successful [apocalypse] narratives ... recognise that in order to steer us and our societies toward the things that are good about the modern moral order, we need more - other sources, other ‘horizons’ of morality that come from outside ourselves. They’re not merely pessimistic. A Secular apocalypse winds up pushing back on its own age. Apocalypse demands meaning. Apocalypse demands horizon. Apocalypse demands religion. We might say we’re heading into a post-Secular moment - because religion never left. Religion, of one kind or another, is actually not optional. It’s fundamental. It’s not so much about why religion is back, but why we ever thought it went away.

In Endgame, the typical superhero optimism hangs by a thread after the devastation caused by Thanos’ destruction of half the population. And yet pessimism does not win the day; instead, the superheroes find a way forwards, or should I say, backwards. They quite literally “take back what the enemy has stolen.”


Some critics may be annoyed by the whole time travel loophole that enables the undoing of Thanos’ genocide. Of course, there are plot holes and it is contrived, but then isn’t the whole superhero universe inherently ‘contrived’ in a sense? It is constructed around the dissolving of normal, comprehensible boundaries. The usual rules of human strength and mortality are constantly being broken and undermined, as the heroes grow in strength or technological expertise. This gives the writers an excuse to make pretty much anything happen.


These are modern day miracle stories. And perhaps that is why these narratives can hardly avoid reverting to religious symbolism. The epic battle scene in Endgame fits comfortably alongside other more overtly symbolic battles between good and evil. It brings to mind scenes from the chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, which can be read as deeply Christian in their symbolism (although Tolkien may have resisted this description).


Another moment that has strong biblical echoes is the very first scene of the film, where we watch Clint Barton’s family disappear into thin air. It’s reminiscent of that apocalyptic description in Matthew. “Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.”


You can also see parallels between Tony Stark’s journey through these films and that of the apostle Paul (that could be a whole other blog post). Thanos’ sacrifice of his daughter is a rather twisted version of the Father giving his beloved Son, and the list of comparisons could go on.


However, where this apocalypse fails to be apocalyptic in its truest sense is the lack of real, lasting change it brings about. As explained in How to Survive the Apocalypse, “The Greek word apokalypsis means not only destruction, not only the disruption of reality, but the dismantling of perceived realities - an ending of endings, a shocking tremor of revelation that remade creation in its wake. It renews as it destroys; with its destruction it brings an epiphany about the universe, the gods, or God.”


Once order has been restored, life returns to normal. This film shows us that grief changes people, for better or for worse, and reminds us that we all have a choice to make about how we respond to the worst tragedies of life. However, when faced with the reality of apocalypse, all of the characters end up seeking something old, rather than something new.


They literally go back to the past. This film has the air of nostalgia in so many ways: the time travel plot provides plenty of opportunities for Marvel in-jokes and heart-warming moments where we get to see the significance of past events. Even though Tony Stark and Bruce Banner create a new life for themselves, their new realities are heavily nostalgic. Tony has created an idyllic childhood for his daughter, which is strongly tied to Tony’s need to discover the truth of his own father’s love for him. Bruce becomes the celebrity superhero, which again is nothing new. He’s finally living the life that his fellow Avengers have already enjoyed.


If we needed any further confirmation that this film is not looking to create new futures for its characters, the film ends with Steve Rogers slow-dancing with his wife in a romantic 1940s (or 50s?) America. The nuclear family is still the ideal it seems, or if not the nuclear family, at least a family of some shape or form. All of the character arcs involve finding or re-finding family at the end of the film, whether it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy becoming one happy, humorous family again (with the interesting addition of Thor), Clint being reunited with his wife and children, or Gamora and Nebula finally enjoying reconciliation.


These films suggest that the strongest desire of our hearts is to be part of a loving family. Why do our heroes bother saving the world in the first place? Ok so they enjoy a bit of an adrenaline rush, but ultimately, they fight because they want a safer, happier world for their family.


Perhaps this is the resulting epiphany of the apocalypse. It’s the ‘moral order’ at the core of the Marvel Universe. It’s not a new revelation, but it is a revelation that we need to keep on having in the midst of our busy, pressured, broken lives and worlds.


Isn’t that really the revelation that is at the heart of the gospel? We have a father who loves us eternally. This infinite, eternal love is worth the sacrifice, worth the sacrificing of God’s own Son.


However, where Endgame provides only a temporary solution to the problem of death, the Christian faith provides a real ‘horizon’ of hope. The Avengers bring back half the human population, but funerals continue to be a reality in this post-apocalyptic world. In our secular society, films like this reveal a desperate hope for love that overcomes death and devastation.


What if this hope isn’t a desperate dream? But an actual reality? What if we really can plunder the pits of hell?


Where, O death, is your victory

Where, O death, is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15: 55

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