Avengers: Endgame is a massive storytelling experience.
As the culmination of 22 films and dozens of overlapping plotlines, it is a pop culture landmark more than a decade in the making — or, really, more than 70 years, if you go all the way back to Captain America’s 1941 debut from Timely, the publisher that pre-dates Marvel Comics.
But years of fandom and marketing alone don’t explain the global Endgame phenomenon.
Something deeper is happening here.
Avengers: Endgame is on its way to becoming the highest-earning movie of all-time, having already broken the single-day box office record by nearly $50M.
This shouldn’t be surprising. We’re talking about a film whose first trailer broke the record for single day YouTube views on the day it debuted.
Why do Marvel movies succeed on such a grand epic scale — both commercially and critically — compared to every other film franchise on the planet?
It all comes down to character, which is what drives emotion in storytelling.
(Funny enough, this is the same reason why Pulp Fiction blew audiences away back in 1994: whether we realize it or not, what we ultimately crave from a story is a fulfilling emotional arc, which is fueled first and foremost by becoming invested in character.)
Here’s how Avengers: Endgame shattered box office records by remembering the simple rule that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko established way back in 1961:
At Marvel, character comes first.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD for Avengers: Endgame
The Theme of Avengers: Endgame, Explained
Avengers: Endgame opens with a scene of tranquility that is punctuated by loss.
We see Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers’ only family man, enjoying some quality time with his kids on their farm. They tease each other as Clint admires his daughter’s skill with a bow and arrow while his wife Laura (Linda Cardellini) serves up lunch for their baseball-playing sons.
And then, in an instant, their moment of peace — a peace that we all know can’t last, no matter how much we may want it to — turns into tragedy… then panic… then defeat.
The stable camera work becomes unmoored as certainty gives way to confusion and panic. Clint runs through the empty field calling his family’s names, trailed by our handheld camera, our shaky perspective, and our own sense of uncertainty.
In this moment, three things happen at once.
First, the filmmakers bridge the narrative gap between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. It re-establishes us in this world, anchors us to a character and a situation, and then pays off our dreadful foreknowledge of what’s coming with the gut punch of seeing it happen, again.
Second, the film establishes its theme, which is really the theme of the entire MCU: all of Marvel’s movies are, at heart, about people overcoming their flaws, atoning for their mistakes, and earning second chances at making the world a better place, together.
This is inherent in the core character arc of every original Avenger.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) was a weapons dealer who saw the light and became Iron Man as a force for good.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who was willing to do whatever it takes to help stop the Nazis and wound up becoming a walking symbol of idealism as Captain America.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a boy who isn’t ready to become king, or to make the hard decisions that come with being a leader, and the cracks in his bravado are showing.
Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is a shy genius whose own experiment backfires and unleashes all the rage he can barely keep bottled inside, turning him into a destructively uncontrollable force of nature as the Hulk.
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) did dark things she feels she can never atone for in her days as a spy and an assassin, but her second chance as the heroic Black Widow now helps her tip her own karmic scales back toward the light.
And then there’s Clint Barton, the underused Avenger, just a guy with a bow and arrow.
Clint is the one who’s always in over his head among all these geniuses and gods. But he keeps showing up and doing his job because, as his wife reminded him back in Avengers: Age of Ultron, they need him because of who he is: an ordinary guy who keeps choosing to do the right thing.
In many ways, Hawkeye is the bravest Avenger because he’s the one who’s least-equipped for all this heroism. He’s a reminder that you don’t need super powers to be a hero; you just need to show up. And the moment he thinks he finally can walk away from that — remember his absence in Infinity War? — that’s the moment when the very thing he’s been fighting to protect is finally taken away from him.
It almost feels like a cosmic punishment.
This scene is immediately followed by a sedate, elegiac opening credits sequence, as the Marvel Studios logo plays in what feels like groggy slow motion over Traffic’s “Dear Mister Fantasy”:
Dear Mister Fantasy, play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar
Make it snappy
Those lyrics are the lie we tell ourselves.
They’re an avoidance. They’re us failing to reckon with what’s happened, or seeking an escape from the gloom of reality, of our own failures. Those lyrics are juxtaposed with Marvel’s high-energy credits, showcasing larger-than-life images of super heroes doing super things — except we all know that none of it mattered, because they failed.
All that power, impotent.
All that energy, wasted.
All those lives, lost.
This is how Avengers: Endgame, the biggest movie of all-time, begins.
There’s no bombast. No huge action set-piece. No superpowered special effects to get the audience cheering, and no volley of surgically-precise punchlines that we’ve come to expect from Marvel over the past 11 years and 22 films in this series.
Instead, we get Clint Barton lost and alone, we get our hearts broken all over again, and we get a symbolic reminder that sometimes all that effort still isn’t enough, and sometimes heroes lose.
And maybe what really makes a hero is what you do next.
As an aesthetic choice, the opening of Avengers: Endgame is an amazing flex.
That it’s happening not in an indie arthouse film but in the most eagerly-anticipated corporate superhero blockbuster ever made is frankly astounding.
And the fact that it works so well underscores why Marvel is literally untouchable in terms of mass market storytelling.
This opening sequence works on so many levels because we truly care not just about these characters, but also about the ideals they represent. By now, we’ve sat in dark rooms staring at them on screens for so many hours that we’ve seen Captain America and Iron Man more often in the past decade than we’ve seen our own family members.
This act of communal viewing, and this shared storytelling experience, means something.
The MCU is filled with characters we want to spend time with because we enjoy who they are and how they make us feel, and we want to see them succeed because of what they represent to us: our own potential to overcome our flaws, improve ourselves over time, find a purpose in life, find a family we can call our own, and collaborate to make the world better together than we ever could alone.
All the reasons Marvel movies succeed can be traced back to character.
And for all the fanfare that the original six Avengers justifiably receive in Endgame, it’s worth exploring one other character first. Because her arc not only encapsulates the MCU’s theme, it also demonstrates how effectively Marvel crafts its brand of storytelling.
(If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you should also study how James Cameron wrote his script for ALIENS around a central theme.)
The Rise and Redemption of Nebula
Nebula (Karen Gillan) only appeared in three Marvel movies prior to Endgame, making her a relatively minor character in comparison to Tony, Cap, or even Rhodey (Don Cheadle). And yet Endgame sets up and pays off her journey in a way that feels just as emotionally satisfying as the arcs of characters we’ve known for much longer.
In 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Nebula was introduced as a murderous villain with a spark of redemption buried deep beneath her survivalist instincts. In that film’s tonally-challenged 2017 sequel, Nebula began to turn the corner from heel to hero as she started repairing her relationship with her stepsister, Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
In that same movie, we learned that Nebula is the way she is as a result of being abused and tortured by her father Thanos (Josh Brolin). He would force the two girls to fight and then punish the loser by literally removing a piece of her humanity. This, incidentally, is weirdly overlooked in discussions of how Thanos “sort of has a point” in Infinity War and “isn’t actually that bad of a guy.” For some reason, people seem to willingly ignore that Thanos literally abuses his daughter by removing parts of her body when she fails to sufficiently injure her other sister.
This backstory is what makes Nebula’s first scenes with Tony Stark in Endgame so poignant.
Stranded in deep space on Nebula’s ship, running out of fuel, food, and oxygen, Tony records his farewell message to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). While his voiceover and flashbacks provide the obligatory plot exposition, the real important information here is the interaction between Tony and Nebula.
First we see them playing paper football. With nothing else to do, Tony uses games to kill time. But Nebula has never played a game before. Everything she does is life or death. The first time Tony flicks the football at her, she tries to murder it. It’s funny, but it also underlines everything we never realized about Nebula: she never had a childhood. No one ever showed her what it’s like to play for fun. No one ever tried to teach her how to improve. And no one ever spent time with her just because. Not until Tony does here, serving as Nebula’s surrogate father figure in their final hours together — which also calls back to his own troubled relationship with his dad, and his oft-deferred but still unfulfilled desire to become a father himself.
At first, Tony’s football-flicking form is perfect, just like everything Tony Stark ever does. But as their game continues, and he’s seen that Nebula is starting to get the hang of it, he intentionally plays worse while she gets better, until she breaks the tie and wins. Again, this is a funny and bittersweet moment at the same time. It shows how far Tony Stark has come from his first appearance in 2008’s Iron Man as the hyper-competitive center of attention, who’s now tanking father-daughter paper football games on a dying spaceship because he wants Nebula, whom he barely knows, to be able to experience winning, joy, and fun at least once in her life.
If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.
We also see a scene of Nebula and Tony eating together — or, more specifically, of Tony trying to share the last of the food with Nebula, and her declining, gently pushing the food back to him so he can eat the final few crumbs himself. In this moment, we see a side of Nebula that feels light years away from the person she was three movies ago. By the end of the film, as we reconnect the plotline dots, we realize that those crumbs might be the only reason Tony Stark survived long enough to do what he ultimately winds up doing in Endgame.
So, in that selfless gesture, Nebula kind of saves the universe.
Folks, this is just the multifacted storytelling displayed in Endgame‘s first two scenes.
I could analyze the rest of this film in-depth, and it absolutely deserves a close reading on multiple levels. Maybe I’ll tackle it differently another day.
But for now, in the interest of time — and in honor of the six original Avengers — I’ll leave you with six quick thoughts and a summary.
How Lighting and Camera Angles in Avengers: Endgame Reveal Character, Plot, and Theme
When Tony is recording his farewell message to Pepper on Nebula’s ship, the lighting is blue and green, signifying illness and depression. This is a hero at the end of his rope, grasping at straws, diminished, defeated, and preparing to surrender.
Later, when Steve Rogers is sitting in a therapy group, the lighting is once again tinted green. Steve is pep-talking his compatriots, saying all the right things, and offering as much hope as he can muster, but his expression and the lighting tell us the real story: Steve Rogers is on the verge of losing his defining optimism, in much the same way that Tony Stark was on the verge of losing his signature belief in his own ability to outwit whatever challenge he faces.
In both cases, these men are saved by a woman and given a second chance to be themselves again — Tony by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Steve by Natasha, who refuses to accept his suggestion that maybe it’s time for the Avengers to pack it all in and “get a life.” Of all the heroes, Natasha is the only one who hasn’t given up on their original purpose, because she’s the only one who has nothing else to go back to.
Which makes her arc in this movie, as Thanos might say, inevitable.
Likewise, when the handheld camera follows Hawkeye through the field in a panic, it’s a departure from most MCU shots. These films are often shot on greenscreens, so the camera is usually locked down by necessity; handheld shots in the MCU therefore either mean confusion, uncertainty, or intimacy.
This handheld tactic pops up again in a several other important Endgame moments, as a juxtaposition to the locked-down shots that precede them.
For example, when Rocket (Bradley Cooper) finds the infinity gauntlet, only to realize that something is very wrong with it, that shot is stable. The filmmakers want you to take a long look at Rocket’s despondent face before the other characters have a chance to fully process the situation. Immediately afterward, as Rhodey, Natasha, and Steve are arguing about what to do next, those shots are handheld. Their thoughts are scattered, because their plan has failed — again.
That sequence ends with Thor stepping out into the sun, but he’s also literally stepping out of focus.
This represents the characters’ “new normal” of confusion and the lack of clarity the surviving Avengers now feel.
As the scenes that follow will show, the Avengers no longer have a purpose. They thought they could make up for what happened… but they were wrong. And they remain in this headspace until a new clarity arrives.
Notice that when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is walking away from the security guard at the impound lot, he looks over his shoulder to see the guard is still staring suspiciously at him, but the guard is out of focus while Lang is clear. That’s because Lang represents the Avengers’ new clarity of purpose, and their next attempt at fixing what they thought they’d failed at for good.
Doctor Strange’s Infinity War Plan Was Insane
Look, I get that heroism requires taking risks and making sacrifices.
But it says a lot that when Doctor Strange was examining a million possible futures in Infinity War, he decided that the only way the Avengers had any chance of stopping Thanos was to bet everything on a rat walking across the dashboard of a van, rather than trying to talk some sense into Star-Lord. Because Star-Lord snapping and punching Thanos after he learned that Thanos killed Gamora is the only reason that Strange, Stark, Spider-Man, Drax, and Mantis failed to steal the infinity stones from Thanos in the first place.
Maybe the Guardians should be proactively seeking new leadership after all.
But as glib as that observation may be, there’s a kernel of truth here that runs throughout every Marvel movie: the biggest challenges are always created by the heroes’ own flaws, and overcoming them provides them (and us) with the biggest catharsis.
Or: why Tony Stark never, ever should have gone for that slice of pizza midway through Endgame… and why both he and Steve Rogers are ultimately so glad he did.
With Great Power Comes Great (Representational) Responsibility
When Marvel Comics first launched back in 1961, with The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, the company that Lee, Kirby, and Ditko built was based on the principle that superheroes were people too — relatable people with real problems, just like us.
In that spirit, there’s a very small moment in Endgame’s first hour that represents a massive step for Marvel, and for its parent company, Disney.
During a group therapy session, Steve Rogers is listening to a fellow survivor (played by Endgame co-director Joe Russo) talk about the experience of going on his first date since the snap. The scene encapsulates the Marvel ethos in a nusthell: just like Hawkeye serves to rebalance the godlike Avengers, this very human survivor’s seemingly minor anecdote about going on a date in the face of what feels like a cruel and unjust universe is Steve’s own reminder that we have to keep going, no matter what life throws at us, because if we don’t, then evil and villainy might as well have won.
But the understatedly huge point here is that the survivor was talking about going on a date with another man.
He’s openly gay, in a Marvel movie, which is being seen by millions of people all around the world. And Captain America, the literal embodiment of what America represents, is sitting next to him in therapy (which, in itself, is a signal that real men can seek help for their stress), and Cap tells this man that he’s the brave one, because he’s doing the hard work to move on.
For a film studio that has hinted at LGBTQ inclusivity before, only to edit those moments out of the final cut, this is a very small, yet also very large, creative choice. And yes, they might edit this line differently in foreign markets that aren’t as socially progressive as the United States.
But I think it’s worth noting that in a film which celebrates just how far these heroes have come over the past 11 years, from a comic studio whose hallmark feature has always been the representative reality of its characters, Marvel keeps pushing the envelope forward on who gets to be considered a hero, and what real heroism means.
Bruce Banner Is the Low-Key MVP
At one point, Steve says to Natasha, “We keep telling people to move on with their lives. Some do. But not us.”
Well, Bruce Banner did.
Unlike Steve and Natasha, who seem paralyzed by their failure, or Thor, who seems so crushed by it that he retreats into denial, or Hawkeye, whose survivor’s remorse turns him into a soulless vengeance machine, Bruce Banner — the most emotional and erratic Avenger of them all — responds to life after the snap by… accepting it.
He finally gets his emotions under control, for real. He develops a new zenlike perspective that allows him to live with Hulk and Banner coexisting in perfect balance. And he maintains his focus on the big picture in a way that allows him to shepherd others, like Thor and Clint, when their emotions get the better of them.
And if he hadn’t done all that, this film would have ended very differently.
Chris Hemsworth as Thor Is Doing Better Acting Than Anyone Gives Him Credit For
How do you tell a story about characters who are so powerful that they can literally destroy planets, singlehandedly wipe out entire alien armadas, bend time and physics to their whims, and essentially live forever?
By making them as human, imperfect, and relatable as possible.
And no one has had a harder past few years than Thor.
First his father Odin dies, leaving him as the unprepared and unwilling king of Asgard. Then Hela, the half-sister he never knew he had, shows up and destroys the hammer that gave him his identity. Then he finds he’s unable to save his home planet from destruction in Thor: Ragnarok.
Then many of the Asgardians he was able to save get killed by Thanos, including his best friend Heimdall and his half-brother Loki, while he’s forced to watch. Half of those who survive that incident will later get dusted by Thanos’s snap, which Thor directly failed to stop, even though he was eye to eye with Thanos when it happened.
Finally he gets a chance for revenge, if not exactly redemption, when the Avengers find Thanos and desperately try for one last shot at setting everything right… but they’re too late.
No wonder Thor is such a mess in Endgame.
It’s a clever character arc to set him on, because it essentially turns the most powerful Avenger into a slovenly punchline that raises the stakes because every other character now has to be on their A-game to make up for his dangerously uncontrolled behavior. It also provides Chris Hemsworth with ample opportunity to really act, and he responds by delivering one of the most multifacted performances in the whole film. Part self-loathing, part self-mockery, and part simmering rage, his quest to redeem himself is driving him to despair. It takes a conversation with the only person he’ll listen to for him — and for us — to finally realize that we’re not defined by our mistakes, unless we allow ourselves to be.
Unless we give up.
Thor may not be the smartest Avenger, but for all the hard lessons he’s learned, he’s on his way to becoming the wisest. And Hemsworth is on his way to becoming one of the most underrated actors of this generation.
The Evolution of Captain America
Robert Downey, Jr., has justifiably been celebrated as the face of the MCU ever since its inception. The Marvel Comics Extended Universe literally wouldn’t be here without him. His magnetic charisma turned a C-level hero like Iron Man into an A-level star and proved that the world has a seemingly endless appetite for Marvel’s particular blend of sarcastic feel-good heroism.
But if Downey’s Tony Stark has been the face, the brains, the smirk, and the ingenious spirit of the MCU, and Hemsworth’s Thor is the unsinkable, larger-than-life, “anything is possible” boyhood wonder of comics in general, then Evans’s Steve Rogers is the MCU’s heart.
These films work so well because their characters are so well-balanced. And while Downey will undoubtedly get the lion’s share of credit for the full arc of Endgame, and for the long arc of the MCU itself, I think Chris Evans deserves just as much credit for his nuanced evolution of Captain America over the years.
Embodying America itself is already a tall order. That Evans does it with a mix of humility and self-awareness without ever becoming corny, self-parodic, or a cliché is already a masterful feat of acting. That he also continually provides the MCU with a clearly-defined moral compass even as the world changes around him only makes him more valuable, both narratively and emblematically.
But in Endgame, we also see a subtly different Steve Rogers — in many ways the endpoint of all the character’s previous iterations.
The wide-eyed idealist of Captain America: The First Avenger, whose idealism was then betrayed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and whose belief in individual liberty alienated Tony Stark, the yin to Steve’s yang, in Captain America: Civil War, was brought to his breaking point in Avengers: Infinity War and finally pushed past it during the opening act of Endgame.
What do you do when your best isn’t good enough?
For Rogers, he takes solace in the everyday heroism of others, and the knowledge that even if the heroes sometimes lose, humanity will keep fighting the good fight.
That therapy scene is the first half of his character’s big evolution in Endgame. The second half happens when he and Tony need to improvise during their big plan, and Tony’s improvisation brings Steve face to face with the other loose end he’s never been able to adequately resolve, even 70 years later.
These two scenes provide Steve with the spark of catharsis that later leads him to realize what he needs to do in the film’s epilogue — or, maybe more accurately, what he finally can do.
Along the way, we’ve seen Steve Rogers grow up from a scrawny kid whose heart was the biggest thing about him to becoming a world-weary middle-aged man. He’s no longer a by-the-book boy scout. He swears a lot more now. He makes dad jokes. He admires his own ass. And he’s as exhausted by the glib righteousness of his younger days as Bruce Banner is about his own catastrophically unchecked rage.
Steve Rogers has grown up to become secure in himself in a way that he wasn’t when his worldview was still being defined and constantly tested by others. He knows who he is now, and he trusts that the essence of what he represents — of humankind’s ability to do its best when challenges arise — will survive whatever the world throws at us.
If Tony finally achieves peace by fully embracing selflessness, Steve achieves it by finally believing that the best is yet to come.
It’s a powerful message to send via the walking personification of America, especially as our own national identity seems more fractured and uncertain than ever.
But it’s the right signal.
Steve Rogers can’t do this forever. None of these heroes — or the actors who play them — can.
That’s the point of the MCU: it’s not about who wears the uniform; it’s always about who shows up.
And speaking of showing up…
The Real Reason Why Avengers: Endgame Is Such a Box Office Success
As a storytelling experience, Avengers: Endgame is so complex that I could talk about it from endless angles.
But I think what sums Endgame up best — and, by extension, what sums up the entire MCU — is this:
Avengers: Endgame is a communal experience.
I saw Avengers: Endgame during Thursday previews a day before it “officially” released, and the theater was sold-out full. It was one of the loudest and most actively-engaged audiences I’ve ever seen a movie with, at least since the first Avengers movie back in 2012.
And the next day… I went back to see Endgame again. At another sold out show. With another massively engaged audience of all ages, genders, and ethnicities.
In one show, I sat next to a 40-ish black male comic book superfan who was openly sobbing during the film’s pivotal scenes. So was the gay interracial couple behind us. So was half the rest of the theater.
In the second show, I sat in front of a pack of tweens who gasped with every plot revelation, raced to one-up each other on predicting what would happen next, and who were visibly shaken by the film’s climax. One of them kept repeating a version of “it can’t be true” over and over and over and over again, in sheer disbelief. Beside us, a trio of three Chinese women were riveted. One of them leaned forward with her hands over her mouth and watched the film like that for twenty minutes straight.
This kind of audience reaction doesn’t happen by accident.
Endgame accomplishes something that only a film series which has been meticulously and intenionally built, piece by piece, for a decade and counting, can do: it provides its audience with a shared experience that we literally cannot find elsewhere in pop culture.
To be fair, Game of Thrones came close for several seasons. (Let’s not speak of season 8.)
But Game of Thrones is also the work of a glass-half-empty pragmatist (George R. R. Martin) who’s written a saga about the perils of politics and power through the eyes of characters we worry about. Meanwhile, the MCU is the work of a glass-half-full idealist (producer Kevin Feige) and the creative team he’s assembled to bring Marvel’s vision to life through the actions of characters we deeply care about.
Martin’s characters seek justice. Feige’s characters seek betterment.
That such a deeply affecting emotional experience is being crafted by a massive global coproration is shocking. That it’s also being done so seemingly effortlessly while literally every other attempt to duplicate its success — from Paramount’s abandoned “Dark Universe” of monster movies to Warner Bros. and DC’s repeatedly misguided DC cinematic universe — is a testament to just how good Marvel has gotten at doing something we now take for granted, but which is actually so difficult that no one else can get it right:
The MCU respects their characters, their audience, and the founding vision of Marvel Comics.
There’s a reason Avengers: Endgame is selling out theaters around the world in record numbers despite its three-hour runtime. After a decade together, we’re all showing up to hang out with old friends we love and enjoy one last party together.
And damn, is it one hell of a goodbye.
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John Wall · April 30, 2019 at 10:38 pm
I think it’s a wonderful change for the better that thanks to the state of digital effects, the kinds of stories I loved as a kid – tales of adventure and selfless heroes, are shared and loved by everyone that goes to the movies, not just people willing to chase down comics and graphic novels.