For some reason, in the movie where it should have mattered the most, the grand finale that is Avengers: Endgame, the central idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not only forgotten, but soundly rejected. Instead of concluding a decade’s worth of storytelling premised on the notion of the found family by emphasizing the idea, Endgame separates the heroes, both visually and emotionally, at every turn, and completely annihilates the MCU’s beloved chosen family in favor of establishing the dominance of the normative one.
“There was an idea … called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could.” — Nick Fury, The Avengers
These are quite possibly the most iconic words to come out of any of the Avengers movies, a familiar refrain that frames the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a thesis statement around which its movies have been built.
As the powerful quote suggests, all of the original Avengers, from Tony Stark to Natasha Romanoff to Steve Rogers, and all of the heroes they adopt along the way, were lost before the Avengers brought them together—adrift and alone. The work of the MCU, aside from offering incredible effects and filling the screen with explosions, has thus always purported to be telling the story of how a group of lost individuals became “something more” because they found one another.
The most obvious indicator of Endgame’s shift away from this concept is sheer narrative real estate. In a movie that’s over three hours long, the time the original six heroes spend all together is blink-and-you’ll-miss it. The very structure of the movie forces them apart. After taking such great care to make sure that, largely, only the original heroes are left standing at the end of Avengers: Infinity War—for, ostensibly, the purpose of focusing on these core relationships—the movie doesn’t even bother to have the six heroes in a room together for more than a couple of montages.
They unite early in the film (although Tony Stark is left behind) for a scene that revolves around uselessly killing Thanos, and then disperse. After that, a large part of the movie is spent on bringing the Avengers back together, once again, in scenes that are more about cracking jokes and taking shortcuts than they are about the connection of the team. The Avengers do finally reunite … only to have the singular path forward mean they have to, you guessed it, separate once more for the time heist/Infinity Stone gathering. Notably, after the time heist sequences, there is no bringing the team back together, because Natasha (Black Widow) dies in the process and isn’t even properly mourned.
Even if the only possible plotline for the movie had to be the retrieval of infinity stones across timelines—which, it must be pointed out, is a literal mirror to Thanos’s very screen-time heavy plot in Infinity War—why did the Avengers have to be separate in order to do so? Shouldn’t the final world-saving feat have been done as one? With the Avengers facing down the powerful stones and whatever the fates meted out together—a last quest worthy of a team that has become a family?
There was such potential, even in this repetitive narrative, to strengthen the bonds of the team in the final movie—to show how close they had become, what they know about one another now, what they’d sacrifice for each other, and just how far they’ve journeyed since they were just a group of lost souls forced together by circumstance. But, in what is supposed to be the jewel of the collection, the narrative forgets they ever really cared about one another at all. Instead, the movie spends precious time recounting the MCU’s greatest hits, which the audience had already seen, and creating a needless separation between those who the fans most hoped to see together.
It’s no coincidence that some of the most cheered moments in the history of the MCU are the moments where the whole team unites, from the iconic assembling that turned the tides in The Avengers (and was replayed in Endgame) to the post-battle shawarma scene, to the party scene in Age of Ultron. By the same token, Civil War is meant to be so harrowing because the split comes from within the team, because family fights family.
It is no coincidence that the smallest of scenes, in which the audience can see that Tony Stark has planned individualized floors for all his new teammates in Avengers tower, has sparked the imagination of millions, or that “Avengers Movie Night” is such a popular fan trope that it’s easy to forget it was never canon. The strength of the MCU, and what its creators have always been so quick to boast about, is the relatable humanity of its characters and the strength of their relationships, but Avengers: Endgame has none of this.
Instead, the characters only grow farther apart over the course of the movie, physically distanced and emotionally estranged. In the first five minutes of Endgame, there are true sparks of emotion as tempers flare and anguish is shown, but after the opening credits roll, that never returns. Instead, the audience is forced to watch as relationships that have barely been developed emerge to take center stage, pushing out the found family for a more normative vision of family should be, one that centers not on what the story has built so far, but on typical storytelling crutches and tropes.
For starters, most of Tony Stark’s journey in Endgame revolves around the notion of his wife and child. Although Pepper has been a feature of Iron Man’s Avengers arc, at the end of the day, Morgan Stark does not exist in the universe for more than a total of five minutes (a generous estimation). But simply because she is “a child,” she commands a place of importance that supersedes any other relationship Tony has ever formed.
He abandons his team for five years early on in the movie, and there seems to be an implication that he hasn’t spoken to any of them in that time—a team that he was once ready to let live in his tower after mere days of knowing one another, a team that changed his life. The distance is vast. Following this, during his trip back in time, an extended sequence of him forgiving his neglectful father is offered to viewers.
Instead of using this time to have him repair his relationship with Steve Rogers, or look back on how far he’s come, the normative family once again emerges from the ether, and a completely unearned redemption is given to a character that was largely responsible for Tony needing to be saved in the first place. But simply the blood relation means Endgame deems it necessary. In Tony’s final moments, none of the original six Avengers are at his side.
Meanwhile, Steve Rogers spends the whole movie not commiserating with his support group over the shared grief and loss of those closest to them, not trying to get his team back together, not fixing the large chasms that formed after Civil War, but pining after a shoe-horned Peggy Carter, whom he has already buried, mourned, and released in previous films.
In Endgame, Steve’s story revolves around history’s most basic hero’s arc, “getting the girl and living happily ever after,” when instead, it should have centered around the found family he lost in Infinity War and the found family that was still around him, as the audience was narratively promised. It’s all stereotype and selfishness (and no substance), completely failing to focus on the characters who have been featured in his films and have helped build him up as a hero—the ones who drove him to say, in Age of Ultron, as he assumed his place as leader of the Avengers, “The simple life … The guy who wanted all that went in the ice 75 years ago. I think someone else came out.” In Avengers: Endgame, all the growth that led to “whoever came out” was sacrificed on the altar of normativity and optics.
Finally, Thor leaves behind his people, whom he finally felt ready to lead in Thor: Ragnarok, and Bruce Banner, with whom he developed a close relationship in the same film. Bruce, as Professor Hulk, seems to have forgotten how to experience close emotions at all, and Clint Barton presumably goes back to his, shockingly enough, wife and children, despite his five-year murder spree and the loss of his best friend, whose sacrifice to make that possible is a particularly egregious example of the anti-found family trend.
Natasha Romanoff, the only one of the original 6 Avengers who seemed to have remembered they had ever been a family at all in the movie is, of course, dead, having also been sacrificed due to her lack of blood relations. At the end of Endgame, the found family is no more. Every expectation ever set up seemed to indicate these connections would shine, but instead, at no point is the chosen family given any credit at all. Instead, the project of the movie is, it turns out, to dismantle it completely.
Between heist hijinks and dabbing, between fat jokes and Thanos, between Steve Rogers staring at a compass and an impersonal battle scene, it seems like this movie had a lot of time to do everything except credit the relationships Marvel worked so hard to build for a decade. But this time, for many of these characters, there is no next movie, no chance to bridge the gaps, and no “well, maybe next time” hope for fans who just wanted to see their favorites together again.
In the end, the way the found family is treated is best summed up by the movie itself. As the team half-heartedly mourns Black Widow, Tony Starks asks them, “Did she have any family?” And though Steve responds with the obvious, it rings hollow—given the way he, himself, is so quick to later abandon his found family for the fantasy of a dance.
But while neat bows are a pretty way to see everything tied up, the promise of the MCU was never supposed to be “and then every hero will be successfully paired off or dead.” It was always about friendship, about trust, about coming together to be something more, and throwing all that away is a disappointing end.
(images: Marvel Entertainment)
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