Avengers: Endgame has fast become a part of history. With its monumental $1.3 billion opening weekend, the film was nothing short of a cultural event, solidifying the MCU in modern history. Yet in the hype it’s easy to forget why it’s become so popular. Vox insightfully referred to the Marvel catalogue as “pop culture’s most sustained response to tragedy” – and it’s my view that Endgame is the most powerful response we have in popular culture today to the seismic shift of 9/11.
In the years since 2001, culture has undergone a huge transformation, trying to come to terms with this tragedy of colossal proportions. The Guardian ran a feature in 2004 exploring how the Marvel comics dealt with 9/11, including a look at Marvel’s Moment of Silence, a project in honor of the first responders to the events. Fast forward to today and there is a reasonable amount of coverage online about pop culture post-9/11. Vox has reams of information about the superhero formula that has attempted to rewrite 9/11. There are even books on the subject. Most recently, Tom Pollard’s Hollywood 9/11, showing how the movie-making machine has adapted to our post-traumatic state.
I realize it’s insensitive to blindly shoehorn this very real tragedy into the film for the sake of analysis, but that isn’t what’s happening here. I make the comparison because I think cinema has always reflected cultural movements. After the First World War, we had German Expressionism — a lament for the horrors of the war and a distortion of the violent fallout. After WW2, we had Film Noir, reflecting paranoia and fear. Now, in the 21st century, the highest-grossing franchises deal with superhuman individuals, fantasy, extreme violence, and radicalisation. In these narratives we see a reflection of ourselves as we want to be, polarizing good and evil, bringing justice where we were powerless to do so before.
When it comes to Endgame, I’m more so intrigued because it’s the most obvious allusion to a post-9/11 world of any MCU film I’ve seen. The entire first act — taking the end of Infinity War with grave sincerity — is a lament for the lost. Having lived with this grief for 5 years, the characters are hopeless. Support groups meet and, try as they might to see the good in life, they’re surrounded by the physical debris that remind them of the past. The film’s slow pacing, much commented on, lends well to this sense of lament. In the same way, a world after 9/11 hardly feels what it used to be. Need we be reminded today that we’re seeing record levels of unprovoked gun crime, epidemics, or that mental health is an increasingly worsening crisis? In both the fictional world, and the real, life can’t seem to get much worse.
When Scott Lang re-emerges from the Quantum Realm, life as he knows it has been turned completely upside-down. The physical decay of the place hardly needs analysis. He attempts to talk to a passing child, asking what’s happened, but the reaction is mute. It’s not just disbelief — as if the sorrow is too great. His despondency in cycling away without a word to me indicates that the collective voice has been silenced, through apathy or denial. Surviving individuals in the MCU have become so disillusioned with what’s happened that it’s crippled their capacity for expression. Consider also Thor, who’s wordless for the first scenes he appears in. “He thinks he failed,” they say, regarding their defeated comrade.
The memorial that wayfaring stranger Scott stumbles on shows his discombobulation with the apocalyptic new world. It’s eerily reminiscent of Ground Zero and gave me chills. Others, I’m sure, would have felt a fresh willingness to commemorate the victims of the real-life attacks. We’re dreading the moment Scott finds his daughter’s name, but instead he finds himself — as if he’s been erased from history. I’m convinced it wasn’t just me, but a universal feeling of dread for all spectators, when we experience the utter horror of being “lost.”
And what of the billions of lives that have been lost in the film? This sense of self-erasure runs through the narrative: as Tony Stark states later, “in losing half the population of all living things on earth, we lost part of ourselves.” Black Widow can’t help but feel dejected after yet another call with the scattered heroes. She says, “What else have I got?” Hawkeye, disillusioned by grief, traverses the globe in an attempt to undo the wrongs he has experienced (think America and the Iraq War). His one caveat? “Don’t give me hope.”
Even Thanos himself addresses the issue of a grieving population, unable to function without all the characters there, despite his belief that the genocide would make everything stable again. It shows our fundamental need for connection with others, and the sense of loss we feel without it. Analysis has been made of the moment in Age of Ultron when Joss Whedon referred back to the iconic photo of businessmen stampeding away from the Twin Towers. But if Ultron and Infinity War were setting us up for tragedy, Endgame asks us: “What now?”
The answer that’s offered is a chance to travel through time and rewrite the past. Fundamentally, Endgame is a redemption story, and we see it as the characters change. Thor is no longer the invincible immortal he was; Captain America gives his all, then chooses to retire; Bruce Banner has learned to live with his rage, embodied by his disfigurement into a semi-man, semi-Hulk — barely human; Tony Stark learns to pick himself up out of denial and sacrifice himself, Christ-like, for the greater good. All these narratives show progress, show growth, and show that it’s time to face up to the past and move on.
It would be crude to simply categorize the Avengers as ‘the West’ and Thanos as ‘terrorism’, but there’s an implicit suggestion that he’s the embodiment of all our fears in a post-9/11 world. The fact that he believes he’s doing the right thing puts him in a vulnerable position where we have the option to forgive him, and I found this uncomfortable. So, too, did the heroes — so he’s hastily beheaded. In fact, as if a revenge killing of Thanos wasn’t enough, we see his character murdered twice within the same 3 hours — on different timelines, but nevertheless once more than usual, if only to create a sense of closure and victory. It’s complicated, but in the story timeline it’s a victory; in the real world, it’s the chance we wish we could have at rewriting the past.
In the wake of tragedy, people don’t want clever theories or speculation about the root cause. They want solidarity. They want comfort. And they want a cathartic solution. And where better than in fabricating narratives in which we’re the heroes? Telling ourselves stories where characteristics are exaggerated to epic proportions to give us a sense of authority? Endgame offers some degree of closure to these fundamental problems, showing us a fantasy world where, no matter what terrible things have happened, redemption is possible. At the end of it all, families are reunited and hope is restored — the message is to make the most of life and to appreciate those around us because life is fragile and shouldn’t be taken for granted.