‘And the humans, ’ a dark deep voice asks at the beginning of the film, ‘what can they do but burn?’ The answer is quite a lot, especially when they are defended by superheroes. Still, many of them do burn, and the film itself, The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon, quietly raises the issue of collateral damage. Did the superheroes have to fight their war to save the world on the streets of New York, amid crashing buildings, smashed cars and uncountable corpses? Later films in the series have had other battlefields, like an airport, or a lunar landscape where every combatant is a soldier of some kind.
This is where we wind up – or come close to winding up in Endgame – directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the fourth Avengers film produced by Marvel Studios – the other two were Age of Ultron (2015) and Infinity War (2018). Josh Brolin, alias Thanos the Titan, having destroyed half the population of Earth in Infinity War, is finally put down, although at no small cost to the superheroes. Scarlett Johansson (the Black Widow) took a journey through time and never came back, and the final battle (or life itself) was too much for Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man). The last scene but one is his funeral, and the last scene of all is a glimpse of an aged Chris Evans (Captain America), who has had better luck, and is living with his old sweetheart retrieved from the 1970s. On the soundtrack we hear the Harry James song ‘It’s been a long, long time’, already familiar from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
It’s not just the Avengers who are ending here. In 2008, with their film Iron Man, Marvel Studios embarked on a series of 22 films and this new one completes the set. Other movies concentrated on particular figures from the comics: the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant Man, Dr Strange, the Black Panther. And the four Avengers films brought together various assemblies of one or other ‘handful of freaks’. They quarrelled among themselves, and the recurring assumption seems to have been that they never really belonged together except when they were the world’s, or the universe’s, only chance. In the 2012 film, the Avengers split up – ‘like a band’, ‘like the Beatles’ – but Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is confident they’ll come back: ‘We’ll need them to.’ ‘Mrs Peel, we’re needed’ was the catch line of another English set, or pair, of avengers; and it’s worth pausing over the logic of this fantasy. Needs in reality can be met or not – often not – but certain fictions create needs only in order to meet them. We don’t like to think of the end of the world, or the death of everything we care about. But we love to imagine guaranteed magical preventions of that end, that death.
In this context the wishes or motivations of individual superheroes are overruled by the plot. The fantasy conscripts them without waiting for their consent, because on the worst of occasions only a gang of implausible heroes – the pistol-packing, cowboy-like racoon called Rocket may have the edge here – can save us. The days of the lone rescuer are gone. Well, not quite. There is Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen), who shot her part in Endgame before her own film came out earlier this year. There is a real doubt here. Captain Marvel saves Iron Man at the beginning of the film, and decides the battle at the end. In the comic book version of Infinity War, superpowers and weapons are simply equated. Maybe it’s the days of the team that are gone, buried with Iron Man.
A fine comic variant of this question runs through Endgame. We know that it’s not easy being a superhero, and that even magical geniuses are dogged by mortality. What we didn’t know perhaps, until we saw this film, is how hard it is to get a superhero to return from retirement. Iron Man, in spite of his near death at the beginning of the film, is living very comfortably with Gwyneth Paltrow and their daughter, and doesn’t want to play violent games any more, in part because he doesn’t believe in them. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is too drunk and overweight to be a serious help to anyone, and even Captain America seems desperate as he unconvincingly asserts that life must go on. The Hulk has somehow amalgamated his previously divided incarnations into a single very large but likeable character, so he’s not that much of a weapon any more. There is something rather moving about this lapse into ordinariness – or at least it’s more affecting than the mawkish mourning that marks the later parts of the film. The fact that the gang gets together anyway, because the plot wants it to, shows how anxious the plot is. I found myself thinking of Galileo’s line in Brecht’s play of that name. When the disciple says, ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes,’ the master replies: ‘No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.’
The film is sceptical about its own plot in other ways. Paul Rudd (Ant Man) has been locked away from all the disasters at the end of the preceding film, and is intrigued to discover that while he has been gone only a matter of hours, five years have passed for everyone else. ‘Have you studied quantum physics?’ he asks his companions. ‘Only to make conversation,’ Johansson says. Rudd has larger things in mind. He wants to go back in time to resuscitate their fallen companions, the ones who blew away, turned into dust, in Infinity War. He doesn’t call it time travel. He calls it a projected ‘time-heist’. A rather chaotic philosophical discussion follows, concerning whether, even if time travel is possible, anyone will be able to alter the past. Learned instances are cited: an episode of Star Trek, the film Back to the Future and so on. And just to add a touch of realistic error, the film Die Hard, which involves no time travel of any kind. It’s good to think of a movie that’s so loyal to the movies, that knows no other form of science. And it’s a long way from the solemnity of some of the earlier Avengers films. ‘There’s no one,’ the Hulk is told in one of them, ‘who knows gamma radiation like you.’ The speaker isn’t joking.
The journey into the past takes place and quite a few of the missing are brought back – the rule seems to be that you can be retrieved if you died in the past but if you die on a journey in time there is no return – and the film circles into the gimmicky part of its plot. This is the quest for the six infinity stones representing ‘essential aspects of existence’ – space, reality, power, soul, mind and time. The story sounds a bit like that of the Deathly Hallows, but the stones were around in the comic books a long time before Harry Potter was born. At one point in this story Thanos had them all, and could destroy anything and everything. At the close of Endgame Iron Man has them, but the heroes as a team decide the stones should be dispersed again, that the essential aspects of existence should be scattered rather than concentrated. In fact, I think the implication is that they should be hidden, left to exert their influences without anyone’s conscious manipulation of them. This movie doesn’t leave much room for serious scientific or philosophical inquiry, but it may hold at bay the Frankensteinian will to power that dominates so much fiction and so many films. And in this sense, the late unsuperness of our heroes may be a real guide, a source of hope rather than disappointment. Adorno wrote of Endgame as ‘a parody of the philosophy of the remainder’. It’s true he was thinking of Beckett’s play rather than the Russos’ film, but we can hit targets we have never heard of, and it may be helpful to think of who or what lingers on after a supposed closure, and to remember that the end of a game is not the end of games.
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