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Acton Commentary

Avengers Endgame: Family values for superheroes

I saw Avengers: Endgame on opening night at the last possible showing, 10:30 p.m.. I had to see Endgame after my kids had gone to bed, and my wife -- no fan of comic book movies -- graciously stayed home while they slept. In watching it by myself, however, I made a strategic mistake: The value of family life is one of Endgame’s chief themes.

Most comic book films provide a means of escapism. We watch superheroes battle supervillains across a CGI-enhanced galaxy as a way of detaching from the mundane details of the workweek. But Endgame’s themes of self-sacrifice, heroism, and the value of family and community seem to warn against escaping too long into the pages of a comic book or the storyline of an action flick. Indeed, the very message that the multibillion-dollar Avengers franchise has decided to end on is that you should cherish your family and your loved ones and not take them for granted.

the very message that the multibillion-dollar Avengers franchise has decided to end on is that you should cherish your family and your loved ones and not take them for granted.

Endgame’s epic three-hour running time is not due to battles between earth’s superheroes and Thanos, the film’s central villain, and his army of minions. Instead, the bulk of the screen time focuses on each of the Avengers coping with their unfathomable grief after losing loved ones and friends at the end of the last Avengers film, Infinity War

Audiences are finding this formula irresistible. Since its April 26 release, the movie has grossed nearly $2.5 billion in box office revenue worldwide. Over the May 10-12 weekend, Avengers was once again the most popular U.S. film, playing in more 4,600 theaters.

In that film, Thanos succeeded in gathering together the six “Infinity Stones” that would give him the power to impose the most evil and far-reaching scheme of population control: Thanos wants to obliterate half the lifeforms in the galaxy in order to free up enough resources for the other half to live. With a snap of his fat, purple fingers, Thanos turns 50 percent of both the universe’s population and the Avengers to ash. Their remains drift off with the wind and leave the audience with a haunting image of our own mortality. If our favorite superheroes can’t save themselves, what hope do we have?

Endgame opens with Hawkeye — who was absent from Infinity War -- teaching his daughter to shoot arrows like he does. But then Hawkeye’s family disappears in a cloud of flaky black ashes when Thanos achieves his twisted, Thomas Malthus-inspired plan. The audience then attends support groups with Captain America where he struggles to explain why he keeps living because otherwise “Thanos just should have killed everyone.” This grief crushes some, even turning some Avengers into beer-guzzling fratboys, but it inspires other Avengers to take whatever chance they have to bring back the ones they lost. These are deep themes that most comic books do not handle, leaving us mere mortals to deal with them on our own. Most superheroes are notorious loners, but the Avengers franchise sends the message that superheroes, like the rest of us, need a team of loved ones and friends behind them if they’re to accomplish anything at all. 

Along with other fans, I panicked when I saw childhood favorites like Spiderman wither away. Those black clouds served as a solemn reminder about the cruel, seemingly random nature of death. Thanos’ name bears an obvious resemblance to the Greek god of death, Thanatos, and Thanos’ plan is no different than the misguided or outright evil schemes to implement population control that have troubled the real world. In Endgame, the loss of half the world’s population does not free up resources for the other half to live; instead, their deaths weigh down the living with unending grief as to why they survived and their loved ones did not. Even superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor spend most of Endgame struggling to find meaning in life once half of the people they cared about disappeared into thin air.

Thanos’ plan is no different than the misguided or outright evil schemes to implement population control that have troubled the real world.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo did not rely on comic book clichés or epic battle sequences to end the popular Avengers franchise. Sure, Endgame ties up the myriad threads running through the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ends with a breathtaking, winner-take-all battle on the ruins of Avenger headquarters. But for a movie most dads would watch with their kids and their wives -- if their wives loved comic books -- the film leaves those audience members being a little more thankful for their loved ones. This makes the movie worth seeing on its own, and given the Avengers’ popularity, I hope audiences will connect these themes and plotlines to real issues that the movie only hints at. With the Green New Deal and the rising popularity of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asking “Is it okay to still have children?" we would all do well to imitate Captain America’s example in the final moments of Endgame. 

Warning: Spoiler ahead 

Captain America volunteers to travel back in time and return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place in the time loop (long story). But Captain America never comes back to the present; instead, he travels back further in time to the 1940s and marries his sweetheart, Peggy Carter. He then lives out the following 70 years with Peggy, presumably doing all the “normal” things that superheroes cannot do such as having kids and growing old with the woman you love. Only then does Captain America show up at Avenger headquarters, ready to turn over his shield to a new Captain America. The ending may cause problems with the logic of time travel, but the message is clear: The life of a superhero has its perks, but so does a life spent with the ones you love, uninterrupted by calls to save the world. 

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Winston Brady is a high school teacher at Thales Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina and an MBA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.