By Nick Kazden
After watching half of all life disappear in last summer’s Infinity War, it makes sense that the remaining Avengers are struggling in Endgame. Picking up days after Thanos’s infamous snap, this new film serves as the culmination of 10 years worth of Marvel stories, but it’s not really about stopping bad guys: It’s about learning to say goodbye.
There are plenty of action-packed sequences throughout Endgame, but the moments that resonate the most depict the Avengers, or even regular people, trying to cope with indescribable loss. After losing his entire family, Clint Barton is now a murderous shell of his former self, while Thor struggles to feel worthy again after failing his former companions. The Avengers spent most of their careers believing they could accomplish anything together, but Thanos's overwhelming victory forced them to question that pristine vision of themselves.
Part of what makes Endgame such an effective character study is the amount of time it spends dissecting how each Avenger moves on — or doesn’t — following Infinity War. As Tony Stark floats in space, with only Nebula for company, his desire to reconnect with Pepper motivates him to keep searching for solutions, but that doesn’t stop him from constantly messaging home so that he can say goodbye one last time. And later, after he’s rescued and the movie jumps five years into the future, it’s his fear of having to say goodbye to his new life — and young daughter — that initially prevents him from aiding his former teammates in trying to set things right. In fact, Tony agrees to help only on the condition that bringing back what the universe lost won’t force him to lose what he's found. Since Iron Man, we’ve seen Tony confront A.I. gone mad, Asgardian tricksters, and aliens intent on destroying the Earth, but this emotional dilemma is the first time his fear feels truly relatable, which makes it even harder to lose this beloved character.
Satisfied with his work, Thanos certainly has a role to play here, but it’s heavily downgraded from Infinity War. The Mad Titan, who pervertedly believes he is a force for good, has taken to calling himself "inevitable." His self-characterization makes sense. Marvel Studios has been building to this confrontation for a decade, but, at the end of the day, Thanos loses. His defeat and the ultimate restoration of countless life forms reinforces the somber idea that goodbyes, not giant purple terrorists, are life’s only inevitability. Tony Stark didn’t have to directly say goodbye to Morgan to save the world, but she ended up saying it to him regardless.
More than probably any other character, the movie goes out of its way to make Captain America reflect on the difficulties of separation. When Steve Rogers originally awoke in the present back in Captain America: The First Avenger, he’d already been forced to abandon the love of his life, his best friend, and everyone he’s ever known. No matter how well-adjusted he seems, his actions throughout Endgame prove that Cap never truly accepted that he had to say goodbye. A group therapy leader who tells others to persevere and overcome their emotional trauma, it’s clear whenever Cap opens his compass and gazes at a picture of his lost love, Peggy Carter, that he’s still working on it himself. In a sense, Captain America is the only character who receives a genuinely happy ending in Endgame, but even his touching exchange with Sam Wilson comes with a degree of melancholic irony. In order for Captain America to obtain what he always wanted — a full life with Peggy in which he didn’t have to focus on duty — he had to move on from his new life and and all the friends he made (and found) along the way.
Even the structure of the movie reinforces the idea that Endgame is closing the curtain on this era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As part of Scott Lang’s Back to the Future II inspired "time-heist" idea to save the day, the Avengers visit key moments from the MCU’s past, not unlike a sitcom clip-show episode right before the big finale. Moments like the attack on New York or Peter Quill dancing through Morag flash on screen; audiences remember just how far they’ve come with each of these characters as they face their fiercest obstacle yet. While the Marvel movies are going to continue and new heroes will be introduced, Endgame embodies a sense of sentimentality that feels like parting from an old friend at the end of a very long road.
Superheroes dominate the box office and blanket practically every television network, but there’s something uniquely personal about watching this group assemble. We’ve grown alongside the Avengers for 10 years, watching them overcome global threats and conflict in a way that makes us empathize with and connect to these struggling heroes. We’re not just observing them kick butt from afar, we’ve had a front-seat view into their entire lives. In a way, that relationship makes Endgame even more special. Just like the remaining Avengers have to carry on without some of their former allies, we too have to stand tall without the continued guidance of some of Marvel’s finest.