Talking to Students About Avengers: Endgame
Talking to Students About Avengers: Endgame
After 21 movies and 11 years, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe comes to a rousing finale* in Avengers: Endgame. It’s already a worldwide phenomenon, breaking every movie record out there, and in two weeks is already the fifth highest grossing film in history, with over $2 billion dollars worldwide in just 10 days in theaters. The release of this movie is such a cultural moment, simply spoiling the plot is considered a massive faux pas. I have no shame in admitting that I am one of those MCU nerds that followed each film and watched them all on opening night. As a huge comic book fan back in the day, seeing the characters come to life in a connected universe was a dream come true.
But what is it about these films, and specifically Avengers: Endgame that seems to have struck a nerve in our culture? What themes and ideas are so resonant that it’s breaking records left and right as people can’t seem to get enough of this three-hour movie? (A friend of mine saw the movie three times in four days. That’s nine hours of his life over opening weekend!)
Since I will be discussing the major themes in Avengers: Endgame, I feel the need to put up a massive **spoiler warning** for all of the plotlines and even some of the details of the film. My hope in this article is to offer some constructive conversation points in discussing the film with your students and your children. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, bookmark this link and come back to it after you’ve seen the movie!
This is a film about finding rest.
Unlike so many of the previous MCU movies, this is not a film that purposefully sets up the next movie. The film has been hailed as a success because it finally ends the storylines of our heroes who we’ve been following for over a decade. Avengers: Infinity War, the precursor to Endgame, was in many ways simply a setup. And audiences flocked to see how everything would end. We need closure and to see how things resolve themselves. This is why the God of universe was prudent to include the book of Revelation in his Word. But not only is Endgame about endings, it’s ultimately about finding rest.
At the beginning of the film, when Tony Stark (Ironman) is able to figure out time travel in about five minutes (I mean, we knew he would, right?), he has a dilemma. Unlike the other Avengers who lost their closest companions in the Snap, Tony was relatively lucky. He was able to start all over with his wife Pepper Potts, and they had a daughter together, Morgan. What he couldn’t have before the Snap, he’s able to enjoy afterwards. Teaming up with the Avengers to go back in time and retrieve the Infinity Stones to undo the Snap puts all of this at jeopardy. There’s a lovely, quiet moment after he puts his daughter to bed and proudly shows off that his daughter “loves him 3000.” He asks Pepper to talk him off the ledge and to tell him to quit looking for a solution to the Snap. And though she clearly wants to, she asks him, “But would you be able to rest?”
This is the struggle of these MCU films. The heroes are trying to do something; they’re trying to finish their lives so they can rest. And it’s what we want for them as well. Tony started off as a billionaire playboy genius, who always struggled with making the ultimate sacrifice. And at the end of the final battle, when Dr. Strange reminds Tony of the one timeline that leads to redemption, he’s able to summon the strength to sacrifice his life for the sake of everyone else. When Tony is holding the Infinity Stones in his glove, he’s also painfully aware that he has everything he’s ever wanted. Even Peter Parker is back in his life. And when he snaps, he will be giving his life in exchange for all of that. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, as Pepper kneels with him as he’s dying, she tells him, “We’re going to be okay. You can rest now.”
We also see this play out in the other characters’ lives as well. Steve Rodgers (Captain America) gets to go back in time and live the life of rest that he wasn’t able to in the main timeline. He grows old and lives a full life with his love, Peggy Carter; he gets to finally have that dance. His rest is almost a reversal of Tony’s. He spends his life giving it away, and is able to find rest when he focuses on his own desires for once.
Natasha (Black Widow) is able to reconcile the “red in her ledger,” established way back in the first Avengers movie, and she sacrifices her life for her team. Thor is able to come to terms with the fact that he is not supposed to be the king of Asgard, something he struggled with since his debut in the first Thor movie. Bruce Banner is able to literally recombine himself and make peace with the Hulk altogether. Clint (Hawkeye) reunites with his family after the Snap.
All of these resolutions and endings stir up in us the desire for rest. We long for this, don’t we? And this is precisely what the gospel of Christ offers to us — sabbath rest. There’s an ultimate sabbath rest we will have in the life to come, but even in this life, through the blood of Jesus Christ, we have access to gospel rest. And how does Jesus provide this? He had all he ever needed in heaven, but forsook it all to come down to live with us for 33 years and then give his life as a ransom for many. We are moved by Tony’s sacrifice because it closely mirrors Christ’s. Jesus is the hero we truly need in order to find the rest that we are so desperately seeking.
This is a film about the importance of family and reconciliation.
Much like the Fast and Furious series, the MCU has surprisingly become a film series about family. Hawkeye loses his family at the beginning of the film and gains them back at the end. Ironman gains a family at the beginning and sacrifices his life for them at the end. Ant-man is reunited to his daughter, but loses five years. Black Widow gives her life for the only family she’s ever known: the Avengers. Captain America goes back to start the family he never had.
Some of the most powerful moments in the film come from the characters who reconcile with their parents who died before they got a chance to say goodbye. Tony’s moment with his father (Howard) in the 1970’s was fun while also deeply emotional. There’s a moment when Howard tells Tony that his wife is expecting, and Tony just blurts out, “I have a daughter” — he wants his father to be proud of him. And when young Howard asks Tony what it’s like to be a father, Tony poignantly tells Howard that he’ll be a great father. Howard then affirms Tony of his love for his unborn son (Tony): “This kid’s not even here yet, but there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.” It turns out, Howard loves Tony because he’s his son, not because of his accomplishments. As a father himself, Tony is finally able to internalize this.
Thor’s story arc in this movie is about a man suffering with PTSD. He failed to kill Thanos to prevent the Snap, and he has suffered with the consequences ever since. He has gained a ton of weight and done everything he can to escape pain through alcohol and video games. He’s brought back onto the team for a chance to reverse it all, but he can’t get his act together. When he gets a chance to reconnect with his mother and receive a kind word from her, it is balm for his tortured soul. She counsels him to unload his burden to be someone he’s not. And in a rousing moment, his hammer Mjolnir returns to him to confirm that he’s still worthy even if he has failed. It turns out, his worth is not found in his performance.
Both of these reconciliations end with the gospel’s take on performance: you are not what you accomplish, and you are not what you fail at. The gospel gives us a better identity than our successes and failures. The gospel roots our identity in Jesus Christ and his accomplishment on the cross and in his resurrection on our behalf. There is now nothing we can do that would remove us from his love.
This is a film about grief.
The first half of this film is a long, slow look at how grief overtakes the world. Everyone has lost family and friends they love. The effects of the Snap are devastating. Black Widow throws herself into the work of continuing the Avengers, the only family and life she knows. Hawkeye hunts the world’s criminals, avenging the moral imbalance of having random gangsters and thugs survive the Snap. Captain America tries to utilize his optimism in support groups to keep morale up and help people move on. And Thor suffers from extreme PTSD. What do they need in the midst of their grief? They need hope.
When Ant-Man appears with a potential solution for reversing the Snap, the team is brought together again. In the midst of grief, hope reunites and gives the team purpose and meaning. In the real world, we are also surrounded by grief. Truly devastating events take place every day that reveal the reality that sin has cracked the world. How can we survive and thrive in a world as broken as ours? We need a great hope that infuses our life with the kind of purpose and meaning that will not only lift up individuals, but lift up whole communities of people. The gospel provides us with such hope, and the Holy Spirit, indwelling each believer, confirms and validates that hope that we have in Jesus Christ.
This is a film about the fight between good and evil.
In our post-modern, post-Christian age, the lines between good and evil are ever murkier. The MCU explores this to some degree, but they never fully get there because, at the end of the day, the bad guys must lose and the good guys must win. This is why the ending to Avengers: Infinity War was so shocking, even if we all knew there was a forthcoming Avengers movie that would fix it. Thanos is an interesting villain because his utilitarian ethic and plan to bring balance to the universe’s limited resources involves wiping out half of all living things. Though we can make some sense of this, deep down we know it is an evil plan. Thanos thinks he’s doing the universe some good, but it’s clear to us that he’s an evil that must be stopped.
And what of Black Widow and Ironman’s sacrifices? In some sense, their happiness is exchanged for the happiness of others. Why does this feel right though? Perhaps it’s written in our hearts the truth of John 15:13 — “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The ethic of love that Christ espoused and left behind for his disciples to follow stands in direct opposition to Thanos’ cold and calculated plan. This is a film that intends to inspire us to action, and to act on the side of good and love, rather than evil.
The final battle’s scope and scale should stir us as Christians to recognize that we are in a real spiritual battle. Christ is leading the charge, and we need to put on the whole armor of God. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
The importance of conversations
Lastly, I want to encourage you to equip your students to have conversations about this movie with their own friends, bringing up some of these themes as a bridge to the Christian worldview. Avengers: Endgame makes it clear that our culture is still taken by virtue, sacrifice, family, and goodness, and all of these are found in fullness in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of all stories.
*Inevitably, a fellow nerd is yelling at me: “This isn’t the end of the MCU! “Spiderman: Far from Home” is coming out in July and Kevin Feige hasn’t announced Phase 4 yet, but it’s coming!” So yes, for all us nerds, let me clarify: The “Infinity Saga” has come to an end.