Adults no longer outgrow comic books. Hollywood prefers that they hang on to the adolescent illusion of carefree, escapist pleasure by pretending that the form’s juvenile cynicism is a sign of sophistication — replacing the traditional sources of imaginative thinking. The cultural monopoly represented by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its latest release, Avengers: Endgame, depends on geeked-up viewers telling themselves that they are having a major cultural experience.
By now the various MCU franchises have expanded so unmanageably that this overcrowded, supposedly final convocation offers no storyline in which distinctive conflicts are resolved. Instead, we get just a laughably familiar (but lucrative) pretext: Endgame’s several surviving Avenger superheroes huddle in a scrum and devise a time-travel do-over.
Last year’s Infinity Wars had worked itself into a narrative corner: killing off most of the major characters for a cliffhanger. The morbidity suggested apocalypse — a comic-book parallel to the Rapture. But nothing so profoundly Christian happens in this anti-mythological jamboree. Infinity Wars triggered faux-tragic fascination. Less urgent than Han Solo’s carbon freeze in The Empire Strikes Back, it was more like the “Who Killed J. R.?” narrative cheat on the TV series Dallas. However, been-there-done-that doesn’t matter to the Star Wars–Lord of the Rings generation still caught up in toddler enthusiasm: “Do it again, Daddy!”
Arrested adolescence is evident throughout Endgame’s parent-child motifs: Assorted superheroes from Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.) to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) confront their progenitors. The film’s one good scene has Thor (Chris Hemsworth) traveling back to the day his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) dies; he’s unable to change fate but gets a last chance to re-experience womblike love. It rips off Spielberg’s A.I., and Marvel fans probably won’t recognize that it also rips off Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — that’s part of the MCU cultural cheat. Spielberg’s and Wilder’s larger issues are eclipsed by Frigga’s flattery: “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. The measure of a hero is how they succeed at being who they are.” She rings the Millennial psychobabble bell. Fans are permitted to go forward and pre-order their Toy Story 4 tickets with no other sense of responsibility.
Infantilization is the MCU game plan. A serious publication is obligated to point out similarity to the free-college, no-student-loans, socialized-medicine political promises that stoke immaturity. Also note how Endgame secularizes religious allegories. The end-times premise is hollow, just an excuse for the usual sci-fi, CGI destruction. Even Thor’s junked-up Norse myth and Black Panther’s purely cosmetic Afrocentricity join the trend of ignoring spiritual faith and trivializing national heritage.
Endgame’s three-hour length suggests profundity, but each bout of knuckle-busting between the specially gifted vigilantes and the demonic Thanos (Josh Brolin) either panders (the last-minute arrival of pre-technology Wakanda warriors is a risible reversal of the cavalry bit in Westerns) or, at best, is merely redundant (Marvel’s distaff troops line up behind Brie Larsen’s Captain Marvel, the mean-girl superheroine).
Repetition now replaces depth for the franchise/binge-watching club; there is no character development outside seeing the mature cast of actors in Halloween costumes, though their overly familiar faces cry out for the new digital de-aging process. This parade of cameos (Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Natalie Portman, Gwyneth Paltrow) alludes to earlier MCU appearances and is far from satisfying. When not punching the clock, the actors seem to be stuck in shtick: puppyish Paul Rudd’s Ant Man and Chris Evan’s Captain America indulging in the sexual objectification (“That’s America’s ass”) that #MeToo Captain Marvel won’t tolerate.
The directors Anthony and Joe Russo do routine CGI action, but they don’t know how to supply meaning to any of the goings-on, and that’s the major difference between MCU and the D.C. Comics Universe, which advanced from Christopher Nolan’s nihilism to Zack Snyder’s visual richness and emotional depth. Snyder’s Watchmen was the first comic-book movie to deal with mature themes and play out a credible moral dilemma. Going deeper with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder’s art angered the kiddies. MCU fans don’t know what great filmmaking is. They defer to their post–Star Wars indoctrination. The Russo brothers’ big battle isn’t a climactic summation, just a clash of CGI dots like the indecipherable, interminable Lord of the Rings skirmishes. And the sentimental, nostalgic farewell to two beloved Avengers is hokey. Snyder rescued comic-book movies from nihilism and juvenilia, making modern myths worthy of adult spirituality and politics. Avengers: Endgame takes place in a violent kindergarten.