This Post Contains Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
It is no secret that Marvel Cinematic Universe has been wildly successful. What might be surprising is the way its latest installment, Avengers: Endgame, critiques much of our current culture and calls us back to old fashioned virtues. I enjoy the movies, but fall behind amid the prodigious output of the various storylines. When I discussed seeing Endgame with my youngest son, he advised me to see Doctor Strange first. I had avoided this character because of the new age vibe but his advice turned out to be exactly right.
Did I mention this will contain spoilers for Avengers: Endgame? [Could be spoilers for Doctor Strange, too.]
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant neurosurgeon who is cynical, materialistic and intoxicated with his own brilliance. He lives on success and self-importance. After a devastating car crash, he wakes up in a hospital bed with his hands horribly mangled. In his obsessive search to restore his ability as a surgeon he persuades the sorcerer who is the secret protector of this world to take him on as a student. Under her tutelage and with the help of mind-bending special effects, he learns the limits of his materialism and rationalism and acquires mystical, spiritual powers that transcend the material plane.
Ultimately, Strange becomes so magically and spiritually proficient that he becomes the sorcerer’s successor. Yet he insists on being called Dr. Strange and being regarded as a doctor and scientist. Rationalism and materialism and narcissistic self-indulgence are not enough. There is more to reality and more to being human than you might imagine, Horatio. There is also an unseen spiritual battle going on and we are both threatened and protected by forces beyond our ken.
Stories about super heroes and their super-human capacities are always a meditation on what it means to be really and truly human. Marvel comics and the movies based on their characters are one of the few places in the popular culture where such humane reflection takes place.
Dr. Strange appears at a critical moment in Endgame, which belongs to the now-familiar movie genre of the apocalyptic . This time the apocalypse is neither zombies, nor fire, nor flood, nor disease. This is Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil. On the side of evil is the dark lord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and on the side of good is every Marvel superhero that ever was.
Throughout previous movies, Thanos has been attempting to acquire six powerful infinity stones which will allow him to accomplish his great plan for the universe with a snap of his fingers. Thanos wants to eliminate half of all living things. Previously he has done this the old-fashioned way, by invading and conquering worlds and then executing half the population. Once he gets the infinity stones, he can accomplish his goal instantly without any violence by a simple gesture.
Thanos, which means death, is not an ordinary villain. He is an idealist. He wants the world, indeed the whole universe to be a better place. The universe is too crowded. With fewer people and animals those that are left will really thrive. When people begin to understand his far-reaching vision, he will be understood as the savior that he rightly is. They will understand the hidden beneficence of his violence. Thanos is a thinker and his massive form is often shown in the pose of Rodin’s famous bronze.
Endgame opens with the family picnic of the superhero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). One moment he is talking with his wife and teaching one of his daughters archery and the next he is alone. It takes the audience a chilling moment to realize that this is the result of Thanos’s snap. His wife and children are gone, along with half of all living things. We see images of deserted cities and empty stadiums and silent suburban streets.
In a few scenes the movie presents us with the most fervid dream of every utopian and revolutionary come true. Revolutionary violence is always to be regretted but as the saying goes you must break a few eggs to make an omelet. But suppose you didn’t have to crack any eggs. The eggs just disappear, no blood, no violence and you have the perfect world in which everyone can thrive. That is the promise, but what is the reality? Endgame is a prophetic critique of modernist and post-modernist utopian dreams. It allows the audience to imagine what it is like to live in the paradise that the culture of death proposes.
One of the things that distinguishes a work of art is its ability to help you see the world anew and to contemplate profound realities that are hiding in plain sight. The opening of Endgame brilliantly pierces the denial of death that is such a strong feature of our common culture and allows the suppressed grief tobe experienced. In the theater where I watched the movie there was dead silence during these scenes. The utter ennui and grief of life without hope in the face of death is deftly presented. The abortion lobby and the radical ecologists who demand infertility as a moral duty have gotten their wish and it tastes like grief and loss and emptiness. I went to the film to be entertained and I found a courageous cultural commentary.
It would take too long to tell, but the hope of resurrection appears. It is possible that the curse of Thanos can be reversed, but it takes team work and self-sacrifice. Even the wise cracking narcissist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) must grow up and act the man, sacrificing himself for the sake of his family. Steve Rogers, or Captain America (Chris Evans), is indispensable to the success of the team. He is a hero of World War II and represents all the virtues associated with the era. The other superheroes often think him naïve and campy and make fun of him behind his back. When the chips are down, they realize that they need to trade in some of their hip irony for his homely virtue.
In the final battle, Captain America leads the team with nobility, but it looks like all is lost as the demonic host of Thanos pours into our world. Just in time, Dr. Strange opens a portal and appears with every superhero that ever was. It is a tribe made up of every kindred and tongue, and people and nation.
That alone does not defeat Thanos. The team must travel back in time to the time/place where the story had gone wrong and put it right, so that it can run toward hope and not catastrophe. After their success, Captain America returns late and aged. He remained in the past to be with and marry his lost love, Peggy. Steve Rogers traded his life as a superhero for the ordinary life of a returned World War II veteran in a small suburban house. The final scene of the movie is Captain America dancing to big band music with his wife in their 1950s modest bungalow. The song is titled, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” It has been a long, long time indeed, since the virtues of home, family, and sacrificial love were showcased by Hollywood, but here it provides the culmination of over a decade of Marvel films.
Here is a movie that evokes the suppressed hopelessness and paralyzing grief of the culture of death, that reveals the ecological utopian dreams of population control as the joyless nightmares that they are, and insists that some combination of reason and religion, racial unity, and return to the virtues of our grandparents are the only hope in the face of sure destruction. In this movie salvation comes in the end by going back in time and retrieving virtues that have been lost for a long, long time, including the virtue of the lifelong commitment till death do us part of Steve Rogers and Peggy. After seeing this movie, I felt more hopeful about popular culture than I have for a long, long time.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.