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[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame]
“You could not live with your own failure. And where did that bring you? Back to me,” Thanos says before taking on Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. His words are more than villainous pontificating. They cut to the central themes of Avengers: Endgame: time and trauma.
These are the twin concepts orbiting the massive event that is the culmination of this chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Infinity Saga. For a year, audiences have waited and wondered what Endgame had in store for the characters they had gotten to know over the past decade. Who would survive when the dust settled?
What makes Endgame, the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such a triumph of superhero movie-making isn’t just the struggle between life and death, but the film’s ability to dig into the psyches of these characters, repair them and make them whole on the eve of their final stand. By witnessing the broken made whole again, we are reminded that life can be carved out of the stone face of death, and we can find comfort in the fact that even the end is just a prelude for a new beginning built from the lessons of the past.
The element of time travel has long served the science fiction genre well, and it has been the source of many a comic book deus ex machina. But the time travel through the Quantum Realm in Endgame, which had been rumored for nearly a year, offers more than a means to claim the Infinity Stones before Thanos (Josh Brolin). There is an element of fan service, though earned, to the Avengers’ time escapades.
Endgame taking its characters back to the Battle of New York in 2012, Asgard in 2013, Morag in 2014 and New Jersey in 1970 provides audiences with a chance to revisit some of the defining moments in the MCU, like the team coming together in The Avengers and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) dancing to Redbone in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s fun to see Captain America (Chris Evans) face off against himself, and get a peek at a shaggy-haired Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) alongside the original Ant-Man helmet. Not least of all, there’s the creation of a multiverse in the MCU that will undoubtedly impact future stories.
These elements all aide the Russos in avoiding the kind of clip-show emptiness that has plagued sitcom finales, and mundane trips to the past often taken as a way to point out “remember how great that moment was?” Afterall, it’s not like these previous entries of the MCU have slipped into anything resembling obscurity. Chances are that audiences remember the beats of these films. Still, time travel is more than world-building and Easter eggs in Endgame. The trips to the past aren’t primarily for the benefit of audiences’ reflection on the successes of the MCU but for the characters’ reflections on their failures.
The Avengers’ time heist isn’t predicated on rewriting the past but in saving the future. In order to do that, the Avengers must first save themselves. Each mission, and the specific places they are tasked with traveling to, serve them in a rediscovery of the core attributes that make them heroes regardless of shields, armor or abilities. Time travel essentially becomes a means of therapy for the Avengers, a way for them to rediscover their best selves and make amends with who they are and wish to be. Some are in need of this therapeutic chronal spa more than others.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hulk’s (Mark Ruffalo) time in the past may be more plot-driven, but it’s no less personal. For Clint, he’s able to rediscover hope and find comfort in Nastasha’s words that his worst mistakes don’t define him. Along that same thread, Natasha is able to provide hope, to find redemption in honesty rather than secrets and lies. And for the Hulk, he’s able to restore the lives destroyed by Thanos, not because of his intelligence but because of his strength. His shame in his own past monstrosity and Hulk’s smashing is rectified when that same raw, primal strength restores the universe. When it comes to these therapy sessions, it’s really the three central Avengers — Steve Rogers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) — who are most in need of it.
Steve Rogers is arguably less emotionally damaged at the start of Endgame than the others, perhaps because loss has become part of the job for him. He isn’t jaded by death, but he realizes that moving past it may be impossible for him, despite the words of encouragement he offers in the therapy group he leads.
His trips to 2012 and 1970 not only give him the opportunity to confront his own stoic resolve and mission-driven agenda, but, in seeing Peggy again, to realize that an inability to move on from the past doesn’t have to be a flaw for him. This moment of not only seeing Peggy but seeing the picture of him on her desk is certainly what got his wheels turning about staying in the past should he survive the fight against Thanos. For Rogers, the past was the answer he’d been searching for, the resolution to a double meaning behind the line he ended Captain America: The First Avenger with: “I had a date.”
Arguably more than any Avenger, Thor is most in need of his trip to the past. His arc, while unexpected and perhaps controversial among some fans, is a reminder of the human quality of Marvel’s characters. The notion of a god suffering from depression and struggling with self-worth is powerful stuff. It’s not just that Thor failed to stop Thanos before the snap, but that when he does kill him, he is killing a weak and unarmed man. It is traumatic and an act he experiences alone.
For a character who has relished in honorable battles and the rules of a warrior, his shame stems from the burden of failing as well as an action that further lessens his own idealized concept of godly heroism. Thor’s conversation with his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), reminds him that he doesn’t have to keep trying to be who he’s “supposed to be” but only live up to who he is. Thor’s worthiness isn’t because he’s destined to be an Asgardian monarch, or an Avenger, rather it’s because he tries to be the best he can be, even in the face of his own insecurities.
For Tony Stark, his conversation with his father, Howard (John Slattery), in 1970 is the final means for him to expel the corrosive energy that had grown in him since the events of Captain America: Civil War. But it also redefines his own role as a father. Tony’s admittance to Howard that his father did the best he could with what he had is the very thing that drives him to sacrifice his life in order to ensure a future for his daughter.
So much of Tony’s arc has focused on him living in the shadow of his father’s choices: his weapons-manufacturing, his time at the office and his admiration of Steve Rogers. All these things made him believe his father resented him, but when he comes across a father, Thanos, who would kill his children in order to achieve his dreams, then his perception changes.
Tony’s trip to the past reframes the conflict between Iron Man and Thanos. They are not simply a superhero and supervillain fighting with the forces of good and evil. They are two fathers, one whose selfishness became selflessness over the course of his arc, and another who tried to mask his own egotism with the lie that his mission to balance the universe was altruistic.
If Avengers: Infinity War was based around destruction, then Avengers: Endgame is its thematic opposite, built around healing. Time travel wasn’t used as a means to retcon these characters but to allow them to directly confront their flaws and failings. Their trip through time did bring them back to Thanos, but it also brought them back to themselves and one another. Their inability to live with their own failures cemented their place as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, an inevitable idea born out of a need to become something better. In the end, these characters, whether living, dead or retired, emerge as who they’ve always been and always will be: Avengers forever.