Please be advised. The following is a SPOILER-FILLED discussion of the film. Please don’t read any further until you’ve seen Avengers: Endgame. You might not like what you find. For everyone else, please read on.
Who the Avengers Are Now
Since the first press screening let out on Tuesday morning, we in the Nerdist office have been arguing and debating the mechanics of the time travel used in Endgame. We’ve plotted out timelines and possible alternate timelines and taken into account magic infinity stones, fictional Pym particles, and the power of Tony Stark’s brain. But ultimately none of this matters. When I think back on the movie, it’s not about how Captain America ended up where he did, it’s why he did. The movie is about causal time loops, but it’s also about causal character loops.
Early on in the movie, the remaining Avengers want to get their revenge on Thanos. They’re prepared for a fight just as big, possibly just as devastating as the first. But it’s not. He’s a broken man, living alone on a lush planet. He already destroyed the Infinity Stones, as he says, to stop temptation. This is no longer the Mad Titan. Still, he’s won. When Thor cuts his head off, aggrieved at his own failure, nothing changes. Five years go by and the Avengers have to move on.
While the rest of Endgame plays out with time heists and quantum realms and magical snaps, the story shows us what the Avengers are now and how different they were. Specifically, we focus on six characters.
Banner, always at odds with the Hulk side of himself, has found a way to meld the two. He’s the best parts of both of his personalities and he seems genuinely happy and adjusted—as much as one can be after such a tragedy. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hulk and Banner couldn’t be more diametrically opposed; in Infinity War, Hulk refuses to come out for fear he’d fail again. And yet here, he’s perfectly centered. Powerful and intelligent. He ends up the grounding force for the team. The same guy who called them “a time bomb.”
Thor’s problem has always been struggling with his own self-worth. He’s the god of thunder and yet swings between supreme arrogance and self-doubt. After his perceived failure with Thanos, he secludes himself in Norway, content to play video games and drink himself into oblivion. He needs to speak to his mother back on Asgard in order to understand that he isn’t a failure. He did his best and he’s still worthy of Mjolnir. The joy on Thor’s face when the hammer flies into his hands is genuine and palpable. He can move on to new galaxies confidently.
Nebula ended up as one of the film’s strongest characters. She’s come such a long way from fanatical devotee to Thanos—her obsession born of a lifetime of mental, emotional, and physical abuse—to someone who cares about others and sees Thanos for what he really is. It’s a staggering juxtaposition, both versions of Nebula together. We see how much she lost because of her father, and how much she gained after reconciling with Gamora. When she rejoins the un-snapped Guardians at the end of the movie, it’s a confirmation that the team means more to her than anything else, and she’ll have to teach her memory-free sister the same thing.
Natasha’s was the death nobody saw coming. She seems the most visibly affected by the aftermath of the snap. She lets her hair grow out without re-dyeing, for one thing. Once a cold, solo assassin, Black Widow found her family first in S.H.I.E.L.D. and then in the Avengers. She tries to keep the team together as much as possible, and it’s through the grief of her ostensible best friend, Clint Barton, that she realizes what she has to do. Sending two people who love each other to Vormir is cruel, and Nat ultimately saved Clint the same way he saved her.
Cap got the last line in Infinity War. His soft “Oh God” was a chilling realization that the heroes had lost. For him, there’s never a no-win scenario, because he’d keep fighting to the bitter end. But after the five-year jump, we see him leading a support group, the same way Sam Wilson led one in The Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers tells people they need to move on, including Natasha. But as soon as a solution presents itself, he jumps back into action. In 2012, he fights an earlier version of himself. That Cap is still the naive idealist, which is why it’s so funny when present-Cap fights dirty and uses subterfuge. “Hail Hydra,” he says to an elevator full of Hydra operatives, and he rolls his eyes when his younger self delivers his oft-repeated, “I can do this all day.”
Steve goes toe-to-toe with Thanos when both Tony and Thor have gotten walloped. He has little hope of victory and that is why he’s able to finally wield Mjolnir in perhaps the film’s most air-punching moment. Steve Rogers reconciles with Tony Stark, and once Tony dies, he learns that there’s more to life than endless fighting. His admission that he has should live his life leads to the realization that a life with Peggy Carter is worth more than the life of a perpetual soldier.
If Steve finally learns to be a little more selfish, Tony Stark does the complete opposite. The first Iron Man movie has Tony realize his actions have consequences. He spent the next ten years and seven movie appearances proving he can put others ahead of himself. After losing Peter Parker, his surrogate son, Tony learns the preciousness of life and begins a family with Pepper. His one stipulation in helping the Avengers travel through time is that nothing from the previous five years be erased.
But it’s in the past that Tony gets to know what fatherhood really means. Tony is able to speak to his own father, with whom he has always had a fractious relationship, in 1970 and see where that workaholic genius was coming from. It’s one of Endgame‘s finest scenes and Tony leaves the past with a fuller view of who his enigmatic father was. That question in Tony’s life has an answer. From there, Tony can make the ultimate sacrifice. Why does he do this? Because he’s Iron Man. He’s exactly who he’s meant to be. From the man in a cave with a box of scraps, he puts an end to both the villainy of the Mad Titan and the first 10 years of the MCU.
There’s a reason we care about these people. We’ve spent, some of us, a significant portion of our lives with them, watching their ups and downs, their successes and defeats. If Avengers: Endgame made you feel a lot of emotions, it was on purpose. It’s a movie designed to play with your heartstrings, and your memories. Thanos wants to obliterate the collective memory of what we’ve seen, and the ultimate victory for the heroes is reminding the audience they’ll live on for decades to come.