Note: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, a movie that as of this writing has earned $2.5 billion worldwide.
One of the biggest triumphs of Avengers: Endgame is that despite being introduced to audiences just eight years ago, the resolution of the story arc of Chris Evans’ Captain America feels as if it resolves decades of hard-fought adventure and heartache. For lifelong fans of the character—the Cap who exists outside any single interpretation, not just the Evans portrayal—part of that is surely transitive: We’ve lived with this hero since childhood and can’t help but bring those feelings with us when we come to the theater. Another reason there wasn’t a dry eye in my screening as the movie cut to black was that it was the first movie in the whole 22-film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with an actual definitive ending.
It was also a reminder that my favorite subgenre of superhero storytelling, the one where the hero’s story actually has a satisfying resolution, is totally the best one. And yet, now that we’ve forced longform comic narratives into a shape that fits within a feature film, I’m pretty sure we’ll only get this kind of definitive resolution once a decade if we’re lucky.
The Eternal Fight Against Evil, at $4 Monthly
Comics as a medium were not designed around a perpetual narrative, but perpetual storytelling starring your favorite characters. The stories needed to make sense and make you want to buy the next issue. An ongoing story, one that took multiple issues or even years, used to be unheard of, veteran DC Comics writer Dennis O’Neil wrote in The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. With the rise of comics as a niche, that changed markedly, he said.
“The end of a story is the perfect ‘jumping off’ place,” he said, grappling honestly with one writing tactic he called “deadly” when it’s done badly. “The obvious tactic is to avoid providing that place.”
More successful and important than any other translation to the screen that Marvel has managed since 2008’s Iron Man—more than the wacko villains, the glowing magic gems from space, has been the studio’s success in carrying over its perpetual motion machine approach to plot. To dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to basically be assured that you’ll never need to worry about running out of movies to watch or lore to follow.
The trouble is that this means the stories don’t really end, and this calls into question whether or not they’re actually complete stories to begin with. A hero can triumph over the antagonist of the moment, but they aren’t really allowed to resolve their major arc, or they presumably would have no reason to continue putting on the tights (or power armor).
The Tony Stark of the cinematic universe is the poster child here, in ways that are deeply tragic when you really examine them. In the three movies he headlines, Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire inventor seems to undergo change, eventually abandoning his Iron Man persona to embrace a life with Pepper Potts. This is then completely undone in the subsequent movies, as he continues producing robo-suits and taking on the problems of the world at the expense of his own happiness. Stark’s literal last act, the one which saves the day and ends in his self-sacrifice, is to declare that he is Iron Man. Even with a wife and kid and some semblance of a happy life, he couldn’t get past the suit, and it killed him.
The Epic Hero Retirement Plan
Tragedy, of course, is usually the fate of the epic hero. That sense of fatalism is basically baked into latter-day portrayals of Batman. Since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, there’s been a canonical understanding that Bruce Wayne and his nighttime alter ego are deeply broken, unhappy men, unable to move beyond a defining trauma. Batman can’t ever stop doing what he does until the inevitable, tragic day when “some punk who just gets lucky” takes him out, as he once lamented in a kid’s cartoon show.
In this same continuity, this same Bruce Wayne lives on, continuing his quest to protect Gotham long into his twilight years as advisor to Batman’s successor. The happiest ending we could expect, the writers insisted, was one in which being Batman didn’t completely alienate every person in his life or lead to his violent death.
If the animated shows acknowledged that being Batman is a hardship, Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Dark Knight films made it the central thesis. Christian Bale portrays his Batman as somebody utterly crushed by the superhero life, such that he’s an unkempt shut-in by the time we meet him in The Dark Knight Rises. When he returns for the final fight against Bane, it seems inevitable that he’ll die in the attempt, and that this is the only thing that will put him out of his misery.
Whatever other missteps it may have made, The Dark Knight Rises nailed the ending for me precisely because Batman doesn’t die, and doesn’t spend the rest of a miserable wretched life obsessing over what kind of shark repellent he should keep stocked in his utility belt. Instead, he makes off with a bunch of his money to go on a sexy, tax-evading vacation with Catwoman forever.
Livin’ the dream!
This was possible precisely because Nolan’s movies weren’t tied into an endless immaculate corpse of a cinematic universe, and I think it’s one reason that people aren’t as harsh in their assessment of it even though it takes a lot of comparatively bold liberties with the Batman mythos. It’s off by itself, standing on its own, and whether or not you like it has no bearing on anything else going on. Bruce Wayne’s happiness doesn’t come at the expense of him consulting with Superman on how to run the Justice League, or mean that he’s not returning phone calls from Gotham PD when some other world-shaking threat occurs (because he beat all of them already). It’s a complete story, in other words.
Passing on the Shield in a Time of Neverending Story Arcs
I’m not here to discuss whether or not Steve Rogers’ resolution in Endgame makes any damn sense from a chronological standpoint. You could twist yourself into a rhetorical pretzel trying to explain how, once he jumps back in time to put Chekov’s various guns back on their respective mantles throughout history, he manages to simply remain in the past and live out the lifetime that his heroism stole from him. (The creators claim it’s as simple as him just jumping across alternate universes. Okay…)
The ending is nonetheless satisfying because of the way it contrasts with Iron Man’s by giving Captain America a seemingly impossible comedic resolution to a dramatic arc that seemed as if it could only end tragically. Viewed in hindsight, the pressing question of his story becomes not “Will the guy whose face is on the movie poster beat the bad guys?” but “Can this guy ever be happy when so much has been taken from him?”
Marvel sold that resolution, but consider what it took, in the context of their endless cinematic universe: Several movies of setting up a successor character so that Evans’ inevitable bowing out wouldn’t mean a jarring re-casting, and a plot point that demands you don’t examine it too closely or else give your brain a stack overflow error.
There hasn’t been an ending moment in any of the Marvel movies that equals Endgame cutting to black on Steve and Peggy because there hasn’t really been an ending until now, as we all hold our bladders through the credits to catch that next all-important stinger setting up the next chapter in the grand saga. Those individual chapters are diverting while we’re watching them, but 22 films later, this is the first time I’ve felt the urge to really look back on the whole story and consider what it actually all means. In this new box-office-busting paradigm Marvel has created, I think we’re even less likely to see such a denouement again for a long while.
Kenneth Lowe is out of Pym Particles. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.