The big comics houses, Marvel and DC, have been going for the better part of a century, and through it all, they’ve kept a large portion of their character rosters open and available for new adventures. There have been on-going tales for the Avengers, and the Justice League, and all their adjacent friends for decades. So how do you keep these stories fresh and interesting while moving these beloved characters forward?
Here’s the problem: You don’t. And now that more of these heroes have made the jump over to the big screen, their film equivalents are showing the same strain, particularly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and Avengers: Endgame caused a problem.
The Marvel films are very similar to comic books in their construction; there are individual series to keep track of (i.e. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, etc.), and big team-up series (The Avengers). The trouble with this set up is figuring out how to get your audience interested in all of these disparate threads—which means that important stuff needs to happen under all of the titles. As a result, many of the individual series draw complete arcs for the characters they are given… only to re-manufacture drama in order to make the team-up arcs appropriately epic and noteworthy. This often leads to the same ground being covered in multiple stories, or to sudden regressions in character development in order to make a character respond accordingly to the set narrative.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to avoid this trap, and succeeded reasonably well until we reached the end of their first major story arc. Now that Endgame has been released, we’re seeing a similar pattern to one that’s been evident in comics for ages: If a character undergoes too much development in the MCU, they will either have the development undone, or they will probably die. (For a little while—comics deaths are rarely permanent exercises.)
That may sound dramatic, but it’s a common practice with comics characters. You can’t keep a story going for decades without needing to hit the reset button every once in a while. Sometimes, the better answer is to let a character retire for a bit, especially if you really want to make an impact. So they die. If they’re lucky, or extra beloved, they could one day be magically resurrected. In film, revival might be less likely because the actor playing a particular character wants to move on, but studios may opt to simply recast; when Robert Downey Jr. considered leaving the MCU a fair bit earlier than Endgame, Kevin Feige had no problem saying that the series could continue with someone else… and that’s still in the realm of possibility for everyone.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it can lead to static and uninspired ways of promoting character development. Your average mythic-type hero follows a simple narrative arc: they have something to learn in order to grow, and a ways to go in order to achieve that growth. But once the character reaches that pinnacle, they are suddenly too “stable” to drive conflict, or to react to it. They don’t contribute enough momentum to an action narrative, thus they are no longer needed. If they are not needed, you might as well kill them (to give the character a weighty and emotional end), or negate their character growth (so that they can continue contributing to stories much in the same manner they’ve always done). Endgame relied heavily on this method of story-telling, and it gives us a fairly good idea of what to expect going forward.
Regarding the arcs of the originating Avengers team, as well as a few side crews (primarily the Guardians of the Galaxy), we have an interesting mix of resets and deaths in Endgame, all with different functions, which can cause a sort of narrative whiplash effect. Keeping track of how all of these characters are handled and why gives us clearer context of what the movie set out to accomplish. So why don’t we start with—
The greatest reset of bunch belongs to Thor, who had already essentially come to the conclusion of his growth by the end of Thor: Ragnarok. Whether or not Thor needed to be the monarch of Asgard, his narrative was bound up in uncoupling imperialistic and self-important notions around his family and his culture that he had been raised with since birth. On a more personal level, Thor learned how to temper his own emotions into more healthy forms of expression, and put to rest a long-standing feud between himself and his brother Loki by continuing to show him compassion and love (even if said love did occasionally involve some playful electrocution and sneaky stabbing). But Infinity War saw Thor lose half of his refugee people—plus Loki and Heimdall—to the wrath of Thanos. He sought the ultimate revenge, but failed when he dealt Thanos a potentially fatal blow… that didn’t prevent the Titan from snapping his fingers and snuffing out half the universe.
Thor’s resulting post-traumatic stress from making that critical error is played for laughs in Endgame, and it is often incredibly upsetting to watch. But it’s clear that part of the reason the character is being treated so cavalierly is a desire to reset his arc—Thor’s pain has brought him back to where he started, hurling petty insults, unsure of his own worthiness, and often incapable of listening for any great length of time. He hands off the monarchy to Valkyrie at the end of the film, now to travel with the Guardians of the Galaxy for a spell, sniping at Star Lord all the way. But the idea that Thor making some peace with his history and forging bonds from empathy and kindness is now hampered in his role as a funny action-guy is plain lazy storytelling, and prevents us from enjoying the character on new terms. Which carries us along to another member of the Asgardian royal family…
Unbeknownst to his heartbroken big brother, Loki also received a reset, in the form of a time travel kerfuffle. While completing their heist for the Space, Mind, and Time Stones, Tony Stark makes a clerical error and accidentally drops the Tesseract, which skates toward a muzzled post-Battle of New York Loki. The trickster snaps up the the cube and transports himself away, lost elsewhere in the universe. The upcoming Disney+ TV show will see Loki at the mercy of the TVA (Temporal Variance Authority), who capture this “variant” version and insist that he fix the mess he’s created by unknowingly altering the timeline. Pointedly, this version of the character has not lived through the events of The Dark World or Ragnarok.
While it’s good to know that Thor might not have to contend with the loss of his brother forever, it’s irritating that both of their character arcs are essentially undone in the meantime, suggesting that Loki and Thor are only interesting if their relationship is at least partly antagonistic (or that said relationship could not become antagonistic for very different reasons than what we’v seen), and further suggesting that a well-adjusted Loki couldn’t possibly get up to mischief. The idea that the Loki who fans have spent half a dozen films with, one who has mended fences with his brother, suddenly loses his ability to be a trickster god belies a lack of appreciation for the full breadth of mischievousness and chaos that Loki should incite simply by being who he is. With the upcoming series, he is now primed to retread a lot of the same ground—the only difference is that he will do so as the focal character rather than a co-star in his brother’s story. While Loki looks like it’s sure to be entertaining (and star Tom Hiddleston has said in interviews that the show is meant to be an exploration of identity), it’s hard not to feel cheated out of the investment we placed in those now-erased intervening years.
Another character who gets a reset after death is Gamora, who was sacrificed by Thanos for the Soul Stone in Infinity War. Her second chance comes when Thanos gets wind of a future version of her sister Nebula appearing in the past, and uses this appearance to circumvent the Avengers’s plot to undo the Snap. He is thwarted partly by Gamora, who spends some time with future-Nebula and believes her when she claims they will become allies and kindle their sisterly bond. But Gamora’s undone arc is perhaps more unkind that Thor and Loki’s—in part because her death was so disappointing in the first place, and in part because her reconfiguration mostly serves to do-over her romance with Peter Quill, which is boring from a narrative standpoint. In addition, and similarly to our Asgardian sibling duo, all of Gamora’s work to rebuild the relationship between herself and her sister is gone apart from Endgame‘s awkward attempt at shorthanding its entirety with a single conversation. As their bond has been one of the most compelling of the Guardians films, it’s a shame to lose that history on Gamora’s end.
But there are other characters who aren’t so lucky. The other possibility at the end of a long character development road is always retirement, and Avengers: Endgame took that option for two of their founding Avengers: Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff. So how did they fare?
I’ve talked elsewhere about the myriad of reasons why Natasha’s concluding contribution to the MCU feels underserved and hurtful, but perhaps the most upsetting aspect of her death is simply the fact that this moment was considered a good enough endpoint for her character growth. Black Widow is one of Marvel’s most complicated heroes, and the slow and steady changes she made as these movies continued often bore out in fascinating directions. She goes from a spy with one best friend (Clint Barton) and a father figure in Nick Fury, to a woman who helps train an entire team of superheroes. She makes more friends, she looks after her team. She watches that family fall apart before her eyes, and is there when they lose the biggest battle of their lives. She keeps going, wrangling all the resources she can to keep people safe on a devastated world. And when they finally have a chance to make it right, the narrative decides that Natasha Romanoff doesn’t deserve to find out what it feels like to win.
She sacrifices herself for her “family,” a family that never fully appreciated just how much of herself she gave to them. And with that sacrifice, we lose all the things that Natasha could be. We lose a future where she continues to train more heroes, to run the show, to be godmother to a new era of heroism. We lose her sarcasm and her realism and her thoughtful silences. The upcoming Black Widow film only serves to highlight this issue; Marvel could only conceive of a starring vehicle by going back in time, telling a story that occurs between the Civil and Infinity Wars. It drives home the fact that Natasha’s future was never of interest to the people shaping this universe.
The second person who loses the final battle is Tony Stark, progenitor of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even without factoring in his most-senior hero status, this is a death that we can see coming films away—Tony has been prepping for the final showdown with Thanos since the Battle of New York, and he gets all of his important life milestones in before the curtain comes down. The team falls apart, but it gets back together, he marries Pepper, they have a daughter, he gets the chance to give (his practically adopted son) Peter Parker a hug. He shows his foe up in an appropriately grand way, offering up the last Snap necessary to take down Thanos and his entire army. He ends his reign with the same final line given in both his first and last solo films: “I am Iron Man.” Not a suit, not a persona, but the person he is.
But Tony Stark’s death is not devastating because he dies. It’s devastating because he only gets five years to be the man he should be, has always been, under the bravado and the parental abuse that made him a self-destructive, isolating wreck for the majority of his adulthood. At the core of Tony Stark’s character is someone passionate and nurturing—while the other Avengers collect friends and allies, he collects his own cadre of children, and by the time Morgan comes around, he clearly adores being her father. He has come full circle and matured and grown beyond what anyone would have estimated. So why is that not worth preserving?
We all know that Iron Man needed to retire from the MCU, but he had the perfect out built into the narrative of Endgame, and it didn’t have anything to do with death. Tony’s greatest hurt at the start of the film is the fact that Steve Rogers had promised him that the team would be there if a threat arrived, and in the end, he was alone on Titan, watching Peter Parker die in his arms. How beautiful would it have been for that battlefield to open up at the end, for Tony Stark to be completely surrounded by comrades and friends, declare himself Iron Man, and then have that nanotech suit take the Snap on his behalf and crumble around him? What better metaphor is there for Tony Stark being Iron Man, then him standing there without a suit, without a functioning arc reactor, as Thanos fades into dust? He didn’t need to keep appearing in the MCU, but knowing that Tony Stark had retired (or taken a backseat as the “Consultant” that Nick Fury always wanted) would have been a unique sort of comfort that comics rarely offer their fans. And that’s without the added comfort of knowing that his growth wasn’t prioritized simply to produce the legacy of a child, who will likely have a hard time remembering him as an adult.
And all of this brings us around to…
Oddly, the character who straddles this developmental line is Cap, who manages to both get reset and effectively “die” by heading to the past to live out his life with Peggy Carter. (Apparently in an alternate reality, despite how long the film spends trying to convince us that alternate realities cannot exist as a result of time travel without an Infinity Stone.) By choosing this road untraveled, he is essentially back to factory settings, as though his life in the future never took place. While it may be romantically satisfying for some, it’s an odd note to end on for Captain America, as it seems to indicate that Steve Rogers never really had any growing to do—that by virtue of being the guy who “can do this all day”, he’s always been perfect exactly as he is. This assignation of ultimate virtue to Steve Rogers’s character is not only incredibly dogmatic and even jingoist given his title, but it’s also easily argued against. The Captain America of the MCU was a flawed human being, who did—and arguably still does—have a lot of growing to do. Yet Endgame allows him to withdraw from his own story entirely, comfortable with the notion that Steve’s moniker of “the good man” was an acceptable summation of his entire being.
By the end of Endgame, the same continuity that drew crowds will no longer be a focal point of the MCU brand going forward. Is this what audiences want? Is it, as Thanos would put it, “inevitable” when you’re dealing with stories that are meant to span decades? It’s hard to stay invested when you know that most of your beloved heroes will either get killed for all their trouble, or wind up right back where they started, if only to fuel more box office dollars for the next ten years and beyond.
One thing’s for sure—Endgame did prove that we’ve only scratched the surface of this entertainment empire, if only by Marvel’s willingness to shrug at the meticulous house of cards they built and Snap us to a reset. In sixty years time, with some luck, fans who sat in theaters watching Iron Man will be defending or explaining the original films to kids who have no interest in the “old canon”… which is possibly what Marvel hoped for all along.
An earlier version was originally published in May 2019.