You have been warned!
I have no real clue who reads this blog, aside from a handful (as in fingers on one) of people. It isn't that large a crowd anyway, but it dropped off so significantly this weekend I assumed many of you were watching "Avengers: Endgame," as I was. If you were, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. (If you weren't, or won't be, then I suspect you won't be much interested in this.) I read articles obsessively about it beforehand, and watched endless YouTube videos on what would happen and why, mostly because they popped up on my phone and I found I could link my TeeVee to my phone, so the fun of that proved irresistible. Otherwise, I would have resisted. None of those theories proved to have any insight into the final chapter of what Marvel Studios is apparently calling the "Infinity Saga." Not that the title makes any sense, since the "saga" clearly came to an end (a nice narrative touch, I must add). What was interesting was what did make it into the final chapter, and how much everyone seems to have overlooked it.
There are lots of articles out there, from the hopeless whinging about "plot holes" (when you don't know what to say, "plot holes" sounds like clever insight. Here's a hint: it's neither clever nor insightful, and about as useful a term as "perjury trap," something else that means "I don't know what I'm talking about but I think this makes me look like I do." It doesn't, either.) to complaints about the death of Scarlett Johanson's character
because: second wave feminism, or something. I wanted to riposte all such arguments, but by today I realized I was just arguing with everyone on the internet (who are WRONG!), and that was a bootless endeavor. So, theories abound, and rather than point out the flaws in everyone else's (which doesn't prove mine sound), I decided to cut to the chase and leave out what would have been lengthy discussions about Thor's story arc or why timey-wimey time travel narratives, and get straight to the point. A point to which, it turns out, there is no straight line.
But here's the thesis: the resolution to 21 MCU films turns out not to be a plot-driven climax where James Bond wins because he is James Bond and the bad guy must lose (because the plot dictates it), but actually a character-driven saga in which character, not superpowers, prevail. (Pardon the odd James Bond reference, but those movies are my "go to" for explaining plot-driven stories to my students. The reason most people love "Casino Royale" is because it is more about Bond's character than just about good guys win, bad guys lose. But I digress....)
To do this right, we need to take some of the major characters in turn, starting with Thor.
These two final Avengers movies are a palimpsest at best, a single long story at least. Word was the original plan was to put the "snap" off until the second film, which gives you some idea how closely related they are. I assume you've read this far because you know at least these two films and are interested in the topic; if I'm wrong, you'll be disappointed because I'm not going to explain how our heroes come to the beginning of "Endgame," I'm going to assume you know. There's only so much once can do in the space of a blog post.
So, we know Thor acquired a battle axe, having lost his fabled hammer, and he hurled it at Thanos and speared him despite Thanos using the combined power of the six infinity stones to repel the weapon. This should make Thor the strongest being in the universe, as the Hulk ("Stongest Avenger") couldn't defeat Thanos even without the latter using the power of the stones. I'll digress from the action of the films here a moment to make a point I want to place at the center of this analysis. All the theories and stories I saw before "Endgame" premiered, speculated on what powerful Marvel character would appear to enact Thanos' doom by being more powerful than Thanos. Immediate speculation fell on Captain Marvel; but as time passed, some wondered if Adam Warlock (foreshadowed in the second "Guardians of the Galaxy" film; yes, I'm that big an MCU nerd) would appear, because he defeated Thanos in the comic books with superior power. Some even thought other powerful characters from the comics would debut, sufficient to overcome the might of the villain. Oddly, almost no one expected Thor to reprise his feat at the end of "Infinity War," and most mentions of it went with Thanos' last words to Thor, with the axe in his chest: "You should have gone for the head."
Precisely what Thor does, as soon as the Avengers who remain find the planet Thanos is on, and get there. Thor swings his battle axe again, cleaves Thanos' head from his shoulders, and when the shocked team members ask him what he has done, he says "I went for the head." (one review of the movie actually passed over this scene, complaining nothing happened in the first 30 minutes of the film). Why does Thor commit such a cold-blooded murder? Thanos is wounded, his right side clearly damaged and withered. It seems Thanos used the power of the Infinity Stones to destroy the Infinity Stones (something Wanda tried to do with the Mind Stone at the end of "Infinity War." Everything in these two movies is a prelude to something else.), and so reversing the "snap" became impossible. Angry at this turn of events, still seething that he didn't stop Thanos on the battlefield earlier, Thor releases his emotions in one fell swoop (literally). And five years later, as the movie jumps forward in time to the next plot point, the return of Ant Man from the Quantum Realm (don't think about it too hard, it's a comic book movie), Thor has become a drunken wastrel, still appalled at himself for being capable of such a needless and unjustified act of murder (the narrative doesn't dwell on that plain fact; Thor does it for the story. Show, don't tell, although that point is lost on some.). Thor the character, the heroic leader of Asgard after Ragnarok (the movie and the mythical end of Asgard), is reduced to a broken wreck (not unlike Valkyrie in "Ragnarok," despairing over the death of all her comrades at the hands of Hela, the villain of that movie). At the end of "Ragnarok" Thor doesn't defeat Hela by his superior power, but by his superior character: he allows the destruction of Asgard, which defeats her. He literally destroys the village in order to save it, because "the village" is the people, not the place. The place is lost, the people live on, and appear in "Endgame" where Valkyrie leads them, as Thor keeps himself in a drunken stupor. Probably one of the best parts of "Endgame" is the point that lessons of character are seldom learned once and for all; more likely we take one step forward, and two steps back, until the lessons finally start to take hold.
Thor recovers his sense of self by the end of "Endgame," and that sets up a story as yet untold. So we leave him there; his part in this thesis will become apparent, soon.
Mark Ruffalo has said these movies ("Ragnarok," "Infinity War," and "Endgame") mark a three-story arc for the Hulk. That arc is actually four stories, as it goes back to "Age of Ultron," where Black Widow makes it clear she is attracted to Banner; and Banner makes it clear he wants nothing to do with a relationship, romantic or otherwise, because of his affliction (i.e., being the Hulk, too). He flees earth at the end of "Ultron," ignoring Natasha's pleas to return. He finally returns in "Infinity War," and we never see him explain to Natasha where he was, or why. By the opening of "Endgame" it's clear Natasha is no longer carrying any torch for Bruce, and equally clear Bruce isn't worrying about Natasha's feelings (if he ever did). He has solved his problem, five years after the movie starts, by managing to combine his personality/brains with Hulk's brawn. When we first see "Professor Hulk," Banner delights in his transformation, and is extremely taken with himself over it. His personality, it turns out, is neither really all that heroic, nor all that admirable. What Natasha saw in him we'll never know. When he isn't trying to solve the problems of time travel (he doesn't), he's self-satisfied and completely wrapped up in the joy of being Bruce Banner. He uses the Hulk's brute strength once, and makes a sacrifice that pre-figures the final sacrifice of the movie, when he uses the recovered Infinity Stones (how is a plot point of the movie) to reverse the "snap" from the end of the last movie. This succeeds, but it leaves Professor Hulk with a withered, and quite useless, arm. Such sacrifice is almost enough to redeem the character of Banner; who isn't a bad guy, but isn't the noble hero of the group, by a long shot.
Before the movie came out, I raised the point with my daughter that the soul stone required a mortal sacrifice in "Infinity War," so who were the Avengers going to sacrifice? Turns out a self-sacrifice was sufficient, and Black Widow insists it will be her. She and Clint Barton travel to the planet where the soul stone is held, unaware of this fatal wrinkle (as Thanos and Gamora were previously), but unlike Thanos, they deliberate for some time over what to do. Natasha knows recovery of the stones will return Barton's family (all turned to dust), and it would be a cruel joke to return to them to explain how they were recovered by his sacrifice. She, we learn, didn't even know who her father was; she has no family to be lost to, and in the end, she prevails and makes the fall that wins the stone for our heroes. It is a sacrifice based on character which will be repeated in the story.
In the climactic battle, when Thanos has unleashed his armies including new weapons as well as those familiar from the first Avengers movie, and an army of heroes has been delivered by a deus ex machina
(what other way is there to say it?),Tony Stark asks Dr. Strange if this battle is the 1 time the good guys win that Strange saw in the earlier movie (out of 14 million plus possible outcomes). Strange says he can't say, because it might change the outcome. In the course of the battle, every hero, including Captain Marvel and Captain America with Thor's hammer, goes up against Thanos, but can't defeat him trading power for power. Tony then sees Dr. Strange across the battlefield (what eyes he has!), and Strange holds up one finger, indicating this is their only chance. Tony understands, and just as Thanos lifts the glove with the stones on it, the same one Hulk used earlier and Thanos says he will now use to eliminate all life in the universe (so he can start over and be in charge), Tony struggles with the glove and manages to slip all the stones off onto his armor. He then snaps his fingers and eliminates Thanos and all his forces, making the universe safe for democracy; or something like that. Had Tony known beforehand, would he have done it? Would he have hesitated, waiting for some other savior to win the day by power, not character, and so lost the war?
If the power of the stones left Thanos limping at the end of "Infinity War" and withered him the second time around, and left Hulk permanently injured, it is deadly to Tony; but he expected that. It is not, in the end, his technology or strength of arm or superior power that saves the day; it is the strength of his character, his recognition that the "shield" he wanted to put over the world (that idea is reprised in the opening of the film) will never work, and only sacrifice, at the right time in the right way, will. He wins by losing everything. Tony has tried to avoid this battle; he has married Pepper and has a young girl to raise, he wanted nothing to do with seeking a new way to undo the end of the last film. But in the end he sacrifices all that to save everyone, including his wife and child. It was, as Dr. Strange said in his last words in "Infinity War," the only way.
Power does not triumph here. Captain Marvel cannot defeat Thanos in a battle of power; neither can Captain America, nor the combined forces of the good guys in the MCU. Only character, only sacrifice, only the power of powerlessness (the stones are powerful, Tony is not powerful enough, he is powerless against them), wins. Sacrifice is not power; it is the very opposite of it.
In the end, character prevails over power. It is not power that wins the victory: not for Thor, or Bruce Banner, or Black Widow (often discussed as the least powerful of all the superheroes in these movies), or Captain America, or Iron Man. It is, finally, their character that matters. and their character that truly wins. Not because character is power, but precisely because it isn't.
It's an interesting lesson from a comic book movie.