Avengers Endgame Spoilers

Revisiting the Past: Iron Man and Captain America

After Lang returns from his quantum trip — five hours later for him, five years later for the rest — the Avengers decide to venture into the past and retrieve the Infinity Stones before they’re destroyed. The film establishes its time-travel rules up front (though it breaks them for good dramatic reason in the final scene), in that changing the past won’t change the present, but would create alternate timelines instead. This allows for greater dramatic and even comedic possibilities amidst the Avengers’ scheme, since interacting with the past isn’t off the table. Of course, since they aren’t racing against a ticking clock, they’re also in possession of a very limited supply of Hank Pym’s science mumbo jumbo juice, the Pym Particles, so do-overs are nearly impossible.

This “time heist” is the indulgent payoff to eleven years of shared continuity. Avengers: Endgame is separated from most time-travel films because the characters re-visit not only past events, but entirely different movies, and the choice of when and where they visit is especially dramatically potent.

The team of Banner, Stark, Rogers and Lang all land up in New York during The Avengers, wherein the film tools around with its predecessor’s visual language ever so slightly. We first re-visit the iconic shot of the original team assembling for the very first time. However, the camera holds about a second longer, as they begin to leave their circular formation; right from the get-go, we witness events as they already occurred, though from a slightly altered perspective (and with foreknowledge of how they played out, given what our time-travelers know).

In what amounts to the unseen post-script of the “Battle of New York,” the time-travelling quartet inserts themselves into the gaps between familiar scenes and characters. Rogers even battles a past version of himself, jokingly dismissing his own “I can do this all day” catchphrase, before sullying the past Rogers’ view of reality (“Bucky is alive!”) in order to distract him. The present Rogers meets his past self at arguably his most saccharine, before his worldview was thrown for a loop in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and before he’d wised up to the complexities modern world.

In essence, the current Steve Rogers, who uses unbridled, uncritical optimism as a crutch, is forced to take advantage of his own naïveté — his first step to accepting that he hasn’t actually moved on, or really dealt with the bleakness of the modern world. His second step occurs when he and Stark are forced to travel back further, after an unexpected kerfuffle involving Loki and the Tesseract, wherein both men are faced with the spectres of their pasts (while Banner is off providing alternate-dimension exposition with The Ancient One, presumably to set up future films and shows).

Avengers Endgame

Camp Lehigh

In the 1970s, in order to retrieve both extra Pym Particles an earlier version of the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D., Stark and Rogers venture to Camp Lehigh — “The Birthplace of Captain America,” previously seen in The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier — where Stark, like a mischievous child, has to talk his way out of being found out by his own father, Howard. Meanwhile, Rogers hides out in Peggy Carter’s office where he sees his picture on her desk, decades after his disappearance. Here, he catches a glimpse of the woman and the life he thought he’d had no choice but to leave behind — “Family. Stability. The guy who wanted all that went into the ice 75 years ago,” he says in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Stark, a father himself, has begun healing from his paternal abandonment in the five years since the snap, as he now that he understands the position his own father was in. He even gives expecting parent Howard fatherly advice of his own, as if to close the loop that was opened (and subsequently dropped) by Iron Man 2, arguably one of the worst films in the series. As if to echo the events of Iron Man 2, in which Stark invents a new element thanks to his father’s secret messages, time-travel becomes a possibility when Stark makes a similar discovery via computer simulation. Only this time, rather than the result of phantom daddy issues that don’t quite manifest, this discovery leads him to confronting his father and finding closure. And, in a more immediate sense, it also has real and tangible dramatic grounding.

Where the “new element” was a means to create a new suit, Stark’s time-travel “Eureka!” moment leads to a moral dilemma, one that forces him to choose between his own family and stability, and the greater good that might put them at risk. As if to confirm that Tony Stark made the right choice, the young Howard Stark elucidates his own major character flaw — “Let’s just say the greater good has rarely outweighed my own self-interest” — as something he hopes his son will someday learn from. Of course, unbeknownst to him, Tony Stark is living proof that Howard left the world better than he found it, as the series finally makes good on the line of dialogue that Howard, in his own form of time travel, would go on to record on film and leave to his son:

“What is and always will be my greatest creation, is you.”

Avengers Endgame

Revisiting The Past: Thor

In a similar instance of re-visiting a generally disliked film, Thor and Rocket attempt to extract the Reality Stone from a sleeping Jane Foster during the events of Thor: The Dark World. A major failing of Thor’s first sequel (and of the MCU in general) is how often characters’ mothers are brushed aside in favour of deeply rooted paternal angst. In The Dark World, Thor’s mother Frigga dies in battle, and neither of her sons are afforded much of a reaction in the edit, let alone a long-lasting grief that defines their actions or stories. Her death felt incidental, though here, it’s finally given greater importance when Thor returns to the day she’s destined to die.

The purpose of fathers in the Marvel Universe is heroes wrestling with legacy. The Wakandan legacy, the Stark legacy, the Asgardian legacy, the list goes on. Thor, thus far, has been defined by how he chooses to rule Asgard. This mantle and responsibility is passed down to him by his father, Odin, whose approval he spends three films fighting for in some way. Yet it takes Frigga’s nurturing to free Thor from this cycle of failing to live up to his father’s kingship.

The anxiety-stricken Thor is visibly lost; “The future has not been kind to you,” Frigga tells him, recognizing his ruse. Rather than telling how to live up to lofty expectations (set for him over the centuries!), she advises him on how to deal with his failures: by succeeding at being who he is, rather than who he’s “supposed to be.” It’s a touching sentiment, and while there’s little follow-through to be found in Endgame itself (though it motivates him in the moment, pushing him to retrieve his hammer and prove his worth), it does allow his story to end on a meaningful, coming-of-age note, as he ventures off to find himself alongside the Guardians.

Unlike The Avengers, few of these story threads individually manifest in the climactic fight, as one might now expect from Marvel. Though Endgame’s final battle, in its totality, is still built on these individual stories. Despite its various failings, the scene proves to be one of the very best in the Marvel Universe, offering payoff upon payoff in one of the most rousing cinematic climaxes in recent memory.

***

In Part 2: the final battle, the women of Marvel, and why the film’s fan-service (mostly) works.

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