Warning: This article contains spoilers for ‘Avengers: Endgame’.
One of the rare failings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (‘MCU’) is how it deals with death.
From every main character’s perspective, death is something that happens to other people. It can happen to a hero’s parent or friend or lover to spur them along their journey, but never to them. The count of heroes who have dead parents is extreme: Iron Man (both parents), Captain America (both parents), Thor (both parents), Peter Quill (mother), Gamora (all real family), Scarlet Witch and Quiksilver (both parents), Black Panther (father) and Spider-Man (both parents and Uncle Ben). A tragic backstory is basically required to become a superhero.
But when a protagonist tries to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, they somehow always manage to beat the odds and survive. No matter what, they will live another day. The trend is clear – Captain America crashes a plane onto the Arctic shelf to avoid detonating weapons and harming civilians but wakes up nearly 70 years later to find that his body was perfectly preserved by ice and Iron Man flies on a nuclear missile into a space wormhole and breaks his suit only to cough a couple of times and wake up unscathed.
All of this is rather unsurprising for superhero films. After all, the whole appeal of these films is that they are about characters who are stronger, faster, better than us. In order to represent what we aspire to be, nothing should stand in their way. They should face obstacles and challenges but be able to defeat everything, including death.
The MCU is notorious for having characters not only defeat death but return from death. Repeat offenders include Loki, who dies in ‘Thor’, ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘Infinity War’, and Bucky Barnes, who is presumed dead twice in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. This cheapens the deaths of the characters who do die permanent deaths. After so many movies, I am never sad when a Marvel character dies. I usually just wonder about when and how they will come back.
Knowing the hero will survive also really lowers the stakes. It’s hard to be scared at the world ending when it’s already happened ten times before and the heroes have always won in the end.
Given that all 18 previous films had this issue, it’s no surprise that ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ received such a positive reaction from fans. Following so many films where the heroes cheated death to great success, ‘Infinity War’ stood apart by telling the story of heroes who lost the war and many lives in the process. The haunting ending sequence where half the cast randomly disintegrates into dust while the others have to watch is one of the best moments in the whole MCU. After two hours of non-stop action, the movie suddenly ends and they are gone. Lost. Dead. Unfortunately, Marvel then immediately undid the effect of this by releasing a teaser trailer for the upcoming film ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ which stars supposedly dead Peter Parker.
However, it was ‘Avengers: Endgame’ that finally brought clarity over what the MCU is trying to say.
The story has never been about death. It’s always about getting left behind.
We never follow the lives of the parents and friends and lovers who die. We follow the lives of the heroes who have to learn to carry on afterwards. We follow them rebuilding their world without the person who they loved most.
Because it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that every single character who disappeared into dust at the end of ‘Infinity War’ came back to life during the climax of ‘Endgame’and proceeded to join the big hurrah against the villain who killed them. That was all textbook cliché superhero movie. In terms of bringing back characters from the dead, ‘Endgame’ really hammered that nail into the coffin. And compared to the large number of characters in the film, the overall death count by the end of the movie is surprisingly low.
Death is not a nightmare to these heroes. They are all ready and willing to die for what they believe in. Instead, their worst nightmare is being alive after failing to save the lives of others. This is shown in the first half of ‘Endgame’ as it chronicles the broken lives of those who survived Thanos’ snap. It’s shown as Scott Lang frantically pushes people out of the way as he tries to see if his daughter’s name is on the list of the dead.
It’s best showcased in the scene on Vormir where Black Widow and Hawkeye are trying to get the soul stone. When they find out that one of them must die to retrieve the stone, they both wish to sacrifice themselves so that the other can live. They are willing to die; they are not willing to be the one left behind. A fight ensues as they try to prevent the other from jumping off the cliff. When Black Widow falls to her death, Hawkeye is heartbroken to have lost her. One of the saddest moments of the film shows him standing in a pool of water with the setting violet sun behind him, holding the small orange stone that he traded for the life of his friend.
This is even true of Iron Man. In a very rare occurrence, Iron Man aims to give his life at the climax of ‘Endgame’ in order to save the world and actually dies. The movie doesn’t end here though, as we see the rest of the cast at his funeral and how those close to him are coping with their loss. There’s a very touching moment where Happy Hogan tells Iron Man’s daughter that he will buy her all the cheeseburgers in the world if that will make her happy. And now that she has a dead parent to carve out her tragic backstory, I’m sure we’ll be seeing Morgan Stark on our screens in future.
So why has the MCU chosen to focus on the terror of being left behind rather than being dead?
Well, it’s a feeling that all we know. Everyone has had the misfortune of losing someone they care about, whereas none of us know what it’s like to be dead. We’re not around to tell stories about that.
If we die, then we die. But if we lose someone we care about, every part of us aches. We have to learn how to go on without their presence in our lives. We are struck by the guilt of feeling happy when they’re not here to share it with us.
Being dead happens to you once, but losing someone you care about will hit you everyday for the rest of your life.
I don’t think the MCU is trying to tell us anything particularly revolutionary about death given that they constantly have characters returning from so-called certain death.
They’re trying to say that being left behind is worse.