A version of this post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.
Disney+ is something of a temptation, especially for those of us who are Star Wars and Marvel nerds. Want to binge your absolute favorite shows? Now, I don’t even have to find my DVDs–they’re right on my phone or TV in HD perfection. This had lead (as you might expect) to my watching (and re-watching) my favorite films from the MCU. I only saw Endgame once in theaters, but have probably watched it four or five times now.1
On each subsequent rewatch, something stands out quite clearly during the first half of the film: Endgame says quite a bit about the process of grieving. Many of the film’s other tropes and lessons have been rigorously discussed (often in concert with other MCU films), but I have yet to see any substantive discussion about what Endgame communicates about how people grieve and respond to loss.2 In this article, I want to explore what Endgame tells us about the end and the various ways that people respond to death and loss.
The OG Avengers and Grief
It’s well noted that the six original Avengers survive Thanos’s snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. While many of the newer rising stars of the MCU crumble into dust, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all survive the snap. Each of the original Avengers (along with some other, albeit lesser,3 members of the team) is left to pick up the pieces of their shattered world. In the aftermath of their revenge visit to Thanos and the realization that their friends are really gone, the behavior of each OG Avenger follows a grief-type.
Captain America, whom we first see facilitating a support group in New York, uses his pain to help others come to terms with what has happened. Cap casts the grief of the snap as an opportunity for redemption, encouraging people to do the hard work of finding their “new normal” amidst loss (although he privately confides to Black Widow that he’s personally struggling to follow his own advice).
Similarly, Black Widow throws herself into her work, although it’s less of a support group than mission control for those who are left.4 We are not given much insight into Natasha’s interior life, but her focus on the ongoing mission and her desire to fix things (even seemingly unfixable under-ocean earthquakes) suggests that she’s throwing herself into her work to keep her from fixating on what has happened.
Although we don’t see Hawkeye’s reaction until later in the film, once he appears we learn rather quickly that he has chosen the path of anger. Clint expresses his grief through murderous rage (though directed only toward cartels and organized crime). He has lost his family and, since he cannot fix that, he lashes out against those who have survived who were not worthy of survival.
In response to the snap and (especially) the loss of Peter Parker, Iron Man doubles down on his commitment to family, devoting his life to the family he has left. In what are undoubtedly some of the more touching scenes of an already-emotional movie, we witness his clear love for his daughter Morgan. Tony realizes that he’s lost someone important, and he’s (initially, at least) not willing to risk what he has left.
Bruce Banner, a.k.a The Incredible Hulk, takes the path of self-betterment following the snap. He remakes himself, creating through hard work and dedication his new life as the “Credible Hulk.” Banner becomes a mix of the best parts of his two personas, maintaining his appearance as the muscled Hulk without the accompanying personality of the enormous green rage-monster.
And finally, we have Thor. After decapitating Thanos in a fit of rage, the God of Thunder manifests his feelings of failure and loss by trying to escape reality, very nearly losing himself in gluttony, entertainment, and the abandonment of responsibility. Although much of the pop culture response to “Fat Thor” has been one of approval, the character is clearly teetering on the edge of self-destructive tendencies and tremendous grief.
Our OG Avengers thus respond to their grief through the paths of helping others, immersing themselves in work, anger, recommitment to what’s important, self-improvement, and escapism. These portrayals are far too clear to be unintentional; clearly, we are meant to learn that there are many ways forward through the grief journey that follows trauma and loss. Each of these approaches are real ways that people deal with loss, pain, grief, and death in real life. Our favorite superheroes stand in our places for a moment, but these are paths that each of us can choose when we face loss in our lives.
Of course, we are also expected to see that not every manifestation of grief is a positive one. Although there is little explicit explanation, values are certainly being communicated. Cap’s desire to help others and Tony’s commitment to family are clearly models to be followed. The Hulk and Black Widow follow paths that are largely positive, although they may veer too close to clichés to be a real help to most grieving people. Finally, the routes of rage and escapism taken by Hawkeye and Thor only lead to negative consequences—roads that even superheroes ought not walk down for very long.
There are, of course, many other lessons that we can take from Avengers: Endgame when it comes to grief, loss, and the healing process. For instance, one extremely significant lesson that the film’s time-hop unfortunately obviates is that grief takes time. Five years after the snap, some people are on the right track—but everyone is still bearing the scars of what happened. There are no magic “get over it” moments with grief. Loss is loss. Death is death. Heartbreak is heartbreak. Time helps, but it doesn’t fully heal.
Similarly, the way that our heroes emerge from their various grief journeys is telling, as it’s only together that they can make sense of what happened and do something to fix it. This is, of course, one of the major themes of the entire MCU and Avengers franchise: we should face challenges to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness together, whether that togetherness entails winning or losing. And it’s in their togetherness that the Avengers truly make their last stand against Thanos—one imbued with the power of sacrificial love. From the Marvel-Trinity of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor tag-teaming Thanos to the climactic moment of the critical final battle, where everyone has a role to play, everyone supports one another, and one hero makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of all the others, love for one another is what brings an end to the grief of the snap.
There’s a lesson to be learned there too; not that movies based on comic books can’t deliver truly meaningful lessons or messages to a complex and contentious world. Things like love for another other can make our world less complex, less contentious, and less grief-filled than they are today. Now, isn’t that a story worth thinking about?
1 For the sake of full disclosure, I have long been a fan of Marvel’s creative storytelling, from their early use of intertextuality (or inter-screen-ality) to their character development (for heroes at least), and from their encapsulation of important moral lessons to their pop culture hilarity. Others have said it better than I, but the MCU is truly an impressive technical, storytelling, and economic accomplishment.
2 Here I should note that I have trawled the depths of the internet for any possible source. Additionally, of course, we must note that Spider-Man: Far from Home is itself in many ways an extension of this reflection on grief, as a major trope of the film is how Peter comes to terms with Mr. Stark’s death.
3 Deus ex Captain Marvel not withstanding.
4 The “throw yourself at your work” approach also seems to be the preferred option of the non-core Avengers as well, as each prioritizes focus on their mission during the grief stage of Endgame.