Like so many, I’ve burned my fair share of quarantine hours sitting in front of my television, offsetting those bleak news reports about the coronavirus with a healthy dose of sitcoms, cooking shows, and Marvel movies. While The Office reruns, Bob’s Burgers, and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives offer an escape from the world with lighthearted images of what was, the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Endgame (2019) has, like Jaws, Contagion, and perhaps any apocalyptic zombie film in your Netflix queue, taken on a strange cultural relevance and become an odd metaphor for a pandemic in progress.
Where the “snap” narrative and the fate of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” seemed to consume our lives in the hype leading up to the
Avengers: Endgame‘s release, the sudden loss of so many among us continues to be our reality, too. Audience sympathy for the characters’ in Endgame amounts to more than just imaginative investment in these times.
We might well see our circumstances, for example, reflected in that empty baseball stadium at the beginning of the film, which in reality is still vacant now through those ongoing MLB negotiations. And Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans)”giddy optimism” about “a pod of whales” in the Hudson River eerily parallels the reports of environmental improvements through our economic shutdown, from air quality to the reemergence of wildlife. Perhaps, on a sadder note, we may even feel some of Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) shock in those opening moments, when he turns around to see that his entire family gone and he finds himself suddenly alone in that field. We, too, feel terribly alone.
What was once a superhero entertainment film for both die-hard and casual fans has, in a year, become a prophecy for worldwide catastrophe.
Indeed, Avengers: Endgame has also become the stuff memes on social media, from Thanos creating COVID-19 to Thanos getting COVID-19. The artist BossLogic went so far as to recast the film’s final battle as a conflict between the frontline of healthcare workers assembled and the virus itself, now hovering in place of the Mad Titan’s head.
In her USA Today article on the connection between the film and the state of things in our COVID-19 world, writer Hemal Jhaveri makes an intriguing point about the film’s depiction of loss and how its characters deal with it (“What ‘Avengers: Endgame’ got wrong”). Inasmuch as the movie and other films in the superhero genre attempt to show us “bolder, better versions of ourselves,” she writes, the world in Endgame, heroes and average humans alike, is unable to move beyond the “magnitude of loss”. Any option beyond reversing the snap is unacceptable because people, as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) tells Thanos (Josh Brolin), are “all kinds of stubborn” and refuse to let go of what/who they’ve lost.
However, as Jhaveri observes in the public’s response to the virus and the quarantine, “people can’t wait to move on”, to return to their lives, to restart their jobs, to go back to the bars, and to get back to the beaches. Where the heroes in Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.
Aside from the fact that the specific circumstances clearly are different—from the extent of the loss in the film to the significant financial impact of the quarantine in the real world— Avengers: Endgame is as much about the past as it is about loss and, perhaps through this connection, we may see more of ourselves than Jhaveri suggests. Maybe we don’t want to move on and cut our losses; maybe we, like the Avengers, just want to go back to what life was before this pandemic.
Robert Downey Jr. embraces his mask, er, helmet, to help fight the good fight. Avengers: Endgame (2019) (© Marvel Studios /IMDB)
Indeed, a good portion of the film is devoted to going back to the past, to retrieve the Infinity Stones and undo the snap from the end of Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Bros., 2018). As stressful as that storyline may be, it also turns into the enjoyment of what was, for both the audience and the characters themselves, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Tony Stark are reunited with their parents, as we get to relive moments from other films, and as Stan Lee gets to make one last cameo.
Though the final battle brings back just about all of the missing heroes, we never really get to see what happens when the dust settles and how the superheroes adjust to the return of just half of the population, or deal with the sudden age difference between the snapped and the unsnapped, an issue that comes up in Mckenna and Sommer’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).
Rather, the ending offers Cap/Steve what is, within the context of the film, the chronological ideal. He dreams of going back to the past and taking the road not taken, of finally realizing his love for Peggy Carter and getting to enjoy that dance with her. The best move forward is the move back, but better.
This, in our current cultural climate, is quite often the fantasy — to go back to the past and improve it. It’s the good fortune of Marty McFly in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), it’s the mission of Sam Beckett in Bellisario‘s series, Quantum Leap (1989-1993) and it’s the fairytale for Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). We want what we had before the pandemic but with enhancements, the comfort and safety of knowing how it works out with a cup holder and a footrest.
Inasmuch as so many may be ready, as Jhaveri argues, to go back to their lives and move on from the coronavirus quarantine, the impulse, disturbingly, isn’t to embrace a modified world of personal protective equipment and sanitizing rituals. Rather, as we’re seeing, people quite often reject the nightmare of COVID-19 completely to run to that backyard barbecue sans mask and gloves and to forgive a few feet in our measurements on social distancing. We want the pre-COVID-19 summer, with its carefree beach days, neighborhood block parties, and stadium-filled rock concerts. We want to breathe in the scent of blooming flowers without a carbon filter mediating the experience; we want wander through an amusement park without the heady smell of alcohol-based sanitizer on our hands.
We want the dancer and the dance. We want, as Dan Quayle once put it, to go “past to the back” and then some. After all, it’s been a long, long time, hasn’t it?
In rewatching Avengers: Endgame now, I’m taken in more by that support group scene with Steve Rogers and those post-snap survivors. Though he’s still adjusting to life after Thanos, one participant, “Grieving Man” played, incidentally, by co-director Joe Russo, recounts his experience on a date and how they both struggled with grief during dinner. “He cried as they were serving the salads,” he tells the group, “I cried just before dessert. But I’m seeing him again tomorrow.” In a film full of action and fantasy, this scene is a quiet moment of accepting painful truths and working through tragedy. For those fictional characters and for us, time-travel solutions and the widespread undoing of heartfelt loss are simply not conceivable options.
As much as we may want to, we just can’t snap our fingers and take back the last four months.
So, as we move forward from here, our own new normal demands that we demonstrate the same kind of acknowledgment and acceptance that Russo’s character does in the film, regardless of how the warmer weather and the ghosts of summers past may tempt us into denial of the pandemic and our responsibility to keep ourselves and others safe. As some states in the US report rising numbers of people suffering from COVID-19 alongside their reopening economies, we need to admit the threat is a continuing part of our daily lives, now. We need to show some personal heroism as mere mortals—by donning a mask when among other, by keeping our distance as necessary, and ultimately, by living through this Age of Coronavirus until we can get to the other side. Then, and only then, can we look back.