The endgame: Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ and why we like it when our heroes fail

Marvel Studios/Courtesy

About a week from now, Marvel Studios (but really, Disney) will release “Avengers: Endgame” to what is speculated to be the biggest opening weekend of all time. Fortune magazine ran a piece saying some projections place the movie making close to $300 million in its opening weekend alone. Considering “Avengers: Infinity War” opened to $257 million and became the fourth movie to gross more than $2 billion — at the time of writing, Box Office Mojo puts the film’s box office at $2.048 billion — it seems more than probable that round two with the poster boy for pure pragmatism, otherwise known as Thanos, could hit the mark.

These projections seem likely to pass because audiences have spoken much louder than any tweet about being “so over superhero movies.” They have spoken in one of the few tangible ways to express an opinion: with their money. Which also happens to be Disney’s first language.

But beyond feeding into the House of Mouse’s growing monopoly of the entertainment market, audiences have quantifiably shown just how much they enjoyed “Infinity War.” And when enjoyment for something adds up to a sum of money almost as large as the total campaign spending from the 2016 election ($2.4 billion), I think it’s worth investigating.

(That is, investigating why people liked “Infinity War,” not why there’s so much money in American politics. That’s a different rabbit hole.)

And when enjoyment for something adds up to a sum of money almost as large as the total campaign spending from the 2016 election ($2.4 billion), I think it’s worth investigating.

Part of the equation is simple: Over the past decade, superhero movies have become a fundamental part of public discourse. Like discussions of newspapers and early literature in the coffeehouses of 17th- and 18th-century London, opinions of, reflections upon and interactions with superhero movies have become a tool of social interaction. A means to stake out individuality by expressing one’s own consideration of a popular and widespread medium. And while today’s coffeehouse is the internet and people don’t wear powdered wigs to cover up the symptoms of syphilis anymore, the idea remains the same: a popular piece of entertainment creates a space for social exchange.

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There are those of us, like myself, who will absolutely talk about a movie’s inspirations from, references to and deviations from the comics “because I read them all.” “All” here is a loose term for most. Apologies in advance to whoever watches “Endgame” with me. There are others who will spend countless hours crafting YouTube video essays explaining why Micheal B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the best movie villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. And then there are those who discuss the movies casually among friends. Of course, there are some who will never fail to remind everyone of their “these movies are dumb, there are too many” stance. All of these positions, from comic snobbery to hip distaste, create social identities out of the public discourse around these movies. So when “Infinity War” arrived, it made sense that $2.048 billion worth of people went to see it. The movie had established literal social capital.

That explanation, however, only explains why the opening weekend was so big. If “Infinity War” had been overhyped and undermade like “Waterworld” or “Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Why are we still making these,” people would’ve stopped going. The movie carried itself on its merits as a movie and not just because people felt compelled to see the “greatest crossover event in history.” Essentially, it had to be good. But what makes a movie “good” is wholly subjective, so I think it’s worth evaluating the commercial and critical success of “Infinity War.”

As has been stated above, “Infinity War” was a commercial Cthulhu, its monetary success so large it becomes an abstract ideal and gives other studios a sense of existential fear over a feat they can’t hope to match (especially studios making movies that climax with Batman and Superman yelling their moms’ names at one another). The critical consensus was also positive, from publications more in touch with the superhero fan such as Empire, which gave the movie five out of five stars, to publications such as The New York Times that decide to review superhero movies as high art. But when Times critic A.O. Scott isn’t explaining how Marvel Studios’ no-spoiler policy effects critics, he does call the movie “fun.” So clearly, something about the movie worked.

Ironic, then, that what makes the movie such a success is a failure. The Avengers (spoiler alert) lose! One of the last frames of the film is a shot of the heroes, exhausted and halved by their enemy, sitting on the ground in defeat. But why did audiences take to seeing Thanos win? There’s the possibility that defeat was something, to quote Scott’s piece, that “(brought) a chill” to audiences, which “represents something new in this universe.” But defeat isn’t anything new to these characters. They’ve lost before. “Captain America: Civil War” ends with bland villain Helmut Zemo behind bars, yes, but his plan to divide the Avengers came to fruition. For readers who don’t remember, that movie ends with Iron Man and Captain America violently beating one another. Before the credits roll, Captain America is a fugitive of the U.S. government. Yet it only grossed $1.153 billion.

Ironic, then, that what makes the movie such a success is a failure. The Avengers (spoiler alert) lose!

There is the case that “Infinity War” is the darker sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back” of Marvel movies. The overall darker tone of “Empire” compared to the first movie and its more complex evaluation of the movie’s universe have become a template for trilogies since. “The Dark Knight” was the “Empire” of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was the “Empire” of the (good) Indy movies, and so on. The “Empire” trope is characterized by pitting protagonists against malevolent forces that challenge the protagonist’s heroic motivations. In short, sometimes the bad guy is your dad.

I’d argue, however, that these movies generally end on more hopeful notes than “Infinity War. The Joker gets caught, and Indy dismantles the occult child trafficking ring. Even “Empire” leaves the audience with an image of Luke on the mend and with a plan to rescue the recently fossilized Han. But not “Infinity War” its after-credit scene sees the series’ eye-patched heart and soul, Nick Fury, turning to literal dust, paging Captain Marvel because of the dire circumstances. The final scene before the credits shows the sun rising on Thanos as he sits down at peace after deleting half of life in the universe. It’s dark, yes, and in the end, any real sign of hope for our heroes is left until the last movie. Which, by the way, isn’t titled “Redemption.” It’s titled “Endgame.

Which is why the movie’s success lies in failure. The movie has all the trappings of a great tragedy; our protagonists lose because of the flaws in their personalities that are so essential to their motivations as heroes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) feels the only way to defeat Thanos is with the most logical course of action: an ambush in which the odds would be in his and his companions’ favor. But Thanos can hurl planets, our heroes lose and Tony has to watch the consequences of his actions as his protégé, Peter Parker (Spider-Man), disintegrates in his arms.

These are not the only cases of a character’s heroic motivations leading to their undoing. Peter Quill (Star-Lord of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise) frees Thanos when he emotionally lashes out over the death of his space assassin girlfriend Gamora. Quill’s renowned ability to act on instinct and out of love for his makeshift family ultimately saves the big purple bad guy. And Thor, wishing to avenge his fallen people, doesn’t “aim for the head” when he attacks Thanos with his newly minted god-killing weapon — all because of Thor’s own pride and the need to let Thanos know who got him in the end and why. Normally, all of the ridiculous superhero action described above would lead to a heroic outcome. But not in “Infinity War,” where instead, the audience is left with a deep sense of cathartic contemplation.

This catharsis in the movie’s final act leaves the viewer legitimately emotionally affected by what transpired on-screen. Is it not easier to identify with failure? Stan Lee famously said he created Spider-Man so fans could see themselves as the hero under the mask — which is why Parker is a troubled teen and not a perfect blond specimen who carries a shield and never swears.

This catharsis in the movie’s final act leaves the viewer legitimately emotionally affected by what transpired on-screen. Is it not easier to identify with failure?

It is this model, I believe, that lead to the positive response to “Infinity War.” For once, the audience could truly identify with its heroes. Maybe certain members of the population at UC Berkeley think of themselves as budding “billionaire playboy philanthropists.” But if you scrolled through our infamous meme page in the weeks after “Infinity War,” you might’ve noticed a trend of memes featuring Thanos satirizing impacted majors’ difficulty. Fail half your students, guarantee department resources for those who make it in. It’s a gross underexplanation of department structures at UC Berkeley, but it taps into something we all understand.

I think it’s a beautiful cosmic coincidence that the sequel to “Infinity War” is being released so close to finals season. Maybe this season was your Infinity Gauntlet, and some kind of tragic failure feels imminent, but remember that dead week is right around the corner, and school wraps May 17. We’re all in the “Endgame” now.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.