To infinity and beyond

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I can pinpoint the exact moment that I became a bona fide nerd.

To be fair, that argument could be made for a number of moments throughout my life. Let’s face it, I had braces up until my sophomore year of high school and I have been doing improv comedy for six years now. But there’s one memory that I think sticks out more than most. It was when, at age 13, I sat in a sold-out theater on a Sunday night and watched 2012’s “The Avengers” for the first time.

Somewhere in between Loki snagging the tesseract and the Hulk pulverizing a giant Chiaturi centipede with a single punch, a sense of unbridled joy rose up within me at seeing these disparate, cheesily-costumed, larger than life personalities circle up to do good. I began to believe wholeheartedly and unabashedly in Nick Fury’s mission statement, which has become the guiding philosophy for Marvel fans everywhere: “To bring together a group of remarkable people. See if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, and fight the battles that we never could.”

And, for a chubby seventh-grade choir kid who often felt like a loser, it was nice to believe that there were heroes out there who were willing to fight the battles I couldn’t. I was inspired to watch them grow and evolve as I did; to witness their universe expand as my world, too, felt like it was becoming bigger.

I met Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye as I was fighting off the throes of middle school puberty, hamming it up in community theater productions and dealing with the fallout of a truly awful haircut involving a bob and shaggy bangs. As their problems got more complex, so did mine. Suddenly Steve and Natasha were toppling a secretly-evil S.H.I.E.L.D., Thor was watching Loki fake die (for the second time) and I was starting high school, joining an improv team and developing a laughably unrequited crush. When Tony Stark created a murderbot, I got my driver’s license — and two tickets, all within the span of a year.

The Avengers fought a civil war while I fought against the tedious pressure of AP exams and SATs in the hopes of getting into a “good” college. And just when I thought I had the Avengers roster resolutely memorized, I got to know “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange” and “Spider-Man.” I began exploring new, unfamiliar corners of their fictional world, just as I was beginning to reckon with leaving my home for a university that felt, at the time, to be even more unfamiliar and frightening than the vastness of Marvel’s multiverse.

But, I told myself, if Thor could handle having to battle the Hulk on a trash planet, I could handle UC Berkeley. And so I did. I closed out my mostly joyful, occasionally thorny freshman year at Cal, feeling like a newly-minted adult. And then I watched Thanos finally show up with his big, gold glove and promptly snap away half of the heroes I’d so fervently believed in since I was 13. I cried watching them all turn to dust, and I did not feel like an adult anymore.

The Avengers have always been my constant. As they’ve grown from a ragtag team of six to a sprawling ensemble of superpeople, I’ve gone from being a child to being halfway through my college career.

I’ve shared these movies with the people I love most. I remember talking to my parents on the phone about how funny “Thor: Ragnarok” was. Blaring “Star Spangled Man” in my Honda with my brother on our way to the opening night of “Captain America: Civil War.” Sitting in my local movie theater with my best friend and laughing uncontrollably before we saw “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” because she wouldn’t stop teasing me about ordering a microwaved cinnamon roll from the concessions stand.

I’ve believed, through every battle and joke and end-credit stinger, in people who want to use their power for good. People who, when confronted with insurmountable challenges, brush it off and say, “I could do this all day.” When the overwhelming anxieties of growing up would make me feel hopeless, watching the Avengers save the day always gave me hope. They helped me fight the battles that I once felt I never could.

But it’s been 21 movies now and as the release of “Avengers: Endgame” this week signifies, they can’t all stick around to help forever. Sometimes I long for the infinity stones to be real. I want desperately to swipe that time stone and go back to experience every moment all over again.

But I can’t go back. All I can do — at risk of sounding like the bona fide nerd that I am — is say goodbye. So, to the Avengers that I grew up with, thank you for sticking with me all this time. There aren’t enough infinity stones in the universe to help me properly express my gratitude.

Maybe I should take this finale of sorts as a sign that I should grow up. That it’s time to quiet the 13-year-old in my head who gets excited every time Captain America turns around, a ruined New York cityscape behind him, and entreats the Hulk to “smash.”

And maybe I’m ready for that. Maybe, after all of these years of cheering, laughing, crying and desperately rooting for my beloved Avengers, it’s time for me to become my own hero.

And if that doesn’t work out, I’ve always got “Hulk smash” to fall back on. It hasn’t failed me yet.

“Avengers: Endgame” will be in theaters starting Friday.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].