There are hundreds of movie reviews on Avengers: Endgame out there—especially now, almost a month after its release—but I want to dig a little deeper, into some of the themes that run through the whole MCU and now have come to a climax. (Major, major spoilers here, for Endgame and the overall MCU as well.)
We tend to overlook the moral complexity of characters and storylines, cause they’re just fun superhero movies. As broken as our country is, American values run deeper in our culture than we usually realize, and I think it would do us a lot of good to talk about that.
There’s subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) American symbolism and values woven throughout the MCU. Touches like the American flag hanging on the porch at Clint Barton’s (Hawkeye’s) farmhouse just remind you where home is. Captain America is the moral compass of the Avengers, with his relentless idealism, quest for liberty, and star-spangled uniform. Family is a strong theme for many of our heroes. They don’t tolerate injustice, and they tend to resist authority—I mean, they’re superheroes, so who needs government anyway? They don’t believe in fate, choosing instead to work hard and shape their own destinies and the future of the universe. Of course, at the foundation of the Avengers concept is a highly American refusal to tolerate failure, loss, or defeat.
Whatever it takes
Five years after the events of Infinity War, with half of the population wiped out, families torn apart, neighborhoods and cities fallen to ruin, the Avengers that remained were spread across the galaxy, trying to hold together the scattered pieces of life. It was Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) that never gave up—never gave up on the Avengers, refused to move on and forget those they lost, were unable to live with the weight of their failure.
Tony Stark (Iron Man) had foreseen the “endgame” for longer than any of the other Avengers—probably as far back as the first Avengers movie when the Chitauri invasion nearly destroyed New York and Tony carried the nuclear missile through the portal into deep space. He would have seen the magnitude of the Mad Titan’s forces on the other side of the wormhole, something no one else had yet seen. He took their failure in Infinity War harder, probably, than anyone, because he felt he should have been able to prevent it. But at some point, all of them felt responsible, and none of the Avengers were accustomed to losing a fight.
When Scott Lang (Antman), who was presumed dead but had actually been stuck in the quantum realm (see the end credits scene of Ant Man and the Wasp), showed up at the Avengers compound with a crazy idea for a time machine, Nat and Cap were the first to latch on to that tiny spark of hope. Maybe—just maybe—their loss wasn’t final.
Of course, despite his resistance to getting involved with the Avengers again, Tony couldn’t resist dabbling with the time travel idea, and—classic Tony Stark—his model was successful. When he told Pepper he’d figured it out, she knew he had no choice but to do it. It’s significant that for a long time Pepper had tried to get him to stop messing around with all this super hero stuff; she supported him, always, but all she wanted for so long was a normal, quiet life. Now, they finally had a normal life—at the time of this conversation she was reading a book about composting—but she knew Tony’s heroic nature wouldn’t be able to rest until he’d righted the wrong. He later told Cap, “Resentment is corrosive, and I hate it.”
Americans don’t actually believe in fate, and clearly neither do the Avengers, or they wouldn’t have gone back in time to change it. We enter a fight believing we can win—and even if we lose, we fight to the bitter end. We hate defeat, and we don’t give up. That’s true from a military standpoint, but also on a personal level—the American Dream is the belief that anyone can do or become anything if they want it bad enough and are willing to work for it. Like the Avengers, Americans believe we are part of something bigger than ourselves, fighting for a good that’s bigger than any person and will outlast us when we’re gone—whether that’s a business, family legacy, Constitutional rights, or all of the above and more.
The Avengers personify core American values
A defining trait of Americans is an innate sense of justice, and a visceral anger when we see injustice being carried out without resistance. I think in some sense that’s a purely human trait, but no people react as strongly to injustice as Americans, and certainly none are so willing to take the law into our own hands.
Clint Barton’s wife, daughter, and two little boys were among those killed in the “decimation,” as the Thanos “snap” has been unofficially dubbed, and naturally his heart died with them. Five years later, he was in full vigilante mode, seeking what little justice he could find as he killed off cartel members and evildoers around the globe. We hurt with him, cause honestly, what would any of us do in that situation? We may not react quite as violently, but there’s a part of each of us that understands.
There’s a reason we love rogue cop movies and vigilantes like Batman, Superman, Robin Hood, and the Lone Ranger—we’re fiercely independent, and if government is moving too slow or not being effective, well, we just might take action. We root for the underdog, the beat-down, underestimated hero, the victim of injustice. I mean, many Americans even have a love-hate relationship with sports dynasties like the Patriots—most of us end up cheering for whoever is playing them.
Americans tend to resist authority; we believe that power corrupts, and we especially distrust anyone who believes they are uniquely qualified to hold power. That makes Thor a special part of the Avengers Americana—he’s not American, or even from earth, which naturally makes him an outlier in many ways. He quickly adopted American culture when he first came to earth, but it’s his relationship with his own power that makes him fit right in. In the first Thor movie, he was young and arrogant, and overestimated his own capacity for authority. He ended up being stripped of his power entirely, and then learning that worthiness is actually defined by a relentless quest for truth and justice, and enough humility to balance out the level of power one holds. What an amazing, long-anticipated moment when we found out that Captain America was worthy to wield the hammer! I mean, of course he is—he’s the epitome of everything a great leader should be: strong, loyal, humble, emotionally relatable and genuine, fiercely just and morally consistent. Thor is the most powerful Avenger—he’s the god of thunder after all—but he has never again believed he could wield ultimate authority, so he’s still a great team player.
For Americans, security and liberty often seem to conflict: security requires more government, while freedom desires less government. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Some of America’s greatest struggles have centered on this tension: imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Congressional investigations into potential communist threats in the homeland during the Cold War, and NSA surveillance and wiretapping in post-9/11 America are just a few that come to mind.
Anticipating the “endgame,” Tony Stark had wanted to put a suit of armor around the earth, even at the expense of “our precious freedoms,” as he bitingly remarked to Cap in the immediate aftermath of the decimation. This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a dilemma between security and liberty in the MCU. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony’s first attempt to do just that resulted in…disaster. And in Captain America: Civil War, Tony and Cap went head-to-head on that very question. The Avengers never came up with a definite answer, though they seem to have created a balance that favors freedom but includes a level of security as well. America, too, is far from a clear decision—it’s a tough question in an age of cyber threats and extremist terrorism. I discussed the issue in light of whistleblowing in this article. There’s a balance somewhere between constitutional rights and national security; whatever happens, Americans definitely aren’t going to give up their liberty.
Another key American value illustrated in the MCU is family. Clint, Scott, and Tony are all strong father figures—flawed, as everyone is, but unwaveringly committed to their families. Scott is seriously such a great dad, with all his awkwardness. In the midst of all the superhero stuff, his world revolves around his daughter, Cassie. He was a superhero to her before he ever dreamed of becoming a real superhero. Tony didn’t have a family before the “decimation,” but finding out his father actually did believe in him was a big moment in Iron Man 2. By the time of Endgame, he and Pepper had a little girl and a whole new life, something he couldn’t stand to lose—and that’s the reason he initially refused to be involved in the Avengers’ attempt to reverse the snap. And of course, there was the tear-jerking moment when Clint’s wife called him after the snap was reversed.
Redemption is another undeniably American value with deep roots in the MCU. Natasha was an ex-Russian spy/assassin with a desire to wipe the red out of her ledger by saving lives and fighting for the good. In Endgame she made the ultimate sacrifice to allow her team to achieve victory. Natasha’s story illustrates the truth that America is a place where anyone, with any past, can become someone else, build a new life, find their own American Dream. On the other hand, Tony was the 1%, the really rich, the tip of the spear for technological advancement. He was good at what he did, and really arrogant at times, but he fought relentlessly for what was right. He overcame his father’s tendency to put his own selfishness ahead of the greater good and, like Nat, ended up putting his own life on the line to save all of humanity.
Something worth fighting for
One of the most refreshing aspects of the Marvel universe is the clear line between good and evil. Not that evil is refreshing, but there’s something reassuring about knowing exactly who the enemy is and why they’re bad, and that’s missing in a lot of American culture today. Sure, you have the mixed-up characters, sympathetic villains, and those who take forever to decide which side they’re really on—Loki, I’m looking at you—and the Avengers have occasionally dealt with infighting and internal disputes about methodology. But for the most part you know who the bad guys are, and the Avengers are unified in their goal of saving the world.
In the early MCU, the enemy was Hydra, the pseudo-Nazi organization that Captain America faced in The First Avenger. Hydra later infiltrated SHIELD, the government organization that created the Avengers Initiative, and from there it was easy to view the entire government as the bad guy. It was quite brilliant really, because when they were running contrary to the power-hungry agenda of an overreaching, Hydra-infested government, the Avengers tapped into that aspect of the American soul that is inherently distrustful of government.
Most recently, the enemy became Thanos, with his population-controlling, empire-building, planet-destroying agenda. As a character, Thanos has a heart, and it’s not hard to argue that deep down he really believes he’s doing the right thing, but there’s no doubt that he’s wrong, and the Avengers are justified in their battle to stop him.
I think this is one of the key reasons the Avengers are so popular in American culture. We like having a cause to rally around, an enemy to fight, and a defined good to defend—things we just don’t have in our country today. Captain America originated during World War II, one of the most messed up times in American history, but also one of the last times we as a nation were completely united, fighting for something we really believed was good and right. After he came out of the ice 70 years later, he maintained that persona throughout the course of the MCU story arc—the steady, morally indisputable guiding light of the Avengers and the country.
In a world where everyone gets to define their own truth, their own version of right and wrong, it’s virtually impossible to argue that something is objectively good and right without someone taking offense. Politics is such a jumble of opinions, scandals, mudslinging and personality cults that it’s hard to know who the real enemy is—because a person’s perception truly defines his reality, and no one is allowed to argue that a certain perception is objectively wrong. In an America where the killing of innocent, unborn human lives is lauded as a human right, it would be sort of refreshing to have some Hydra agents to fight against.
The Marvel universe appeals to the American people because, while it doesn’t shy away from complex issues, it has a moral clarity that America has been missing since the end of the Cold War. We’ve done such a good job nit-picking and criticizing that we’re raising a generation that doesn’t believe America is worth fighting for. We need our superheroes, with their “giddy optimism,” to keep us believing in something worth fighting for.