Avengers: Endgame Prioritizes Emotional Strength Over Physical Power

Grief is the intangible antagonist in Avengers: Endgame, as we watch our heroes learn to live through and past loss.

This article contains major Avengers: Endgame spoilers. We have a completely spoiler free review right here.

If you were to walk into the theater to watch Avengers: Endgamewithout any context, it might take you a while to realize you’re watching an action-driven franchise. The first act of Endgame includes very little action—at least of the physical variety. The emotional action, on the other hand, is on full display as we see our heroes forced to face the reality that, even with their collective physical prowess, they were unable to prevent the loss of half the universe’s population. 

Grief is a theme that anyone can relate to, especially anyone who has lost a person whose permanent absence seems unfathomable. When forced to engage with this post-Snap reality, the Avengers face their toughest challenge yet, and it has nothing to do with punching Thanos in the face or playing keepaway with the Infinity Stones: They are asked to live through and past loss. They are asked to accept it.

Big-budget franchises aren’t usually so good at earnestly depicting the emotional fallout of loss; they’re generally too busy trying to raise the physical stakes to engage with the emotional ones—forgetting that the former is worth nothing without the latter. In action-driven franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, physical challenges are metaphors for the emotional challenges we all face on a daily basis, but it’s not the same thing as watching characters who have been contextualized as our pop culture role models for the last decade explicitly mourn.

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The themes of loss and mourning have been part of the MCU since the beginning, even if they have never been given the degree of narrative weight they get in Endgame. From Tony Stark’s kidnapping in Iron Man to Steve Rogers’ wartime experiences in The First Avenger, a history of past trauma and grief is common in this unlucky group.

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Steve’s experience living past loss in particular makes him a vital resource for the team in this post-Snap world. After all, this isn’t the first time Steve has lost his reality. We forget that, unlike the rest of the Avengers and the rest of the planet, Steve has undergone a situation like the Snap before. He crashed his jet into the ice and woke up decades later, with almost everyone he knew dead, and the world forever changed, at least for him.

This is perhaps why Steve is a bit better at dealing with the post-Snap world than others: he has done this before, in some sense. He has experience. He knows that the only way forward is through, even if he doesn’t like it. He spends his time helping others, leading a grief support group in the way his friend Sam did for veterans returned from combat. If this war is losing your entire reality, then Steve has already been to war and come out on the other side. He can offer hope, even if it looks more like acceptance than most people want it to.

By some definition, mourning is the act of decidedly not winning. It is losing in the most profound, inescapable ways. In the wake of tragedy, our subjective understanding of winning tends to change. Winning is no longer getting everything you want—now that you have lost something irretrievable, that possibility is revealed as foolishly and wonderfully childish in its ambitions—but rather working to accept the idea that living with what you have and what is realistically possible can be enough.

“Everyone fails at being the person they are supposed to be,” Frigga tells her son, tying these ideas of loss and losing together. “The measure of a person, a hero, is how they succeed at being who they are.” In this case, Thor has lost himself as a side effect of losing so much else. Like all of the original Avengers in Endgame, Thor is asked to rebuild his sense of identity and reality when something foundational to his conceptions of both has been taken. This is grief, and it’s Endgame‘s main, intangible antagonist.

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In the process of exploring what it feels like not to win—and not to win for a long time—Endgame subverts the overrepresented superhero trope that sees powered people channel pain, loss, and grief into violence, as if that’s the only option. Instead, the Avengers use that five-year period to, individually and collectively, get their shit together (or, in the case of Hawkeye and Thor, you know… not, which is also important representation). To get emotionally buff, if you will.

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In this way, the five-year time jump at the beginning of Endgame is more than just a gimmick; it is a way to depict the kind of superheroic power many of these characters have been trying to learn since the beginning of this franchise: emotional stability and agility, and the strength that comes with those qualities. They are only able to defeat Thanos and save the Snap victims because of the work they did in that five-year span. They weren’t training their bodies; they were training (forgive me) their hearts and minds.

What does that training look like? Unfortunately, there is no montage of these characters going to therapy sessions, openly sobbing in the shower and to their loved ones, and generally learning how to move forward by finding new purpose and forging a new, forever changed sense of identity and reality.

But we do get to see the results of their hard work: Tony Stark uses the time to set healthy boundaries around his work life. His new sense of identity involves the roles of father, husband, and washer of dishes. Bruce figures out a way to embrace both sides of himself, and seems in a better place than he’s ever been, both personally and in terms of his public persona. Steve may not feel like he is doing a very good job of moving on—he is another character who feels like he is failing at who he is supposed to be—but he’s always been his own harshest critic. Post-time jump he is noticeably less uptight than we’ve ever seen him, swearing and recognizing the glory of his own ass.

I am especially drawn to Natasha’s post-Snap journey (with supporting appearances from Rhodey, Rocket, Carol, and Okoye). She may not see it as heroism, as explored in her conversation about not moving on with Steve, but Natasha is the person who holds this entire family together when no one wants to be reminded of what they still have because then they will be reminded of what they have lost.

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Natasha is the character who seems best at seeing herself not as who she is supposed to be, but rather as who she is—perhaps because, for so long, so many (including herself) expected so much worse from her. The world judged her on her worst mistakes so, if she ever hoped to be better, she had to judge herself by a different criteria: by the person she knew herself to be, by the identity she constructed for herself rather than the one constructed for her.

Nat is the one who gets up everyday and makes sure the Avengers are still fighting to help the most vulnerable across the universe. She is holding everyone together when even Steve Rogers is questioning if the work of superhero-ing is worth it. Natasha understands that, even though they may have lost the big fight, that no fight is small—especially to the people it’s saving. Natasha does the thankless work of answering emailing, taking notes, holding meetings, and checking in with people even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t want to be checked in with. (She’s probably the one buying the laundry detergent, too.)

And it’s not that Natasha does it stoically—at the end of some days, she cries over her peanut butter sandwich. Unlike Thor or Clint, Natasha doesn’t try to avoid her emotions. She feels them, and she does the work anyway. We need more representations and recognition of Natasha’s quiet brand of heroism, which looks a lot like getting up every morning and doing the work that isn’t particularly fun to talk about or do.

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The Avengers’ emotional training isn’t complete until they go on one more mission. Through the narrative device of time travel, Steve and Tony (because, let’s be real, that’s really who this movie is about) are able to test their new emotional stability.

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For Steve, this means literally facing himself: more notable, his identity as a soldier. Time and again, it’s the role Steve has prioritized. He could do this all day. When Endgame Cap faces off against Avengers Cap, for the first time ever, we see a Steve who seems willing to let go of his superhero identity. He makes a joke in response to his iconic line, and also stops to recognize his iconic ass. Both moments may be (very effectively) played for laughs, but they also foreshadow his decision at the end of the movie, when Steve decides to leave the Captain America mantle behind.

For Tony, testing his emotional stability means finally being able to see his dad in a new context (with the perspective of a parent), and to let him know (even if Howard doesn’t understand) that he is going to be OK—at least in the ways that both Tony and Howard value. Howard may die a violent death at the hands of the Winter Soldier, but he leaves behind an immense legacy in the form of Tony Stark—a legacy that is going to save the universe. Tony’s conversation with his father also foreshadows Tony’s own ending, a moment that Pepper uses to tell Tony the same thing his dad needed to hear: we’re going to be OK.

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The emotional work Steve and Tony do during that five-year time span allows them to work together in a way they never have before. This is a movie that began with Tony lashing out in his pain to call Steve “a liar,” laying the tragedy of the Snap at Steve’s feet and highlighting just how much work is needed to fully repair their fractured relationship following the events of Civil War.

By the time the Avengers prepare for their jump through time, Tony has no trouble letting Steve lead the team, nodding along with his pep talk rather than trying to challenge him. Proof that their relationship is fully healed, in no small part because of the respective work they have both done during that five-year span, comes when they jump to 1970 New Jersey without a safety net.

“You trust me?” Tony asks Steve, and there’s no use pretending any longer that Tony doesn’t care about the answer past what it means for his plan. “I do,” Steve tells him. They trust one another, and it’s not because either has become physically stronger in the time they’ve spent apart. It’s because they worked through their shit. 

I don’t believe that “magic comes from pain,” but I do believe that, when faced with pain, we can try to learn from it, hopefully becoming a more emotionally-intelligent person in the process. And we can be kind with ourselves when we fall short of the way we are supposed to be dealing with all of it. As important as Natasha, Tony, Bruce, and Steve’s examples of getting their emotional shit together is, it is equally important that we see Avengers who fumble the immense emotional challenge of living with loss—or, to define it in another way, who are at different points in their grief process, having been unable or unwilling to prioritize healing and acceptance in the same ways.

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I don’t have a lot of time for Hawkeye’s brand of emotional struggle—the fact that his murder spree of bad guys seems to mostly include non-white people is a problematic trope—but the depiction of Thor’s attempts to avoid his grief is vital (though the film does try to play off his depression and weight gain as humorous, which is lazy, harmful, and—uncharacteristically for this franchise—mean-spirited).

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I love that Thor is a mess. Because this is a valid, common, and relatable way to react to trauma, loss, and an immense sense of guilt over having survived when so many did not. In the hubbub of Thanos’ snap, it may be easy to forget how much Thor had already lost going into the climactic fight in Infinity War: his parents, his brother, his eye, his hammer, his home. The Snap was another heap of trauma on top of an already deeply traumatized man-god who had been given almost no time or space to deal with his grief thus far. I’d be a mess, too.

When Tony tells Thor he can’t be the one to wield the Infinity Gauntlet, it makes sense because it doesn’t matter how physically powerful you are if you’re not emotionally strong, too—that’s what this entire movie is about. The climactic battle of this movie sees a bunch of characters passing the Infinity Gauntlet, a symbol of absolute physical power, like a baton. None of them seem tempted to put it on, which says a lot about their respective characters and what makes a “good guy” versus a “bad guy,” but also says a lot about this movie. 

The heroism of this movie is measured not in physical might, but in emotional strength. In the toughest of lessons learned and the little braveries Steve talks about as he leads group therapy: the bravery of moving forward, of trying in a world that feels hopeless. It’s a topical theme for 2019, in which hope feels like the bravest, most radical act possible.

On a franchise level, it’s brilliant to prioritize the theme of learning how to move forward in the face of loss—because the MCU is actively asking its audience to do the same. As the franchise moves from one chapter of its saga into another, the MCU is asking its audience to follow them—even if the story is missing some of the elements that have been foundational to the franchise’s sense of identity and reality thus far. In this way, we’re going through the exact same process as the film’s characters: learning how to lose Tony Stark and Steve Rogers and be OK.

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If the MCU thus far has been partially defined as the franchise with Captain America and Iron Man, it’s time for us to all accept a new reality—one that isn’t based on the way we think this story is supposed to be, but rather on the story as it is. And, even if you’re the biggest Tony Stark or Steve Rogers stan out there, there’s so much to look forward to in the MCU’s future—a future that is more diverse in terms of who gets to wield power and what that looks like.

Because this movie is so much about accepting the new reality that comes after loss, it is vital that, when the Avengers restore the people lost in the Snap, they don’t erase the last five years. This was when the Avengers became the heroes they needed to be to defeat Thanos. While the decision may be explained away through the need to protect Morgan Stark’s existence, her existence represents so much more: literally, life after loss, what a new chance looks like—a chance that is different from the thing you forever lost, but no less precious.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.