The Art of Ending Well: Grief, Grieving and Avengers: Endgame

Turns out Tony is pretty good at dying (from Marvel’s 2016 series Civil War II)

Before I start, I don’t think I can get two sentences in to this subject without mentioning massive spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, so if you don’t want them read this after you’ve watched the film. I also assume you’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War, so you may as well watch that too. Heck just go watch all 22 movies. I’ll wait.

Avengers: Endgame is a remarkable film. It’s already notable for breaking multiple box office records handily. The fact that it’s actually a good film that captures and holds your attention for its 3+ hour run time is remarkable as well. What I left with after watching the movie was how remarkably and honestly it deals with grief, grieving and what it means to end well.

The bulk of the movie takes place after the remaining Avengers do what they failed to do in Infinity War, kill Thanos. The death of Thanos brings no satisfaction or resolution though, which is the driver of the rest of the movie.

We jump five years into the future to see how our remaining heroes are faring, and the answer is not well. The Avengers have practically disbanded, each going their separate way and each dealing with their loss and their roles in those losses differently. This is where Marvel gets grief very well, as we see our heroes all coping – or failing to cope – in examples of the well known “stages of grief” as described by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She describes five stages (perhaps better understood today as aspects) of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

David “Hulk” Banner seems on the surface to be coping better than most . He has embraced both his genius “Banner” side as well as the brutish “Hulk” and has managed to be the best of both at the same time. His behavior and overall attitude show that he hasn’t “moved on” though. He is stuck in a form of denial, as evidenced by his embracing the role of the pop superstar posing for selfies for his fans. He plays the hero, even though he is himself no longer heroic. I’ve seen many who are able to on the surface accept their losses as real, but underneath refuse to accept that those losses have had any lasting impact on them, and Banner seems to exemplify this.

Thor is also stuck in denial as well as bargaining. After killing Thanos, he has retreated to the remote fishing village of New Asgard where he serves as an absentee king and resident frat boy. He has become a caricature: fat, drunken, oafish and lazy, more concerned about his cable than his kingdom. It’s quickly apparent though that Thor is using his drinking and distraction to isolate himself from the fact that he failed to kill Thanos the first time. This is also evident in the pain and anger brought about by the mere mention of Thanos’ name. In trying to avoid his shame, he actually becomes shameful.

Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff, the only original Avenger still acting like one, has become a workaholic. She tries to fill the role of leader and rescuer, but finds that there is simply little rescuing to be done. Her bargain, perhaps, is that if she can still save people she can still have meaning and purpose, as well as keep the pain and responsibility of further loss away. I see this as well in many who go through loss trying to keep busy as a way to both show that things haven’t changed and to not process their grief.

Clint “Hawkeye” Barton to me fares the worst of the remaining Avengers because he has lost the most. In dealing with the loss of his entire family he has become trapped in anger and rage. He has turned from hero to vigilante, exchanging his bow, which keeps enemies at a distance, for a much more bloody and “up-close-and-personal” katana. He takes his bloodthirst out on the worst of society because they are most deserving of it, but it is clear that he is becoming as lost as they are. He suffers even more in the film as he not only loses his family (he’s the only Avenger with a family) but Natasha as well.

Tony “Iron Man” Stark is apparently doing the best of our group of Avengers. He has a wife and daughter and is living a rather idyllic country life focused more on family than fame. He seems to have reached a level of acceptance and has made positive changes in his life. But beneath the surface we see that he remains fearful of any further loss and refuses to help his former team if it will cost him anything. His personal failure and their collective failure to stop Thanos has weighed heavily on him and he is afraid of losing again. We see that he has cut himself off not only from his team but from the whole world because that is the only way he can keep what he now loves safe.

Even Steve “Captain America” Rogers is not faring as well as it seems. He attends a bereavement group but is so focused on helping others that he fails to help himself.  I was never sure if he was leading the group or participating in it. He encourages others to open up and be vulnerable but is not vulnerable himself. He later reveals to Natasha what is plainly evident, “I keep telling everybody they should move on. Some do. But not us.” Rogers has throughout the series been the epitome of selflessness, and here we see how damaging that selflessness can be for those who don’t take care of their own pain.

As the group goes back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones in order to repair what Thanos has done, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America have the opportunity to meet again with loved ones who have died. This experience gives them the chance to say the things that had been left unsaid and heal past wounds. In Cap’s case, even though he doesn’t interact with Peggy Carter, the encounter reminds him of his love for her and inspires him to, quite literally, do life over again. His marrying of Peggy and his kind refusal to tell his friends about their life are probably the only selfish things he’s ever done. In real life, grief therapists have found that reconnecting with the deceased through letters, reflection and memorials is very helpful in working through pain and avoidance. In Endgame these moments become turning points for our characters and the resolution of their internal conflicts in turn allow them to have the strength to resolve their external conflict.

Tony’s act of selfless heroism at the end of the film (maybe the only unselfish thing he’s ever done in contrast to Cap) costs him his life and really brings the emotional weight of grief and loss to the forefront. I found this to be a very refreshingly un-Hollywood-like death. Tony had no final words of comfort to his wife or friends. She didn’t beg him to stay or rush to save him. Tony doesn’t die triumphant with a smile on his face. Instead the film shows Tony in his final moments of helplessness and lets Pepper tell him the two things that I tell every family member they need to say to their dying loved one: “we’ll be OK” and “you can rest now”. The funeral scene is dramatic and touching in so many ways, and both times I watched the movie people audibly cried during it.

One of the things that makes the Marvel films so good is that they recognize and emphasize the “human” in “superhuman” where the DC films seem to emphasize the “super”. Endgame could have easily been a film where punching Thanos really hard solves everything. But Thanos is not the problem in Endgame, loss and the fear of loss is. Overcoming that grief and fear is really the biggest challenge faced by our heroes.

Which brings us to ending well. Avengers: Endgame represents the culmination of many things. It is the conclusion of a story that spanned ten years and twenty-two films. It is the conclusion of the battle between good and evil at least as represented by Thanos and the Avengers. It is how things are made right again. But at its core it is about how the stories of how Iron Man and Captain America end well.

One of the major arcs of the MCU movies has been the relationship of Captain America and Iron Man. Their ideological battles about individual liberty, responsibility, and morality, as well as their contrasting personalities, were the backbone of films including Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. Endgame, we find out, is not just the end of Thanos but also of Iron Man and Captain America. In both cases we can say that they ended well. Tony overcomes his fear of loss to become the hero we always thought he was. We’re able to see him say good-bye to his loved ones both at the beginning and the end of the film, and the contrast between the two messages reveals how much Tony’s character has grown. We feel Spider-man’s pain as he weeps for his mentor as well as Pepper’s as she comforts Tony in his final moments. Captain America’s ending is quite different but just as satisfying. As rewarding it was to see Iron Man give his life for his friends, it was maybe even more rewarding to see Cap basically get to live his life over again not as a superhero but as Steve Rogers, ordinary guy with the person he loves. While both lives had different outcomes, we can clearly say that they both ended well.

The psychologist Erik Erikson spoke of the last crisis of life is that of integrity versus despair. As we enter our final stage of life, do we look back with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction or failure? This crisis is one I see at play in many of my hospice patients and their families who are struggling with what it means to end well. While many indeed approach the end of life with a sense of peace and satisfaction, I’ve heard more than once how whoever coined the phase “the golden years” was a liar. Grief can come at the end of life not just from death, but from the loss of what could have been and never was. That despair can be projected outward at an unjust universe or a baffling God, or inward as self-blame and shame. Going back to revisit the past and reframing not just our losses but our accomplishments, as well as forgiving and being forgiven by those we’ve lost previously, can impact how people perceive their own lives and create meaning where there may be meaninglessness.

Finally, I think Avengers: Endgame itself is an exercise in ending well. It seems more often than not that movie sequels and series disappoint in the end. Perhaps it’s because movie studios really don’t want things to end just in case they can make more money off of the franchise (the last Indiana Jones movie or The Hobbit trilogy), or because they think moviegoers are more interested in flash than feelings (Justice League). But Endgame is important in that it really is an ending, and as sad as that ending is it is also very satisfying. That satisfaction comes not just from being wowed or by seeing the good guys win, but by seeing good people do good things. We’ve seen them grow and struggle in ways we can relate to, and seeing them come out on the other side of crisis as better people can perhaps inspire us that we can do the same.


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