Warning: Spoilers, obviously.
Losing someone you love always hurts. But losing them too early — to terminal illness, or an accident, or in a war, or something else — is extraordinarily hard. There’s no one way to respond. Everyone deals with grief differently.
Avengers: Endgame understands this well — or, at least, the first 45 minutes or so do.
The movie opens within days of the “snap,” in which the villain Thanos collects the Infinity Stones, snaps his fingers, and wipes out half the earth’s population in a moment. Then it skips ahead by five years, when everyone is still trying to deal with the fallout.
To its credit, Endgame is unusually nuanced for a big-budget action movie of its kind in depicting the varied ways people react to grief. Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow) has turned into a bundle of activity, holding meetings with various Avengers to check in on their activity around the world. Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) is part of a support group for people dealing with their grief and trying to move on. Clint Barton (Hawkeye) saw his family disappear before his eyes, and has been trying to cope by becoming an angry vigilante. Bruce Banner has fused with Hulk and become an almost too genial fellow; Thor has fallen into depression and alcoholism. Things are bleak.
Soon, however, the Avengers are reassembling. They’ve come up with a plan that might help them right the wrong: building a kind of time machine contraption that will let them travel into the past — not to change it, but to steal the Infinity Stones, bring them into the future, reverse Thanos’s snap, and resurrect half the world’s population. When they pull it off, it’s triumphant and exciting, with swelling music. We shed a tear when everyone reappears. We want to applaud.
Of course, there are complications along the way. Some of the bad guys figure out a way to travel forward in time to stop the Avengers, presumably because it wouldn’t be a Marvel movie if there wasn’t a big fight at the end. And while they’re fighting to bring back those they lost, some of the Avengers lose their own lives — Black Widow, in an effort to get one of the stones, and Iron Man, in ultimately wielding the stones and bringing everyone back.
But these aren’t senseless deaths, like the ones rendered by the snap. Black Widow and Iron Man die because the story requires it; they die for a reason.
The MCU is nothing if not a big Hollywood franchise, and in a Hollywood franchise, things have to work out. The good guys have to win. If they die, it has to be for a satisfying narrative purpose.
Honestly, I can’t fault the filmmakers for that. It’s what audiences want from a movie like Endgame. And it is, at times, genuinely moving.
But the movie’s arc — with grief being sidelined so early, and mostly mitigated — also rang a little hollow to me. We always knew that most of the people Thanos wiped out would return in the end. (If nothing else, the fact that Spider-Man: Far From Home, due out in July, stars a character who disappeared in the snap made that pretty clear.)
People felt real grief when characters disappeared in Infinity War; audience members cried in a way I rarely hear during a superhero film. The snap was cruel and senseless, with people chosen to die at random.
But this is how big Hollywood films almost always operate: They truncate the time we have to spend with difficult emotions and give us the fantasy of a happy ending.
That’s not, however, how grief manifests in real life.
Endgame’s casual brush with grief is not much like life. But sometimes TV has gotten it right.
Nonsensical, inexplicable disappearances and deaths leave you shattered and scared and angry and confused. I know this. I lost my father, someone everyone loved, very suddenly to leukemia and a brain aneurysm in 2006. It happened a few days before my wedding. He was 47. It turns out all the faith in the world won’t help you explain the logic behind that.
But sometimes, a story can help.
What I remember most about the time following his death is that I remember almost nothing at all. Like, I think I blocked out most of that first year completely. In graduate school, I tried to write about it, but I couldn’t recall anything that happened. It was my first year of marriage, and if you had asked me if I was happy, I would have said yes. And I was. There are pictures that prove it. But I must have been sleepwalking.
What a strange response to grief — blocking out memories entirely, being fully functioning on the outside and entirely absent on the inside. Then again, I’m a pretty easygoing person who’s staked most of her identity, most of her life, on not being “emotional” or “irrational,” on trying not to cause trouble for anyone else. (Ask anyone who knows me well: I don’t cry at movies.) So it makes sense.
You can’t really control how you respond, only how you deal with that response. At 22, having lived a pretty easy life, I wasn’t ready to deal, though I knew something inside me was not working.
Strangely, the first thing I really remember making me feel okay was an HBO show: Six Feet Under, a truly melodramatic and over-the-top show that was entirely about death. In the pilot episode, a sudden death throws an entire family into turmoil, and the rest of the show is about them all trying to cope, in their own ways — by shutting down, by acting out, by becoming angry, by hurting themselves and others.
The family lives and works in a funeral home, so every episode of the show started with someone dying, and frequently the framing device for the episode was the family of the deceased coming to the funeral home. Death is always tragic, but these deaths were richly inventive, and over the show’s five seasons, they had to become increasingly imaginative. Which meant some were heartrending, and others were comic.
That’s actually one thing that Six Feet Under did well: showing the absurdity that’s knitted into the tragedy of death, and how people just do irrational, emotional, silly, foolish things to deal with it. I could, if I looked inside myself, find the bleak silliness of death and laugh at it, which defanged it, a little. I eventually began to record memories again.
The Leftovers started with its own version of the snap, but ended in a much different place
I always think about Six Feet Under when I watch any film or show about death, but watching Endgame, I thought even more about something else: HBO’s searing drama The Leftovers, which concluded almost two years ago.
The link didn’t even occur to me before I saw Endgame, but it should have just from the setup. The first scene of Endgame — in which Hawkeye is spending time with his wife and two children, only to discover they simply disappeared into thin air — is even eerily reminiscent of the first scenes of The Leftovers.
The Leftovers begins with a cataclysmic disappearance (though in this case, it’s a comparatively tiny 2 percent of humanity) that feels like a version of the snap: Millions of people suddenly, silently vanish, without explanation.
Throughout its three-season run from 2014 to 2017, The Leftovers made us watch a devastated world engage in halting, stumbling attempts to pick up the pieces. Some lost a parent. Others lost children. Some lost lovers and friends. Others lost nobody at all, and the guilt sends them into as much of a tailspin as the absence would. There’s plenty of (largely unanswered) mysteries threaded throughout The Leftovers, too, but it keeps coming back to grief.
The Leftovers needled me right between the ribs; it’s one of only two shows I’ve ever seen that get at the erratic, inexplicable ways the human mind reacts to losing someone suddenly. The Leftovers stages the disappearances as if they’re some form of “The Rapture” — a future event in some Christian traditions, in which all Christians will disappear from the earth, signaling the beginning of a seven-year tribulation period before the end of the world. (And indeed, The Leftovers toyed with a similar time period, as well as symbols lifted from the more apocalyptic books of the Bible.)
But if the actual Rapture were to happen (as it does in the wildly popular Left Behind novels, which spawned several film adaptations), we’d know, because everyone who disappeared would be Christians and everyone who was left would not be. In The Leftovers, the twist is that there’s no discernible pattern or purpose behind who disappeared. They just … did.
Technically, the disappearances aren’t deaths, but that hardly matters. Death is echoed metaphorically across the show, from a woman who appears to be functionally brain-dead to relationships that just die on the vine, starved for life, memory, and a heartbeat.
And as in Six Feet Under, the characters of The Leftovers don’t know what to do with themselves. They grow extremely pious. They grow extremely angry. They bury themselves in work or in caring for children. They begin to believe in conspiracy theories. They turn sardonic. They join cults, or start them.
I saw myself most in Nora (played by Carrie Coon), the woman who lost her husband and children in the disappearances, and has mixed feelings about it. She turns into a skeptic, working for a government agency that investigates claims of disappearances for insurance reasons. Over the show, she becomes someone who changes and moves and loves, but is practical and, in the end, even after all that happens to her, can’t stand not knowing if she could, in some mystical way, bring her lost children back. I get that. I’d try to bring my father back too, if I could.
Unlike The Leftovers, Endgame isn’t built to be anything more than a fantasy
As I watched Endgame, I wondered briefly if it would go the way of The Leftovers, or even Six Feet Under, and spend a lot of this behemoth of a movie letting the characters deal with grief, and maybe not even make it all come out right in the end.
But I should have known better. Endgame waves away the opportunity to dive deeper into the psyches of its grieving heroes, resetting them into unflappable hero mode. They have to get back to work; there’s no time to linger on what has been lost when there is a chance to gain it all back.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t fault Endgame for not stewing in the cesspool of grief and its effects. That’s not what it’s built to do. And I’m not sure I’d want to watch a “gritty” Endgame.
Yet I needed to recognize that the Hollywood fantasy, of bad things being set right by some heroes, is just that: a fantasy. And in Endgame, the requisite happy ending does leave a gaping plot hole. What about people who did move on, as Captain America advocates? What if you had finally figured out a way to deal with your grief, and remarried, and maybe even had a child, and then the heroes brought your spouse and children back from the snap?
What I mean, with all of this, is not that Endgame is bad for hewing to the fantasy, designed more to cure the audience’s grief at the characters’ disappearance than the characters’. But I still yearn for more mainstream entertainment built for big audiences to give our culture — which is not very good at knowing how to deal with death — a way to sort out grief. Some (like Game of Thrones) have tried, falteringly, but few actually succeed. I think American audiences, who love the uplifting ending, need better ways to figure out how to feel grief in the movies, the way we feel love or anger or injustice. It would help us learn that life often ends mysteriously, ambiguously, sadly, and sometimes without making any sense at all.
On earth, at least, there is no triumphing over death or grief. It is, at last, the endgame.