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‘Avengers: Endgame’ Emphasizes the “Comic Book” in “Comic Book Movie”

As in: an expansive story, a large and unwieldy universe, plenty of knowing callbacks, the willing suspension of disbelief—and a setup for the next one

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

In July 2016, Captain America pushed a lesser patriotic hero named Jack Flag out of an airborne dropship without a parachute. The panel in question is soaked in sinister red hues, which telegraph that this was an act of someone who is Bad now, and not a setup for a later, improbable twist that would undo the sins of the once blameless owner of the country’s greatest ass. He said two words. Everything went to pot.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, 2016

The twist at the end of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (artwork by Jesús Saiz and Joe Caramagna) read as a betrayal of the character’s origins for a cheap thrill to some fans, and even anti-Semitic to others. The creators of the Captain America character were Jewish writers—Joe Simon and Jack Kirby—and Hydra is not so subtly a Nazi facsimile. Abraham Riesman at Vulture can tell you more about it, but there’s a joke about this controversy in Avengers: Endgame. The film is three hours long and even more self-referential than Infinity War, but at least has the decency to sort of walk you through the MCU back catalog. To tie off story lines that have spanned 22 films through the past decade, directors Anthony and Joe Russo had our nearest, dearest action figures physically revist moments from their movie-past—this meant Steve Rogers was going back into close quarters with a fishy S.H.I.E.L.D. unit, just like in 2014’s Winter Soldier. Instead of Jeet Kune Do-ing his way out this time, however, Steve calmly borrows Spencer’s incendiary line of dialogue for a good laugh, and exits the elevator.

Comic book movies increasingly feel like paging through actual comic books—Infinity War even billed itself as “the most ambitious crossover event in history.” Endgame likewise builds a universe large enough to contain the ever-growing Marvel roster, and sends Captain Marvel hurtling across it to mitigate the effect of her cheat-code supernova powers on a story of loss and redemption that at least needed to gesture toward an unfavorable outcome. It is, basically, a crossover comic event that eclipses the last one: a world irreversibly corrupted by a great tragedy, familiar characters as we’ve never seen them (Fat Thor, Serial Killer Hawkeye), and two universe-saving efforts. The second effort culminates in a massive set-piece battle, during which Captain America finally proves worthy enough to pick up Thor’s hammer. Like most everything else in Endgame it’s a callback to a callback—Steve nearly budges Mjolnir during Ultron, which itself was a wink at fans who have read volumes of Age of Apocalypse or Fear Itself or other times Captain America has wielded the hammer. This was the first of several, successive oh-shit moments for comic fans, and not quite the one that elicited my loudest and most impassioned oh-shit.

The time travel stuff in this movie makes less and less sense the more you think or read about it, but I’ll put up with the nonsense for pure adrenaline hits like Black Panther swaggering out of a portal to save the day. The willing suspension of disbelief is also part and parcel to the comic book reading experience:

Secret Wars #8, 2016

Anytime I’m asked about the next big Marvel saga I’d like to see on the big screen, I reach for Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Wars arc—which consisted of nine issues from May 2015 to January 2016—knowing full well current-gen technology falls short of what that undertaking would demand. I mean, I get exhausted just trying to explain it: The Marvel multiverse collapses as Reed Richards, Dr. Doom, and Molecule Man meet the Beyonders (gods, basically) in a last-ditch attempt to save it. Doom is the only one imbued with the powers of the Beyonders and cobbles the remaining fragments of the multiverse into “Battleworld.” The planet is made out of territories like the Deadlands and New Xandar; there’s a province where only the Hulk people live. On Battleworld, Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, is little Johnny Storm’s best friend and a legion of Thors patrol the skies, who keep God Doom’s peace under the direction of Doom’s grand vizier, Dr. Strange. It’s wild, in other words, and at one point Black Panther finds an Infinity Gauntlet and faces Doom (positively hammered drunk with power) as his equal. So: Obviously a big ask for an on-screen adaptation, but there are shades of it, once the portals open in Endgame’s third act and the Guardians, Asgardians, Wakandans, and the rest of the Avengers begin pouring out.

Black Panther doesn’t wear the Infinity Gauntlet in Endgame, he only carries it to keep it away from Thanos. Once the gauntlet is lateralled to Spider-Man, and then to Captain Marvel, who is then surrounded by a phalanx made of the women of the MCU, it becomes clear the gauntlet is actually a torch. That’s another thing crossover comics have to do, in addition to putting a bow on an expansive story and allowing each hero enough break time for their own solo—they have to set up the next one. So Spider-Man appearing in a trailer for Far From Home when he’s supposed to still be a pile of ash on Titan is a feature, not a bug. So too is his free-period reunion with his best friend Ned at the end of Endgame, despite it happening five years after the events of Infinity War, which should mean they’re both in college. Comic book franchises achieve continuity by futzing with the rules a little. Captain America misses his stop on the spacetime-continuum subway and President Dick Cheney doesn’t happen because Steve manages to keep tight-lipped about that dance with Peggy, which he actually got to have. He passes his shield on to Sam, who says it feels like someone else’s. For some reason, Bucky is eternally 35. Iron Man dies, but then there’s a new Iron Man, who’s a woman. When Pepper Potts tells Tony Stark “we’ll be fine,” she means that some version of these characters will continue to exist, even after Thor abdicates his throne.

Maybe the next Thor could be Gwendoline Christie. Just a thought.