Spoiler warning: this article openly discusses major plot points in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
In spring 2008, one of the last things I did as a college senior was see “Iron Man” on the big screen. The movie became an unexpected hit, transforming a second tier Marvel character into a household name. Although I enjoyed the movie from start to finish, the most exciting bit came after the credits. Samuel L. Jackson, complete with signature Nick Fury eye-patch, appeared on-screen and assured Tony Stark that he was part of a “larger universe.”
Ten years later, I found myself in a packed theater amidst a group of people in stunned silence. The conclusion of “Avengers: Infinity War” had left us with a sense of dismay rarely achieved by a product of pop culture. We had just witnessed the Avengers defeated at the hands of their greatest adversary and many of our favorite characters literally reduced to dust. The final line of dialogue delivered in the film efficiently summed up the feeling of confusion and dread: “Oh, God…”
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“Avengers: Infinity War” and its companion piece, “Avengers: Endgame,” serve as the culmination of the self-styled “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The plots of both films center on the villain Thanos and his obsession with collecting six powerful artifacts known as “Infinity Stones.” In “Infinity War,” Thanos harnesses the power of the stones to bring about his vision of balance to the universe through the annihilation of half of all life with a snap of his fingers.The plot of “Endgame” focuses on the original six Avengers and their goal to reverse Thanos’s work in “Infinity War.” Along with the few heroes left on earth, the Avengers set off on a suitably thrilling “time heist” for the stones, using them to perform a snap of their own. An enormous battle serves as the climax of the film, with a third and final snap neutralizing Thanos and his army, but at a cost.
Throughout “Infinity War,” Thanos is presented as unstoppable force, believing unwaveringly in the virtue of his goal. His acolytes encourage victims in his path to “rejoice” over their “salvation,” having become “children of Thanos,” slaughtered toward the utilitarian end of creating an arbitrary “balance” in the universe. Thanos sees himself as uniquely burdened with the knowledge and will to save the universe. He repeatedly puts heroes in a position to sacrifice their own loved ones to defeat him, judging their strength of will against his own. These scenarios ultimately prove only to be for his amusement, as he executes his brutal will regardless of the heroes’ actions. His messianic passion is ultimately fulfilled not at the cost of giving his own life, but that of his adopted daughter, Gamora, throwing her from a giant altar as a blood sacrifice in order to obtain the soul stone. After finding all of the infinity stones and assembling them in his gauntlet, Thanos then sacrifices the lives of half of the universe at random for the benefit of the remaining half. After all, chance is the only “fairness” in world without God.
While “Infinity War” was a march toward an inevitable fall, “Endgame” is the reversal, directly echoing the events of its predecessor and often presenting their mirror opposites. In “Endgame,” the Avengers refuse to accept their failure and swear to bring everyone back, “whatever it takes.” This vow is quickly fulfilled when Hawkeye and Black Widow are sent to retrieve the soul stone. As a direct inversion of the scene from “Infinity War,” both Hawkeye and Black Widow attempt to bear the weight of the sacrifice in place of the other person, each valuing the life of the other more highly than their own. Black Widow ultimately pays the price for the stone to preserve the Avengers as the family who welcomed her and treated her as a member even though her “ledger” ran red with innocent blood. When the time came for someone to use the collected stones to perform a new snap to undo the annihilation, a brief argument arises between heroes willing to carry the burden. The Hulk ultimately volunteers, once having seen himself as an irredeemable monster and now coming to the conclusion that his existence was for this very moment of sacrifice. “It’s like I was made for this.”
During “Endgame’s” climactic final battle, as a reversal of Thanos single-handedly overpowering the hopelessly overmatched Avengers in “Infinity War,” Captain America, silhouetted in light with shattered shield, stands alone against the arrayed hordes of Thanos and the rising darkness. At that moment, the voice of the Falcon comes over the Captain’s earpiece pre-empting dozens of portals opening across the battleground with resurrected heroes pouring out of each to join the fight. Finally, in the struggle for control of the gauntlet and the infinity stones, Thanos appears to have gained the upper hand, snapping his fingers once again, this time to destroy the entire universe and create a “grateful” one in its place. Iron Man, however, gets hold of the stones and places them onto his own armored hand. He then responds to Thanos’s deterministic pronouncement “I am inevitable” with an “I am” statement of his own: “I am Iron Man.” Thanos sacrificed his daughter’s life to murder half the universe. Iron Man sacrificed himself to ensure the universe’s survival, leaving a recorded message of “I love you 3000” to his own small daughter. Whereas “Infinity War” closed with hero after hero turning to dust, “Endgame” ends with the forces of Thanos crumbling and scattering in the wind.
The Greatest Story
Movies are primarily a form of entertainment, but the best movies achieve something more than mere amusement. The stories we love and come back to again and again resonate deeply with the greatest story: the gospel. Storytellers, including the likes of screenwriters and directors, are created in the image of God and cannot deny their place in His story. Like the narratives of heroes in the Old Testament, “Avengers: Endgame” presents echoes and reflections of the gospel of Jesus Christ whether intentionally or not. Watching “Endgame,” I feel the bittersweet sting of Black Widow’s death, a character who struggled with the redemption of her sin. Like Captain America on the battlefield, I want to know I do not stand alone in a hopeless fight. As a father, I weep at the thought of Morgan Stark growing up without her father, but I am even more deeply moved that a Son has been given for me.
These themes are so moving because we strain against the reality of evil and death. Our hearts ache for deliverance. As compelling as the Avengers can be, they are, at their very best, a shadow of Christ. They accomplish heroic deeds and triumph over evil, but they do not win the final victory. In “Endgame,” resurrection is achieved, but death is not defeated. This point reminds us of the value in good stories: they excite the imagination at the possibility that, as Sam Gamgee put it, “sad things” really can “come untrue,” and they point toward the means of that reversal. They make us long for the day when sin and death will meet their ultimate end, and they compel us to look to Christ as the only hero who could ever achieve everlasting peace, eternal rest, perpetual security, total victory. Come, Lord Jesus.