Sabbatical Notes, Week 4: Grief in Avengers:Endgame

This post contains spoilers for Avengers:Endgame.


When I left the theater on opening day of Avengers:Endgame, all I could think about was the honest portrayals of grief that move the bulk of the first act of the film. In my role as a pastor, I walk with a lot of people as they grieve the death of loved ones. And this brilliant movie shows on the big screen what I’ve learned over the last eleven years:

Everyone grieves differently.

As I walk with people, I need to keep my ears and heart open for how their grief is manifesting. If I took a one-size-fits-all approach to grief, I would miss so many ways that those dealing with loss are encountering it. As I work with a family in preparing a funeral, multiple responses to loss happen even during a single hour around a table. Being attentive to these varied responses, I must honor them as authentic manifestations of grief even if (especially if) I don’t personally understand where a particular response is coming from. It’s tiring, holy, and necessary work, and I am so overjoyed that the writers, directors, and actors of history’s biggest blockbuster took it so seriously.

For the rest of this essay, I’d like to walk through my observations of the responses to grief of the six original Avengers. I waited to write this post until I saw the movie a second time (this time armed with a pen and paper so I could write down snippets of dialogue). Their grief fits into six broader categories that I’ve seen as a pastor. I’ll take them almost in the order they appear in the film (moving Thor to last because his is the most interesting and has the longest arc in the movie).


Captain America

Five Years Later…

These words appear over black. Cut to an establishing shot of Manhattan Island. Steve Rogers sits in a circle with a handful of people at something like a VFW hall. It’s a classic support group. The sign says, “Where do we go now, that they are gone?”

One of the film’s directors, Joe Russo, makes a cameo, talking about a recent date. One of the men on the date cried during the salad, the other during dessert. But they’re going to see each other again soon. That’s good, says Steve, and the rest of the group affirms the man’s actions.

Cap is trying to find purpose by building community. His response to grief is to bring people together, to support one another as they try to move on. Could it be anything else for this natural born leader? Remember why he was first picked for the project that turned him into a super-soldier – he dove on the grenade when everyone else hid. Steve Rogers is a selfless person, always ready to give of himself for others. This bears out in his response to grief. He reaches out to others and tries to help them move on. But can he? No, which is why he goes to see…


Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff brings a PB&J to her desk for a conference call with Rocket, Okoye, Carol Danvers, and Rhodey. Okoye says that there’s been an earthquake.

“How do we handle it?” asks Natasha.

There’s a pause, then the no-nonsense Okoye says, “It’s an earthquake. We handle it by not handling it.”

The call goes on for another minute, and as it closes, Natasha says, “This channel is always active.”

In just one minute of screen time, we see how Black Widow is dealing with her grief. She has plunged herself into her work and in five years has not come up for air. There are both subtle and overt details that show this response: from eating at her desk and leaving the channel active to the fact that she hasn’t cut or dyed her hair in five years (and her hair has been impeccable in every MCU film she’s been in).

Steve arrives and they banter for a bit. “Move on,” he advises.

Natasha says, “If I move on, who does this?”

“Maybe it doesn’t need to be done.”

But this is Natasha’s chosen response to grief. She’s lost much of her superhero family, so she falls back on what she had before: the work. She lets work consume her so her grief won’t have a chance to.


Iron Man

After three weeks adrift in space, Tony Stark returns to earth thanks to the timely intervention of Captain Marvel. And who should be waiting for him but Pepper Potts. He had a 50/50 shot of losing her, and he thanks his lucky stars she’s still alive. However, “I lost the kid,” he says, talking about Peter Parker, his surrogate son.

Five years later, we return to Tony, but he’s not in his tower in the city or at Avengers headquarters. He’s kneeling outside a small tent beside a lovely house amid the pines by a lake. His four-year-old daughter Morgan comes out of the tent with an Iron Man mask on, and we see what a devoted father Tony has become. There’s no way he’s losing this kid like he lost Peter.

When Steve, Natasha, and Scott Lang come to speak with Tony about the Time Heist, Morgan runs out and jumps in Tony’s arms. “Mommy told me to come and save you,” she says.

A moment later, Tony dismisses their idea, saying: “I’ve got my second chance right here, Cap, and I don’t want to roll the dice on it.”

Tony is dealing with his grief by clinging hard to what he still has. He shrank his world down to the two other people in his house, Pepper and Morgan, and has become completely devoted to them – shutting out everything and everyone else.

But we know Stark. If there’s a problem, he’s going to try to fix it. After he figures out time travel, he has a telling conversation with Pepper.

“I can’t help everyone,” he says. He could put the idea in a lockbox, throw it in the lake, and go to bed.

Pepper knows him too well. She asks, “But would you be able to rest?”

We know the answer to that one. Still, when it comes down to it, Tony’s priority is clear, telling Cap: “Keep what I found at all costs.” His wife and daughter are his life raft on the ocean of grief.


The Hulk

Of all the characters, we spend the least amount of time with the Hulk’s grief, as his scenes are played more for humor and technobabble. But his path through grief is still clear. Hulk has chosen the path of self-improvement.

Bruce has taken the best of Banner and the Hulk and fused them together. “I’m wearing shirts now,” he says at the diner.

But why?

“It was worse for me,” he says. He lost twice, both as the Hulk and as Banner. So his grief has propelled him to improve himself, fusing the best of both into one new being. He even has a slogan now: “Hulk out!”


Hawkeye

The first few minutes of the movie are heart-wrenching. The moment you see Clint Barton teaching his daughter Lila (played by director Joe Russo’s daughter Ava) how to shoot an arrow, you know exactly what’s about to happen. And then it happens. Hawkeye is left alone in his yard. His wife and three kids have all been dusted by Thanos.

Five years later, we discover what this loss has done to Barton. He has embraced the dark side of avenging and gone on a killing spree – murdering all the horrible people that he thinks should have been snapped away instead of his family.

When his quarry asks him why he is doing this, Barton says, “You survived…They got Thanos. You get me.”

His quarry then tries to bargain with him, but Barton says, “What I want you can’t give me.”

Clint has channeled his grief into rage against the unfairness of the world. The cold calculation says that two of his family should have survived, but in the grand scheme of Thanos’s impersonal genocide, they are just numbers. The cartel survived, but his family didn’t. How is that fair?

Natasha Romanoff confronts him: “Killing all these people isn’t going to bring your family back.”

But Clint is beyond that. His grief has mutated into grim purpose. “Don’t give me hope,” he says.


Thor

Of all the characters in Endgame, Thor’s journey through grief and loss is the most realized, and Chris Hemsworth gives an incredible performance. That his arc is often played for laughs just reinforces the depth of the pain he is in. Until Thor is ready to confront his grief over his own failure, not even the audience can grieve with him – we can only laugh, but the laughter is hollow.

After his empty (and Pyrrhic) victory over Thanos in the garden, the camera follows Thor as he exits the hut. We see his back and the focus blurs. With this camera shot, we see exactly what is happening to Thor’s self-image – he’s going out of focus within himself.

Unlike the other characters, whose grief is over the people they lost, Thor’s grief is more self-centered, perhaps even selfish. He lost his parents, then Asgard, then his brother Loki, then half his people, so if he grieves for all of them as well as for himself, he will be totally overwhelmed. So he forestalls grieving for them by drinking, and tries to put on a brave face that is obviously not fooling anyone.

Valkyrie is fed up with him, and by extension the rest of the population of New Asgard. The subtext of her conversation with Hulk and Rocket is: “Please take him away. He can be your problem for a while.”

We see Thor gone to seed, and yes, his beer gut is played for laughs – an obvious nod and wink at the fact that every movie starring Chris Hemsworth showcases his naked chiseled torso at some point. But the gut is just a sight gag. Three elements of the scene show a reduced Thor, a Thor whose self-image was destroyed, dusted by Thanos’s snap. This god among men used to bandy words with frost giants and fire demons, and now he’s reduced to yelling at n00bmaster69 over a headset. This king who was supposed to rule Asgard can’t even get the cable fixed. And to top it off, he’s using Stormbreaker as a bottle opener.

Thor says to Hulk and Rocket, “I know you think I’m wallowing in my own self pity, but we’re fine.”

Ri-i-i-i-i-ight.

Every other Avenger is dealing with their grief – some in more constructive ways than others. But Thor is the only one actively not dealing with it. His grief at his own failure has crushed him, and now we’re left to see what will happen.

Thankfully, Rene Russo – I mean, Frigga, his mother – comes along at the perfect moment. Thor is actually having a panic attack. (Thank you, thank you MCU for having a hero suffer like this!) And in steps Frigga, who sees with more than her eyes. She knows he’s from the future, and “The future hasn’t been kind to you.”

I said earlier that there is no one-size-fits-all response to grief, but if there’s one close to universal response, it is, “I wish I could have spoken to her one more time.” And Thor gets that chance! (So does Tony! And Cap!) He and his mother sit for a chat, and she dispenses words of wisdom that Thor needs to hear.

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be,” she says. For a thousand years, Thor has been operating under his father’s expectations: “Thor will become king when I’m gone.” But that’s not who Thor is. (And we the audience know this because his standalone movies got a lot better when the Shakespearean heaviness of Asgardian palace intrigue gave way to the more avante garde humor of Ragnarok.)

Frigga gives Thor a gift. She allows him the space to embrace he who is, independent of others’ expectations, which he mistakenly had made his own. Yes, he failed at stopping Thanos, but he can release his grief over this if he lets go of the ruinous piece of his identity that says, “I never fail.”

Calling Mjolnir to himself right after is just icing on the cake. (Also, we’ve been waiting for Captain America to wield the hammer since that awesome moment in Age of Ultron.)

At the end of the film, Thor passes leadership of New Asgard to Valkyrie (who had already been leading it anyway during Thor’s drunken stupor). He does so without levity. His only real act as king is giving up the role of king, and here we see Thor living from his own truest self.


Conclusion

It amazes and heartens me that a blockbuster film like Avengers:Endgame spends so much of its three hour run time on something other than hitting things with other things. The best parts of Marvel movies are the bits between the fighting, and here in Endgame we have a treasure trove. Here we have several paths along the way of grief: taking care of others (Steve), diving into work (Natasha), retreating from the world (Tony), improving one’s self (Bruce), bargaining with an unfair universe (Clint), and dealing by not dealing (Thor).

If you see the movie again, pay attention to the characters’ response to grief, and then ask yourself how you have grieved. And ask yourself how you have judged others for their responses to grief that differed from yours.

Love you 3000. I’m gonna go slow dance with my wife.

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