Avengers: Endgame taps into fears of tech dystopia

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!! The franchise pushes the script to accommodate disparate superheroes, which it does. As the series comes to an end, it also reflects the public dread of a future ruled by technology.

Avengers: Endgame, presumably the concluding film from the series involving the Marvel Comics superhero team, has arrived to thunderous applause. The film has been reviewed so extensively and hailed so universally that evaluating it is pointless. Looking at some of its noteworthy aspects would be more pertinent.

The film comes after Avengers: Infinity War (2018) in which half of all life in the universe is destroyed by an intergalactic villain named Thanos. Such ambition on the part of a villain may not have been envisaged in the earliest superhero tales where fighting crime on earth was the limit. But with the explosion in the superhero population, the next step was to bring them together, and when organised, they need an adversary powerful and ambitious enough to engage them all. Why they need to come together has often less to do with narrative logic than business compulsions. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), for instance, brought together Victorian superheroes from different authors---Captain Nemo (Jules Verne), Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde), Alan Quartermain (H Rider Haggard) and the Invisible Man (H G Wells) only because copyrights had expired on all of them.

The more the number of superheroes in a film, the more difficult it is to construct a coherent narrative. This is like the greater difficulties experienced when more people are performing a single task together. A single superhero dealing with a villain with relatively small ambitions can manage with a linear storyline. But when there are so many of them, there is the past of each one to deal with and invoke since each one has psychological responses dependent on his or her past.
Symmetry has to be maintained to the extent possible but roles should also be written to accommodate the big stars. The biggest star in Avengers: Endgame is Robert Downey Jr. and — although in terms of strength Iron Man is nominally among equals — a special asymmetry needs to be introduced for Downey. He is therefore given the privilege of sacrificing his life for the universe at the conclusion, although that does not mean that Iron Man will stay dead outside this particular film. The profusion of characters, references to old happenings and arbitrary fates are so enormous in franchise-operated narratives that one often needs to undertake deep scholarship even to catch on to what is happening!  

Superheroes may owe to corporate franchises and marketing decisions but this hardly implies that being mere novelties drawing crowds they do not merit deeper analysis; there is always a subtext worth looking at. A new superhero to create waves in film in the recent past was Black Panther (2018). As filmgoers will know, the superhero here is T’Challa, King of an African country called Wakanda, with sole access to a miracle metal named vibranium he uses to bring advanced technology to his country, but with no ambitions outside; to all appearances Wakanda is a ‘third world country’.

But what I found most interesting in the film was that the villain, T’Challa’s cousin Killmonger, who hates him and has claims upon the throne, is an African-American with the kind of animosity a radical like Malcolm X might have had towards white Americans.  Killmonger wants to use vibranium to arm the racially oppressed. This is an unexpected political element that naïve audiences might not notice, but it is striking to those politically inclined.

Avengers: Infinity War ended on a melancholy note, and that it is affecting cannot perhaps be explained except by ascribing some meaning to it. In this film, as well as Avengers: Endgame, the villain is Thanos whose ambitions are not as personal as they are utopian. In Infinity War, he destroyed half of all life in the universe in the belief that the other half would then thrive; at the commencement of Endgame, he is leading the retired life of a gardener. Thanos is believed to have destroyed the six infinity stones, but the superheroes discover them before Thor kills him.

The superheroes are a defeated lot because many of their comrades are dead, although their death was painless. The important thing here is that a conflict is set up in Avengers: Endgame between faith in a great future – which the villain Thanos represents – and the need to recapture an innocent past, what the Avengers stand for and endeavour to do through a ‘quantum realm’ time machine.

The science here being mumbo-jumbo does not take away from the fact that recapturing the past is made sacred. Near the conclusion of the film, we are taken back to a scene in a meadow and later to a college where students from an innocent age are wandering about, looking at notices. After subjecting us to all kinds of dazzling technological wizardry, the question is why the film is trying to make us feel good this way, by ultimately evoking a past in which technology is made invisible.

My own reading is that the film has harnessed the public fear of a technological future that is very real. The public knows little of where it is being led and has no faith in the utopias once promised. That such a message itself needs the most advanced filmmaking technology is perhaps Avengers: Endgame’s greatest irony.
 

(The author is a well-known film critic)

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