“Endgame fails its female characters by devaluing them and forgets its characters of color entirely.”
Title: Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Directors: Anthony Russo 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Joe Russo 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Stephen McFeely 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Christopher Markus 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
— SPOILERS AHEAD—
In the moment, Endgame is a fantastic movie. The visual effects are well-executed and the film achieves a near-perfect balance of moving sadness, winks and nudges to longtime fans, and moments of sheer hilarity. No Marvel film has ever offered viewers so many opportunities to get up and cheer, especially for its two longest-running characters, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Both characters are given their due, completing journeys that began a decade ago and proving themselves to be true heroes.
Following the classic thread of the hero’s journey, one of the central themes of Endgame is change: not just the desire to change outcomes, but the way in which individuals change as a result. In the wake of the dramatic conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), where Thanos’s snap dissolves some of our most beloved heroes, each remaining Avenger responds in a unique and personal way.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose sense of self-worth has always been tied to his power and strength, retreats from the world that he wasn’t able to protect. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), whose central battle has always been internal, allows himself to finally embrace both elements of who he is. And Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who has spent her life running from her past and her identity, allows herself to simply be. At one point we glimpse ballet shoes, suggesting that she’s begun to move past the trauma she associated with dance in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
With nothing in the way of an “undo” button on Thanos’s gauntlet, our heroes find themselves at a loss for a means to bring back their disappeared friends. Enter Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), returned from the quantum realm thanks to the world’s most heroic vermin. This mysterious realm, set up by previous Ant-Man films, suddenly presents the Avengers with a chance at saving their friends if they can just manage to go back in time and nab the Infinity Stones before Thanos does. The throwbacks stir a combination of fierce nostalgia and character-specific hijinx as audiences are even treated to a madcap return to the Battle in New York from the first Avengers movie. Unfortunately, a maddening inconsistency with how time travel actually works leaves so many questions that linger and grate, eroding the happy afterglow of a good film.
In addition, a creeping unease persists beyond the end credits, one built on weightier questions about the greater legacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Just as so many questions about time travel go unanswered, the question of who matters in this universe, and what that means going forward, remain frustratingly unclear.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 21% of key cast and crew members were women.
With the notable exceptions of Captain Marvel (2019) and Black Panther (2018), the MCU has treated women—and by extension, its female fans—with little respect. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the culmination of a decade’s worth of canon falls into that same rut. It’s hard to underscore how poorly the MCU has treated Black Widow, the only woman in the core team of Avengers, and the only one besides Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) without a standalone movie. Even with the firm promise of one to come, with production slated to begin next month, it’s too little, too late. Ten years of underdevelopment has made it too hard to invest emotionally into her character.
This lack of connection may be why the creators of Endgame chose her to make the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to give her credibility in the eyes of fans, endearing her by having her lay down her life for the greater good. But when the “greater good” consists almost entirely of men, Black Widow’s death feels less valorous than it does meaningless—like a virgin sacrificed into the volcano to please the gods. Even the imagery fits: a sharp cliff atop a craggy mountain, recalling another female sacrifice of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in just the prior Avengers film.
Meanwhile, the other women of the MCU—the lucky few who survive the snap—barely get any screentime in Endgame. Okoye (Danai Guirera), the badass leader of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje, is onscreen for a paltry six minutes. Captain Marvel, who many fans anticipated playing a major role in the film, was relegated to barely more than a cameo. The writers’ defenses—They didn’t know how the characters would test! They shot Endgame before Captain Marvel! Captain Marvel had space errands!—feel dismissive and reaffirm how much Marvel underestimates its fans willingness to root for female characters.
But nothing reveals Marvel’s opinion of women so much as Endgame’s treatment of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), one of the first women to grace the MCU and the first to get her own standalone series. After the fight is over, and the snap undone, Cap goes into the quantum realm to return the Infinity Stones to their respective times, and comes back to the surprise of his friends as an old man. He tells Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that he decided to give the whole “having a life thing” that Tony talked about a try. A flash of a wedding ring precedes a glimpse back in time, to find him dancing with Peggy Carter and sharing a kiss, at long last.
Cap, as much as anyone if not more, deserves a happy ending. It’s hinted throughout the film that he’s still hung up on Peg, still carrying a compass with her photo inside. But what the writers of Endgame seem incapable of understanding is that Peggy Carter is not a faded image in Captain America’s compass, frozen in time. She is not something to be deserved or won. It’s bad enough that Endgame effectively dismisses ABC’s Agent Carter as canon, ignoring how she founded S.H.I.E.L.D. and fought to be treated as an equal long before RBG was notorious. Endgame’s pat conclusion for Captain America conveniently strips Peggy of any semblance of autonomy. Throughout the film, she isn’t even granted the courtesy of a single line of dialogue.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of key cast and crew members were POC (!!!)
Ahead of Endgame’s release, Marvel unveiled a series of posters confirming who, of the main MCU cast of characters, survived Infinity War. This included four characters of color: Okoye, Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Wong, like Okoye, is onscreen for a mere six minutes, while Valkyrie clocks in at a barely-better eight. Of the four, it’s Rhodey—a.k.a. War Machine, or James Rhodes—who is most seen, but like the others, he has very little to say or do. He’s there, as he has been in past movies, as a mere sidekick. His most noteworthy contribution to Endgame includes some banter with Ant-Man about time travel movies, which, while one of the most fun moments of the film, nowhere near qualifies him as a fully-realized character.
Where the MCU fails its female characters by devaluing or subjugating them, it fails its characters of colors by forgetting them entirely. Rather than the sharp sting of betrayal that comes with Black Widow’s death or Peggy Carter’s objectification, the sheer absence of heroes of color aches with emptiness. Sadly, this parallels the absence of people of color behind the lens, too. Only four people of color have been credited with writing or directing any of the twenty-two films in the MCU, two of them for Black Panther. Unsurprisingly, all four are men.
Still, we are left with a glimmer of hope for the future. More Black Panther movies sit on the horizon, Muslim-American Kamala Khan expects an introduction, and a Shang-Chi movie has been fast-tracked. Endgame, perhaps saving itself from being a complete disappointment when it comes to characters of color, also sets up a promise for representation to come. In his final scene, Thor, looking out over New Asgard and the survivors of his home planet, passes on his mantle of leadership to Valkyrie which potentially places her at the center of a sequel to her debut in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Captain America, having lived his life and returned the stones, hands off his shield to Falcon with the assurance that it’s now his—and with it, the possibility of a new storyline with a Black protagonist.
Deduction for Body Positivity: -0.50
Deduction for Disability: -0.50
The fallout from Infinity War finds Thor in an understandably bad place. Unable to stop Thanos from wiping out half the population, including his brother Loki, and still reeling from the destruction of Asgard, he retreats to what can only be described as an Asgardian man cave where he drinks too much beer and plays video games all day long.
It’s a scene entirely in line with post-traumatic stress disorder, but instead of acknowledging the debilitating effects of war the real experience of so many combat veterans, Endgame frames his trauma as a joke. In a fat suit with a bare and substantial belly, his beard and hair overgrown and scraggly, Thor is made into a caricature. His weight gain is meant to devalue him as a hero, as though body fat is an inherent sign of weakness. It’s the lowest-hanging fruit as far as jokes go, in perhaps the last form of overt discrimination that writers can still get away with these days. Thor’s tearful recognition as he picks up his hammer that he’s still worthy is both a low blow and heartbreaking, because he, like so many of us, has been primed to believe that weight gain, addiction, and depression deems him worthless.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.08/5
From the outset, Endgame faced a nearly impossible task. With a decade’s worth of Marvel lore on its shoulders, the writers and directors were never going to please every fan. To their credit, dozens of great moments and small-scale payoffs from previous films make their way into this finale. But inevitably, some of us were going to feel cheated. Not cheated out of a great movie, which we got, but out of the sense that we matter to the heroes we love.
Having come into the ranks of hardcore MCU fans by way of Agent Carter, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel—what can I say, I’m a nerd for inclusion—it’s hard to separate how much I love Captain America from what his happy ending means for Peggy Carter. Seeing the feminist heroine who simultaneously fought the patriarchy and Hydra reduced to a silent ending in a man’s story feels like a suckerpunch. It’s also a harsh reminder that what progress has been made in representation still risks suffocation under the weight of heroes played, written, and directed by white men who only seem to have themselves in mind.
Audiences have long ago proven that they’re willing to invest in heroes who don’t look like them. Women and people of color were active in the MCU fandom long before Black Panther and Captain Marvel came out, and white men have demonstrated that they’ll show up for stories that center on non-white, non-male heroes and filmmakers. If Endgame closes out this era of the MCU, let it also conclude an era of exclusion. I have to believe that’s what Cap would want.