Article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
The Avengers are an inspiration to me. Even beyond Captain America’s super strength, Iron Man’s intelligence, or Thor’s inclination to thwack frost giants with a magic electric hammer, I connect with the Marvel heroes on an emotional level due to their more human characteristics. Each individual Marvel superhero is imbued with their own unique faults and virtues, and the Avengers films tend to highlight the stark (pun intended) contrast between their successes and failures. In a previous column, I detailed how 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War revolved around the Avengers’ weaknesses. Now it’s time to give Avengers: Endgame the same analytical treatment regarding why many fans, myself included, resonate so strongly to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Avengers: Endgame shows our surviving heroes at their most vulnerable. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Ant-Man, Nebula, War Machine, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, and Rocket have kerplunked to the depths of rock bottom five years after Thanos snapped half the universe out of existence with the Infinity Gauntlet. Cap is leading group therapy sessions; Stark started a family and is doing his best to move on from the genocidal tragedy; Hawkeye is on a vigilante killing spree; Black Widow is having an existential crisis; Thor indulges himself with food and cheap booze. In other words: our heroes are deep in a hole and are wallowing in their own guilt and self-loathing.
The Avengers’ intense feelings of guilt and regret are uniquely human. Most of us have fallen on hard times at some point in our lives, even if our mistakes didn’t wipe out half of all life in the universe. We’ve all known depressing and hopeless moments when the world felt as if it were careening off a cliff. During these horrifying instances, we confront feelings of worthlessness and may even feel that the planet would be better off without us (even if we intellectually know it’s not true). That our imperfections are an insurmountable burden. We choose to bury ourselves in the comfortable clarity of misery rather than make the herculean effort to climb out of our depression when an opportunity to escape presents itself.
In Endgame, the Avengers find hope in something most anyone who’s experienced depression has fantasized about: time travel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a place where the impossible occurs with stunning regularity, but literally visiting the past seems mad even by that universe’s standards. Many of the Avengers balk when Ant-Man suggests they time travel even though he’s already effectively done so by popping five years into his own future after a stint in the Quantum Realm. Iron Man in particular thinks the feat can’t be done, and even if it could, he has a lingering doubt that the Avengers are capable of pulling off a time heist and bringing the Infinity Stones back to their present to use them. After all, they royally fucked up the first time they battled Thanos, and time travel carries the risk of making this universal calamity even worse.
This is a common emotional arc for those suffering with depression and grief. From my own perspective, the downward spiral is like becoming ensnared in a spider’s web; it’s all too easy to convince myself that even attempting to pull ourselves out will only result in my becoming more trapped and doomed. Maintaining hope in the face of despair feels as impossible as pulling off a time travel caper does to the Avengers. Just like Earth’s Mightiest Fuck-Ups, I don’t know what I’ll do if I fail again. The very inclination of trying to regain my footing is daunting and unmanageable.
Anyone who tries anyway is among the strongest and bravest souls alive, just like the Avengers. Their adventures in Endgame also mirror the recovery period of a depressive episode. By enduring an impractical journey through time, Cap and crew dared to maintain hope despite the odds against them. Similar to how hindsight allows us to reevaluate major life decisions, revisiting important MCU-defining moments from previous films allowed the Avengers to reexamine themselves so they could eventually achieve victory. Even though their paths are littered with small failures and they still have to live with some friends dying permanently, the Avengers proved that they could live, learn, and grow from these incalculable screw-ups by audaciously having hope for their futures.
And if bouncing back better than ever from a self-made disaster doesn’t embody the superhero within us all, I don’t know what does.