The Ultimate Avengers: Endgame Think Piece (SPOILERS)

Every time I think about the history-making finale to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, my mind swells with the sweet sound of Adele’s hit from another movie, “This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten. Feel the earth move again. Hear my heart burst again.” Avengers: Endgame capped off a major movie franchise 11 years in the making and has eclipsed dozens of box office records including a Galactus-sized opening weekend haul of over $1 billion. The Endgame has obviously struck a chord and did so making bold character choices, paying off a ridiculous amount of story arcs and references, and laid a solid foundation for the mysterious future of one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. Let’s take a deep, SPOILER-FILLED dive into the biggest movie of all time and marvel at the beautiful journey “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” have been on since Iron Man debuted in 2008.

The Avengers Initiative Failed

Seriously, we are headed for spoiler land. If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame turn back now. The opening scenes of Endgame almost serve as a major trolling of the fan base! For a year now, fans have wondered why Thor didn’t go for the head, why wasn’t Captain Marvel there from the beginning, why couldn’t our heroes punch Thanos harder and faster and win by the force of their wills. That is not the story of Endgame.

Avengers in spaceship GIF

When Thanos’s years long quest to bring the universe under his power unfolded in Avengers: Infinity War, he was battling against a divided Avengers. They were battered and broken from the battles that led them up to that point and the team was in shambles. They had all had their heroism challenged by their own mistakes but also the mistakes of their literal and metaphoric forefathers.

Think about the impact that Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Ego the living planet, the founders of SHIELD/Hydra, and Odin have all had on the Avengers! Think about the mistakes that had led to the creation of the Hulk, the creation of Ultron, or that war in Civil War. Just tally all Thor has lost by the end of the opening scenes of Infinity War! The story of the Avengers leading into the Endgame was filled to the brim with failure. If report cards were handed out after Thanos snapped his fingers, the Avengers would have earned a hard ‘F’. Endgame is about the grief associated with the last decade of collective failures not about how hard they can punch. Thanos dies in the first twenty minutes of the film, and still the Avengers are left stewing in their losses. Where do they go from there?

The Hulk Smashes Relationships

Five. Years. Later. Endgame features a heartbreaking time jump for the “snapture” survivors, and, as we catch up with the heroes, it’s easy to define those five years by what the Avengers have been doing in that gap. However, what might be more telling is what they haven’t been doing. With the exception of Tony, no one has established any new relationships and they certainly haven’t revisited past ones.

Professor Hulk

Hulk finally returns from space and he and Black Widow survive the snap. Why are they not together? It’s not even just that they’re not together, but Bruce Banner has been working instead to reconcile his relationship with the Hulk permanently transforming into the hybrid Professor Hulk or Mister Fixit. Bruce can say all day that he did this to exist in a healthier state, but it’s also a really convenient state to avoid starting a relationship with Natasha. Before he left for space, they had all but admitted their love, but after the snap, after so much loss, they are avoiding having to lose anyone ever again.

Why haven’t they rebuilt a version of Vision? Sure, Scarlet Witch was dusted, but Vision was everyone’s friend and Bruce and/or Tony definitely would have the means over five years. It only took them a handful of days to turn the Mind Stone into Ultron. Recreating Vision would be too strong a reminder of the casualties of the Infinity War and that the joys of loving are paired with the grief of loss. And grief sure has taken hold in the MCU.

Thor’s Dark World

The Marvel movie machine was in desperate need of a course correction after the universally panned Thor: The Dark World. Yes, it introduced the Reality Stone. Ok, it featured continued growth in the relationship between Loki and Thor. Absolutely, Rene Russo was a great Frigga (Thor’s mom). Definitely, the final battle was creative. However, Thor 2 was birthed in the midst of The Hobbit taking us back to Middle Earth and Game of Thrones sweeping the media landscape. What is so appalling about Thor 2 is that it tried to copy the vibe of both of those universes without succeeding at either. Marvel has always tried to be a cinematic innovator, but this just felt like they were copying people’s homework. Then came Thor: Ragnarok with a new comedic thrust, a galactic setting, the companionship of The Hulk, and the vision of director Taika Waititi. Pairing Thor with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War cemented this new direction. Thor is funny now! But humor can often be used to hide deep pain.

Thor Comics

Across the 6 films that have featured Thor, he has lost his entire family and his entire support system. His story in Infinity War was a quest for redemption for all he has lost. He travelled across the universe and took the full force of a star all to prove that, even with all of the bodies in his wake, he is still worthy. A new weapon was born, and, if he could plunge that weapon into the universe’s biggest threat, his worth would be proved once and for all. Thor did plunge, and it meant nothing. Thanos won and, while all the others were tossed aside, Thor stood alone watching from inches away as a simple snap murdered billions. He fails once more in the opening of Endgame when the team realizes there is no reversing the snap. Not only could his worth not be earned with an axe, but it’s quite possible he was never worthy at all.

Thor Snap GIF

The Thor we meet in Endgame is very different from past films. Some of that is played for comedy, but the truth is far more tragic. Thor is depressed and coping by self-medicating with alcohol. The character change is jarring unless you realize it’s always been there, and he has actually been covering it up with a smile and a wink. Thor’s comedic transformation served him in hiding deep trauma and pain all of which comes crashing down at the beginning of Endgame.

How fitting is it then, that for Thor to be redeemed, he has to return to the film that was Marvel’s biggest creative failure to date, Thor: The Dark World. Not only does he get some closure with his mother, but gets a powerful reminder that he was born with inherent worth into a family that unconditionally loved him. He has virtue that no amount of failure can take away. Thor needed to have his armor of bravado and masculinity ripped away and his comedic defense mechanism defeated in order to set him up for future flourishing, and he’s not the only one who has a past that needed confronting.

Cap Had to Move On

Steve Rogers has always been a man out of time. Contrasting him against morally complex characters like Black Widow and Tony Stark, his personal constitution has never really fit in the modern world. Even the war that created Cap was slightly more clear cut. There were pretty clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Then he came out of the ice in an era of modern warfare, political corruption, and anti-heroes galore. Hardened by the Infinity War, Cap’s optimism and morals are still there, but this is a man who, over the course of these films, has gone from blurting out, “Language!,” in Age of Ultron to exclaiming, “Let’s go get this son of a [expletive]!,” in Endgame. The present reality has been tearing down the man of the past.

Cap and Peggy

For awhile, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier has kept Cap tied to some part of himself from the past, but Bucky was dusted. His friend Sam the Falcon understood Cap on a level that a fellow soldier only could, but he is gone as well. In the five years after the snap, Cap tries to move on by helping others move on. The problem is that he can’t forget the Infinity War because he never really forgot the past. You can see it in his face in that support group early on in Endgame. He’s saying all the right things and talking about how the survivors have to hope for the future and what could be. Steve tells that group that if they don’t start living their lives than they might as well have vanished too, but you get the feeling that part of him wishes he had maybe vanished, not in the snap, but all those years ago in the ice.

Cap Support Group GIF

He’s tried for years to accept his present. Joining the Avengers, defeating Hydra, and saving Bucky were all attempts to move on, but at the end of the day he’s still looking longingly through the window of the past at Peggy. She was supposed to be his future. In the final moments of, Captain America: The First Avenger, he runs into Time Square in a completely unrecognizable world and when a stranger in an eye-patch asks him if he’s going to be ok he says, “Yeah, its just…I had a date.” In the Endgame, Cap is surrounded by hundreds of Avengers and finally utters an, “Avengers…ASSEMBLE!” The problem is, no one in that battlefront is Peggy. So it should come as no surprise that, with time travel now in play, he can finally move on…to the past. As the credits are about to roll on the Infinity Saga, we are treated to a scene just moments after reuniting…Peggy Carter’s home…the door still swung open from Cap’s entrance…and they finally have their dance. It is a poetic and perfect end. Steve had to return to the past just as…

Tony Stark Had to Die

He started it all! There’s two ways to look at that. Iron Man, Tony Stark, can take credit for launching the MCU and creating a space for heroes to rise or it’s fair to say that it’s all his fault. Well, to be fair, it is his fault but the blame also lands on his father, Howard. Think about the big events that have pushed us through a decade of storytelling. Stark weapons and the wars they featured in manufactured and created the need for Iron Man. Sure, Tony had a literal and figurative change of heart, but when we put weapons down it nearly always creates new fears. Fears that simply never let Tony rest.

Avengers Endgame Iron Man GIF

A Stark missile planted the seeds of revenge that pushed Wanda to give Tony a nightmare that scared him into creating Ultron who incited the events in Sokovia that inspired the Sokovia Accords that started the civil war that broke apart the Avengers who then weren’t ready for Thanos. Tony is a futurist, but a side effect is that living in the future means living with fear. Allowing our minds to constantly live in the future places us in the prediction business and part of predicting the future means accounting for the worst possible scenario. The vision from Scarlet Witch wasn’t new. It was already something in Tony’s mind, but that’s not all that has been in his mind since the beginning.

Avengers Big Three GIF

Tony wanted so desperately to shift the focus of his company and his family to making the future brighter, but it has always been tied to a dark past. All of his solo films featured villains born of his father’s mistakes and mistakes he made trying to be his father. So Tony’s tireless work isn’t just about ridding the future of fear, it was about breaking the cycles of the past. The problem is that Tony was a part of that past. So much of the world viewed Howard as a villain and that made it impossible to view Tony as a part of a purely optimistic future. When Tony wielded the iron Infinity Gauntlet and completed the snap that ended his life, he was breaking the thick chains of his father’s past mistakes and redeeming his present mistakes for all time. This could have only happened with the next generation watching, and now Morgan Stark will grow up in a world where Iron Man is the hero that saved the universe. Tony Stark gave his life very publicly for the sake of a future that his child, and many others, can now imagine without fear. That is what heroes do.

Black Widow’s Ledger is Clean

Redemption sure does come with a high cost. This is something Natasha Romanoff knows all too well. Tony Stark did almost everything in front of the brightest flashbulbs and biggest crowds he could. He was the Avengers’ most public hero, and his contrast was the Black Widow. From the very beginning, she has been the definition of a spy. She was complex, always playing multiple sides and evaluating every scenario like a chess board. Spies have to stay hidden to do their best work. And so it makes sense that while Tony’s death was very public, Natasha’s was very private and intimate. She died in the company of a close friend on a remote planet and was mourned by a small group at a secluded base. The nature of her death definitely makes sense, but the death itself definitely doesn’t to anyone…but her.

Black Widow Hawkeye GIF

Natasha could never have a family like Hawkeye or Tony. She didn’t have the purity of Captain America or the powers of Thor, but Black Widow’s life is no less valuable than any of the other Avengers. However, it has been obvious from the first Avengers movie, and even more so in Age of Ultron, that she felt very differently. Throughout, these films Black Widow has carried a very heavy weight, as she calls it a ledger with red in it. All she has ever wanted to do was to repay that debt to the world, and seemingly specifically to Clint Barton, Hawkeye, as she tells Loki in The Avengers. Tony couldn’t rest because of his fear, but Natasha could never rest because of the weight of this debt.

Then an opportunity arose for her to give all she had for the sake of her newfound family, and also, to Clint. It is obvious in Age of Ultron that she had been working hard for years to protect Clint both on the field and by keeping his family a secret, but in her final moments on Vormir she sees the chance to make things right forever and ever. She could protect Clint, her family, and the universe one last time. Now Black Widow’s ledger is forever clean and then some. It’s everyone else who owes a debt to her, one that can only be paid by a life of flourishing and a life spent helping the Natashas of the future see just how valuable they are regardless of the red in their ledger. Black Widow was the only woman in the initial circling shot in The Avengers. Her willing sacrifice paves the way for many heroes to follow and proves that actually…

The Avengers Initiative Worked

“There was an idea…called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could,” Nick Fury explains in The Avengers. This was the idea that started this journey. It was an idea of a man who saw the exact opposite happening. Before Tony Stark was kidnapped, before Natasha Romanoff was made a spy, before Bruce Banner was hit with Gamma Rays, before Thor was banished to Earth, there was still no shortage of remarkable people. Odin, Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Bill Foster, King T’Chaka, and Peggy Carter were all avenging the world at the same time but they were missing one key ingredient to Fury’s idea. They weren’t working together.

Avengers Hands In GIF

There is plenty of evidence right in front of us. Do you think there really wasn’t anyone in the span of history that could recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America? Everyone wanted to try but because greed, fear, ego, oppression, and division got in the way the story of the MCU is littered with the failings of not working together. The Hulk himself was the result of a failed attempt. What if Bruce and Tony worked together from the start? Maybe they would have gotten it right! Do you think nobody thought about time travel before Tony figured it out in Endgame? What’s interesting is that Tony wasn’t the key to time travel, Pym technology was! They needed Pym particles and the quantum realm research combined with Stark’s technology to do it. Tony and Scott Lang did something together that Howard Stark and Hank Pym were too proud to do. Imagine if more people were helping Peggy Carter succeed instead of holding her back because she’s a woman. Maybe Hydra doesn’t infiltrate SHIELD.

The story of the Avengers was never about any one hero, it was about the idea that if people could see the potential in the differences of others and combined our collective contributions and skill, no one could defeat us. In so many ways, the emotional state of the Avengers in Endgame were scars from the sins of the past, a past where the universe’s most remarkable beings couldn’t or wouldn’t work together. Now we move into a phase where T’Challa has opened his borders, everyone recognizes the power of Captain Marvel, and the wide-eyed optimism of Peter Parker is undeniable. The Avengers have assembled, and hopefully, one day may inspire us to do the same.

Avengers Walk of Fame

The women of Marvel ask, “What is a girl worth?”

I first heard this question posed by real life superhero Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nassar. Denhollander is a lawyer and a survivor of the decades of systematic abuse of girls perpetuated by the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor. She presented this question to the court at his sentencing: “How much is a girl worth?” She and hundreds of others like her had been told by Nassar and the systems that protected him that they were worth less than him. They were worth less than Olympic gold medals, less than athletic achievement, less than the comfort of the adults in power. That day in the courtroom, more than 150 women told their stories and asserted their equal worth to the world.

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*CONTAINS ENDGAME AND CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS*

As our country wrestles with the way our society views and treats women, these questions are being reflected on the big screen of Marvel blockbusters. There are ways that Marvel is ahead of the curve and elevating women in important ways. Black Panther is a shining example of offering women extended screen time and complex and interconnected roles. I have written about that here. It is also a very good thing that the number of women in the MCU is vast and diverse and continues to grow. But it is not enough to simply be on screen.

Black Widow and Gamora are in the wrong stories

One more warning, I am about to discuss Endgame and Infinity War spoilers!

I hate the soul stone. This piece of junk has claimed the lives of two strong female characters, the only initial women in two teams of men (the Avengers and the Guardians). I understand that the movies needed to have real stakes. I understand that you can make compelling storyline arguments for why it needed to be them and why it made the story pack a deeper punch. And that is the problem. These two complex and wonderfully acted characters are in stories that see them as expendable. That use them to make the audience feel something. The story was written such that it did not make sense for any other character to be the one lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Either because the other characters on their teams are too strong and powerful to die, or because the men were not written in a way where their death makes sense in the story.

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This reveals a systemic problem in the writing approach at Marvel. Having female characters who can fight effectively but who are clearly less crucial than their male counterparts is not a win. If you cannot have a good movie without Thor, without Captain American, without Star-Lord, but the movie can survive without Black Widow and Gamora, then you are not writing a good movie. Do not give us a strong and intriguing Gamora only to watch her die in a domestic abuse scenario where her abuser kills her because he “loves” her. Do not give us the option that she and Nebula are “the only ones” who can stop him and then lose them in the crowd. Do not give us a non-traditional Black Widow who is finding meaning and purpose outside of having biological children, just to have her sacrifice her life so the man with kids can live. Do not give us yet another woman who loses her life so others can flourish at her expense. That is already our every day. Give us something better. Write a better story.

Give us more Mar-vells and Marvels

The negative reaction to Captain Marvel is case-in-point why the movie was so needed. This story is about what it is like to be a woman in society. To be held back and to have your power diminished by others and then told by those same systems to be grateful for the small opportunities we are given. To be told that to be emotional and intuitive is a liability and should be suppressed if we want to succeed. To be told that we need to prove ourselves before we can be taken seriously. To be gaslighted into thinking that our instincts are wrong and we are misinterpreting and misremembering our own stories. Captain Marvel both names destructive social realities and paints a better way forward.

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Ask any woman who watched the movie how she felt when Carol simply blasts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as he yells for her to prove herself. Or why it was important to make Mar-vell’s character be female and a professional inspiration for Carol. This was not just being “politically correct.” There is a reason why Carol sees Mar-vell when she visits the Supreme Intelligence, even when she does not know who she’s seeing. Most women do not have female role models in our fields and careers. We often do not have accomplished women who look like us (this can be especially true for women of color) who inspire us to think we can succeed. It was so meaningful to watch a female professional mentoring relationship. It was empowering to watch a woman refuse to prove herself within a false system but to instead shatter the expectations that were preventing her from taking ownership of her story. This is good writing. This is what we want to see.

Another woman, Kyle Stephens, in the circle of survivors in the courtroom with Denhollander and the others that day said:

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. We grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”

This is your audience, Marvel. We have some marvelous heroines in our universe who are changing the game. We are not content with old systems and old stories. We will support writing that reflects who we are and who we are becoming. And we will destroy that which tells us we are less. Because we are worth more than that.

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.

Full of “Venom”

Kane, a delightful British bloke played by John Hurt, is all smiles at the table. Having seemingly recovered from his close encounter with a face-sucking alien, he’s excited to eat a normal meal and share a laugh or two with his ship mates. Unfortunately, this meal isn’t going to sit well with the newborn extra-terrestrial calling Kane home. Fans of the 1979 space horror classic Alien know where this iconic scene is headed. It’s a scene that works for many reasons. Sure, it’s shocking with a high gross-out factor, but it also delves into metaphor playing with perhaps one of life’s greatest existential dilemmas…what is it that truly lies beneath our surface? This question is most recently explored in Sony and Marvel’s Tom Hardy vehicle, Venom.

Venom Transform GIF

Venom (2018)

Our outside isn’t scary. Think about all the channels we have to control what others experience from us. Everything from a fresh haircut to a hot new fit to a flattering selfie camera angle, helps us regulate how others see us. Aside from physical appearance, we have all kinds of mechanisms that act as bouncers keeping those who might want in on the right side of the velvet rope. Talking about the weather or a simple “I’m fine” are some of my favorites. No, our outside is safe, but our inside is a different story.

Who are you really? If everyone knew every thought you had or every feeling that has captured your heart would they still love you? Forget love, would they even like you? As pretty as your outside is, what if nobody could handle the monster hiding inside? So we hide in fear, but all of that hiding and fear can give us the false impression that we are the good guy in our story, a false impression Venom’s lead character carries. When we’re introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a popular investigative reporter and charming beau to Anna (Michelle Williams), he has total control of his outside. However, his inside starts seeping out and over the first act of the film his life totally unravels. Still, Brock tries his best to keep his outside intact. He lies to himself. He’s not the problem. He’s not to blame. He’s still a really good guy. Except, he’s not and it takes a lot for him to realize it.

By a lot, I mean it takes a sentient, parasitic alien goo inhabiting his insides. This isn’t just any alien goo, though, it’s Venom, one of Spider-man’s most popular and visually memorable villains of all time. Venom is a species called a symbiote. They pair with a host, merging in every way. The lines blur between Brock’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and Venom’s. They become one on such a level that they refer to themselves with plural pronouns. “We are Venom,” the pair will say.

It’s said in the film that the symbiotes need to find a compatible host to survive. Hold on. Venom is a homicidal psychopath. He’s a villain. If Brock is the good man he thinks he is, if he’s the good man that exists on the outside, why does he make such a good host for the bad guy? The most intriguing and entertaining components to this story take place in Brock’s journey of self-actualization. This only happens because Brock’s ugly inside gets a face and starts oozing out to the surface. Is he all bad? No, but his goodness doesn’t begin to shine until he confronts the darkness inside.

Spider-Man Venom Animated Series

Venom and Spider-Man from the “Spider-Man” (1994) animated series.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have a parasitic alien inhabit us? Here’s the good news, though, as scary as our insides can be to us, they’re not to God. When we find ourselves in a place where we’re exhausting our energy to keep our deepest darkest feelings at bay, are we really living in the freedom Christ offers us? When we engage in practices of prayer, confession, and repentance we are letting our inner horror movie out. When we willingly bring that darkness into the light before God and others, those things that bring us guilt or shame or embarrassment, those things that we think will surely expel any love we’ve ever experienced, those things that we think will drive others away, the opposite of that begins to happen.

Here’s the thing about God, as Romans 5 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows us already. You can’t hide your scary bits. When our insides stay hidden, they have power and control over us. They take up real estate in our hearts and minds, but once they’re let out, it opens up space for something else to dwell. When we acknowledge our sins and place them at the foot of the cross we can say along with Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When the darkness inside meets the Light, it doesn’t stand a chance. This is how our hearts change. We will never scare God away, and others that have God dwelling in them can handle our horrors as well. God dwelling in us creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. That relationship probably won’t turn us into a superhero but may give us everything we need to bring actual goodness into the world instead of the false veneer of goodness we present. Venom isn’t the greatest movie in the world, though fans of the character and Hardy will probably find it to be an entertaining depiction. Some of the film’s treasure lies in its call to self-reflection. It might just be time for us all to let the monster out.

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

Wonder Woman Old Panel

Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

Amazons

Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

Gal and Director

Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

Justice League

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

Civil War Tony 8

If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

Civil War Tony 2

Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

Civil War Tony 7

Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

Civil War Tony 3

I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

Civil War Tony 6

It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

This stand-out line of dialogue heard in the early Captain America: Civil War trailers might be the most central exchange to the overall theme/lesson of Marvel’s newest chapter in their expansive cinematic universe. The title of the film implies conflict between friends on our well-established Avengers team. So I’m hoping that knowing Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America fight in this film doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but if so turn away now. Otherwise, keep reading as that is as spoilery as we’ll get.

Leading up to the film’s release, the studio asked fans to choose whether their allegiances rest with #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. One of the accomplishments of Civil War, and there are many, is that leaving it, you probably won’t have a clear answer. Both sides were well explored and well represented in the film, and it made for some great conversation in the car ride back. Still, looking at the motivations of both our heroes…I went in as #TeamCap and left as #TeamCap. My reasons point back to that line of dialogue.

Civil Ware 1

The “he” in that line is Cap’s longtime friend and titular character in the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. The Cap films have been building this relationship across all three of his solo stories and so it makes sense that it is central to this installment. A lot happens in this movie and the political and emotional circumstances that lead to all of the superhero sparring matches would take a lot of explanation, but for my money we will focus on the most important motivation for Cap…Bucky.

Basically, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen the other Cap movies, what you need to know about Bucky is that he and Cap were BFF’s since day one. While on a mission something happened and Bucky was assumed dead only to reappear years later as The Winter Soldier, a Hydra (the baddies) sleeper agent/assassin who did a laundry list of Hydra’s evil biddings. He was experimented on, tormented, memory wiped, conditioned, and mind controlled to do these things and really hasn’t had a chance to deal with or heal from much of that. That is mostly what Captain America wants in Civil War, a fair shake and a second chance for Bucky. His main mission is to see that Bucky receives grace.

Civil Ware 3

Unfortunately for Cap and Bucky, this comes to a head during a very charged political climate in the superhero world and Iron Man is on the other side of the issue. Now, after years and years of friendship and fighting side-by-side, the ideological differences between Iron Man and Cap are revealed for the whole world to see.

This is largely what Civil War is about…this conflict, but it is also a conflict that arises after years of being on the mission field. Lots of things can happen when you’re on a mission. You win battles, you lose battles, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to focus your work, and relationships come and go. This is not a foreign concept to our Biblical story.

Civil Ware 4

Seeing Cap and Tony waxing politics, beliefs, and strategies reminded me of a brief but significant moment in the ministry of Paul. Barnabas and Paul were a missionary team that saw their fair share of battles on the mission field. These battles were dangerous. These battles left scars (Acts 14:19). Throughout their journeys, though, we see Paul coming into a better and better understanding of the calling on his life to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His specific mission gains focus and his strategies begin to form around that focus. Then in just a few, somewhat vague lines of scripture, we see that Barnabas doesn’t share the same vision. They disagree and they part ways (Acts 15:36-39).

When I read through Acts and Paul’s follow-up letters to the places where he started churches, what stands out is Paul’s deep love for the Gentiles. What an amazing testimony to the Gentiles to have a man that objected so loudly and violently against them being included in the Body of Christ be the one called by God to tell them that the story of Jesus is for them. Paul became so focused on his calling it became more important than his own health and safety (Acts 16:16-40) and it also took priority over his partnership with Barnabas. Paul cared so greatly that this message of grace got to the Gentiles he was willing to fight for his strategy.

Civil Ware 2 

In Civil War, Cap risked losing friends, imprisonment, and death in order to protect Bucky so that one day he may experience the grace he so needed after his time as Hydra’s puppet. Being Bucky’s advocate was a dangerous position as was Paul’s being the advocate for the Gentiles. God has placed us all on our own personal mission fields surrounded by people that need grace, by people that need to be advocated for.

Civil War doesn’t have a very fun, clear cut conclusion. The battle is messy and it left a lot of physical and emotional scars. It was dangerous and scary. For Cap, though, Bucky was worth it because he is his friend, because he got a raw deal, and, perhaps, because he represents all of us. We all need second chances. We all need the freedom that comes from the gospel of our gracious God. If Bucky can’t receive that freedom what hope do we have? Is there someone in your life whose grace is worth fighting for?

Now Iron Man…that is a different story, a story about guilt, shame, and fear. Maybe I’ll have to write about that story too? To be continued…