Loss and Found: Retribution, Restoration, and Relationships in Avengers: Endgame

By Justin Martin

*Warning: major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.

Even if there is a small chance, we owe this…to everyone who is not in this room, to try. – Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Although Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) officially concludes with Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019), in many ways Avengers: Endgame (2019) functionally serves as the end of the original MCU iteration of the Avengers whose seeds were planted in Iron Man (2008). With respect to the Avengers, therefore, Endgame marks a phenomenal achievement in cinematic history. It is the first time audiences were treated to a cinematic universe of over 20 interconnected films whose respective narratives serve a grander narrative comprising of three phases [Phase 1: Iron Man (2008) – Avengers (2012); Phase 2: Iron Man 3 (2013) – Ant-Man (2015); Phase 3: Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)]. Given the cinematic history built over the last decade—coupled with the fact that these characters were well-established in comic books prior to their film adaptations—Endgame’s success and legacy can at least in part be explained by the connections fans have developed with these characters over the years. It seems fitting, then, that one of the film’s central themes serves as a timely reminder that at our core, we are relational beings.

The idea that relationships are a defining feature of what it means to be human is far from novel. Indeed, scholars from a wide range of disciplines have reflected on, investigated, and struggled to understand the importance of relationships for our humanity and the diverse ways we relate to each other (e.g., as families, friends, socio-culture groups, co-workers, societies, nations, etc.). The beauty of these varied disciplines tackling the “relationships” issue is that we now have a pretty robust understanding of why relationships are so central to being human. Acknowledging the risk of oversimplification, theologians generally contribute to this understanding by examining the primacy of relationships with each other within the context of larger questions about God. Philosophers make a similar contribution without necessarily starting from the assumption that there is a God. Sociologists generally focus on “group-level” phenomena like families, cultures, societies and their constitutive features. Psychologists on the other hand generally focus on “individual-level” phenomena such as thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Each discipline is concerned with the defining features of relationships, but seek to understand them using different assumptions and units of analyses.

In the following essay, I argue that Endgame highlights the centrality of relationships in three interrelated ways. These include the magnitude of the event at the heart of the film, the main characters’ motivation or general orientation in the aftermath of the event, and the means by which they respond. For each way, I will reference scripture(s) from the bible to suggest that the relational theme of the film is in many ways generally consistent with the understanding of relationships from a Christian (biblical) perspective. In addition, each way will be presented with an accompanying quote from social psychologist Solomon Asch (1952), whose work focused on the psychological foundations of social life.

Magnitude

…the decisive psychological fact about society is the capacity of individuals to comprehend and to respond to each other’s experiences and actions. This fact, which permits individuals to become mutually related, becomes the ground of every social process and of the most crucial changes occurring in persons. It brings within the sphere of the individual the thoughts, emotions, and purposes of others, extending his world vastly beyond what his unaided efforts could achieve. It brings him also into a far-flung relation of mutual dependence, which is the condition of his development into a person and, if the social process becomes maladaptive, the source of his greatest anguish. – p. 127

In developmental psychology there is a concept known as social convoy, which is the collection of individuals (e.g., friends, family members, acquaintances) that move through life with us (Berger, 2017). When we lose someone through death or other means, one obvious effect is that—at least during our remaining time on earth—we will no longer have an active relationship with that person, and our relationship with them will live on only through memory and symbolic activities. However, there is another—and I argue equally—significant effect (or at least potential effect) of loss. No longer having that relationship may influence the form and function of one or more of our remaining relationships with others. For example, the young person who has lost close friends to violence may decide to be markedly more reserved in his or her relationship with others so as not to get too close in case they lose them as well. Or being abandoned by others may contribute to someone deciding to primarily relate to certain people in a primarily instrumental manner, focusing on what that person can do for them while maintaining enough “distance” from them to avoid vulnerability. I argue that this notion—that the loss of a relationship can influence remaining or future relationships—is one of the main implications of the magnitude of Thanos’ snapand helps drive the minor and major narratives throughout Endgame.

The magnitude of Thanos’ snap reminds us of the fact that our relationships are numerous in both type and number. With half of the universe gone, the backdrop of Endgame is not one where one or more characters’ lives are impacted by the loss of one person. Instead, we are treated to this idea on steroids, because for every main character in the film, they have lost multiple people they cared about. The effects of the magnitude of Thanos’s actions are particularly felt by Natasha and Clint, as the former considers every “snapped” Avenger a member of her only real family while the latter loses his wife and children. Moreover, their reactions to the snap (Natasha’s decision to lead the remaining Avengers and Clint’s decision to become a vigilante) suggest that in the wake of losing so many people they cared about, they make conscious decisions to change the way they relate to others.

Just as the magnitude of Thanos’ victory speaks to the broad and multifaceted nature of our relationships, Christians are taught to relate to others in a radical manner, such that our determinations of who “deserves” our time, attention, service, and love increasingly include those who may not be able to respond in kind. To this point, scripture is clear that as Christ-followers, all relationships have value, from the more common and reciprocal ones involving family (e.g., Exodus 20:12; Proverbs 17:17) and friends (e.g., Proverbs 18:24; Proverbs 27:17; Ecclesiastes 4:9-10) to those involving strangers, the oppressed/victimized/disadvantaged (e.g., Exodus 22:21-22; Jeremiah 22:3; Matthew 25:34-40) , and even enemies (e.g., Matthew 5: 43-44; Luke 6:27-30; Romans 12:20). Like Endgame, scripture puts a spotlight on the vastness of human relationships.

Motivation

[The capacity of individuals to comprehend and to respond to each other’s experiences and actions] alters the psychological scene for each, since to live in society is to bring into sensible relation private and public experience. It is also an irreversible step; once in society we enter into a circle of mutuality that cannot be undone. – p. 127

In addition to highlighting the ways various characters grapple with the effects of the snap, Endgame points to a general motivation or orientation amongst the Avengers that ultimately guides their search for what they consider to be an adequate response. While getting revenge on Thanos appears to be a strong motivation for at least one of the Avengers, I contend that overall their primary motivation is relational. Above all, they seek to repair the damage done due to the loss of relationships. The fallout does not focus on the fact that Thanos won and they lost as much as it focuses on the ways they grapple with the enormous amount of relationships that were cut short.

It can be argued that in Endgame, Thanos winning and the Avengers’ loss of relationships are one in the same. But even if this is the case, the characters’ experiences in both the aftermath of the snap and after finding a “retired” Thanos in the garden suggests that their motivation to respond to the snap is rooted in the hope of reunification. This helps explain why after Thor kills Thanos upon finding out that he destroyed the stones, members of the original MCU Avengers team—Natasha, Steve, and Thor—struggle to move on. Moreover, despite Thor finally succeeding in what he fails to do in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), he withdraws from the team and goes into a downward spiral afterwards. How these core Avengers—most notably Thor—respond to Thanos’ death suggests that in their view, retribution without restoration is insufficient. Unless the snap is undone, nothing else matters. Another example of the Avengers’ other-oriented motivation is seen with Tony debating whether or not to assist the other Avengers with their time-travel plan. Initially against the idea on the grounds that it is too risky (both the plan itself and due to the possibility of losing his current family), he has a change of heart once he sees a picture of himself and the deceased Peter Parker.

Similarly, as Christ-followers we are taught to be other-oriented and relationally-motivated. The first “Other” we are called to be in relationship with is God, and the second “other” we are called to relate to is one another. The driver of these relationships, according to scripture, is love (e.g., John 15:13; Romans 12: 9-10; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 Corinthians 13). The primacy of love for understanding what it means to follow Christ is a central theme in the New Testament, and as such, the characteristics of love are wide-ranging. They include—but are not limited to—fulfilling the Old Testament law and commandments (e.g., Mark 12:31; Romans 13:8, 10), covering over sins (e.g., 1 Peter 4:8), evidencing a relationship with God (e.g., 1 John 3:17-18; 1 John 4:7-21), and binding other virtues (e.g., humility, kindness, patience, etc.) together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14).

Means

Once men are part of this kind of social field their dependence on each other extends and deepens….The concerns and problems that they face are truly social problems, which place each under the necessity of relying on…cooperative effort….In his action and thought man is no longer complete by himself. He is an independent unit, a complete whole, but once in society he becomes a relative whole. – p. 136

 The final way I believe Endgame highlights the fact that we are relational beings is through the nature and eventual success of their plan. Above and beyond retribution which is Thanos-focused, the Avengers are concerned with restoration which is other-focused or relationship-focused. This notion is consistent with the concept of restorative justice. A restorative approach to justice views individuals as inherently relational and crime as a violation of relationships (Zehr, 2002/2015). This point of view suggests that the Avengers are never going to be truly satisfied with killing Thanos if the lost relationships are not restored because the type of justice doled out (e.g., killing Thanos) is incompatible with the type of justice the situation calls for (e.g., restoring relationships as a way to set things right).

In order to restore lost relationships—not just for themselves but for others throughout the world who also lost numerous and varied relationships—they were willing to risk everything through time travel. Moreover, through their time travel missions, some characters were able to gain new perspectives on their relationships with their parents by interacting with past versions of them. For instance, Thor receives some timely advice about self-worth from his mother Frigga (who knew he was from the future) while Tony gives some advice to his father Howard as Howard is preparing for the birth of Tony (still with me, lol?).

When I think about the potential relation between the means of the Avengers’ plan and scripture, what comes to mind are the kinds of opportunities the Avengers are able to afford themselves and others by undoing Thanos’ snap. Or put another way, if given the opportunity to get back a relationship that we’ve lost, what would we do differently? Although the potential answers to this question are numerous, scripture gives us an idea as to what matters most in our relationships with others, and thus what the features are of those relationships that we should strive to not take for granted. Some of these features include showing compassion towards each other (e.g., Ephesians 4:32), forgiving each other (e.g., Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25; Colossians 3:13), and reconciling with each other before anger festers within the relationship (e.g., Matthew 5:22-24).

Conclusion

Once Thanos from the past learns of the time-travel plan and locates the Avengers in an effort to stop them, he offers an assessment of humanity while reflecting on his plan that is consistent with the aim of this essay. Addressing the Avengers during the final battle, he notes that his plan to destroy half the universe was based on the assumption that eventually those who remained would move on and thrive due to the abundance of resources. However, the Avengers’ efforts to travel back in time to undo the snap has convinced him that he needs to destroy everyone and restart life from scratch because survivors would never fully move on. In other words, Thanos corrects his erroneous assumption that over time people’s relationships with material resources would prove to be more valuable than their relationships with those they lost.

I find it powerful that by the end of the film, even Thanos is convinced of the deeply relational nature of humanity. And although we do not have to worry about infinity gauntlets or being snapped out of existence by a mad titan, it may be useful from time to time to be reminded of just how relational we are, and how—despite plenty of examples that attempt to suggest otherwise—we need each other.

Justin Martin, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at Whitworth University where he teach courses in Developmental Psychology, Moral Development, Psychological Statistics, Research Methods, and Senior Thesis. His research interests are in social and moral development, specifically with regards to the ways we attempt to understand the socio-moral decisions of both other people and superheroes.

References

Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Berger, K. S. (2017). The Developing person through the life span (10thEd.).  New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

 

 

 

 

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