It’s Not About How Much We Lost, It’s About How Much We Have Left

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

Whether it was your lecture notes, sleep, youthful idealism, or that water bottle you left behind in LT1 after a Math lecture and then never saw again, you have probably experienced loss in one of its many forms.

But how does the loss of a plastic hydration container measure up against the grief of losing “friends… family… a part of ourselves”, as Captain America so aptly puts it?

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame below.

IT’S TOO LATE, BUDDY

From deep space, Tony Stark records a final message to Pepper.

After opening with a heartbreaking pre-opening-credits scene showing us what Hawkeye was up to on the day of the Snap (hint: he was with his family; it didn’t end well), the first act of Endgame picks up almost immediately where Infinity War left off—Tony Stark and Nebula are still stuck in space, the surviving Avengers are still reeling in shock from the loss of “half of all living creatures”, and Carol Danvers has joined the team.

The action moves swiftly from there: Tony and Nebula’s floundering starship is rescued, the team discovers Thanos’ location via the Infinity Stones’ heat signature, and seek him out to undo the Snap. Despite the solemnity of the mission, Avengers: Endgame finds the time for unexpected moments of levity.

“Who hasn’t been to space?”

*Cap, Black Widow and War Machine raise their hands*

“You better not throw up on my ship.”

Rocket Raccoon

But their mood whiplashes back to the sombre when they discover that Thanos has destroyed the Infinity Stones, rendering the Snap irreversible. Enraged, hot-headed Thor decapitates Thanos.

“What did you do?” Rocket asks, shocked.

“I went for the head.” (This is a reference to a scene in Infinity War, where Thor had the chance to deal the killing blow to Thanos but went for the chest instead, allowing Thanos to survive.)

The angry Asgardian’s retreating back is the last thing we see before Endgame takes us forward to five years after the Snap. While everything before has been a tying up of Infinity War’s loose ends, this is where the real Endgame begins.

WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND

In contrast to the fast-paced, action-packed first 20 minutes (yes, all of that happened in 20 minutes) of the film, the next 45 minutes are packed with feels, not fight scenes. And Endgame does not pull its emotional punches.

Indeed, loss is a central theme in Avengers: Endgame as we visit the remaining Avengers, and the world, still struggling with the devastating losses dealt to them in the aftermath of the Snap, with varying degrees of success. A difficult question is asked: How do we react to loss?

It is a given that most of the Avengers (including the disintegrated Fallen) have had a thorny relationship with loss. We have seen Bruce Banner struggle with the loss of his self-control and mental faculties whenever he turns into the Hulk. We have seen Wanda Maximoff cope with the loss of her brother Quicksilver in Age of Ultron and lover Vision in Infinity War.

Steve Rogers, in particular, is no stranger to loss or its less passive variant, sacrifice. He lost 70 years of his life and a relationship with Peggy Carter when he “went under the ice”, and more recently, after finding out that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by HYDRA agents, he lost his idealism and unshakeable faith in the American government, choosing to go rogue in Civil War than be bound to the Sokovia Accords.

Captain America, grief counsellor.

In Endgame, we see Steve put that intimate knowledge of grief and loss to good use, leading a support group for those who have lost their loved ones to the Snap. Integrating the Hulk’s brawn with Banner’s brains, Bruce Banner, too, seems to have adjusted well to life post-Snap, giving us in the process what is possibly the most comedic version of the Hulk to grace the silver screen.

“I know, it’s crazy. I’m wearing shirts now!”

Some of the Avengers appear to have moved on quickly in five years, and possibly even come out even better from the tragedy.

Five years after the Snap, Natasha Romanoff now leads the remaining Avengers—Okoye, Rocket, Nebula, War Machine and Captain Marvel, finding purpose in heading the Avengers call centre in the other members’ absence.

“I used to have nothing. And then I got this. This job. This family. And I was better because of it. And even though they’re gone… I’m still trying to be better.”

Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow

Not bad, especially when you compare that to the character arcs of some of the other characters. Thor has spiralled into alcoholism, depression, and denial, blaming himself for the destruction of Asgard and the deaths of half his people. Meanwhile, fellow founding Avenger, Clint Barton, has lost his strong moral compass and became a vigilante following the grief of losing his family.

But perhaps the person who has come out the best from the Snap is none other than everyone’s favourite billionaire-playboy-genius-philanthropist.

That’s right.

Previously a man deeply tormented by PTSD, a compulsive addiction to gadgets, and alcoholism, Tony finally manages to achieve peace for the first time in Endgame. Giving up the identity of Iron Man, he settles into the quiet rhythm of family life with his wife Pepper and daughter Morgan–something he’s never been able to achieve before. Interesting, given that Steve and Tony, as foils, have always been on opposing character arcs. Still, Tony has his regrets about not doing right by Peter Parker, which is what finally prompts him to come out of hiding and join the other Avengers on their mission to travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity stones.

This is where the question shifts. From the moment that Ant-Man busts himself out of the storage facility he’s been holed up in for five years and shows up at the Avengers base with a scheme for undoing the Snap involving the quantum realm and time travel that just might work, the question has shifted fundamentally. From the passive to the active, from “How do we react to loss?” to “What would we give up for a shot at getting it back?”

The answer to this, as the Avengers find out, is a lot.

“This is the fight of our lives. We are going to win. Whatever it takes.”

Steve Rogers, Captain America

I KNOW IT IS, BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO DO IF IT DOESN’T

Action-wise, the movie’s third act is reminiscent of heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Inception. The Avengers split themselves up into smaller teams to recover the six Infinity Stones: Clint and Natasha head to Vormir for the Soul Stone, Nebula and War Machine travel to Morag to steal the Power Stone, Rocket and Thor return to Asgard to retrieve the Reality Stone.This leaves Bruce, Tony, Steve and Scott to go to the same place for the Time, Space and Mind stones because, as Natasha points out in an earlier scene, “If you pick the right year, there are three stones in New York.”

As one would probably expect from any time travel movie, it’s at this point that watching Endgame begins to feel like opening a time capsule or indulging in a bag of iced gem biscuits from Chill@RI. The audience is taken on a stroll down memory lane as the Avengers revisit key moments from Avengers history like the Battle of New York (The Avengers (2012)), characters like Loki, Peter Quill and the Ancient One who have since left us, and even younger versions of the Avengers themselves. Nostalgia is the mood that dominates here.

There’s even a fight scene between Captain America and Captain America—something you probably never thought you’d see in a non-Loki-shapeshifting context. He can do this all day.

“Most of us are going somewhere that we know, that doesn’t mean we should know what to expect,” Steve warns the team just before they disperse.

And indeed, even though they are visiting their own pasts, the path to collecting the stones is fraught with new and unforeseen challenges caused by the appearance of the new Avengers in the timeline.

After an ill-timed outburst from 2012!Hulk allows Loki to make off with the Tesseract (Space Stone), Steve and Tony are faced with a dilemma: return to their original reality without the Space Stone, or use the Pym particles allocated for the return trip to go further back in time. Essentially: Accept certain failure, or gamble on being able to both recover the Space Stone and obtain more Pym particles in 1970 to return to the future?

Meanwhile on Vormir, Clint and Natasha meet Red Skull, the guardian of the Soul Stone, and it feels like déjà vu for the audience as they struggle to make the same tough choice that Thanos made in Infinity War. “A soul for a soul” means that one of them won’t be returning home, and the two Avengers, whose friendship goes a long way back, literally fight each other to make the sacrifice. When the dust settles, it’s Romanoff’s lifeless body which greets us from the foot of the cliffs, the unexpected outcome eliciting gasps (perhaps even a tear or two) from the audience.

The third-act twists aren’t all doom and gloom, however. We get several heartwarming moments that never happened in the original timeline, including a tearful exchange of “I love you”s between Thor and his mother, Frigga, on the day of her death. Thor also gets Mjolnir back, coming to the relieved realisation that “I’m still worthy”, which kicks off his redemption arc.

“I’ve missed you, Mom.” Thor and Frigga share a heartwarming moment on Asgard while Rocket solo-tanks the mission to recover the Reality Stone.

Steve and Tony’s side trip to S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters in 1970 also yields an unexpected parental bonding moment when Tony meets with his estranged father, Howard Stark, with Tony comically introducing himself as Howard Potts. The two converse about fatherhood, even sharing a hug towards the end.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Nebula has been compromised. Her cybernetic links connect with those of her past self, allowing 2014!Thanos to learn about his future self’s success and fate at the hands of the Avengers, and the Avengers’ plan to undo his work. 2014!Nebula is sent back to the future instead of the original, setting the stage for the Avengers’ final confrontation with Thanos (albeit a different version from the one they previously encountered) in the fourth act.

AVENGERS, ASSEMBLE

Sobered by the loss of Natasha Romanoff, the team immediately gets to work creating and fitting the Infinity stones into a new Gauntlet. Then there comes the question of who will be the one to wear the highly-radioactive Gauntlet that is “channeling enough energy to light up a continent” and make the snap. Bruce gamely volunteers, reasoning that the radiation is mostly gamma.

“It’s like I was made for this.”

Hulk starts screaming in pain almost immediately after putting on the glove, as the radiation courses through his arm, charring it beyond recognition and furthering the question of just how much the Avengers will lose in their bid to reverse Thanos’ act (hint: still not enough). But with great difficulty, he manages to make the snap before blacking out.

“ARGHHHHH!” … Maybe not.

“Did it work?”

Clint’s phone lights up. It’s a call from his wife, Laura. Hopeful music plays in the background. Against all odds, the Avengers have succeeded.

But the Avengers’ happiness is short-lived. Thanos’ starship crashes into the Avengers’ Headquarters moments later, its travel to the present day enabled by the fake 2014!Nebula. The Mad Titan has come for the new Gauntlet and the stones, and he has upped the stakes. Realising that humanity will forever be preoccupied not with what it still has but with what it has lost, Thanos intends to “shred this universe down to its last atom” and create a new universe which “knows not what it has lost, but only what it has been given.”

This exchange prompts the final battle—which is really two battles interrupted by a moment of hopelessness where all seems lost before reinforcements finally arrive—with memorable scenes such as Cap wielding Mjölnir, Thor calling down lightning, and of course, the iconic Portals scene which gave us the greatest gathering of Avengers members since the last San Diego Comic-Con International.

Avengers, Assemble!

Fans are also treated to a heartwarming reunion between Tony and his protégé, Peter Parker, who was the reason Tony decided to come out of hiding at all.

It’s been a long time coming, but Peter finally gets his hug!

Other incredible moments from the film that deserve their own article:

  • The get-the-Infinity-Gauntlet-away-from-Thanos team relay race;
  • Captain Marvel’s timely re-emergence and single-handed destruction of Thanos’ ship;
  • The “Don’t worry, she’s got help” scene where all the female superheroes of the MCU rallied together around Captain Marvel, putting the ‘sis’ in ‘assist’.
The ladies of the MCU, quite literally putting the ‘sis’ in ‘assist’.

However, it would be disingenuous to conclude this recap without mentioning the final “I am Iron Man” showdown between Thanos and Tony Stark, the line a callback to the end of the 2008 film where Tony publicly admits to being Iron Man. With a resolute snap, Tony turns Thanos and his troops to dust, but not without terrible cost to himself: he dies from radiation poisoning in the process.

It’s interesting to note that Tony was the one with the most to lose (daughter, wife, normalcy) by going along with the events of Endgame and by sacrificing himself on the altar of morality, he won the day for the Avengers, for Earth and for the Universe. Definitive proof that despite all evidence to the contrary, Tony Stark did, in fact, have a heart.

A GRATEFUL UNIVERSE

While it’s clear that Thanos’ reasoning was a tad extreme, there might be a grain of truth in his assessment of human nature.

The Avengers have lost much, and spend most of the film trying to recover what they have lost. In a way, so have the viewers and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether you were a fan from the first Iron Man (2008), before the MCU was even a thing, or a latecomer to the fandom who never really understood the hype until Age of Ultron (2015) came out, whether it’s been for eleven years or five, you laughed, cried and lived along with these characters as they explored what it meant to be a person and a hero.

So when you watched the opening sequence for Endgame, the 22nd MCU film and the conclusion of the decade-long Infinity Saga, it was probably with a sense of finality, of farewell, of saying goodbye to a compelling story and characters who have accompanied you through adolescence. Some may have found it harder to let go than others. I personally know of someone who has watched the film three times in cinemas, with three separate groups of friends.

But while we reflect on the closing of this chapter of our lives, perhaps we should turn our attention away from what we are saying goodbye to, and pay tribute instead to what we have gained in return. And what we have gained is memories.

Endgame (and the 21 MCU films before that) gave us scenes, jokes and moments which have united people across cultures, embedded themselves in our collective consciousness as a generation and established themselves firmly as pop-cultural landmarks.

As someone who got goosebumps even on my second viewing of the portals scene, I don’t think I will ever be able to react to the words ‘On your left’ in a semi-professional way again.

Thanos was right about one other thing—loss is inevitable. But it is often the case that when we lose something, we gain something else in the process, whether it’s an alternative which we might have overlooked before, the discovery of a new truth about ourselves, or sometimes, just a fresh perspective and a greater appreciation of the thing we have lost.

In-universe, Avengers: Endgame shows us that loss is seldom a one-way street through the example of Steve Rogers. At the end of the film, Steve is sent back in time to return all the borrowed Infinity Stones to the exact moments they were taken from their alternate realities. However, he never makes the return trip back to the present and instead, Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson find an aged Steve seated on a bench a short distance away, who explains that after putting back the stones he decided to “maybe try some of that life that Tony was telling me to get.”

Sam gives Steve a knowing look. “You want to tell me about her?”

Steve gets a faraway look in his eye. “No. No, I don’t I think I will.”

But the audience isn’t left scratching their heads in suspense for long. The movie cuts to a memory of a house, the jazzy opening notes of It’s Been a Long, Long Time playing in the background. Inside the house, a young Steve shares a long-overdue dance with the only woman he’s ever loved, right before the credits roll.

Steve finally gets his dance with Peggy.

While it feels like Steve Rogers has lost his youth (and that we have lost Steve Rogers, since he won’t be returning as Captain America anymore in future films), it’s possible to see this in a more positive light—that Steve, a man who’s always felt out of place and time, has finally managed to steal back some of the time that he felt he lost, gaining a life in the process.

So let’s not be sad that it’s over, but glad that it happened. In other words, it really isn’t about how much we’ve lost, but about how much we have left—a decade’s worth of memories and 3,000 minutes of movie run-time.

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