The contemporary representations of superheroes in postmillennial films are commonplace to us. Behind the immutable existence of idealistic superhuman powers, we observe gradual but conspicuous rehumanisation of the superheroes and thus recontextualisation of heroism in the ubiquitous superhero films, with Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as one of the few media hegemonies at the forefront of this devolution. Marvel heroes are seldom perfect to begin with and many MCU movies further challenge the idealistic narrative of heroism. In particular, the sequels Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), which narrate the coalition of a team of heroes called Avengers against an omnipotent villain Thanos, humanise their superheroes and confront the traditional notion of heroism through arguably the worst apocalypse in the MCU history, the “Blip”, where half the population on Earth disappeared from Thanos’ snap.
Many argue that such a new landscape has been fairly homogenous among most contemporary superhero films which unanimously showcase similar ideals and character arcs. These superheroes exhibit minimal variances and are generally represented as humanised neophytes “who over the course of the movie experience enough character growth such that they are individualistic enough to rise above the stratifying normality of the undifferentiated citizen-subject” (Koh 44). These observations derived from the comparisons made across time and productions have evinced an increasingly blurred notion of “humanised heroism”. Consequently, Endgame, subsumed under the broad umbrella of apocalyptic superhero films, is inevitably perceived in the same light.
In response to the abovementioned, I contend that aside from said humanisation of the superheroes – which many superhero films have already employed to overturn the traditional perceptions of heroes – Endgame has added new dimensions revolving around the said humanisation, which are as consequential, if not more, to give nuances to heroism. Specifically, I argue that the extent to which the superheroes are reduced to their utmost humanity and conceptualisation of heroism through the lens of the various hero types have culminated in a nuanced picture of heroism in the specific context of an apocalypse. To that end, I will investigate the various traits and tropes of superheroes embodied in the films via the development of a few strategically chosen characters from the onset to post-apocalypse.
The Degree of Humanisation
The apocalypse in Endgame has pushed the boundaries of superhero humanisation by eliciting undesirable characteristics from the superheroes and further amplifying them without undue reservation. A considerable number of superheroes in Endgame are associated with characteristics that are prevalent among humanity, with some even bordering on portraying extreme attributes within some humans. These traits, be they physical or psychological, are in every aspect, incongruous with a traditionally “perfect superhero”, whom the audience expects to be immaculate in terms of physique, personality, and mental strength.
Biskind observes that despite the rehumanisation of superheroes dating back to Spiderman comics in 1962, it is apparent that the traditional superhero films that adapted those comics remain relatively averse to the display of human-like heroes. Even with the postmillennial superhero films, Biskind opines that the humanisation of heroes is “attenuated”, and often when it happens, it becomes their “undoing”. In Infinity War and Endgame however, Biskind contends that Marvel’s humanisation of superheroes “has gone so far that the Avengers are portrayed as a quarrelsome, jealous, and petty bunch” while the implosion of the entire MCU following the “Blip”, which wiped out Black Panther, Spiderman, and Doctor Strange” has diminished the archetypically invulnerable beings to become as vulnerable as humans.
While the blanket observation made by Biskind already alludes to a more nuanced humanisation, it misses the dramatised respresentations and hyperbolic character arcs for some superheroes in Endgame, specifically Thor and Iron Man. Through the portrayals of these characters, the wide spectrum of idiosyncratic traits that a superhero could assume are laid bare, with little to no sign of “attenuation”, and the transitions from one end of the spectrum to another between Infinity War and Endgame are strikingly abrupt for them.
Thor, who used to be the exemplary personification of power and heroism and the idol of many for his highly coveted appearances, is portrayed with radically worse demeanors in Endgame as compared to the earlier MCU movies he was casted in, including Infinity War. In particular, the first half of Endgame alludes to Thor’s representation in the film by putting the limelight on his egregiously obese body shape that was inadvertently engendered by his “post-apocalypse” stress disorder. The God of Thunder’s first appearance in the movie as “Fat Thor” – an unduly exaggerated satirical epithet ascribed to him only after Endgame – clearly attests to his utterly unacceptable physique within the norms of conventional heroism.
Thor’s emotional slump and mental despair are also disclosed through his subsequent interactions with Hulk. He chides Hulk for mentioning Thanos’ name, which he vowed among his secluded community to never bring up, and turns down Hulk’s invitation to rejoin Avengers by citing his contentment with his status quo as the reason. On a deeper level, these mannerisms expose his inherent psychological vulnerabilities – cowardly, solipsistic, escapistic and self-deceiving – and mirror the group of humans with mental disorders. This again largely deviates from the superficial degree of humanisation portrayed in Infinity War, where the displays of the humanised self of Thor – arrogant and reckless – are done in a much more “attenuated” fashion and pale in comparison to his exceptionalism figure, which still prevails predominantly throughout the film.
In the same vein, Endgame leverages the representations of Iron Man to further escape, beyond what has already been achieved, from the utopian and ideal narrative that is deeply entrenched in many superhero movies. While Iron Man has always been the most human among the Avengers and known to be very narcissistic and opinionated, Biskind acknowledges that he had been “dipping his iron toes into the tepid waters of the mainstream for some time … torn between human and superhuman”. In this regard, Endgame leaves no room for confusion and shreds away any remaining form of a conventional superhero. Specifically, Tony Stark made the following spiteful remarks during his intense dispute with Captain America over the loss to Thanos at the start of the film:
“I needed you … that trumps what you need”
“We the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers?”
“I got nothing for you Cap, I got no coordinates, no clues, no strategies, no options”
In that particular scene, he was portrayed with an awfully scrawny build and went on to exude overwhelming human emotions as well as an unparalleled level of egoism and selfism. The unprecedented scale and degree that it was carried out in Endgame supersedes the ambivalent and piecemeal rehumanisation portrayed in Infinity War and strives to completely subvert – instead of subtly oppose – the traditional heroism necessitating idealism in every possible aspect, which might still be lingering behind the veil of many seemingly humanised representations in contemporary superhero films.
Whereas the humanness and flaws in characters are also incontrovertibly prevalent in many other hero films as an indispensable part of the monomyth (Neo) and for very similar motives, they are employed much more exaggeratedly by Endgame. Instead of a simplified version of humanity complemented with minor physical imperfections and foibles as evidenced in Infinity War, Thor and Iron Man in Endgame were markedly disfigured and designed to display hamartia fatal to the fate of universe and humanity. McGowan opines that the contention of superhero films in term of humanisation is that the superheroes are brought “down to earth” and embodies the “speculative identity of the heroic and the ordinary”. However, the superheroes in Endgame are not merely humanised, they are brought down from the pedestal of heroes and further dehumanised to an unanticipated level arguably below where a typical ordinary lies. This phenomenon is ostensibly unseen and unheard of in Infinity War.
Indeed, the nuanced superhero representations in Endgame vis-à-vis that of the many other contemporary superhero films could very likely be attributed to the protracted MCU franchise that has managed to align their characters and tailor audience expectations for such disparities to seem more profound. Nevertheless, the representation of the heroes in the movie itself plays an equally, if not more consequential role in delineating the characters and thus heroism. This is especially prominent when Infinity War is juxtaposed against Endgame. The latter leverages the “Blip” apocalypse solely and entirely to construct an unprecedented backdrop of “what happens when heroes fail”, against which the stripping down of the superheroes to their barest and most human form devoid of any quixotic and superior remnants of heroism become warranted and more congenial. Infinity War, released only a year earlier than Endgame, is similarly replete with the rich MCU timeline, but its lack of a “post-apocalyptic” context renders it with no means to induce the same extent of humanisation portrayed in Endgame.
The Hero Tropes
The degeneration of the superheroes into an outright human form in Endgame does not, in any way, imply regression and diminish their status as heroes, which is a slippery slope argument that might ensue. In fact, the converse, where they emerged collectively as the classical heroes in the eventual battle, is proven to be the case as Thor went on to fight Thanos with his hammers – Mjölnir and StormBreaker – both of which could only be possessed by worthy beings, while Iron Man sacrificed his own life to erase Thanos and save the world. This implies that humanisation of the superheroes in Endgame is not merely shown an end in itself but instead they serve a greater purpose to accentuate the nuanced sense of heroism when juxtaposed against the opposing representation of superheroes at the later stage.
Grue suggests that superheroes are humanised to “create grounds for audience sympathy and identification” through a more ordinary and realistic form that is amicable and relatable to the audience. The manifestation of the “everyman hero” trope then becomes auxiliary to the “epic hero” representation which the superheroes subsequently developed into. While these transformations are again a natural subset of the monomyth, they unfold in a much more complex and meaningful way in Endgame unlike typical superhero movies which unwittingly course through the character developments deemed as subservient to the plot. Amid thoughtfully curated hero journeys, Endgame inspires that degrading the superheroes to their lowest state does not mean loss of heroism, but it is the process of such dramatised humanisation that enables heroism to be illuminated through the ensuing positive ideals, such as altruism and self-scarifice, that should be equally imbibed by heroes and the rest of humanity.
Perhaps what makes the Endgame stand out even more among the plethora of similar apocalyptic films in terms of humanising the heroes through failure is the additional contrast of Thanos’ character arc. Thanos’ home planet was left in ruin due to overpopulation, to which he proffered a radical idea of exterminating half the population that caused him to be exiled. While his subsequent course of actions and the concomitant destructions he caused made him a villain, his tragic background and his eco-argument to eradicate our world’s burgeoning environmental issues somewhat rationalise his bad behaviours and present him as arguably a “tragic hero” (Biskind). By the same token, Thor could also be regarded as a “tragic hero” for the loss of his brother Loki in the fight against Thanos.
McGowan opines that “the only thing that separates the ordinary person from the superhero is the fiction that the superhero adopts in the act of becoming a superhero” and that “pure hero quickly becomes the criminal when an experience of loss disrupts this purity”. Drawing parallels from McGowan’s theory premised on Batman and Two-Face, we can see a similar trajectory forming around Thanos and Thor. By juxtaposing them, the movie sheds instructive light on the remarkably distinct ways they deal with their challenges and how that essentially dictates the definition of heroism. Therefore, humanising the heroes, specifically Thor, is not a standalone, hegemonic identity orbiting heroism in the movie, but it serves as a foil to presage and augment the latter contrast between the different “heroes” within the same trope, and in turn cement the distinction between a true tragic hero and a villainous anti-hero.
The dovetailing of an exaggerated degree of humanisation with the juxtaposition of various character arcs therefore recontextualises heroism in the following nuances. Firstly, despite the fantastical powers of the heroes, their fundamental physique and emotional struggle resemble – and could be worse off than – that of many viewers. Secondly, when humanisation becomes a necessary and sufficient arc of tragedy, the defining arc that matters is the shape and purpose determined by the said humanisation, as well as the virtuous and sympathetic traits the heroes choose to adopt during their rebound journey. Despite these aspects being patently emblematic of our reality, they are not addressed adequately in Infinity War as compared to Endgame for viewers to resonate with, simply because of a lack of contrasting hero tropes in the former.
Conclusion: The New Convention?
The superhero representations in Endgame have contributed to a nuanced notion of heroism with the many new dimensions that have been encoded within as compared to Infinity War. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to note that Endgame is by far the only post-apocalyptic movie that could reverse the apocalypse, which allows it to achieve the dimensions of heroism discussed above. While, in the bigger picture, the heroism that Marvel strives to impress upon the audience is moving towards an unprecedented direction devoid of idealism and imbued with magnified humanness and nuanced implications, heroism is still polysemantic in nature and remains open to contention among the MCU fans.
Biskind, Peter. “Superheroes: The Endgame – Review of Superhero Movies.” Global Storytelling: Journal of Digital and Moving Images 1.2 (2022). <https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/gs/article/id/1708/>.
Grue, Jan. “Ablenationalists Assemble: On Disability in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 15.1 (2021): 1-17.
Neo Yi Hui. “Heroism on Screen: A Comparative Study Between Eastern and Western Action Films.” Honours thesis. Dept. of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore, 2020.
McGowan, Todd. The Fictional Christopher Nolan. University of Texas Press, 2012.
Koh Wee Him, Wilson. “Assembling New Avengers: The Successful Comic-Book Superhero Film in PostMillennial Hollywood.” Master’s thesis. Dept. of English Language and Literature, 2012.