What is the role of superheroes in the movie Avengers: Endgame? One might consider this an answer easily derived from the synopsis of Endgame: the superheroes save humanity by reversing the effects of “the Snap”–an apocalyptic event wiping out half of all life in the universe–and defeating supervillain Thanos for a final time. To fulfil this role, we believe that the Avengers must be empowered by their exceptional physical abilities; like how in the pivotal final battle between Thanos and the Avengers, the Avengers’ various superpowers are integral to mowing down Thanos’s army and finally weakening the supervillain himself. These outlandish abilities thus seem to legitimise the Avengers’ role in becoming the main determinant of humanity’s fate, while the vulnerable non-humans can only passively look on.
Yet, we should question our assumptions that superheroes and non-superheroes occupy completely different spaces in Endgame’s narrative; doing so allows us to discover the nuances of Endgame’semphasis on qualities that are not exclusive to the superheroes but shared across mankind. Through its central motif of self-sacrifice, the movie conveys how the apocalypse is resolved only when the superheroes are stripped of their physical strength and immersed in the more understated, human qualities of selflessness. Endgame thus subverts the perceived divisions between superheroes and non-superheroes by proposing that a superhero’s true agency is only visible when their emotional, non-superhero side is. These overlaps between the superheroes and non-superheroes then demonstrate the tensions between physical power and human emotion, and how superheroes must reconcile this tension to attain their fullest agency.
The Perceived Separateness of Heroes and Non-Heroes
First, we must examine why superheroes appear so separate from non-superheroes. This is likely due to the assumption that a superhero’s agency is mostly derived from their exceptional physical abilities. These abilities can range from the bizarre like Ant Man’s ability to turn huge and tiny at will, to the more understated like Black Widow’s graceful fighting skills. In the final battle between Thanos and the Avengers in Endgame’s third act, the movie invites us to gape as the varied abilities of these superheroes come together to fight against a common enemy. As a result, the experiences of these ultra-powerful superheroes become inaccessible to non-superheroes. We cheer as Captain Marvel deals a heavy blow to Thanos by smashing through his mothership and destroying it. Yet we are also reminded that this is only possible because she is a one-of-a-kind being of immense power and invincibility, allowing her to take down such a massive structure unharmed. We are in awe of how Iron Man flies around the battlefield with ease and decimates his enemies with beams of energy, but it is evident that such power is derived from his super suit, with advanced technology far beyond the reach of any ordinary citizen.
Hence, the same qualities that earn our admiration for the superheroes also creates some distance between us and them; as a result, the relationship is not that between equals, but between the worshipper and the worshipped. An indication of this separateness is how superheroes are often expected to embody ideas much bigger than themselves due to their exceptional abilities. For example, Captain America’s physical strength and abilities make him the perfect embodiment of American exceptionalism. In The Modern Superhero in Film and Television: Popular Genre and American Culture, Jeffery Brown describes the cover illustration of the first Captain America issue—depicting the superhero punching Hitler himself on the jaw—as ‘one of the most incredible wish-fulfilling scenarios ever depicted in popular culture.’ (2017, p. 65). He then elaborates that Captain America was created in order to capitalise on American patriotism and shore up support for American intervention in World War 2 (p. 93). Evidently, Captain America’s physical strength is being used by his creators as a straightforward conveyor of strength and influence. His heroic actions are thus a form of escapism for the American public from the dreary reality of war.
As a result, Captain America is celebrated as a patriotic figure, but he is distinctly removed from the experiences of the ordinary citizen. And as superpowers grow more ridiculous and the achievements of the superheroes grow far beyond common imagination, it is no wonder that this separateness between superheroes and non-superheroes would only increase.
Based on the assumptions above, we might assume that in Avengers: Endgame, the Avengers’ central role in averting the apocalypse is borne out of their extraordinary physical powers. We presume it is their unique physicality that makes them the plausible protagonists of the plot against Thanos, while the rest of humanity stays vulnerable and remains firmly in the Avengers’ protection. This notion is seemingly supported by the gratuitousness of the fight scene in the third act of Endgame where Thanos is finally defeated. Here, the heroes’ abilities are put front and centre, animated in painstaking detail for the audience to gawk at. We see Ant Man grow to the size of a building and punch down a massive alien monster with triumphant ease. We watch as Thor uses bolts of lightning to turn columns of Thanos’s minions to ash. The strength and influence possessed by the superheroes is thus conventionally conveyed through physicality. From this, we gain the impression that the Avengers’ agency in this battle is shaped by the power they possess and their ability to overpower Thanos.
However, this assumes that the Avengers have true agency in their combat with Thanos. To understand this, we need to understand the complexities of a hero’s agency in Avengers: Endgame.
A Superhero’s Agency in Endgame
While agency might be defined as the ability to make decisions on one’s own accord, it is interesting that many decisions made by the Avengers in Endgame are based on the needs of society at large and not their own. This is best demonstrated by the sacrifices of Black Widow and Iron Man, who give up their lives to reverse the effects of the first Snap and to defeat Thanos respectively. Yet it would also be naive to suggest that a superhero’s agency is minimal simply because of their selfless, self-sacrificial natures. A superhero’s decision to put their lives on the line is still a conscious choice, with the goal of preserving the survival of mankind being one that the superhero believes in wholeheartedly. Thus, the Avengers’ heroics do not restrict their agency, but rather redefine it as putting a greater emphasis on their selfless wishes rather than any self-benefit.
It can hence be argued that during the final battle at the Avengers’ Compound, the Avengers do not have true agency until their desire to avert the apocalypse is achieved with the death of Thanos. For example, a major turning point occurs when Captain Marvel smashes through Thanos’s mothership, thwarting his plans to bomb the Avengers to oblivion and giving them a fighting chance. Yet this sense of triumph dissipates when later Thanos defeats Captain Marvel in combat, confidently knocking her out in an image that bolsters Thanos’s sheer strength in comparison to the Avengers’ growing helplessness. Thus, rather than the Avengers firmly keeping their grip on the battle, this influence is traded between Thanos and the Avengers in a deadly tug of war. This volatility means that during combat, the agency possessed by the Avengers’ is ultimately unstable and fragile.
Thus, Endgame subverts expectations by showing that the superpowers that make these heroes so unique do not empower them to their fullest. When then, we might ask, do the Avengers attain their fullest agency? Arguably, it is the moment Iron Man performs the third Snap, turning Thanos and his army to dust and therefore securing victory for the Avengers at the cost of his own life.
Iron Man’s Agency in His Sacrifice
Paradoxically, Iron Man’s agency is most visible when he lets go of his physical abilities in exchange for human vulnerability. When shielded by the advanced weaponry of his super suit, Iron Man is unable to defeat Thanos based on physical power alone. When Iron Man realises that self-sacrifice is the only way to stop Thanos, he subverts the Instead, he must willingly give up his invincibility to perform the third Snap. Here, it is clear to us that Iron Man’s agency is firmly affirmed, since it is no longer threatened by a now-dead Thanos. Yet instead of physical power, his agency is enabled by the very human qualities that motivate Iron Man to readily give his life: his ingenuity, selflessness and bravery.
When Thanos over-confidently claims, “I am inevitable,” Iron Man cockily replies, “And I am Iron Man,” before performing the third Snap. In this moment, we are distinctly reminded not just of his vulnerability in his strained expression as he takes on the full power of the Infinity Stones. We also bear witness to the humanness of his identity, that being his unique wit and sense of humour. The clear divisions between the roles of superheroes and non-superheroes are thus blurred, with the loss of power and return to ‘humanness’ paradoxically being integral to the selfless superhero agency.
The Overlaps Between Endgame and Real Life
The distance we put between us and superheroes seems even more arbitrary when we consider the many parallels between fictional superheroes and real-life figures. Specifically, the idea that tensions exist between power and human values, and that this must be resolved to attain agency is commonly encountered by people in positions of power.
For one, our politicians must often resolve the tensions between needing to retain political power and adhering to one’s moral values. Similar to Iron Man, politicians can give up their power in order to do what they see as being the right thing. For example, several American Republican politicians have been firm on their disapproval of Donald Trump, the Republican figurehead, despite knowing this would cause them to lose constituents’ support. One example of this is Liz Cheney, who lost her primary election in August 2022 after criticising Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential elections. In her concession speech, she makes clear how achieving the same electoral success as she did two years ago ‘would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic’ (Cheney, 2022). She acknowledges that retaining political power would require her to support Trump, yet she defiantly declares that ‘that was a path I could not and would not take’ (Cheney, 2022). Like Iron Man, Cheney is fully aware of the vulnerable position she is left in due to her own choices. Her willingness to accept these consequences thus affirms her agency in staying true to her independent beliefs, in comparison to how her agency would have suffered had she submitted to the pressure to preserve her political power.
Endgame proves that cleanly differentiating the roles of superheroes and non-superheroes in its narrative ignores the nuanced reality of how a superhero’s agency is asserted in Endgame. In particular, the resolution of the apocalypse in Endgame by Iron Man’s self-sacrifice highlights the profound overlaps between both superhero and non-superhero qualities within a superhero’s psyche. In fact, Endgame further subverts the superhero and non-superhero divide by suggesting that a superhero’s agency is paradoxically affirmed by non-superhero qualities, and that unique physical abilities lend a mere impression of agency. Understanding this paradox leads us to a more nuanced evaluation of how a superhero’s agency comes to be, and challenges how superheroes are defined by their superpowers.
Brown, J. A. (2017). The modern superhero in film and television: Popular genre and American culture. New York: Routledge.
Cheney, E. (2022, August 16). Concession speech. Iowa State University: Archives of women’s political communication. Retrieved on May 16, 2023, from https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2022/08/17/concession-speech-aug-16-2022/
Russo, A. & Russo, J. (Directors). (2019). Avengers: Endgame [Motion picture]. Marvel Studios.