First things first: spoiler alert. This is going to get messy, because I got messy.
I got the last good seat at the 9:30 showing of Avengers: Endgame—the only seat left from which I wouldn’t have to crane my neck at an obtuse angle. I shuffled in to the row, which was mostly empty at that point, except for the dating couple next to my seat. I apologized before plopping down beside the lady, which made the moment more awkward than it would have been anyway. A little while later, a large man and his young son scooted past us and sat next to me. These were to be my companions for the journey. We had come for entertainment, yes, but also for closure. After twenty-one films of waiting for post-credits questions, we demanded answers.
It’s no spoiler to say that Marvel spent the weeks before the release of Endgame building up to a gigantic resurrection. Those of us who combed casting lists the moment they were announced wondered if all those people who had turned to dust would only show up in flashbacks. Then came trailers and clips that gave us what turned out to be a mere inkling of the plot line.
“He used the stones again,” Black Widow says.
“So let’s get ‘em,” says Captain Marvel. “Use them to bring everyone back.”
Part of me was prepared to be disappointed. Looking back, one thing that might have turned me off to comics as a child was the perpetual reversibility of death on a mortal scale. It didn’t take a Savior. All it took was some magical reality-bending device or some lump of unobtainium. Or the characters would make a deal with the great gatekeepers of death. Wave the wand; say the magic words. Presto-chango, you get your hero back.
I didn’t believe any of it. Don’t get me wrong; I was steeped in the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but the stakes in comics didn’t feel high enough. Readers were more likely to buy comics about heroes they knew, so writers kept having to bring back dead protagonists. Death lacked a sting not because of Jesus, but because of job security.
I don’t know why, but outside of the Gospel, the Resurrection feels like something storytellers must hold loosely. Hint at it, whisper of it, and the ontological truth of it will ring out with a power that defies explanation. Grip it any tighter than that, and the attempt to control it with pen and ink will make a sad clown of the author. Last week, I desperately wanted Endgame to deliver on its hype, but a mass comeback from the grave felt cheap, an easy out. Something had to be beyond the de-snapping of the MCU.
The Russo brothers did not let me down.
Suffice it to say, the stakes are real. The film begins with a gut-punch, then spends its first act and more taking us through three of the five stages of grief. “Thanos did exactly what he said he was gonna do,” said Black Widow. Then the Russos did exactly what they said they’d do. They un-snapped the snap. Of course I geeked out with everyone else. Who wouldn’t flip out to see friends come back? The moment rings a little of Matthew 27, when Jesus’ resurrection extended to include “the bodies of many saints who had died [and] were raised to life,” who then wandered into Jerusalem to visit family and old pals. It’s as if Jesus’ dominion over death was something like an explosion, with its own collateral healings.
However, though Tony Stark starts the twenty-two-film saga with an insufferable messiah complex, he’s far from being the Messiah. Barring the presence of Jesus in a film, I need death to have a permanence. I need to be able to mourn in truth with the characters for a story to work. Even Jesus wept over Lazarus, after all.
If you’re keeping score at this point, you’ve probably figured out why I started with a spoiler alert.
A few of our heroes didn’t make it back. We, the audience, had been with them for chapters and chapters of this saga, only for their lives to be tossed aside with little more than remembrance as consolation for the living. And suddenly, the comic book movie rang true. There he was: Death, that final enemy whom we all know far too well.
I’m grateful this grand cinematic story had teeth. Part of being human is learning to hate Death. Part of following Jesus is learning to laugh at Death, even through your hatred. I teared up a fair amount in the darkness of my seat. A stereo chorus of sniffling told of others doing the same in the corners of the theater. There was no post-credits scene in this film—believe me, I stayed till the lights came on. Oddly, the music faded to the ringing sound of a hammer. Perhaps it was something tossed in to stir our collective geekery, a thin scrap of foreshadowing.
For me though, it was the preamble to my own epilogue of the Avengers narrative. Of course there was a hammer. Whatever it meant to the Russos, I cannot but remember that, in the story of Death dying, there is always a hammer.
I hiked through acres of locked cars to where my van waited in the silenced midnight of a strip mall parking lot. There was one tune in my head, so I put it on and cried at 80mph down the interstate. It’s the tune that’s always in my head when I see characters die in movies or books. It’s from Ben Shive’s album The Cymbal Crashing Clouds.
You have to look death in the eye, in the eye. You need to see what’s hidden there. You have to look him in the eye, in the eye. You need to see that he’s afraid to die. He’s afraid to die. But you, my love— You’re gonna wake up soon In your lonely room To the sound of a singing bird, Throw the curtain back To find your bag’s already packed And the cab is at the curb. Then like a bad dream Unreal in the morning light, So will the world seem When you see it in the mirror for the last time. ‘Cause there is a last time, There’s a last time for everything.