Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
*The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.*
In the last episode of the Avengers film series, Avengers: Infinity War, the enemy has won.
But in Avengers: Endgame, the saga ends with a joyous finale, sharing images of final victory and resurrection that can’t help reflecting their biblical, real-life equivalents to come.
Previously in last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios took its greatest risk and denied its heroes a final victory. This startling choice had effects that rippled across all the real-life popular culture universe. After all, in many fantasy movies, even the ones that end on cliffhangers, our heroes achieve at least some kind of closure before the credits roll. Not so in Avengers: Infinity War. Here, intergalactic sociopath Thanos (Josh Brolin and skilled animators) was not beaten by Captain America or beheaded by god of thunder Thor. Instead the mad Titan made good on his self-righteous vow to “balance” the universe, and, armed with the multi-McGuffin power of the Infinity Gauntlet, snapped his fingers. Half the universe and most of our favorite heroes all went ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Then the infuriatingly self-satisfied Thanos vanished to rest on a paradise planet. Roll credits and somber funereal soundtrack. The fiend left fans to share in fantasy-grief for one whole year.
Endgame doesn’t let up the grief. In this “comic book” movie, we really feel the groaning of an Earth that waits with eager longing for its missing souls to return.But when Marvel’s core group of heroes finally returned for this year’s Avengers: Endgame, the resuming story again denied heroes and fans a sudden happy reversal. The team finds Thanos’s garden planet, only to learn their enemy had already destroyed the all-powerful Infinity Stones. Yes, Thor gets his revenge, and Thanos’s head rolls. But it benefits nothing.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, make fans feel the consequences, over five years in-universe, and one full hour in movie-time. Our heroes do nothing but grieve. We see how many try to move on and try to keep Avenging. One villain-turned-hero grows in her recovery from terrible abuse and becomes a figure of moral redemption. Another hero falls into a vengeful alternate lifestyle. Another loses all hope and—amusingly, especially in a superhero movie, with all that critics imply—forces himself to become lost in a vacuous world of imaginary-heroic video games.
Apart from a few moments, including that fantasy-escapist hero and the surprise return of Ant-Man, there’s not a lot of comic relief. (Even “Marvel movies are just too ‘fun’” skeptics, such as this one, have praised this aspect.) Endgame doesn’t let up the grief. In this “comic book” movie, we really feel the groaning of an Earth that waits with eager longing for its missing souls to return.
With this simulacrum of grief, the story mirrors reality. Sure, we know Black Panther and Spider-Man and his amazing friends are coming back. After all, these characters are already booked for eleventeen more movies. “Aha!” cry the genre skeptics—“see, it makes no sense to grieve for them because they’re not really dead.” Well, they’re not real, either, so by this reasoning it makes no sense to grieve fictional characters whether or not they’re perma-dead. Yet we do grieve, because our imaginations help us reckon even a little with beautiful and terrible realities, like death and resurrection. And here on real Earth, biblical Christians believe that our beloved friends who trusted Jesus, will be resurrected and live with Spirit-powered bodies forever (1 Cor. 15). Still we grieve. But we grieve like those who have hope.
Back in the Marvel-verse, who will deliver our heroes from the gauntlet-snap of death?
Of course, the solution ends up being purely fantastical-genre logic: time travel. (Just as some enterprising fans predicted even before Avengers: Infinity War released.) Over several fun yet serious time jumps, many of our heroes revisit a series of scenes from their own earlier stories. On the way, they lose one of their own: a heroine who won’t be coming back by miracle. But they retrieve the Infinity Stones from earlier in their time-streams, and assemble their own Iron-Infinity Gauntlet. One hero prepares to take this device upon himself and, despite his superpowers, bear the burden of this power to undo the evil.
Suddenly, fans have reached The Moment. We all leaned forward, surely not once thinking some flippant, “Duh, of course they’d reverse the snap,” but simply lost in the pending fulfillment of this promise. Yes, this moment is ultimately very small and imaginary. It likely makes little sense to those outside the fantasy. But for those who love these heroes and relationships, and long for this world restored: in that onscreen moment, it’s everything.
If a small story told at great expense by hundreds of talented creators and actors can make us feel this way for a moment, just imagine what it may feel like, at the end of all things, when we see the real resurrection of the dead. In one snap—in the twinkling of an eye—everything sad comes untrue. The dead in Christ will rise first, and we shall be changed.
In the Marvel-verse, “resurrection” happens differently. And because it’s a story, you really can’t think about it too hard—as do some fans who might revisit the story to pick at plot holes, resisting their own initial enrapturement, as if they don’t want to seem uncool or be “taken in” by the illusion. After all, five years have passed. Our heroes don’t simply roll back the timeline, like The Doctor or an alternate-future episode of Star Trek. People would have gotten remarried. Changed jobs. Moved to entirely different states. Or committed suicide in their grief, or died in the related carnage after the Rapture-like Decimation event.
All those potential plot holes actually serve the viewer. They remind us that yes, this is a story, and no matter how well-made, it can’t ultimately fulfill its own “promises.” Not only do your own beloved relatives not return—well, even some favorite heroes stay dead too.
But when poor grieving Clint Barton hears his phone ring and sees whose picture appears on the screen? Well, you would be a hardened soul indeed if you don’t shed a tear, or at least want to weep. The illusion works. That one hour/five years of longing made the happy turn all the happier. Maybe the suffering will prove—for our heroes, and for us—worth the wait.
Kaboom! Alas, fire rains down from the heavens and threatens to undo the fantasy-resurrection. The story’s joy doesn’t last. Bad things happen to superheroes who meddle with time, Harry! Ignore the time-paradox, but Thanos from an earlier year has hitched a ride to the present day. He’ll grab a cheat—the collected Infinity Stones—and do the snap all over again. Only this time, this less-enlightened, rageful Thanos will make it even worse.
So begins one of the most fantastical, epic-effected apocalypses ever put to screen:
A great valley, leveled by an earthquake and falling hailstones.
Our heroes, barely surviving, crawling out of the rubble for one last great stand.
Our enemy, the beast, thrown down to Earth, uttering blasphemies, slandering goodness.
Eventually we get to see armies of hellish legions, armies of the righteous saints, a flying glowing angel, and a mighty warrior riding a white horse and everything.
Even in a fantasy film, we need these high stakes, especially the stake of death, to weigh down this story-world. We ourselves groan under such weight. Sure, if we pressed this too far, we might end up violating that command of “thou shalt not read too many biblical parallels into movies or else thou shalt be subject to tomfoolish mockery by The Babylon Bee et al.” But let’s deny that this is some interpretive stretch. Endgame’s visual parallels are just too close to Revelation 19,and often go further past other book of Revelation–inspired final-battle motifs in other fantastical fiction. This includes The Lord of the Rings series, and even the first two Chronicles of Narnia films (which were also scripted by Endgame writers Markus and McFeely). When Dr. Stephen Strange and other wizards finally arrive, spinning magical portals to allow “resurrected” heroes to return as if from the grave and enjoin the battle, well, they may as well throw up a sign that says, “Then I saw heaven opened . . .” (Rev. 19:11). Yes, this is a full-on superheroic eucatastrophe, as described by fantasy godfather J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote about fantasy (or “fairy-stories”):
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
Our eucatastrophe continues as one of our heroes takes up the gauntlet and, ignoring his own weakness, readies for the ultimate sacrifice. This hero reverses the curse. Suddenly it’s Thanos and his “children” who are turned to ashes and dust. One evildoer, like Peter Parker in the last film, witnesses his oncoming doom and stumbles toward Thanos with arms outstretched before he crumbles away. Staring in shock, this devil sees all his plans reduced to nothing, before he joins in evil’s fate. Rightly, we feel no sympathy. We feel only a good and fitting sense that this is justice. This is not just our heroes, but the story itself, avenging.
Here the eucatastrophe can’t continue. Because of the story’s and creators’ own limits, and the need to finish one early hero’s journey, the happy ending is partly undone. Like any manmade story, it can’t fulfill this “promise” (and shouldn’t have to). Many of our heroes may have returned from death. But others have not returned and won’t return. Sure, they might star in prequel films or spinoff streaming stories. Yet for their friends, in-universe, they’re gone forever, and no reverse-snap will bring them back through a magical portal.
Even in a fantasy film, we need these high stakes, especially the stake of death, to weigh down this story-world. We ourselves groan under such weight. Naturally, we can’t imagine or create any kind of story without this further delay of final fulfillment. Nor could we ever create any story with an ultimately satisfying happy ending—a story that ties together all loose timelines, leaves no plot holes, and gives us that sense of perfect justice and closure.
However, our ultimate Author will do this. He created and dwells outside time. And sure, let’s go here: he is himself the only final avenger (Romans 12:19). He has promised us,
“Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.”
For the LORD will vindicate his people
and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
and there is none remaining, bond or free.
In our real world of villains and tyrants, we can thank God for pictures of heroes who fight their own flaws, stand together against evil, and manage to avenge the innocent. We can discern and enjoy these stories of eucatastrophe that train our hearts to long for an even more epic grand finale for reality. Let’s not lose those emotions and hopes, until the day when our Avenger returns, the one called “Faithful and True,” who “judges and makes war” in righteousness (Rev. 19:11). In that day there will be no escape for tyrants, no alternate timelines, and no partial resurrections. And in that day, I’m pretty sure we may still enjoy the very fantasy apocalypses God may have used to help us groan and long for our deliverance.
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