On the drive to the big city to watch Avengers: Endgame in a 3D movie theatre, the 12- and 13-year-olds in the back seat said they’d heard the movie was “sad.”
I’d expected “epic” or “cool,” but not “sad.”
One asked for Kleenexes when we walked into the theatre, to be prepared.
I watched the (epic, cool) movie, waiting for the “sad” part. The dad beside me choked up at the opening scene. The teenager used all his Kleenex. Near the end, I got a bit wet-eyed.
Post-movie, I thought it through. I wanted to figure out what was different about this sci-fi fantasy action flick that made it “sad.” There were the usual battle scenes, one-on-one fights and, yes, deaths. But isn’t that just part of any sci-fi fantasy action film?
Avengers: Infinity Wars
I won’t give away any spoilers for Endgame, but just so we’re all on the same page here I’m going to summarize the end of Avengers: Infinity Wars.
At the end of Infinity Wars, half of the universe’s population dies when a bad guy named Thanos snaps his fingers. It’s not gory or anything: they just turn into dust, crumble and blow away. Who dies is an arbitrary half of all living things: men, women and children, birds, fish and animals, hero protagonists, evildoers and civilians.
The follow-up movie, Endgame, opens as this half-genocide is taking effect on Earth. Half the population abruptly ceases to exist. The movie then moves us ahead to five years in the future.
Sure, mass genocide is a “sad” premise, but the movie really is your classic superhero action blockbuster. Aren’t we all used to people dying in movies? The Lord of the Rings battle scenes where thousands are slaughtered. Entire planets (and civilizations) being blasted out of existence in Star Wars. Beloved heroes gasping their last words.
I’ve watched all 264 episodes of Murder, She Wrote and the bereaved bounce back surprisingly quickly every time. On the screen, death is just a plot device.
So … why is Endgame sad?
Endgame is to grief as The Matrix is to philosophy
I realized that Avengers: Endgame is actually a study in grief. And, because the script explores and portrays grief in so many ways so very accurately, the deaths and the stories of the bereaved touch the audience in a completely different way and on a much larger emotional scale than any other Hollywood movie I’ve seen.
Back in the olden days of 1999, I watched The Matrix in a movie theatre with a bunch of friends. We’d literally just finished writing the final exam for Philosophy 100, and throughout the movie we’d whisper with glee: “Brain in a vat!” “Plato’s cave!” as we recognized basic philosophical concepts in the movie.
Watching Endgame felt the same. I’ve experienced grief, I’ve read about and explored grief for the past four years, and here was a movie that showed me all the lessons I’ve learned, sometimes word-for-word.
Lessons in Grief
Reactions to Loss
My favourite book on terminal illness and death, Maggie Callanan’s Final Journeys, talks about grief and all the different ways it manifests, including anger, denial, depression, acceptance and bargaining.
Endgame gives us characters who exemplify all of these emotions, as the survivors react to losing their loved ones. We have the despairing hero who transforms into a mad dog vigilante. We have those with hope (which sometimes looks like denial), and those without hope, who are struggling to find meaning after loss. There are support groups. Crying on a blind date is normal, in a world where millions grieve the loss of their spouses.
Giving Permission to Die
I’m sure that at least one of Endgame‘s scriptwriters has lived through grief, or researched it. Two scenes in particular wowed me for their word-perfect accuracy, because that scriptwriter understood the need to give permission:
In one scene, when a character knows they will die, they say: “Let me go.”
In another scene, when someone comforts their dying loved one, they say: “We’ll be fine. You can rest.” (That was the scene that made me weepy. I repeated similar words to my husband over and over again in his final four days of life.)
Giving permission is a hard thing to do. It took me a long time to be able to say those words to Brock, and when I could finally say them, I still didn’t mean them. But giving permission is a normal part of the dying process, and sometimes the dying person waits (and suffers, in pain or discomfort) until they get that permission before they’ll let go.
Why does it matter, that Endgame has depicted grief so well?
- It’s hard to talk about death and grief, so people don’t. But it’s an important conversation to have. Endgame’s superhero action storyline is the spoonful of sugar to make this conversation palatable.
- It’s healthy for us to see our realities and emotions reflected in movies and other media forms: it’s cathartic. Endgame lures us to the theatre with the promise of a fantastical escape, then delivers three hours of grief therapy. For some of us in the audience, it gives us what we need. (It wouldn’t surprise me if some audience members walk out, because they wanted temporary escape from their grief and feel blindsided.)
- This movie makes pre-teens weep in public. It makes it okay to respond to sadness and cry. These same pre-teens slaughter video game characters every day without blinking, and maybe this movie will re-civilize them somewhat. Maybe my young nephew will kinda sorta understand what it was like for me to lose my husband to cancer, because he saw Endgame.
Just as The Matrix made ontology and existentialism accessible concepts, maybe Avengers: Endgame will inspire mainstream conversations around death and grief.
Maybe it will raise the bar for future Hollywood movies and challenge them to depict the bereaved more accurately.
Maybe this movie about people with super-human powers, facing evil, alien forces, will help re-humanize us.