SPOILER ALERT: Do not read any further if you do not want Avengers: Endgame to be ruined for you!
Parenthood changes you.
Numerous friends offered me this sentiment after my wife and I announced her pregnancy last year. They mentioned the obvious changes like the family budget, sleep routines, and travel flexibility. But the one that seemed odd to me at the time was the emotional impact of art. I would watch movies differently, they said. Read books differently. Hear music differently. When my daughter arrived in October, I never would have guessed her presence in my life would result in my choking back tears during a superhero movie only six months later.
For the last eleven years, I have closely followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, also known as the MCU. Beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, the now twenty-two-film behemoth has taken up a permanent residence among my affections. With the release of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU capped off a climactic crescendo for the original six Avengers, most notably that of Tony Stark. The decade-long build to Endgame smashed every box office record, produced iconic moments now cemented into film history, and crafted one of the best cinematic character transformations in Tony Stark. But it also built a family both on the screen and off.
Superhero adaptations have long been criticized for lacking substance. Rarely do viewers expect their heroes to perish before the credits roll. And that is how the MCU began. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America each enjoyed their introductions through the typical archetype for origin tales. Soon after, the team banded together in The Avengers, which introduced the Thanos storyline through Loki’s assault on New York, and again in Avengers: Age of Ultron. In each film, the heroes learned to complement each other’s strengths to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. And overcome, they did—an end we never once doubted as viewers.
Then Avengers: Infinity War arrived along with the snap heard around the world. For two and a half hours, MCU fans watched Thanos effortlessly march through the Avengers on his way to collecting all six Infinity Stones. By the end, the Mad Titan snapped many of Marvel’s beloved heroes and half of all living creatures into wispy piles of dust then sat down comfortably to watch the sun rise on the now-decimated universe. For the first time, our heroes failed and we were gutted by their loss.
And I wasn’t even a dad yet.
Aside from the sheer breadth of its worldbuilding, what sets the MCU apart from similar superhero ventures is its ability to draw viewers into the humanity of its characters. Who knew we could care so much about a sentient tree whose vocabulary consists of only three words? Our heroes carried responsibilities that took the form of nations, companies, and homework. All of these came to the fore in Endgame, but the development that struck me most was that of fatherhood.
The film begins with a harrowing scene I expected all along and still found myself unprepared for. Clint Barton, under house arrest for his role in breaking the Sokovia Accords, practices archery with his daughter as his wife and sons prepare lunch. He turns his back to retrieve an arrow when it happens. Distant thunder. Dust. Silence. His family, gone. It is one thing to witness the snap’s effect on those who had a fighting chance, but when it decimates innocents—a family, no less—it becomes all the more menacing.
Less than twenty minutes later, Scott Lang, fresh out of the quantum realm and completely oblivious to the events of Infinity War learns that he has been missing for five years. Frantically, he races home searching for his daughter, Cassie, who is now a teenager. Their reunion is emotional and one of the more affecting moments of fatherhood, to say the least. But the storyline I never saw coming was that of Tony Stark.
Every great story requires a cost. And Endgame’s success depended on it. With a handful of sequels already in the works, few questioned whether the heroes Thanos dusted would find their way back to the land of the living. The real question was how it would happen. Without some sort of consequence, Infinity War would have been rendered pointless. But, as we now know, that was not the case. Only, the cost did not come by way of a large number of body bags, but through the selfless sacrifice of a beloved hero.
Eleven years ago, the MCU began with the narcissistic playboy and weapons manufacturer Tony Stark. Far from well-adjusted, Stark lived in the shadow of his father, masking his loneliness with condescending zingers and natural brilliance. After discovering his company’s contribution to the slaughter of defenseless villages in the Middle East, he scrapped its weapons manufacturing in favor of technology that would help those in need, which led to him becoming Iron Man. He appears in nine of the MCU’s films (ten if you count his cameo in The Incredible Hulk), allowing for a lengthy character arc, all of which culminated in Endgame.
Since the death of his parents, Stark unnowingly sought a family and found one in the Avengers. More specifically, he found one in Pepper Potts, his former assistant turned CEO and wife. When we meet him in Endgame, he is broken, starving to death, and shattered by grief thanks to Thanos. Once the remaining Avengers discover that Thanos has destroyed the Infinity Stones, they find themselves defeated and the plot skips forward five years. Now, not only has Stark left behind the superhero life, he has also started his own family with he, Pepper, and their five-year-old daughter, Morgan, living in quiet solitude in a lakeside cabin.
Having barely survived a fight with Thanos five years earlier, he has found his second chance and taken it without hesitation . . . until Lang arrives with a time-travel theory that lights a dramatic fuse in Stark: Will he risk a future with his family for a chance at rescuing the dusted half of the universe? A year ago, that question would not have been nearly as difficult for me to answer as a viewer. But this time around, I pictured my daughter every time Morgan appeared on screen. I resonated with Stark’s tenderness for her, a hard-fought emotional change that shows the powerful effect of a child on a parent. And I wondered what choice I would make if I found myself in his shoes.
What are we willing to risk to protect the future for those we love? What responsibility do we have to exercise whatever unique contributions we have to offer to that end? Stark is a brilliant inventor who figures out how to successfully navigate time travel, but he is also a family man. He is a hero and a husband, a fighter and a father. Choosing to rejoin the Avengers one last time meant risking it all and that is what made his ending so tragically perfect.
With a time-hopping Thanos on the verge of reclaiming the Infinity Stones and snapping away all of existence, Endgame delivers one of the most memorable moments of the MCU.
“I am Iron Man.”
It is a callback to the first film, yes, but also a redefining of the hero he has become. Eleven years ago, “Iron Man” was stardom, an iconic status catapulting Stark to even greater celebrity with a sprinkle of selflessness for good measure. In Endgame, “Iron Man” is resolute, understanding the cost of heroism and willing to embrace it. As it turns out, Stark was the one to make the sacrifice play.
I couldn’t hold back tears watching Stark in his final moments, not because a fictional superhero died, but because a man who found his second chance sacrificed it all for the sake of others, an act he alone was capable of carrying out. He found his rest. Tears streamed during his funeral as well, mourning the loss of Iron Man and celebrating the new family created in his absence—the heroes left behind to carry on the mission he began.
That, I think, is the story of the MCU: family. The Avengers made each other better than they were on their own. And those now departed urge the others on with the legacy they have left behind. For the most part, that sums up how I felt walking out of the theater. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the comic book nods and seeing Spider-Man take a joyride on a winged horse. But more than anything else, I left determined to be a better husband and father thanks to the family I gained through the MCU and the example modeled by Stark.
Morgan Stark will grow up without a father, but she’ll have a new family in a world repaired thanks to the sacrifice of her daddy. We don’t always get our happy endings. We fail to grasp what is supposed to be. But we have one another. It is hard to lose a hero, whatever form they take, but a life well-lived is one worth remembering.
After all, part of the journey is the end.