What links Marvel’s blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and Shakespeare’s Richard II? Jessica Lim reflects on destiny, “last words” and the pervasiveness of death talk in popular culture.
We have a cultural obsession with last words. It is reasonably commonplace to meet a person who can recall Oscar Wilde’s (ostensible) last words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do,” and celebrate them as an embodiment of Wilde’s great wit. Although General John Sedgwick is a less-known figure, Wikipedia’s page on Last Words (as of May 21st 2019) has helped popularise the irony of his miscalculated last words: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” This sort of dark humour makes us want to laugh at the folly of individuals who believe, somehow, in their immortality, or their protection from a mundane death. At the same time, we hold a profound sense, as expressed by John Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II, that a person’s last words can or should capture the sum of a person’s life. This has led to literary texts providing individuals with poignant (or pathetic) last words that they may not have had time to utter in real life. Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s alleged last words, “Don’t let it end like this Tell them I said something important” cannot be verified, yet that sentiment of feeling the weight of the expectation of meaningful final words is immortalised in the 1934 film, Viva Villa!. Indeed, sociologist Karl S. Guthke has written an entire book about our cultural preoccupation with last words, suggesting that encoded in our interest in granting people last words and memorialising them is our desire to find completion and a sense of immortality.
It’s funny, seeking a sense of completion. We want it in our individual lives. We want it in the culture we consume. It so happens that at this point in time, a series of hit pop cultural shows and series have come (or are coming) to the end of a cycle. Some, like Game of Thrones, have generated much disappointment. We have yet to see what happens with the X-Men franchise and Dark Phoenix. But the first of the big ‘final’ cultural products we’ve spent over a month with is Avengers: Endgame, the MCU’s twenty-second film over an eleven year time period. A cultural game-changer, Avengers: Endgame has smashed several box office records and is proof of how vibrant the superhero franchise is. Which is, in some ways, ironic, as Avengers: Endgame is a film rife with deaths and last words.
We knew this from the first official trailer, which includes material that didn’t make it to the final cut. We hear Tony Stark recording a post-battle message for Pepper: “It seems like a thousand years ago I fought my way out of that cave, became Iron Man. Realised I loved you. I know I said no more surprises, but I was really hoping to pull off one last one” –a reflection of his character arc; a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of death; a move to indicate that the acknowledgement of personal relationships at the end of one’s life means more than personal achievement. We see an image of Tony adrift in space. Is this how one of the original Avengers will die, the trailer wants us to ask. Could this ever be a good death for Tony Stark.
This short series examines the last words and attitudes to death expressed by three key characters in Avengers: Endgame. It will brim with spoilers. You have been warned.
Part One: a ‘good death’ and destiny?
Avengers: Endgame is staged in three acts, the first of which opens in the immediate aftermath of Avengers: Infinity War. The reassembled Avengers (or those that remain of them) seek Thanos to make him reverse the Snap, bringing millions of beings back into existence. They head on a mission to kill Thanos. Yet the first time we the viewer see Thanos, he seems far from a villain: he is tired, living a quiet, peaceful, rustic life. Breaking the quiet, the Avengers blast in, pinning Thanos against a wall, brutally hacking off his hand to get to the gauntlet. He is a character who believes in fate, in destiny, in purpose, and he reveals this to the Avengers, telling them he last used the Infinity Stones⎯to destroy the Infinity Stones. Thanos’s declaration is met with disbelief, but Nebula faintly affirms that he must be speaking the truth: “My father is many things. A liar is not one of them.”
Here Thanos utters the first of his final words: “Ah, thank you, daughter. Perhaps I treated you too harshly.”
It is a moment of painful irony. Nebula finally hears the words she has fought so hard to hear from her father: affirmation of her identity, affirmation that he holds some affection for her; affirmation that in some sense, he is proud of her ⎯ just when she has let go of the need for that affirmation as the driving force in her life.
Thor, unable to deal with the extent of his failure to prevent this irreversible personal and cultural loss, goes for Thanos’s head. The horror of the suddenness of this act; the thud; the way the camera cuts to Nebula’s stunned and pained expression, encapsulate Thanos’s tragedy: he is a cruel yet consistent character, driven by a Malthusian vision of population control and justice, capable of deep emotion and loss. It is far from a redemptive end for Thanos (and the start of a spiral for Thor), but there is something about his words that demonstrate the consistency of his character, and the moral and emotional ambiguity of the line between villain and hero. Indeed, during the time heist, 2014 Thanos witnesses the death of his 2019 self and proclaims, “And that is destiny”, choosing to embrace this vision when 2014 Thanos travels into 2019, where his last words are: “I am inevitable.”
In some ways, Thanos dies what we might call a very good death. He dies doing what he believes is right; when he sees how he will die, he accepts his death with quietude and courage. His second death in Endgame is, of course, a moment of hubris: as the music swells until he snaps his fingers, and nothing happens, we know that Thanos thinks he is about to inaugurate his new vision⎯decimating the world to create a new, harmonious universe, hiding its background of bloodshed. (Not too dissimilar from what happened in Asgard, if we are to be honest.)
Yet Thanos is, indubitably, the villain of Avengers: Endgame. His character, much like a certain character in Game of Thrones, is presented as a tyrant whose sense of destiny and vision of the future enables them to justify and indulge in massacres and a violation of life.
In some ways, Avengers: Endgame stands as a bold and loud rejection of one of the ideas we have about a ‘good death’: that it is linked to a purposiveness with which we have approached life, and involves making peace with our own mortality. So what other visions of life and death does it present?
Part Two: friendship and sacrifice
In the second act of the film, centred on the time heist in which the Avengers seek to re-acquire the infinity stones to undo Thanos’s snap, we hear a second set of last words⎯Natasha Romanoff’s.
In many ways, Natasha’s is the death I am personally the most peeved by: although she is an original Avenger who has been in many films, she has only ever been a supporting act. But in the context of Endgame, and in the context of paralleling scenes on Vormir, what matters is that her self-sacrificial death is performed out of an abiding sense of friendship and a deep sense of duty and debt.
When Natasha and Clint travel to Vormir to collect the soul stone, their fight to ensure the other survives is a clear contrast to Thanos and Gamora’s interactions in Avengers: Infinity War. Clint feels that he deserves to die in lieu of the murderous, vengeful life he adopted when his family was Snapped out of existence⎯a vengeful life fuelled by an odd sort of justice. Natasha feels she has never fully atoned for her life before SHIELD. We are reminded of this multiple times: the opening credits remind us of her lines, “I’ve got red on my ledger” and after 2019-Thanos’s murder we see her trying to hold together a universe of accountability. “I had nothing,” she tells us and Cap, “Then I got this job. This family.”
Out of that family, one of the characters she has been consistently close with is Clint, in a friendship that is continually teased to viewers but the history of which remains off screen. But we know, as Clint and Natasha fight to keep the other alive while being determined that one of them must die in order for the other to acquire the Soul Stone, that Clint chose to offer Natasha life and redemption while she was still an assassin with no close relationships: no family.
It is this emphasis on family and friendship that fundamentally distinguishes Natasha’s death from 2014-Thanos’s acceptance of 2019-Thanos’s death. In some ways, both view their respective deaths with some similarities: “whatever it takes,” Natasha says, and, “that is destiny,” Thanos says. Both express fearlessness and an acceptance that their deaths are worth it, for a grander picture⎯for Natasha, she believes her death is a reasonable price to pay to bring back millions of people who simply disappeared from existence; for Thanos, he acknowledges that his death was a reasonable exchange for bringing balance to an ostensibly grateful universe.
But the similarities end there. At Vormir, in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos, with tears in his eyes, threw his daughter to her death. At Vormir, in Avengers: Endgame, both Clint and Natasha dangle from the cliff; Clint attached by a cable, Natasha clasping Clint’s hand. “Let me go,” she whispers, and we see Clint’s struggle to let his friend plummet to her death as he reaches for her with his other hand; realises he needs to hold onto the cable in order at least one of them to survive. “It’s ok,” she says, and kicks herself off the cliff face.
What separates Natasha’s death from Thanos’s is ultimately the other-person centredness of her vision of her life and death as a social act. Her final words are not about herself, but instead seek to comfort her friend in his guilt and his grief. Hers is a sacrificial death driven by a sense of purpose, but what makes it ‘good’ rather than ambivalent in the MCU is the way in which family, ultimately, drives her choices and shape her death.
Part Three: Tony Stark bows out
Tony Stark gets the most ‘final words’ of any character in the MCU. We saw him recording his potential final words to Pepper in the first five minutes of the film. He gets a set of ‘final words’ as he, not Thanos, obtains the Infinity Stones: “I am Iron Man.” He gets his real final words in a very quiet moment with his wife – “Hey, Pep.” And he gets his last final words in the film in his pre-recorded message to the world, to his family, played during his funeral. What all these messages and words show is that Tony Stark is a man who knows he is going to die; who is prepared for death; who is prepared for the impact his death may have on the world and, more specifically, for his family; and it is this individual, global, and familial awareness that make Tony Stark’s exit from the MCU so touching and poignant.
Ultimately, Tony’s final last words are his pre-recorded funeral message, where he wryly acknowledges his untimely death: “Not that any death is ever timely.” It is a funeral message clearly recorded to be heard by others, too, but at the end of his message, he echoes his daughter’s recent goodnight to him, encoding a private, personal message of love to his wife and daughter. By placing Tony’s pre-recorded message at the very end of the film, Avengers: Endgame implies that it is possible to make an untimely death meaningful and profound when individuals love are capable of selfless love and selfless acts.
The MCU is built on sacrifice and loss: in the comics (and two of the more recent films) Peter Parker becomes Spiderman when Uncle Ben dies. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve sacrifices his life, and his happiness with Peggy, in order to prevent Red Skull from bombing New York. In Agents of SHIELD, we see similarly styled sacrifices. In Avengers: Endgame, we see Tony acknowledge the untimeliness of death, especially his own, by affirming his personal identity, his corporate responsibility encoded in his persona as Iron Man, and his sense of self expressed in his love for his wife and daughter.
Posted: 22nd July 2019Categories: Reflections