In the 1991 Marvel Comics crossover miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet, the villain Thanos, having obtained godlike power, snaps his fingers and kills half of all living things in the universe. In a multi-page sequence, various superheroes watch as the people around them simply wink out of existence. Last year’s film Avengers: Infinity War, which takes heavy inspiration from that comic, climaxes with a similar moment, though there’s one notable distinction: Rather than fade away, the characters killed by Thanos’s snap turn to dust and disintegrate. It’s a messier, more visceral, deeply disturbing image — and not just on its own, but for how it recalls pictures of the September 11 attacks, in which people fleeing clouds of smoke and ash were a frequent visual.
As far as I can tell, this wasn’t an intentional reference on the part of the directors, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. They’ve said nothing about 9/11 references in any interview to date. It’s possible this subtext is purely unintentional, put in only unconsciously. American blockbuster filmmaking in general, and superhero films in particular, have tied themselves inextricably to the cultural memory of 9/11. You see it in everything from Man of Steel‘s final battle to the 2005 War of the Worlds, in which invaders launch a surprise attack on New York and directly blast people into ash, prefiguring Infinity War‘s use of the visual.
This year sees the Russos’ direct follow-up to Infinity War, the recently released Avengers: Endgame, which features the surviving superheroes working to undo Thanos’s omnicide. Mind you, they are not merely trying to live up to their team’s name and avenge the lost, but to reverse the end of Infinity War and bring back everyone turned to dust. This film is not just the culmination of 11 years of storytelling within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but also of Hollywood using action films to reenact 9/11. We have progressed beyond superheroes stopping 9/11-like events to them literally fixing history.
Warning: Spoilers follow for Avengers: Endgame.
Endgame’s parallels to 9/11 are stronger than its predecessor’s dust motif. The movie’s prologue sees the Avengers go after Thanos, in an operation strongly reminiscent of the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. No audience member will buy that things can be resolved so quickly and easily, and sure enough, Thanos is now a pushover, having drastically weakened himself in destroying the Infinity Stones, the objects which gave him his omnipotence. By doing so, he’s ensured that his snap can’t be reversed. The heroes kill him, but it’s an empty, unsatisfying gesture. This sequence actively denies usual comic book logic — no, the dead cannot be brought back just like that. In the same way the death of bin Laden didn’t do anything to stop the parade of senseless violence kicked off by 9/11, killing the bad guy doesn’t solve anything.
The story then jumps forward in time five years, and this subtext grows even stronger. To depict a post-catastrophe world, the movie utilizes multiple post-9/11 touchstones. Disused ships docked around Liberty Island recall photos of planes grounded en masse. More obviously, we see reams of missing persons posters, one of the most haunting things from the aftermath of the attacks. It’s against this backdrop that the first hour or so of the movie takes place. Characters repeatedly speak of their inability to move past what happened five years earlier, both in casual conversation and in support group settings. They are stuck, both figuratively and physically. They still long for a way to bring back everyone who’s died, and the world barely seems to have been cleaned up at all since half the population was eradicated. While the debris from the 9/11 attacks was cleared away years ago, we’re similarly trapped in the senseless wars the West launched against nebulous enemies in their wake. The specifics are drastically different, but the emotional landscape is the same.
The difference, of course, is that in Endgame, a way to undo the disaster actually emerges in the form of a convoluted time travel scheme. Repeatedly, superhero movies have had 9/11-looking destruction thwarted by their protagonists, using fantasy to offer cathartic solutions to problems we can’t solve in our own world. What follows is a plot-heavy, nostalgic homage to the MCU, one dedicated fully to indulging fans of the films. It culminates in the kind of large-scale action I didn’t used to think was possible when I was reading comics as a kid, with imagery straight out of George Pérez panels (though without his flair for composition). In the end, the characters dusted by Thanos’s snap do, indeed, return.
In the wake of Infinity War, I wondered whether there was any narratively and emotionally satisfying way to walk back its ending. That’s still an open question. Endgame is certainly fun, assuming you can roll with this style of adventure, but that isn’t the same as being satisfying. The mass resurrection of the dead ends up being deployed in service of the old trope of new troops arriving to reinforce the good guys in a time of need during battle. Emotional reunions are mostly limited to characters greeting each other in the heat of fighting. Where their sudden departures were shown in an eerie, upsetting sequence, their return is muted by the mundane needs of the plot.
Endgame suffers from the MCU’s dedication to making superhero movies as down-to-earth as possible, incorporating real-world concerns when they can. The series has run into problems with this before, like when Captain America: The Winter Soldier addressed mass surveillance and drone strikes in a way that was nearly thematically incoherent. Fundamentally, there’s a disconnect between treating the characters’ grief in a quasi-realistic manner highly reminiscent of all-too-real grief, and ultimately giving them an out (time travel) that has no analogue in reality, not even a metaphorical one. There’s a difference between healing and erasing what caused the hurt.
Superhero comics, and much of their adaptations, have long taken an outsized, soap opera-like approach to storytelling. At their best, they can take these fantastical ideas and make them emotionally resonant, even if there’s obviously no real-world phenomenon to connect them to. In some respects, Endgame pulls this off beautifully, like how the character Nebula confronts her past self through time travel, giving physical form to her personal growth. But as fun as the movie is, there’s an undeniable hollowness at its core induced by its unwillingness to follow through on certain ideas and symbols. Invoking the specter of 9/11 but then banishing that specter in this way feels like a cheat.
Avengers: Endgame is in theaters nationwide.