For those of you unaware, a small indie movie called Avengers: Endgame hit theaters this week. With its release, Marvel Studios’ 22nd movie brings to a close an 11 year story arc for some of pop culture’s most popular characters. Over the course of the years, the studio has been able to bring casual audiences a rather authentic superhero comic book experience. Being a shared universe, viewers had to watch (or at least be knowledgeable of) all the films in order to fully understand what’s going on. If your interest was solely Captain America, then you had to watch more than just the three Captain America movies for his complete story. Ditto for Iron Man, Thor, or any other character in the MCU. But with Endgame, like the Dark Knight Trilogy before it, movie audience are granted something that comic readers rarely receive: proper closure. With that, superhero movies expose the fundamental flaw of cape comics – their never ending nature.
Stan Lee famously stated that comic readers don’t really want change, but rather the illusion of change. This isn’t necessarily true, as there have been significant changes to characters over the years where were well regarded. The “legacy era” of DC throughout the 1990s was one of the decade’s bright spots, with Wally West and Kyle Rayner leading a new generation of heroes. But by and large, Stan’s words persist. You can see this today all across social media anytime a creator attempts to make the slightest change to a character’s long standing status quo. This is especially true when such a change brings the medium a step closer towards greater representation by promoting racial or gender equality, thanks to the toxic #comicsgate movement and individuals who will not be named here. Just do a search for Sam Wilson’s Captain America, or Riri Williams, or the New 52 Wally West. Then look at some pictures of cute puppies as a cleanser. Less extreme (and less toxic) examples can be found in the 10 year run on Amazing Spider-Man by writer Dan Slott.
Over the course of his run, Slott made many changes to Peter Parker’s life. Unfortunately, he also had a nasty habit of forcing the plot in spite of his characters, leading to a infamously poor characterization of Peter Parker. However, the changes he made in and of themselves were not necessarily bad. Slott’s Peter frequently shirked his responsibilities – a defiant contradiction to why the character had become so popular. Furthermore, his failings were often the result of self-sabotage, which is a blatant misunderstanding of the “Parker luck.” Slott didn’t understand that Peter’s rotten luck was a result of outside forces, not his own incompetence. Slott didn’t use his lengthy run to advance Peter as a character. There were many great ideas and concepts that were full of potential, but they were undercut by the character’s regression, because there is some baseline which Spider-Man cannot be allowed to mature past if they’re going to publish another 800 issues of his title.
Death used to be a big deal in comics. It’s the reason for Batman’s mission. It’s why Spider-Man chose the path of a hero. It’s why Barry Allen’s sacrifice was so affecting. But now, death has no teeth. This is probably best explained in Max Landis’ wonderful video about 1994’s The Death of Superman and how it broke the concept of death in comics. With Superman’s death and resurrection, the idea that these characters could meet their ultimate end lost all meaning. This was further conflated by the eventual resurrections of Barry Allen, Oliver Queen, Hal Jordan, and Damian Wayne. Don’t worry, Marvel was also guilty of this, with notable dead characters suddenly alive again such as Norman Osborn, Kraven the Hunter, Steve Rogers, and Bucky Barnes. While there are many reasons for why character deaths are reversed, the core reason is because these stories never have a true ending.
With the rise and success of superhero movies, the never-ending nature of comics has been exposed. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did not give viewers a Batman cursed to fight crime until the day he died. Instead, the tortured hero was able to find peace and ultimately walk away from the mantle. While this may have angered parts of the comicbook community, it is a satisfying end for the character both thematically and in terms of narrative. When introduced in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is overwhelmed with guilt, believing to be at fault for his parents’ deaths. Through his training, we see him channel that guilt and accompanying anger into his mission to be Gotham’s protector. Continuing into The Dark Knight, we see him struggling to cope with the cost of his mission, and in The Dark Knight Rises he is physically and psychologically beaten down. This is a man who, over the course of three movies, has not known what peace is. When we see him one last time, smiling and sipping on a drink at a cafe in Europe, viewers are given the satisfaction that Bruce Wayne can finally rest and enjoy his life. It provides closure on the Batman story which comics can never provide, because the next adventure is only a month away.
Avengers: Endgame provides similar closure, only on a much grander scale. For Tony Stark, a character who over the course of the MCU has been criticized for his ego, 1984 leanings, and unwillingness to make the sacrifice play. Yet over the course of the film series, he experiences growth as a character leading to a big payoff in Endgame’s finale. Steve Rogers undergoes a similar arc, yielding different results befitting his character. The subject of the film’s final shot, his journey from a scrappy, undersized kid with a big heart to leading the Avengers into battle against Thanos is rewarded with proper closure.
Superhero stories have and will continue to be the lifeblood of the comics medium. They will continue to evolve at a snail’s pace, providing minimal changes and ultimately reverting to some prior status quo. Unlike the movies, where for practical reasons characters must develop and change, superheroes aren’t afforded such a luxury. It’s an inherent flaw of the superhero genre – that there is no clear light at the end of the tunnel. Beloved characters such as Batman and Spider-Man exist in a perpetual state of arrested development, because that’s what the medium demands. It can be frustrating as a reader, but recognition of this as a structural defect makes it easier to digest.