Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Avengers: Endgame and the Path Paved by Post-Recession
Written Review by David Carter
It’s hard to put into perspective how weird the 2010s have been for cinema. Things have so fundamentally shifted from the previous 50 years of movie-going that the landscape would look unrecognizable to almost any era of cinema. I’m not even referring to the advent of streaming or the monopolization of the theatrical experience. Though, both those things do play a part in the subject at hand. What I’m referring to is what became in vogue in the 2010s theatrically and how it all paved the way for the film Avengers: Endgame to secure its spot as the number one highest grossing film of all time. When I say “in vogue” what I mean is the types of movies that got us to leave our houses at a time where that option was steadily (and soon rapidly) becoming antiquated. The late ’00s had really solidified the internet, video games, and television (RIP books) as fully encompassing forms of entertainment that the mainstream culture could now experience on an equally communal level and individual level. The cost to benefit ratio is higher (the hours of entertainment you got per dollar spent) and all were homebody activities. Yet these things alone didn’t make the moviegoing experience and the types of movies that were played shift in a very radical way. For that, you would need to look no further than the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, and how it shaped the psyche of the movie-going audience.
Remembering the recession is kind of hard for people for a few reasons. One, it was so traumatic that like all depressing times, it becomes a little foggy after enough time has passed. Two, people’s ages and status in life play such a big part in contributing to that narrative. I for one spent almost the entirety of the recession in college (‘08-’12) so by the time I graduated, the job market had somewhat leveled out but the downside was that I was leaving college with much higher debt than someone who attended the same school in the same program just a few years earlier. For my family, who were fully in the workforce, they lost jobs and houses. Some of my younger friends (when I say younger, I mean like 4-6 years) don’t really have any connection or recollection to that period. But for working Millenials on the older side of the generational classification, they graduated college into a mountain of debt and no job prospects. Gen Y, Gen X, and Boomers lost the concept of retirement and home ownership. There was also the factor of the recession hitting right after the campaign and election of Barack Obama, the most hope-driven presidential candidate of the 21st century.
We were (well, still are) embroiled in two conflicts in the middle east and the George Bush/Dick Cheney presidency had been one of the most insidious in American history but remembered for its “incompetence” and far right jingoism. We were looking for a change and right when it looked like we got it, the economy went belly up due to all the greed and short-sightedness you could throw a stick at. From that moment forward you have the narrative of hope and Obama era optimism living in the same headspace as the wake-up call to Wall Street not having the country’s best interests at heart. Those two conflicting ideas lead to a lot of fogginess as to what ’08 to ’12/’13 felt like. It also didn’t help that this lead to the actual fog of depression and anxiety layering itself upon an incredibly vulnerable public.
So what does any of this have to do with Avengers: Endgame?
Well, the story of Avengers: Endgame, its themes, and its success are so closely tied to how the Marvel movies became such juggernauts in the first place. Now, nothing I’m going to write should be seen to discredit the truly superhuman work that went into steering a ship this size for the 11 years and change. I’m also not saying that these films aren’t good. I enjoy 90 percent of them (although I would say only like 3 or 4 of them are truly “great”) and I think only one of them would qualify as actually terrible (It’s The Incredible Hulk FYI). What my focus is, is that these films were given a runway paved by a post-recession film and media landscape that may have looked different had things not gone as badly as they had. People’s tastes in art and media tend to change depending on their level of comfort and security. It’s why films of the mid to late ’90s are so mired in the nihilism ennui about the end of the century. Artists and audiences felt like everything had been done and we were heading for a post history. So films like American Beauty, The Ice Storm, Fight Club, The Matrix, and Strange Days really hammered that feeling home. On one hand, remakes and nostalgia properties were largely frowned upon by the public. On the other hand, films were less about the future and more mired in “now what?” And people ate it up for the most part.
But when things tend to be bad people want more comfort and assurance in their cinema. Take a look at the best analog to the recession, The Great Depression. A time when lavish Busby Berkeley musicals, screwball comedies and star-studded romps like The Grand Hotel ruled at the box office. Screwball comedies came along and poked fun at the upper class but also luxuriated in their extravagance. It was pure escapism. Sure, there were films about anti-heroes and crooks (Little Caesar, Scarface, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang) and Universal Studios monster pictures had arisen, but people were really connecting to anything that featured some love, some laughs, and a healthy dose of spectacle. The recession wasn’t any different. Except the anti-heroes weren’t hitting big on the bigger screen, they broke big on the small screen (Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad) but spectacle still needed a large canvas to flex its muscles.
As the ’00s became the ’10s adaptations of high concept YA novels featuring forefront romances or romance subplots would end up being big business while the feuding fans would debate who should end up with the protagonist. CGI animation really hit its stride during the recession and Pixar and Dreamworks where no longer the only two studios grappling for the all ages’ laughs. James Cameron’s Avatar, however, really feels like the definitive piece of recession-era cinema. A film that touts an oft-told and recycled narrative about environmental awareness, and a white savior insinuating himself into a native culture fighting colonialism, all as a trojan horse for what is truly a feat of world-building and technology. In 2009 people needed a break from reality and dropping 15-20 bucks on a ticket to visit a decidedly more exciting, more worry-free, and a more black-and-white world than our own was a salve for a lot of struggling people. It’s why people came out feeling depressed and wistful, it’s also why the film became the highest grossing movie of all time for a decade. People just kept coming back. That hunger for an ideal world was also being satiated by Marvel Studios at the time, who were making films about idealized versions of flawed people and flawed worlds.
Iron Man was a war profiteer who decides to become a crime-fighting technocrat. Captain America should be the poster child for imperialism but instead is a progressive idealist. Thor is a narcissistic pretty boy whose inadvertent arc in these movies is to both prove his worthiness to the throne and to lighten up (I don’t think Thor becoming a funnier character as these films went along was the plan from the outset but it works out nicely). They’re all flawed and struggling in the worlds they are a part of, but hey, they’re likable. Coupled with Marvel’s formula to make characters and worlds seem like they’re changing in any significant way when in fact they’re changing incrementally at best, audiences can insert themselves and be guaranteed that something will feel accomplished after 2 or more hours. Marvel (and then later Disney) had already honed and created the cinema of assurance. Things may not be great in the real world, but in the MCU just enough was happening, with just enough style and competence to make audiences comfortable. No more gambling or risk-taking. The American government and stock market had done enough of that for a lifetime.
Which brings me to the movie proper. We could dig into a bunch of things about Avengers: Endgame. From its half-examined fixation with self-sacrifice to its meta-commentary on why we, the audience, actually want all these heroes around forever and ever, to its bizarre character arcs for Natasha and Bruce. But what I found to be fascinating was this story about a large group of people dealing with event-based trauma, and the movie refuses to find hope in the future or change and is instead fixated on the happy past.
The film has our heroes returning to three time periods, two of which are from this decade and both of which carry recession and Obama era optimism baggage with them. In what is one of the film’s more audacious moments, we cut to 5 years after the “snapture.” Things are rightfully grim but mobile. Life has continued on but people are bearing their psychological scars. Natasha is always on watch, Bruce has in his own special way leaned very hard into self-care and fitness, Thor has swung the opposite direction and gotten very sad and very thicc, and for some reason Steve Rodgers shaves his very good Nomad beard and Carol Danvers gets a haircut that you’re either all in for or mentally shaking your head “no” (as with most things, I’m somewhere in the middle). Honestly, all that’s missing is Nebula saying she’s taking a van to Electric Forest to see Avicii and Bass Nectar for the third time. Everyone’s depression has manifested itself in different ways, but soon we find a sliver of hope. Using Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne’s quantum van and Tony Stark’s big brain, our heroes can travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones and undo Thanos’ um…handy work.
The two most significant time periods being 2012’s The Avengers‘ “Battle of New York” and 2014’s Guardian of the Galaxy’s opening sequence and all the cosmic shenanigans associated with it (Clint and Natasha go off to the planet Vormir to play a little suicidal Spy vs Spy). With these two periods I had two thoughts cross my mind:
- This is a greatest hits movie and The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy certainly place at the top of many people’s MCU rankings. Hell, they even remix a sequence in the 2012 Avengers’ scene from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
- Both of these years are landmarks in post-recession America.
2012 was Obama’s re-election year, a year where people wanted to see what else this guy could do after pulling America out of its tailspin (albeit somewhat imperfectly). 2014 was probably the peak of that optimism. Conversations about police brutality were finally getting their due from the Commander in Chief, loan forgiveness and free college had come into the conversation, and the unemployment rate was significantly down. I think these years hold a special place in the psyche of progressive America. It’s right before the circus of the 2016 election begins in 2015, it’s right before the Men’s Rights Activists and Alt-Right drums start banging louder and louder and “the discourse” isn’t something that can be engaged in civilly. This isn’t to say that Marvel and Disney are just pandering to left-leaning America (I mean, just look at the circumstances around James Guns firing) or that they don’t want everyone on the planet’s dollars in their pockets (money knows no political allegiance), but the world they had been building since 2008 was visibly closer to the hope and progress of the Obama era than the fascism and right-wing narrative of the Bush era like Christopher Nolan toyed with in his Batman trilogy.
So, seeing our heroes literally escape into the past (what some may consider “simpler and better times”) after dealing with 5 years of trauma really hit home for me. Avengers: Endgame, however intentionally, made the MCU’s subtext into text. Things are bad, escape into our films they present a simpler more likable version of the world, with flawed people enacting great change.
Now 11 years after Tony Stark promised “peace in our time,” the cinema of assurance is what dominates the theatrical experience. Event-based movies that cater to a (rightfully) world-weary audience are pretty much the only things that get people out of their house and away from the internet. The mini-majors releasing diverse and challenging films like A24, Blumhouse and Annapurna have seen success but nothing quite like the returns a small movie from 10 or 20 years ago may have expected (when a movie could be made for 20 million and expect to make nearly 5 to 10 times its budget). At the time of this writing Avengers: Endgame sits just under Avatar as the number 2 highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation) and if they decide to re-release it a few months or years down the line it could overtake James Cameron’s film but there’s something so poetic about these films bookending a decade of political turmoil and financial instability. Both films do have these very hopeful and rallying narratives about standing up to destructive and single-minded authority figures but in the endgame, they both ended up being movies about escaping into something simpler, happier and assured. If that doesn’t sum up the late 2010’s, I don’t know what does.