For the last decade or so, American cinema has exhibited a paradox: Though Hollywood has become more and more liberal, especially on issues of race and gender, Hollywood blockbusters have become more conservative—not just by recycling old plot points, as Star Wars has done, but also, in the case of superhero movies, by indulging a politics of reaction.
What might be called “Nolan’s enigma” began in earnest with The Dark Knight, which involved a tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist. The Dark Knight Rises took things one step further with Bane, a menacing mix of Robespierre and Ruthenberg, whose pseudo-Marxist coup unleashes all manner of mayhem upon Gotham: banishments and public hangings, street brawls and show trials, and—in a scene lifted straight out of the French revolution—the storming of Blackgate (Bastille) prison.
Not to be outdone, Marvel soon embraced its own brand of post-9/11 conservatism. In every Avengers film, Joshua Tait notes, “it really is 1938….The threats are real and the Avengers’ unilateral actions are necessary” to protect life, liberty, and democracy. Each hero thus functions as a kind of Cold Warrior, standing athwart would-be despots and authoritarians, while their enemies function as bland, unidimensional cannon-fodder, a convenient narrative pretext for blowing things up. (To be fair, the bad guys usually do possess weapons of mass destruction; this is fantasy, after all.)
By 2018, however, Marvel had ditched the neocon agitprop and gone full paleo. Black Panther—which Slate described as “the most feminist superhero movie yet”—is about the hereditary monarch of a monoracial ethno-state that keeps immigrants at bay with a high-tech border wall and faces no economic slowdown because of it. In fact, Wakanda becomes the richest country in the world without any international trade whatsoever, all while maintaining traditional religious customs and above-replacement fertility rates—a kind of black Israel. (It does eventually reconcile itself to foreign aid under T’Challa, but not to immigration.) Trouble only begins when Killmonger (a foreigner) challenges Black Panther’s claim to the throne—not because he thinks the current occupant is illegitimate, but because he wants to use Wakandan technology to launch a global, race-based revolution, with no regard for national boundaries.
Then in Avengers: Infinity War, Wakanda opens its border wall and promptly gets invaded by aliens.
So perhaps it is fitting that Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel movie to end all Marvel movies, is even more Burkean—and badass—than its predecessors, a sustained cinematic rejoinder to everything Hollywood believes. If you haven’t seen Endgame yet—or if you take comfort in the delusion that Marvel is “woke”—stop reading now.
“None of Us Can Go Back”
First and foremost, this is a film about restoration. After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe, the Avengers immediately search for a way to undo the snap—that is, to go back to the way things were. Rather than accept depopulation as an immutable fact beyond their control, earth’s mightiest heroes view it in much the same way some populist conservatives view globalization: as the product of contingent choices made by individual agents, reversible with enough wit and willpower. “I am inevitable,” Thanos declares at two points in the film—once before he is decapitated, then again before he is vaporized. It’s a not-so-subtle “eff you” to deterministic modes of thinking, made all the more pungent by the fact that the Avengers do succeed in bringing back their fallen comrades.
Well, most of them. Those who died before the snap stay dead, and Iron Man and Black Widow both end up sacrificing themselves before the credits roll. Nor do the five years between Infinity War and Endgame simply go away; they remain an indelible part of history, and, if the new Spider-Man trailer is any indication, of memory too. But all this just underlines the conservatism of Endgame. It shows that restoration need not be utopian or quixotic, that the goal isn’t to rewind so much as to rebuild—and that progress will never mean paradise, at least not in what Augustine of Hippo called “the city of man.”
Thanos, however, disagrees. For him, the city of man can become the city of god right here and now—provided, of course, that one commits genocide. As he explains to Gamora in Infinity War:
Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.
The problem, he goes on, is that “this universe is finite, its resources [are] finite…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”
Sound familiar? Thanos’s rhetoric, inspired by Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), parallels the anti-natalism of today’s environmental movement, which has begun questioning whether it is ethical to have kids when, according to the World Economic Forum, “our planet is on the brink”—of flood, of famine, and everything in between. It’s not just that people cause problems by depleting vital, life-giving resources; it’s that people as such are problems under conditions of extreme scarcity, because each individual will experience so much pain and hardship that they would be better off not being born at all. “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” For her, as for the Mad Titan, nonexistence can be a blessing.
Of course Thanos has no interest in sterilizing the universe, or in developing some trans-species form of birth control. The poor, the hungry, the diseased already exist, so the merciful thing to do is [checks notes] kill them. In this, Thanos is just one shade darker than Planned Parenthood—another magenta Moloch—whose acolytes justify abortion with strikingly similar logic: If a woman can’t give her child a comfortable life, the thinking goes—comfort as defined by elites—then maybe terminating it in utero is actually a kindness: to the child, which is saved a lifetime of suffering, and to society, which is saved a lifetime of palliative care. Abortion advocates vary in their Thanosianism, to be sure, and by my lights killing millions of fetuses is not quite as bad as killing millions of adults, if only because the latter have attachments and experiences the former lack. But even so, Endgame seems more pro-life than pro-choice, its ethical core more deontic than utilitarian. As Captain America reminds Vision in Infinity War, “We don’t trade lives.”
Restoring the fallen won’t be easy, however, for it turns out Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones; there is no longer any way to bring back Bucky or Black Panther or Spider-Man or Scarlet Witch—at least not at present.
But the stones do still exist in the past, scattered throughout various quadrants of space-time. Hence the Avengers embark on a trans-temporal heist, made possible by nascent leaps in quantum technology, and attempt to retrieve their last hope of a do-over.
It’s telling that the resources for restoration can only be found—literally—in bygone eras (1970–2014), having been expunged by a self-declared agent of progress. Sometimes, Endgame submits, our present order doesn’t have answers; sometimes, the only way through is back.
Which brings us to the most conservative thing about Endgame: its peculiar theory of time-travel.
“These Are Confusing Times”
“So Back to the Future was a bunch of bullshit?” War Machine asks at one point. Indeed, Professor Hulk explains, as were Terminator and Harry Potter. Those movies all subscribe to the “standard view” of time-travel, in which changing the past invariably changes the present. Skynet sends a cyborg back in time to assassinate John Connor’s mother, so that John Connor is never born, so that no resistance arises; Dumbledore sends Harry and Hermione back in time so that they can save Buckbeak, whom they can then use to rescue Sirius. (Back to the Future is actually inconsistent about this: some of the things Marty McFly does in the past, such as invent rock and roll, do not change the present, while other things he does, such as give his father assertiveness training, do.)
An important implication of the standard view is that time-travel creates time-loops, whereby a future event causes a past event that is itself the cause of the future event. Worried that he will be retroactively aborted, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, causing Kyle to sire Connor in the past, causing Connor to send Kyle back in the future, causing Kyle to sire Connor in the past, and so on in perpetuum.
But, according to Doc Green, “real” time-travel doesn’t work that way. Instead of changing the future or completing a loop, meddling with the past just creates a second, branching timeline, different from and parallel to the first. Thus when War Machine proposes the Avengers kill baby Thanos, Professor Hulk shakes his head. Sure, that would stop Thanos from committing democide in an alternative timeline, but nothing about their own timeline—i.e. the Avengers’ current reality—would change. The only way around this problem is to steal the infinity stones from the past (thereby creating a parallel timeline), bring them back into the present (that is, to the initial timeline, where they were destroyed by Thanos), and then, using the stones, revive everyone who died in the snap.
But there’s a catch: Removing the stones from an alternative timeline will leave its inhabitants defenseless against Dormammu and Ronan and all the other MCU villains who were previously defeated by an infinity stone—which means that undoing the snap in timeline A could cause immense destruction in timeline B, much worse than anything Thanos managed to inflict. Faced with this possibility, the Avengers agree to return each stone to its original location in spacetime once they’ve brought everyone back, thereby preventing the creation of new universes in which even more people perish.
It’s all a bit convoluted, and perhaps too convenient as well. But it’s also highly conservative, both in what it denies and affirms about the nature of human affairs. Three lessons in particular stand out.
First, the film’s theory of time-travel implies an anti-teleological concept of history. Recall that on the standard view, going back in time creates causal loops that are held together by future causation. Films like Terminator and Harry Potter thus take on an almost fatalistic quality: If a future event causes a past event that itself causes the future event, then that future event functions as a kind of preordained endpoint—a final cause—toward which history must progress. This idea shows up again and again in both Marxist and liberal cosmologies, which posit that human beings are on an inevitable path to an inevitably brighter world—a world of perfect freedom, perfect justice, perfect equality. But no Whiggish progression exists in Endgame. The future isn’t set in stone, nor does it determine the past, and anyone who claims otherwise is—pace War Machine—full of shit.
The second lesson, related to the first, is that history is contingent. Things could have been worse—more might have died without the stones than with them—and fixing one problem often creates another, of which crusading solutionists are only dimly aware. Notice how the Avengers don’t plan on returning the stones until the Ancient One alerts them to the consequences of permanent theft. Even good men, Endgame suggests, and perhaps good men especially, will rush to save the world without accounting for its full complexity, or for the unintended consequences to which presentism often leads. If Infinity War vilifies Malthus, its sequel valorizes Burke, who railed against the utopian schemes dreamt up by “sophists, economists, and calculators”—in other words, by people like Tony Stark, who create world-altering technologies with little contemplation or forethought. Each infinity stone, meanwhile, can be viewed as a kind of cosmic Chesterton’s fence, whose value is not always apparent, nor always understood.
Underlying both these lessons is a third: metaphysics matter. On one level, spacetime’s branching and fragmentary structure precludes the Terminator-style retcon proposed by War Machine and vetoed by Hulk. But more to the point, that structure generates normative constraints in addition to physical ones. Because time-theft will spawn new dimensions in which the infinity stones no longer exist—in which each cosmic fence has been torn down—returning them is an urgent moral imperative, disobeyed at tremendous cost.
The link between metaphysics and morality has a long pedigree in conservative thought. Aristotle and Acquinas, Maistre and MacIntyre, Burke and Kirk all saw politics as depending inter alia on metaphysical convictions, which not only influence behavior but give content to virtue—justifying moral norms and instantiating moral truth.
By contrast, today’s liberalism begins by bracketing all such convictions; it strives to overcome metaphysics, which it regards as the enemy of progress. But in Endgame, a metaphysical mistake almost results in multiverse-wide catastrophe, with far more people killed than saved. Had the Avengers not been set straight, their ultimate triumph would likely have been a Pyrrhic one, and the Russo brothers would have been some of the most sadistic film directors of all time—in this universe, anyway.
“Maybe I’ll Try Some of That Life Tony Was Telling Me to Get”
Yet for all its philosophical profundity, Endgame ends on a simple, human note. After returning the stones to their original position, Captain America doesn’t come back, at least not right away. Instead, he travels all the way to the 1940s—before Loki, before Thanos, before the sexual revolution—and marries his long-lost sweetheart Peggy. We last glimpse the two lovers slow-dancing in an American bungalow, jazz playing in the background: a model of bourgeois respectability that has sadly come and gone, but which, Endgame hints, might be resurrected once more.
Pretty beautiful ending if you ask me.
Feature photo by enchanted_fairy /