Here’s a low-key but heartwarming production-side spoiler for Avengers: Endgame: the original Avengers actors literally sign off, one by one, in the credits. Part of what makes that so remarkable is that it feels entirely justified. These characters aren’t just famous anymore. They’re iconic. And that’s not only because they’ve reigned at the box office for over a decade. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, and Hulk have become cultural standards in one of the most stunning and rapid tales of American myth-making in recent memory.
America makes myths for all kinds of reasons. For political campaigns, stories are woven around candidates by and against each side. Narratives around sports teams and important games arise cyclically with the Superbowl and World Series. To justify conquest, genocide, and European expansion in the Old West. Shared cultural narratives are grounding; they help create identity. Who are you relative to the top sports teams or jostling political candidates? What’s your stake? Do you have one? We organize the world in stories, and stories that rile up millions of tellers become the reality we live in.
So in this story, Cardi B makes a “Wakanda Forever” salute on the Grammy stage. Over a billion dollars flow into Endgame tickets in a single weekend. Chris Evans, seemingly naturally, enters political arenas. Comic book shops enforce bans on customers who talk about Endgame in the store. I look out my office window and I can see the edge of the massive rendition of Captain America’s shield draped over the MIT dome.
That’s the nature of a phenomenon: it’s everywhere. It’s a story we’ve made sacred. Even if you’ve never seen one of the movies, you’re part of the world where this story is happening.
What makes Endgame so momentous and so effective? Quality-wise, it’s an excellently managed and well-told movie. The actors bring their character performances to the table in a big way. Where the scale of the franchise seems built to fizzle out or fail like the ongoing Harry Potter or Pirates of the Caribbean movies (yes, those are still happening), Avengers sticks the landing. And I believe that’s because it paid attention to its story—not only the narrative notes, but the stunning energy of fans.
Endgame manages an unfathomably large and detailed level of plot with such tightly-stitched grace that I was reminded of one of those novels like Orlando or Giovanni’s Room, master-texts where I have the tense and wonderful sense that every word is on the page exactly where it should be. While Endgame is a superhero movie and its “low-culture” associations make these “high-culture” comparisons feel ridiculous—the narrative principle is the same.
Superheroes have always been mythical at their roots. They embody concepts, ideals, and fears—very much like a pantheon of gods. Superman and Spiderman and Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have decades of interlocking, sometimes contradictory storylines specific to them. They exist for different generations in different formats and mediums. They transform with the times. (See: the Wonder Woman poster I purchased right around the 2016 election.)
This is a moment of frantic and concentrated myth making. Audiences eager to acclaim rejuvenated symbols. A search for cosmic victory. A billion dollars in ticket sales to escapism. Call it what you’d like. We, the movie-going masses, are crazed for a story to adhere to. Thirty years ago superheroes were silly, frivolous. Now they’re a story that matters.
As Twitter so aptly points out, we’re going to get to tell our grandchildren we lived through the golden age of Marvel movies. I mean…they’ll probably respond by asking why we didn’t do anything about climate change, but hey.