At three in the morning, we are getting around to the final battle of Spiderman: Homecoming, we who are left in Theater Four, premium passes dangling from lanyards around our necks. Spiderman crashes Vulture’s plane on Coney Island Beach and the bass of an explosion rattles through our seats. In the following quiet, you can hear a man in row four snoring.
I have been awake for 19 hours straight, difficult for me but pitiful in comparison to many of my fellow audience members, who have been alert in the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater for near 38 hours. The Alamo is most popular for selling food and drink, though according to New York liquor laws, they must stop serving liquor at 4 AM. The window is closing, but no one is taking advantage of the custom cocktail menu. They wouldn’t want to risk falling asleep.
I am so tired that my eyelids have begun to sweat, which is what happens, apparently, when I do not sleep for 19 hours. I think about how we Theater Four-ers are ruining our bodies to live in the world of Marvel for a few days—what a strange type of vacation. I wonder for hundredth time: Why did I do this to myself?
* * *
When I read on Twitter that certain theaters would be hosting a marathon of all 22 Marvel movies in anticipation of Avengers: Endgame, my first thought was: That is absolutely appalling. My second thought was: I have to do it.
For reference, I had seen a grand total of four Marvel movies before committing to this experience. I have always been a nerd in the sense that I am good at school, but have escaped nerd culture in every other aspect, besides a healthy childhood history with Harry Potter. I have never seen Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. I swapped out fantasy for chick-lit early in middle school after tearing through the Warriors series, a ludicrous franchise about four clans of warring feral cats. But I was feeling reckless, after recently being asked, “When was the last time you did something spontaneous?” by a romantic interest who suggested we remain friends minutes after I failed to answer. That same person had also asked me, once, what the nerdiest thing about me was. I stalled for a while, racking my brain, then offered pitifully: “Sometimes I read philosophy for fun.”
So I’m an un-fun nerd, which is what, perhaps, irked me so much about viewing the Marvel universe in passing. My main gripe was Thor’s presence. What is a god doing amongst superheroes? Can’t Thor just defeat everyone since he’s…a god? Plus why are there aliens? Marvel seemed an unholy mixture of magic, science, and mythology. This is, undoubtedly, the appeal for some people. But for me, the logic just wasn’t there.
Additionally, I am not swayed by cinematic portrayals of explosives. The action of an action movie just doesn’t do it for me. I mean, I get it. Thor’s lightning and the Hulk’s strength and Spiderman’s shooting webs are all cool to look at, but after a while it starts to melt together. I am deeply not the target audience of a 56-hour action movie marathon, which is why I needed to understand who was. I took off work and sunk in $136, electrified by my strange little act of spontaneity.
* * *
The Alamo is housed on the fourth floor of Dekalb Market Hall, a large, modern shopping complex that’s mostly glass. I enter a half hour early and rush across the first floor (passing two children’s clothing stores named, in classic Brooklyn fashion, Torly & Tooby and Better Goods For Dope Kids: Little Giants Giant Shorties), up the three escalators that take me to my destiny.
I am hardly the first to arrive. It is one p.m. and the lower floor of the Alamo is littered with nerds. Everyone is wearing Marvel gear except for me, it seems, or they are wearing the free t-shirts that come with our ticket. On the front they read “22 Movie Marathon,” and on the back they read, “Whatever It Takes,” a quote from Avengers: Endgame and a motto for our three-day marathon. Along with the free t-shirt come a blanket, poster, Avengers-themed pint cup, baby wipes, and a hygiene kit featuring floss, toothpaste, mini toothbrush, mints, and wet wipes. It is three days in a theater, after all.
A charismatic man explains this to a camera crew. In the lush dark of the theater lobby, the camera’s light is blinding. They film me as I go up to receive my free merch, and I picture myself as the b-roll in a local news short. The camera crew moves on to a more in-depth interview with a bespectacled dad in lightwash dad jeans and his young child, who is probably nine or ten. The two look nothing alike but stand in similarly awkward positions, hands almost dipped in their pockets. I take another escalator up to Theater Four. Me and fifteen others wait outside, a diverse swath of ages, races, and genders. As far as discovering the target audience for a Marvel movie marathon, there seems no way of parsing things by tax bracket, generation, or socioeconomic group.
The doors open and I find my way to my seat. Each seat comes in a pair, with a shared table between. Soon I meet my table companion, a business casual type with a buzzcut and a full backpack. He looks like he’s in his thirties. He does not make eye contact with me when he speaks.
“Wish they’d told us we were going to get all this,” he says, gesturing toward the blanket and hygiene kit, “Or else I wouldn’t have brought this.” He unloads his heavy backpack. It takes me a second to realize he is speaking to me.
“Wow, you came prepared,” I admire. “Have you done this before?”
“Yeah, last year AMC had a thing. But that was 5 fewer movies,” he says. We revert to an uncomfortable silence.
A man who is maybe running the event appears at the front of the theater and makes a quick speech. He tells us the Alamo is one of 12 theaters asked to host a Marvel marathon by Disney, this is the longest marathon the Alamo has ever hosted, thanks for being here, and coffee is in front. The first movie will be, as everyone in the audience knows, Iron Man. “If this movie wasn’t good, you all wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” the event runner says. He thanks us again and runs away. The theater lights darken. I am not ready, but the marathon has begun.
* * *
Iron Man is a good movie.
In 2008, Marvel figured out a killer way to modernize their comic book characters for the big screen: make them funny, cast a charming Hollywood man to play them, and add a little rock music to their fight scenes. These tactics might seem obvious now, but they were revolutionary in 2008. I remember being floored by Iron Man as a child, loving it so much that I watched an illegal version online with foreign subtitles only hours after viewing it in theaters. My favorite moment is still when the Ten Rings’ camp engulfs in flames, and you aren’t sure if Tony Stark is still alive until he soars out of the fire in his iron suit, a guitar riff bursting in the background.
Iron Man is not technically the leader of the Avengers, the team of superheroes that ties the Marvel worlds together, but he is the corporate fave: he was first, his movies have made the most money (apart from the Avengers movies), and his origin story embodies an easy, humanist ethos—that man can become superhuman using only his smarts and hunks of iron. Tony Stark is a genius, and that is what makes him powerful. Whereas (almost) every other superhero gains their powers by means out of their control (Thor is born a God, Hulk is a botched science experiment, Black Panther wins a ceremonial fight and ingests a powerful plant), Tony Stark enters a cave a prisoner and emerges as Iron Man through sheer brainpower.
The exception to this is Dr. Strange, who grants himself powers through careful study—and the power of a mystical cloak and Infinity Stone necklace. Tony Stark, however, is all brain. Plus he’s a legendary playboy and billionaire businessman, so it’s easy to imagine how a young nerd can look at Tony Stark and see an aspirational version of himself. He just makes sense as the lead of this incarnation of the Avengers franchise, despite the comic’s designation of Captain America, a problem Marvel solves by assigning them a tentative, unspoken co-leadership.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is informed by a precarious combination of comic book legend, celebrity whim, corporate interest and directorial vision, which, in total, feels messy and luxurious with myth. The logic that strings between the movies is hazy, re: how the universes are connected, what the timeline is, what actor replaced which character, who hates who in the movie, who hates who in real life, etc., though the movies generally feel polished and complete on their own, proper Hollywood stuff. The more the movies connect, the more they expose the warring interests competing to get them made, or, the less everything makes sense at the expense of giving celebrities, directors, and self-mythologizing of the universe screen time. However, the more the movies connect, the more money they gross, so clearly I am the wrong person to ask about how to make a Marvel classic. My favorite superhero movies are usually the origins, as I find they have the most coherent and satisfying storylines.
In 2008, audiences were ready for Robert Downey Jr. to make a comeback. In Iron Man, he works his magic easily over some very 2008 jokes. Iron Man is pre-iPhone, pre-recession. It features a pre-Goop Gwyneth Paltrow. Terrence Howard, before he gets replaced by Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. Iron Man ends like the very beginning of a long story, with Tony Stark cheekily revealing to the public, “I am… Iron Man.”
* * *
Movie number two is the biggest flop in the Marvel franchise: The Incredible Hulk, featuring Edward Norton. The whole thing takes place years after his accident, which unfolds in hazy flashbacks that jerk the viewer from the sad affair of Bruce Banner’s life. The Hulk’s superpowers are uncontrollable (aka he often rages and crushes civilians) and only activated by anger. It becomes a moral failure for Bruce Banner to get angry: to feel. To live his life in peace he must exercise inhuman control of his emotions. Either way, he can never be totally human again. The Hulk’s story is tragic, and rife with Shakespearean potential, something I’m sure Edward Norton realized. He was legendarily difficult to work with on the Hulk set, angering at rejections of his script edits. (Apparently he re-wrote large portions.) The movie reflects this jumble of artistic visions. It is depressing art film one minute, summer blockbuster the next. Neither vision for the film has much humor, and neither is successful. (It is not much of a surprise that Edward Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who is more charming and Mom-friendly.)
I dip out for the end, too bored and hungry to stay in my seat. I have not yet learned that the Alamo has made an exception for this event, is allowing us to bring in outside food, so I eat my leftovers on a bench outside: a sad lunch. The marathon has barely begun, and I am already taking a break. I check my various social medias mindlessly, then head back in the theater for the rest of the origin movies.
Each superhero’s story is streamlined to a T. The formula is workshopped thoroughly each time so the superhero feels unique, but the formula is the same: every super has a foe (who was once a brother or father figure to them) and a badass woman who is exceptional at a male-dominated job; there is always a mentor who must pass away or turn out to be evil; there are three battles (usually over possession of a powerful object), the second of which always feels like it’s ending the movie until the final evil emerges, even more sinister than the first. The narrative shifts like the galaxy brain meme, each act rearranging the facts of its reality to reframe the audience’s understanding of good and evil. (The flying heroes even look like the final frame of the galaxy meme once their character reaches actualization and maximizes their powers, their eyes and limbs alight with the knowledge of science, or an energy core, or an Infinity Stone, or, you know, etc. etc.) Marvel writers are dutiful students of the epic. Each character completes a checklist of the hero’s journey, with a few variations to keep things fresh. (Peter Quill’s foe is his warrior girlfriend’s father, not his own. In the place of Captain Marvel’s love interest stands a best friendship, or a best “friendship,” depending on how you read it.)
The epic formula works, especially when you don’t watch 22 of these movies consecutively. It keeps the heroes sufficiently interesting while keeping excess characters to a minimum (mentors and family members double as villains, colleagues double as love interests—everyone is useful to the plot development). The origin stories run a tight ship. But when Marvel begins introducing heroes to one another, things get messy.
* * *
There are four origin films before the first Avengers: Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. Iron Man is all brains, Hulk is all brawn, Thor is, well, also all brawn plus a little bit of lightning, and Captain America is all heart. On one level, it does not make sense to me that Captain America leads the Avengers. While he is super strong and fast, so is everyone else—seemingly more so than Cap. Captain America’s super object is a vibranium shield, which Black Panther’s suit is made out of entirely. He is not wealthy like Tony Stark or nerdy like Bruce Banner, and his main character trait is that he’s a total square. His unwillingness to swear is a recurring joke amongst the Avengers. Yet Captain America’s popularity makes complete sense against the backdrop of the comics. The comic Captain America was introduced in 1941 in the middle of WWII, a supersoldier engineered by the army to fight the Axis powers. He quickly became Marvel predecessor Timely Comics’ most popular character.
If Tony Stark’s key attribute is his intelligence, Steve Rogers’ is his goodness. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is a runty teen Stanley Tucci chooses for the supersoldier experiment specifically because he is good. Against the monumental evil that was Hitler, it is easy to be good. Captain America, both film and character, hark back to a time of historical clarity for America. Marvel’s WWII is a dreamland in which America banded together to fight Evil with a capital E. There is good reason that Captain America is a WWII hero and not a Civil War hero (though admittedly, he is a Civil War hero, har har). He provides a vision of a united America, one comic book creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby held onto in 1963, when they rolled out the Avengers. America was still flying high off its new position as world superpower, dipping into free love after FDA approval of the first ever birth control pill, and yet to experience the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. Two white men could afford to see the country as undivided, good, even a hero.
The two co-leaders of Marvel’s Avengers represent different visions of America, are portraits from different slices of history. Where Steve Rogers is a goody two-shoes war hero, Tony Stark is a capitalist wunderkind—a promiscuous, polished Steve Jobs (albeit informed by his original introduction to the comics during the Cold War, when intelligence like Tony’s was valuable to the state, rather than the free market). Tony Stark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the epitome of pre-recession 2000’s America: proud, quippy, and unquestionably powerful. Only after he creates his Iron Man suit does he feel inclined to interfere with international terrorism. (Of course the 2008 villains of Iron Man are bearded Arab men, projections of 9/11-fueled racism.) In Iron Man, Tony Stark is exceptionally talented, so he is forced to become exceptionally good. In Captain America, Steve Rogers is exceptionally good, so he is chosen to become exceptionally talented. Captain America and Iron Man submit different theses about who deserves power: the gifted or the moral.
Stark and Rogers first come to a head in The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s 2012 behemoth, the first film connecting the Marvel superhero worlds. Rogers chides Stark for his lack of innate goodness: “The only thing you really fight for is yourself!” Stark rides Rogers for his lack of natural talent: “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” While the two ultimately come together with the rest of the team to fight the space monsters invading Manhattan, proving that they are both good and talented, for each hero, one of these qualities is instinctive, the other is learned.
* * *
Early on in the ‘thon it becomes clear that there are two types of ticket-holders: in-and-out-ers and all-nighters. The event is about a 60/40 split. The all-nighters quickly distinguish themselves by lurking in the hallway (featuring a sign threatening Thanos’s wrath on anyone who dare spoil Endgame) during the film breaks, sort of checking their phones but sort of making eye contact with each other. Two people strike up a conversation and the rest lurk into it, gradually, the original couple’s attention expanding gratefully towards the new members. Mostly it is men talking theories (though the gender split is about 60/40 too, man to woman), piecing together predictions for Endgame based on celebrity gossip and comic book plotlines. A white man with a beard and glasses explains his favorite YouTuber theory: that the major plothole of Avengers: Infinity War is that Thanos’s fingers are too thick for him to snap. Another bearded and bespectacled white man offers during a later break between movies—that Black Panther was funded by the CIA. “Just think about it,” he stands in front of a couple whose names I will later learn are Dory and Patrick. “From the CIA’s perspective, Black Panther is just like, about a white CIA worker who gets an immensely valuable country to cooperate with the U.N.” He says that Marvel is the biggest benefactor of the U.S. Arms Fund, that the Air Force paid for Captain Marvel.
All of the marathoners, in-and-out or all-night, are great audience members. They laugh loudly at every joke, hold their breath as the suspense mounts, say the catchphrases in sync with the heroes. Many people in Theater Four have done a Marvel marathon before, have already seen their favorites of the bunch a dozen times. They laugh now at the outdated references: Tony Stark’s flip phone gets a laugh, as does Bruce Banner’s Norton 360 security software. The brief advertisement for The Avengers at the end of Captain America blares: “Coming 2012” and the young man next to me with a neck pillow velcroed across his Adam’s apple squeals: “2012!” While the early Marvel movies are not so far in the past, they exist as blockbuster memories from (most of) our lifetimes, i.e., when my neighbor squeals “2012” it is to say I remember that! (I say most of because there are children attending this event, at least three who look under the age of ten.)
While I had initially imagined myself an all-nighter, sitting upright in a chair through multiple action movies proves more difficult than I would have thought. I cave easy and take the subway home, sleep through Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and Captain America 2. I am an in-and-outer, out for the first trickle of sequels and in again the next morning for Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first extended look into space, a frontier that grows increasingly important in the fight for Good. (Both of my seat neighbors are still there, both are passed out.) Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun movie starring a Chris Pratt freshly plucked from his beloved dope role on Parks and Recreation, newly hot and familiarly lovable. Guardians amps up one of the original parts of the Iron Man formula: a pop soundtrack, centering the movie on Peter Quill’s playlist, bequeathed to him by his dead mother. It’s a fan favorite movie because it’s different: glittering space with 70’s pop and a sexy Andy Dwyer.
The next film is also different, but not a critical favorite: Joss Whedon’s second go at the Avengers series: Avengers: Age of Ultron.
* * *
In some ways, Marvel knows that it doesn’t make any fucking sense.
For example, when Hawk-Eye says to Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron, “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”
Yet shreds of self-awareness do not change the facts of the Marvel universe, which are a little dicey. For example, why are there multiple members of the Avengers with no superpowers? Why did people just start becoming superheroes in 2008, right as intergalactic threats to Earth began to heighten? Why are almost all of the superheroes white men from America? (Jk, we know the answer to that one!) How does Black Panther participate in Civil War if it takes place before the ceremony that makes him Black Panther? And does Peter Parker just not have any superpowers in Spiderman? Because he seems awfully dependent on his suits and web-shooting device… (Isn’t the whole point of Spiderman that he can shoot webs from his hands, no super suit necessary?) Additionally, how does any plotline remain successful in a universe where multiple forms of time travel exist?
To Marvel’s credit, they do maneuver around the issue of Thor’s being a god. Thor is from Asgard, a different realm, and is imbued with physical power such that humans see him as a god. However, he is not actually a god. He amounts to something more like a space creature in the shape of a brawny, flaxen-haired human.
Also to Marvel’s credit, the movies reward this kind of binge. While epic after epic reveals the formula by which the individual stories are crafted (and makes them a little wearing to watch in one go), there is an overarching throughline to the eleven-year arc you can only fully appreciate by living in the universe. And live in the universe we do. When you are binging, everything outside the universe you are consuming is a distraction. My breaks from the marathon feel like they are happening out of time, in a loud, tactile dreamscape. Walking out the first night I find the mall has shut off the escalators but not the radio, which still thumps from the basement. The subway at 1:30 a.m. is full of the remnants of late-night snacks: an open barbecue sauce packet, a single falafel too dented to roll when the train shifts balance. When I sleep I dream of Marvel. Awake, I am in my chair, watching Marvel.
The logic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not be airtight, but its interwoven storylines make for a strong net to ensnare a binging mind. Movies like Ultron and Captain America: Civil War (which is about a civil war between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, not the Civil War, to my surprise) that feel confusing and unsatisfying on their own make for key building blocks in the long-game story. The destruction Tony Stark wreaks in Ultron becomes his motivation to oppose Steve Rogers on the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. All of the objects fought over in the origin stories are empowered by Infinity Stones, whose consolidation is the final threat to the MCU in Infinity War and Endgame.
While at first I find it strange to have company for a binge—in my experience, a solitary activity—in the haze that follows from a 56-hour marathon in a proper movie theater, my fellow audience members are the only people tying me to reality.
* * *
I am trying to figure out why so many Marvel fans love Captain America. Like I mentioned, he’s not the strongest, smartest, or most interesting superhero. Yet the majority of the Marvel clothes I see are Cap-inspired. Actually, now that I recognize his shield, a star on blue ringed by two red stripes, I see it everywhere, even on mall-goers who are not imprisoned in Theater Four. One marathoner wears it all over: her chest, her socks, her earrings. She has long legs and nice shoulders, glasses and a neat curtain of hair framing her face. Her name is Logan.
“He’s my favorite, especially with the beard,” she tells me when I ask her about the sartorial ode to Steve Rogers. When I question why, she pauses, then responds, “I mean, he’s cute, but they’re all cute, so that’s no good.” We both laugh. Logan continues, “He’s a little goody two-shoes but I like that, I guess. I like the way he fights, I like the choreography of his fights. I like that he has the courage of his convictions.”
Andrew, a young man in the front row, agrees with his mother, Minerva, that Captain America: Winter Soldier is the best Marvel movie. (Apart from Age of Ultron, which both have come to love through the marathon experience.) Andrew even used Winter Soldier as an opportunity to sleep, since he’s seen it so many times. Minerva and Andrew live in New Jersey, a 45-minute cab ride home, but neither have left. It makes my skin crawl to sit still for just two Marvel movies in a row; we are having summer weather for the first time all year and all I want to do is run around in a meadow, though I am not a runner and I do know of any nearby meadows; but when I ask Minerva how the marathon is going 26 hours in, she just smiles. “It’s great!”
Mark, row two, likes Captain America: Civil War best. Civil War is essentially an Avengers movie, one that focuses on the power divide between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Tony Stark wants the Avengers to sign over control to the United Nations, Steve Rogers wants the Avengers to remain an independent body. (Also Steve’s best friend murdered Tony’s parents, and Steve kept it a secret.) The movie ends with Iron Man and Captain America duking it out in an old Nazi laboratory. In the comics, the Civil War timeline ends in Captain America’s death. Mark knows why Civil War is his favorite: “It’s the story, the way the story progresses…there were man tears flowing the first time I saw it, I mean, it’s heartbreaking.”
Captain America and Iron Man play the classic divide of law enforcement: Good Cop Bad Cop. Captain America is the Good Cop who colors within the lines, Iron Man is the Bad Cop who makes his own rules. However, since they aren’t cops, there is no protocol to follow when it comes to protecting citizens. Their senses of morality are rooted in their storylines. In Civil War, Tony Stark wants to sign the accords that would relinquish control of the Avengers to the U.N. because he messed up badly in Ultron. Steve Rogers opposes signing authority to any centralized power because of the risk of authoritarianism, a risk he fears due to his history with Nazism. Vigilante justice is relative.
No member of the Avengers stands for any ideology in particular, just stopping the bad guys. The only articulation of their values is, “Look out for the little guy,” a phrase repeated and referenced by Spiderman, but originally coined by Captain America, who was once a little guy himself, Chris Evan’s head CGI-ed onto a pasty small body. However, as the MCU ages, it gives more and more room for moral interpretation—who is truly the little guy and how is he best looked after?
* * *
Sake stretches ballerina-style on the floor of the theater before Spiderman: Homecoming. She got tickets because she’s competitive and likes pushing herself. Both Sake and I interpreted the marathon as a challenge, though Sake seems much happier about the whole thing.
“When do you get to do this?” She says to me. “It’s like camping in the city.” Sake lives fifteen minutes away but is a certified all-nighter. Her boyfriend wimped out the first night and went home to sleep, but is determined to stick around for the second. They bought pillows at the Target downstairs. “$3.99 baby! No excuses now!”
I am determined to stick around for the second night too, so I do. My head begins to throb with sleep deprivation. One waitress shares the same anecdote hours apart: she tried a Harry Potter marathon once and only made it to Prisoner of Azkaban. The father and son from the lobby take the escalator opposite me. “I’ve slept very little, and you’ve slept very much,” the father says, his son responding in mock hurt. I get an egg and cheese from a cart outside and Ahmed has to fire up the grill just for me, since it is 3:30 in the morning.
Tom Holland is delightful in Spiderman, though the promo tour deceitfully oversold Zendaya’s presence in the movie. Thor: Ragnarok is so weird but very fun, (apparently fun enough to coax Chris Hemsworth back into playing Thor, a part he wanted to abandon, according to one marathoner). They kick us out of the theater before Black Panther for a deep clean, spray an antiseptic that reeks through the theater doors. In the hallway I see a man carrying boxes of produce into the kitchen, the deliveries have just come in. A bag of red onions spills onto the floor.
A pretty redhead from Atlanta named Carrie freshens up in the bathroom, blinks slowly onto a mascara wand. I compliment her red leather boots, which she says she wears with everything. She hasn’t slept the entire time. Hasn’t needed to. “You are a powerful being,” I say. She responds, “It’s the red hair.”
I catch my table companion out in the hallway swearing loudly on a business call. “Fucking idiot!” He tells me he works in fire safety for hotels.
Table Companion has been there the entire marathon. While at first I am mildly concerned by the miniature cartons of milk on his side of the table, figuring the man is just downing warm 2% for fun, I soon realize they are for his coffees. He switches between nodding off and total engagement. During Avengers: Infinity War, he speaks in time with Dr. Strange: “We’re in the endgame now.”
* * *
The last movies are the most painful to watch. Fading in and out of consciousness, I am not entirely sure that I watch them at all. Most of the theater uses Black Panther as an opportunity to sleep: it is the most relevant movie on its own so it is least relevant to the re-watching, we have all seen it many times. Killmonger is my favorite villain from all of the MCU, not only because Michael B. Jordan is stupid handsome, but because he presents the most rational case, particularly within the logic of the MCU: violent black liberation. Killmonger is bent on revenge against white people, who have done arguably more harm than many MCU villains. While the Avengers’ sense of justice is also defined by violent revenge, as they advance no political plans on their own—just destroy bad guys who act first, Killmonger’s idea of justice is vilified. A part of me loves that Black Panther forced millions of white Americans to consider reparations (albeit through violence); though I wonder how serious these considerations were, given Killmonger’s role as the villain. Marvel movies gesture toward diverse perspectives, but are still very much focus-grouped Hollywood entities that do not challenge norms.
This is particularly evident in Carol Danvers’ story, which follows the epic formula perfectly, except the Love Interest role is replaced by a Best Friendship—which, obviously, makes the audience read the Best Friendship as a Love Interest. Captain Marvel marketed itself as a movie about female representation, but it provides an awful lot of lesbian representation, too. It’s hard to imagine that the creators of the MCU didn’t plan this, which makes the half-assed gestures toward representation even sadder. Surely they cast Michael B. Jordan because they wanted Killmonger to be appealing; surely Carol Danvers gets a butch haircut in Endgame for a reason. Yet the intent gets watered down by the final cut. The studios want to draw in queer and black fans without alienating their straight, white ones. It is an expected cowardice, but still frustrating to view.
In Avengers: Infinity War, the villain is Thanos, who has a surprisingly coherent (if dumb) political plan: solve overpopulation by wiping out half the people on every planet. What’s more, the movie ends with his victory. He collects all of the Infinity Stones and turns half the population to dust. This enthralled audiences, who were shocked that Marvel would kill off its most profitable new characters: Black Panther and Spiderman. I know that it enthralled audiences because there were memes about it on every social media platform I regularly scroll; the Avenger’s fate was inescapable. (Memes predicting Endgame were inescapable too; like the plot to destroy Thanos by having Antman crawl up Thanos’ butthole and then supersize himself.)
However, the MCU is driven by much more than plotline. Importantly, it is also driven by money. Though fans were surprised that the MCU would deliver on dusting half the cast, they also knew there was another film coming, and then many more after that. Black Panther and Spiderman had to live, their sequels had already been announced. The Avengers had to triumph against Thanos in Endgame, it was only a matter of how.
* * *
When Captain Marvel ends, we have a 15-minute break before Endgame. The couple sitting next to my neighbor (the one who is not Table Companion) theorize that 12 is going to be a significant number in Endgame, since there are 12 movie theaters participating in the marathon, and the number 12 shows up in several movies (Tony Stark offers Pepper Potts 12% of the credit in The Avengers, Peter Quill only has 12% of a plan in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Pietro Maximoff is 12 minutes older than his twin Wanda in Ultron.) A couple of marathoners have been writing things down: the recurrence of words or symbols, the absence of characters. One man notes on an order card every villain who is mentioned but does not appear. Everyone clusters on one side of the theater, glomming on to the conversation, pooling notes. Anyone is welcome to shuffle in. The group is 30 people deep but no one talks over each other.
Carrie from Alabama has made a crew. They stand outside during breaks and smoke cigarettes. She waves when I pass. I grab coffee at a small shop with high ceilings and shock myself by speaking to the barista.
“I really needed this!” I say to the utterly uninterested twenty-something tending bar. He does not respond. I refrain from speaking Marvel, though it is all I want to do. The wholly antisocial activity of watching movies has made me more social, eager to test my new fluency in the MCU, where I have been living for the past few days.
The marathon organizer returns before Endgame to hand out some prizes. He was going to ask trivia questions, but everyone knows Marvel too well now for that to be interesting, so he just hands them out to whoever seems like the biggest fan of the merch. A boy with a Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet gets an action figure of Thanos. The organizer names remaining figures and character devotees raise their hands, halfway rising from their seats like schoolchildren desperate to be chosen for a game of 7-up. Hulk is a big draw. Of course, so is Captain America.
There’s something I’ve been getting wrong about nerds all of this time. Even though nerds are typically defined by their brains, in practice, I think, nerds lead with their hearts, loving theoretical worlds with the same or more passion as they love this one. (While some of these theoretical worlds take a lot of brainpower to access, that brainpower can’t focus without sustained passion for the subject at hand.) The defining quality of nerds is not their rejection from the more popular lunch tables, but the acceptance they exhibit toward everyone else, often a goodness that is directly informed by the fictional worlds they live in. Nerds, categorically speaking, are more Steve Rogers than Tony Stark, more effortful goody-goody than billionaire genius. Of course Theater Four-ers identify with Captain America: they are lovers before they are thinkers. Nerdiness is primarily an act of love, secondarily an act of intelligence, accessible to anyone.
By the end, there is a feeling that we know everyone else in the theater—their thoughts on Antman, if not their name. When the trailers start for Endgame I do not have to look behind me to know that it is the guy in the Spiderman onesie heckling the screen. The theater laughs. We all want to get to Endgame. When multiple people gasp at a Star Wars trailer, Table Companion speaks over his shoulder, urging them to calm down: “It’s just a teaser, we’ve already seen it.” I have not seen this trailer, but I am thrilled to be implied in Companion’s “we.”
Endgame opens to thunderous applause from Theater Four. It is five p.m., hour 53 of the marathon, and we are totally psyched. I order popcorn and a Moscow Mule, so revved up on the energy of the room I am certain the drink won’t make me drowsy. The beginning of Endgame is essentially a glossy take on The Leftovers: it has been a few years since half the population turned to dust, including half the Avengers. Captain America leads a grief support group in a basement, AA-style. Iron Man makes a rambling video of himself, preempting his death in space. Thor is fat, and an alcoholic—both of which are running jokes.
But don’t fear, time travel exists in the MCU. The Avengers unite to go back in time and collect the Infinity Stones before Thanos can dust Earth’s population. The second third of Endgame feels like a throwback episode of a sitcom that shows a montage of old clips in service of a weak, present storyline. The Avengers return to their most infamous battles, which are played over for nostalgia, to really hammer home the point that this is the end (of Phase Three, at least). Black Widow sacrifices herself for Hawk-Eye, who has a family, which must make his life more valuable.
The last hour of Endgame is the big battle, where all of the Avengers fight all of their demons past. It is like watching millions of dollars rupture and explode, which it is. There are payoffs at every turn for longtime MCU fans. Captain America lifts Thor’s hammer and Theater Four goes batshit. Wasp refers to Captain America as “Cap” and we coo, “Aww.” Finally, Thanos has the Avengers in a bind.
“I am…inevitable.” He says. Tony Stark, injured, prone on the ground, reaches towards Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet, the metal glove that holds all of the Infinity Stones, the most powerful objects in the universe.
“And I am…” He pauses. Tony and Table Companion speak in perfect sync: “Iron Man.” Tony wields the Infinity Gauntlet, destroying Thanos once and for all. In the process, he destroys himself. Iron Man ultimately chooses altruism by sacrificing his life for everyone else’s. Tony Stark achieves apotheosis by overcoming his greatest character flaw: his selfishness. Though his goodness might be secondary to his intelligence, that doesn’t mean he cannot be a Good Person. Endgame’s final scenes take place around Tony’s funeral.
Captain America gets his apotheosis too, overcoming his greatest flaw (selflessness) by choosing his needs, for once. He sacrifices fighting Evil with the Avengers for a normal life, traveling back in time to finally get a dance with his one and only, Peggy Carter. When Captain America turns up at Tony’s funeral, he is withered and wrinkled; it is enough to make you cry. Theater Four is full of man tears. (None from me, though I think my body is sapped of moisture from sweating out the sleep deprivation.) The movie ends with Cap and Peggy slowdancing to a Victrola.
We are told beforehand that there is no after-credits scene (a customary Easter egg in MCU films), but we stay until the end out of habit. There is no scene, but there is the sound of a hammer forging metal, and I feel like it was disingenuous for the theater to tell us to leave early. (Who knows what the hammer could mean for Phase Four? That’s important information!) The screen turns black and the lights are on. The theater is full of popcorn and pillows and candy: the detritus of camping in the city. I will never see my seat neighbors again, will never bump elbows with Table Companion or his milks, but still, it feels like we have experienced something important together. Before I leave, I salute them, for we have waged our own sort of battle, labored together for an experience that will be hard to explain to others when we leave this place. Like our heroes, we know the meaning of sacrifice.
is still figuring it out.