by Lowell Bliss
Reverse Spoiler Alert—If you have not seen the movie Avengers: Endgameand have no intention to do so, many of the specifics in this article will not make sense to you, though the general themes will. If you have not yet seen Endgame but still want to, then you may want to wait and read this article later, but please watch the movie with this suggestion: “consider the birds.”
I returned to the theater last week to watch Avengers: Endgame for a second time. I had a specific purpose in mind, which I’ll explain shortly. Right before I went however, one more article popped up in my newsfeed: : “'Catastrophe' as France's bird population collapses due to pesticides.”
There is a moment in the movie Avengers: Endgame when after the Hulk has reversed Thanos’s “snap” with one of his own, the superheroes are left wondering: has it worked? Has that portion of creation—half of all living creatures across the universe—been restored? Scott Lang hears the sound of birds and walks to the window. A handful of birds are flitting in the trees and Lang turns back with a huge smile on his face. Rachel Carson’s spring is silent no more.
I confess to having forgotten about the animal kingdom when I was watching the sad conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, the Part 1 to Endgame’s Part 2. Thanos snaps his fingers and I watched T’Challa feather away to ash. I teared up at Peter Parker’s fading appeal to Tony Stark. There was no indication that any creature other than family and friends were gone. If anything, the savannah of Wakanda, the site of Infinity War’s final battle scene, was as glorious as ever. In Endgame’s evocative opening scene, Clint Barton’s family is gone but his farm seems untouched. Later, Steve Rogers tells Natasha Romanoff that he has just seen a pod of whales swimming up the Hudson. I had just assumed that the animals were still there.
If Thanos had obliterated half of the animal kingdom as well, as Lang’s discovery seems to indicate, then that seems like an unnecessary injustice, because in reality we human beings had already done that work for him on planet Earth. The Living Planet Report, released last year, claims that wildlife populations have declined by over half since 1970. That means that Thanos would have taken an additional 50 percent more of the remaining. Stark advises the Hulk to only bring back what Thanos had taken. This of course means everything to Barton who, while Lang goes to the window to see the birds, gets a phone call from his lost wife. What Lang sees, however, is only the restoration of what biologists are calling The Sixth Extinction.
I went back to see Endgame because I wanted to track the themes of grief and our responses to it, particularly grief over a lost world and our seeming powerlessness to do anything about it. I was primarily interested in just that one section of the film that begins with the title slide “Five Years Later.” The movie starts, as you remember, at the moment of Thanos’s snap as experienced by Barton thousands of miles from the chaos that was going on in Wakanda. We then skip to Stark and Nebula adrift in space 21 days later. They are rescued by Captain Marvel but when they are returned safely to Earth, they find the remaining Avengers still in shock at their unbearable failure and their intolerable loss. The Avengers discover that they have the means to locate Thanos. Perhaps, they hope, they can retrieve the Infinity gauntlet and reverse their loss. “This is going to work, Steve,” Romanoff tells Rogers. “I know it is,” he responds, “because I don’t know what I’m going to do if it doesn’t.” And actually, it doesn’t. . . work, that is. Their plan doesn’t work. They find that Thanos has used the Infinity Stones one last time to destroy them completely. The Avengers have no hope of reversing Thanos’s destruction. Thor in a fit of useless rage decapitates their enemy.
Marvel takes comic book liberties to set their storylines in our times and they make this explicit repeatedly in Endgame, not only with their time-stamped title slides (i.e. “New York 2012,” “Asgard 2013,” etc.) but also with all their contemporary pop culture references. Similarly, unlike DC Comics with their “Central City” or “Gotham,” Marvel has felt free to set their stories in a real Queens or a real Brooklyn. Technically, Endgames is sci-fi, but it is not futuristic. Consequently, when they say, “five years later,” they mean our here-and-now. When I entered the theater, I already felt emotionally like I was living in that “five years later” space when it comes to creation care. I recognized that I was feeling depressed about creation’s loss and my powerlessness to stop it.
Five years later, how are the remaining Avengers coping? Steve Rogers leads group therapy sessions for average citizens. “I keep telling everybody they need to move on,” he tells Romanoff after a particularly hard session. “Some do, but not us,” he admits. He is trying to therapize himself but with minimum success. Romanoff is trying to keep the organization together. She is joined by the other military types (Captain Marvel, Col. Rhodes, Okoye) who seem to persist from a sense of duty. Their response seems admirable, but there is no energy in their meetings. They seem to simply be going through the motions. Tony Stark is retired at a lakefront property. He and Pepper Potts are raising a family and Stark just wants to be left alone. Barton is so full of rage that his superhero persona Hawkeye has become a bloodthirsty assassin. He swats desperately at the cartels and the triads, but they are a smaller evil, and Barton’s revenge is never satisfied.
And then there’s Thor—indolent, obese, and alcoholic.
I feel like I’ve tasted of each of these responses. The storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) extends far back through the plotlines and character development of 21 previous movies. What the Avengers are feeling “five years later” doesn’t simply begin with the snap of Thanos’s fingers. Similarly, I understand that our current environmental crisis can’t be blamed on the 2016 election in the US, but nonetheless that single Tuesday in November 2016 feels to me like the snap of Thanatos’s fingers. I don’t want to refer to Trump, but rather to Thanatos, the Greek god of death from whom Thanos, the comic book villain, derives his name. I remember how happy and excited I was back in 2015. Things weren’t perfect, any more than the MCU was free from Ultron’s or Hydra’s violence. Nonetheless I was happy in July 2015 at Gordon College when the US and Canada Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network convened for the first time. And I was happy in December 2015 when the nations agreed on the Paris Agreement for climate action. Since Thanatos’s snap however, and with a relentless release of headlines—birds in France, Koala in Australia, IPCC 1.5-degree reports, EPA betrayals, death by ocean plastic—I have tasted of each of the coping responses depicted in Endgame. I have perhaps gravitated most to Roger’s response: ever the optimist, ever the minister, always trying to help my fellow human beings. Perhaps the weekly video series on hope that I produced last year was simply my version of group therapy. The missionary in me and the Midwesterner in me has kept me on task. I am dutiful. (Incidentally, Romanoff admits that there is more than duty that he keeps her close to headquarters; the Avengers is the only family that she has ever known. I too have found a family in creation care and environmental missions, and don’t want to disband those partnerships.) Like Stark, I have often given up and self-righteously blamed others. Like Barton, I’ve had moments of anger, murdering oil execs and political operatives in my heart. Like Thor, I’ve often sought solace in Netflix, food, and exploring craft beers.
My wife Robynn is a certified spiritual director and she has been a big help. For instance, she has taught me the very wording that I employ about depression. I don’t say, “I am depressed.” If one is clinicallydepressed, then that is a disease, and we don’t identify ourselves with our diseases. We don’t go around saying, “I am cancer.” Emotions are an important part of us, but they are not the whole of us, and so neither do we conflate our identities with them. So, I say, “I am feeling depressed,” as a way to identify my emotion, differentiate it from other things I am may be feeling at other times, and yet also maintain some distance from it. I also like to use the phrase, “I recognize that I am feeling depressed,” because it even further puts me in a position of co-participant with God whereby I can ask myself, “So, Lowell, what do you want to do with this depression? So, God, what are you trying to show me here?” Recognizing my feelings of depression additionally reminds me that it is natural that I will seek out a means of coping. I WILL slide into something. Heck, even Norse gods like Thor are “only human.” If I can co-participate with God in my depression than I can identify what my natural coping mechanism is and eventually decide whether I want to stick with that strategy. (“How’s that working for you, Lowell?”) Barton so desperately needed that kind of help from his friend Natasha. I try to be kind to even the worst parts of my self.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, the basis of so much of my Hope series, defines hope as “a bold conviction about an alternative possibility.” I expanded his definition to say that biblical hope is “a bold conviction about an alternative possibility for the future in and through a good, free, and sovereign God.” In Endgame, Antman pops back from five hours spent in the “quantum realm” and has “an alternative possibility for the future” to present to the Avengers. It becomes the plan by which Thanos is ultimately defeated and the curse is reversed. Lang’s sudden appearance on the scene highlights a new dynamic for those of us who are depressed and coping “five years later.” Lang’s idea has never been heard of before. It is labeled as impossible. The knowledge for it doesn’t yet exist. It is ridiculed as so much “Back to the Future” nonsense. Even when the details are worked out, the execution of retrieving each of the six Infinity Stones from back in the past is a long-shot. The interesting psychology is in the different pace at which each of the Avengers finally say, “Let’s go for it.” When an alternative possibility for the future opened up, which of the Avengers was the most ready to act on it? I want to be like him or her.
Let’s not include Scott Lang in our answer. Having just returned from the Quantum Realm, he really wasn’t living with the others in the “five years later” period as much as he was in that scene at the beginning of the movie: shocked but ready to do something. Clint Barton is eager to act, but he is, more accurately, suicidal than heroic. If that first test run back to his farm had killed him instead, at least he would have found peace. Let’s recognize that Stark and Thor were the slowest to come around, such are the effects of self-righteous escape and self-indulgent escapism. Rogers and Romanoff are relatively quick to take the lead. Optimistic service and faithful duty are good soils for alternative possibilities for the future to germinate in, however fallow those soils might feel at the time. In the end though, I am going to argue that the quickest Avenger to respond to Lang’s idea is the one Avenger that we have not yet discussed, the one whose coping strategy we’ve not yet labelled: namely, the Incredible Hulk.
One of the jokes as we were all anticipating Avengers: Endgame’s release was the question of where in this three-hour movie with no intermission, does an old guy like me be able to leave the theatre to use the restroom without missing any of the important stuff. One website advised: at the one-hour mark, when you first meet Hulk at the diner. (The other suggestion was at the two-hour mark when the title slide for New Jersey comes up.) But if you had skipped out of Lang pitching his idea to the Hulk at the diner, you would have missed the explanation of why the Hulk was still big and green but now wore the visage and demeanor of Mark Ruffalo (the notoriously understated actor who plays Bruce Banner.) You would have missed the clue of what made Hulk/Banner so quick and ultimately useful at executing the plan, including being the one to retrieve the Time Stone from an initially reluctant Ancient One. The alter egos of Dr. Bruce Banner and the Hulk had finally stopped fighting each other when they first met each other in the context of their defeat. The Hulk had been defeated by Thanos in the movie Thor: Ragnorok. Banner had been defeated by Thanos in Infinity War. The two could finally integrate, but only by acknowledging and accepting their current defeat. Most creation care activists and environmental missionaries I know are resurrectionists. They live in that hope and they think in those terms and they work with such metaphors. But there is no resurrection without the crucifixion. And Martha and the women would not have been the first to walk in the new alternative possibility for our future unless they had been visiting the tomb “three days later.”
There is so much more in this set of movies, films which I believe are so rich in human meaning, we dare not dismiss them as superhero flicks. For example, we witnessed the sacrifices that Romanoff and Stark were willing to make, and I know many of my creation care colleagues who would not hesitate to make the same choice if it was called for. They love God. They love his creation. They love the generations who are succeeding them. Such a choice to “lay down one’s life for his or her friends” (John 15:13’s “no greater love than this”) has historically been the decisive moment, but rarely do we achieve that moment if we don’t deal with our sense of loss and powerlessness first.