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Avengers: Endgame Themes Explained - Why It’s About Time

Avengers: Endgame is all about time, and the Russo Brothers’ movie has some surprising things to say about it. As this phase of the MCU comes closer to its end, watch and find out about the profound message Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers have for us.

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Avengers: Endgame Themes Explained – Why It’s About Time

‘Avengers: Endgame’ is a meditation on time – and it leaves us with a fittingly age-old message: that we should cherish the moments we have on this earth with our loved ones. As Tony Stark puts it, quoting his father to his father, “No amount of money ever bought a second of time.”

In the wake of Thanos’ finger snap, we see the original Avengers revisiting the sites of their past adventures in order to collect the infinity stones, before Thanos did, in a ‘time heist’. Along the way they confront important people from their pasts and even former versions of themselves. And the movie arrives at some intriguingly counterintuitive conclusions like that, to move forward, we need to dig deep into our past instead of just letting it go, and that the end of the journey isn’t necessarily something to fear, if we’ve lived our lives to the fullest.

“Pepper I’ve been called many things, nostalgic is not one of them.” –Tony Stark in Iron Man

So here’s our take on the movie’s deeper message about making the most of the time we have.

“Are you ready for our dance?” –Peggy Carter in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Stuck on the Past

We live in a world where we’re told to only look forward. But ‘Endgame’ sends us a message that flies in the face of that: when we’re struggling, we have to look back at the past and dwell on it.

Viewers might have gone into ‘Endgame’ expecting the movie to quickly undo the damage of Thanos’ deadly snap, but one of the filmmakers’ boldest choices is letting five years pass after the destruction of half of all life. This reminds us of the truth that time makes things real. In the moments immediately following a trauma, the event feels surreal,

Yet as time passes, we’re forced to accept and process the event as reality. The Avengers feel the lasting absence of their loved ones, and now that these years have been lived, even if the Avengers somehow manage to bring the lost people back, this devastating event cannot be erased.

Tony is committed to his future, his life with Pepper and their daughter Morgan, yet that doesn’t make him any less haunted by the loss of his son figure, Peter Parker. So this reveals that we can’t only look ahead in order to feel whole, we have to allow ourselves to look back as well. Thanos mocks the Avengers for focusing on what’s been lost instead of what could be.

“You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me.” –Thanos in Avengers: Endgame

This is, in classic Thanos fashion, the kind of rhetoric that sounds good in theory but is terrible in practice. In the end, our heroes’ inability to move on turns out to be a good thing: their stubbornness leads them to figure out how to go back in time.

So how does time travel work in ‘Endgame?’ Put simply, when the Avengers go into the past and change events, this appears to create alternate timelines. Thus, just as the time travel doesn’t erase those five years for the people left behind, creating new futures in the past doesn’t undo other timelines that have already been lived. It’s important here that nothing can actually undo what has already been done.

Still, ‘Endgame’s’ joking allusions to ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ are a winking nod to let us know that we don’t need to focus too seriously on how this all works. Scott Lang races through his idea with his mouth full of sandwich, while Tony solves the technological aspect almost without trying. What’s far more important to the story is the symbolism of the time travel.

Confronting the past here is made literal –as we see when Captain America fights his past self and Nebula kills her former self. These scenes highlight that our past selves are not us. They’re very different people due to the experiences we’ve been through that they haven’t yet had. Think of the way Present-Day Cap dismisses his past-self’s catchphrase:

“I could do this all day.” –Captain America in Avengers: Endgame

- looking on his former self as a simpler, more naive person. And when he gets on the elevator with the men from SHIELD, in a callback to the famous scene from ‘The Winter Soldier’, he knows exactly what to say to infiltrate Hydra. So the hard lesson he learned years ago ends up being extremely valuable –which reveals that our past mistakes and failures are necessary to getting us where we are.

The other interesting aspect of ‘Endgame’s’ film references is that the characters conclude ‘Back to the Future’ got it wrong: Changing the past doesn’t change the future because when you go into the past, that past becomes your future. This has a very interesting symbolism, namely, that our way to the future is via the past. When Tony and Cap go back to the 1970s army base where Cap had his training in ‘The First Avenger,’ each sees the one person whose absence has shaped them –Tony’s father Howard and Cap’s love Peggy. As Howard shares his nerves about becoming a father, Tony, who’s now a father himself, comes to see his dad as a human being, who was fallible and failed, not some malicious God-like entity he needs to keep resenting. This releases a rush of love in Tony and frees him to declare, “Looking back, I just remember the good stuff.” The conversation shows how much the two men are alike, but also that Tony is better than his father, who, as Howard admits himself, never let the greater good outweigh his self-interest, which is exactly what we see Tony do.

Meanwhile Cap finds himself one room away from Peggy and this breaks down whatever barriers he’s put up to convince himself he’s over her. Moreover, being so close to what he wants gives him hope that it’s possible to be with her again. The lesson of this episode in the 70s is that by facing and confronting the unresolved pain in our past, we can free ourselves, whether that means letting go of past grievances, or grabbing onto something that we can’t accept losing.

Two Lives Well Lived

Many fans predicted that Cap would sacrifice himself in ‘Endgame,’ which would be in keeping with his identity as the moral center of the MCU, while Tony would retire to enjoy family life with Pepper. But it’s the reverse – Tony gives his life in battle, and Cap takes a detour while returning the infinity stones and gets to live a long, full life with Peggy. These two central Avengers have always been at odds, so it’s fitting that they end up with inverse fates. Still, through them both the movie sends the same message – we have to use our time well.

‘Endgame’ pulls off a pretty amazing feat in making us feel Tony’s death in a positive, life-affirming way. Before this we get glimpses of what it would be like to lose the MCU’s founding father – first when Thanos stabs him in ‘Infinity War’, and then again at the start of ‘Endgame’ when he’s near death in space.

“Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning, that’ll be it” –Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame

In both of these scenes the prospect of his death feels tragic because it would be in vain, he hasn’t yet done what he needs to do.

Tony: “I can’t help everybody.”

Pepper: “Sort of seems like you can.” –in Avengers: Endgame

In ‘Infinity War’, Doctor Strange reveals that the only possible outcome where the Avengers win needs Tony alive.

“There was no other way.” –Dr. Strange in Avengers: Infinity War

And in ‘Endgame’, Strange holds up one finger to subtly let Tony know that only he can defeat Thanos. Just as we foresaw in our One Marvelous Scene video about the Tony versus Thanos fight in ‘Infinity War’, Tony is crucial in this fight because he doesn’t try to defeat Thanos with more brute strength, which will never be enough. Like we talked about, the beauty of Tony Stark is his ability to find the way around the problem. Sure enough in ‘Endgame’, Tony, in the crucial moment, doesn’t take Thanos’ gauntlet, which is what the supervillain expects, but sees that all he has to do is steal the stones.

Summoning the strength for the snap that destroys Thanos kills Tony, but this time, even if it breaks our hearts, Tony’s death feels right, because it serves a purpose. His sacrifice to save everyone else is a reversal of the vision that’s haunted him since Age of Ultron.

He’s achieved what he needed to on his terms, and that’s why as he dies, Pepper tells him, “You can rest now.”

Tony’s fate is the perfect culmination of his arc because it reveals that, while he’s the guy who’d cut the wire, at the same time he also is the guy to make the sacrifice play.

At his funeral we see the arc reactor Pepper gave him that says, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.” Tony’s heart has been the center of this story from the beginning, as he’s progressed from isolated playboy to loving family man. ‘Endgame’ emphasizes how many lives Tony has touched when we see pretty much all the characters from the MCU gathered at his funeral, even an older Harley, the kid he befriends in ‘Iron Man 3.’ So we have to marvel at all the good that’s come from this one man discovering his own heart.

In the end, Tony and Cap’s fates actually are quite similar. Because lest we forget, Cap also sacrificed himself for the greater good many years before:

And at the end, when we see Cap as an old man with a life well-lived behind him, his end feels right, too – he finally got that time he was cheated out of.

The dance with Peggy feels like a reward for this character who’s done nothing but put others before himself – which is why, like Tony, he’s earned a little rest. It’s satisfying to see Cap as an old man, too, because underneath his younger appearance, this is the generation he’s always belonged to and represented – a classic era of American history.

Through the ends of both Tony and Cap, ‘Endgame’ tells us aging and even death aren’t truly sad if we’ve made the most of our time here. As Cap realizes, we just have to ‘get a life’ while we still can.

“As maybe the world’s leading authority on waiting too long, don’t.” –Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Harvest

‘Endgame’ is the harvest of the first decade of the MCU. In this film, seeds that were planted years ago finally bear fruit, from call-backs to iconic lines:

“I am Iron Man.” –Tony Stark in Iron Man

Bucky Barnes: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”

Captain America: “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.” –in Captain America: The First Avenger

Sam Wilson/Falcon: “Don’t say it. Don’t you say it.”

Captain America: “On your left.”

Sam Wilson: “Come on!” –in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“I could do this all day.” –Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger

To Stan Lee’s final cameo, to the iconic circle shot from The Avengers. Some moments are references to the comics, too –like Cap saying ‘Hail Hydra’, and Sam getting the Captain America shield.

We finally get the satisfaction of hearing Cap say, “Avengers assemble.” after this was only teased in ‘Age of Ultron’.

“Avengers…” –Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron

We see the broken shield that also appeared in Tony’s vision. While there’s no post-credits scene, there is a sound of clanging metal that many are interpreting as a tribute to Tony forging his suit in ‘Iron Man.’

The scene of Black Widow and Hawkeye enthusiastically fighting each other to sacrifice themselves is a warm inversion of the wrong-feeling scene in ‘Infinity War’ where Thanos kills Gamora. Black Widow’s death here also makes sense because it calls back to Hawkeye originally saving her.

“I got on SHIELD’s radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call.” –Black Widow in The Avengers

And her act enables Hawkeye to return to his family, which is a counter to Tony’s having to leave his family behind. Tony gives Cap his shield back, after making him drop it during their conflict in ‘Civil War.’ And to everyone’s delight, Cap reveals that he’s worthy of wielding Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

“Whosoever holds of this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” –Odin in Thor

In ‘Age of Ultron’ he could only move it a little bit, but it was enough to get this reaction from Thor, who in ‘Endgame’ shouts, “I knew it!” Fans have theorized that in ‘Age of Ultron’ Cap wasn’t worthy because he hadn’t yet told Tony the truth about Bucky killing Tony’s parents.

Tony: “Did you know?”

Captain America: “Yes.” –in Captain America: Civil War

Or he may not have been truly trying at the party because it wasn’t for the right reason. But perhaps most centrally, Cap has become his most worthy self as he’s grown to accept more complexity and grey in his worldview, while staying true to the greatest ideals he’s always served.

Tony and Pepper’s daughter is named Morgan, which was foreshadowed in ‘Infinity War’ when Tony shared his dream of parenthood.

And the hologram message he leaves for her calls back to the video Howard leaves in ‘Iron Man 2.’

“My greatest creation is you.” –Howard Stark in Iron Man 2

Like Tony, Morgan will grow up with an absent father, but hopefully she’ll remember her father’s great love and affection, as captured in his recording’s final words to her, “I love you 3,000.” At the end when Happy asks Morgan what she wants to eat and she says, “Cheeseburgers.” This heart-wrenching moment reminds us of Tony’s love of the food. There’s an interesting set-up here of a daughter who will carry on her dad’s legacy – and hopefully, in addition to loving burgers, some other aspects of Tony’s personality, too.

So ‘Endgame’ is paying homage to where Marvel has been in order to prepare us for where it’s going.

The last scene of the movie shows Cap and Peggy dancing to a song that’s fittingly called ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’ which we also heard in ‘The Winter Soldier.’ This dance has been on Cap’s mind for years.

The emotional payoff of this moment comes from the fact that it’s nearly a decade in the making. We have to wait, to invest years in 22 movies, for a scene to be able to touch us like that. We’re conditioned to favor beginnings and dread endings but through ‘Endgame’ we see that:

“Part of the journey is the end.” –Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame

As ‘Endgame’ delivers the resolution to everything the MCU has been building towards since its inception, it shows the moving, soul-touching depth an ending can have that a beginning just can’t.

Likewise, in our own lives we create meaning by sharing lasting bonds and putting time with loved ones first. It’s only at the end of the road that we’ll get the satisfaction of reaping the harvests of our lives. And it’s important, before we get there, to plant the seeds well.

So as this phase of the MCU wraps up, we’re left thinking of what Tony tells his loved ones in the message he leaves behind – that we should remember this in celebration. We can’t stop things from ending, but we can take steps to ensure that when that ending comes, we’re at peace with what we made of the time we had, and all we feel is gratitude.

“Do you know how short life is?” –Tony Stark in Iron Man 2