I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Endgame — and wasn’t disappointed. Doubtless one of this generation’s most ardently anticipated cinematic events, the film didn’t fall short of the cataract of hype preceding it; it satisfied me, movingly; indeed, I paid to see it twice, something I rarely do. Endgame will certainly come to be regarded a current big-screen classic; one of the iconic movies of the modern era.
Curiously, celebrated authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis popped into my mind upon exiting the theater. No, not because they’d both penned fantasy novels that eventually became grist for similar Hollywood treatment (Lord of the Rings/Hobbit and Chronicles of Narnia, respectively). Instead, it was something they both believed that stirred my thoughts; something which had viscerally and potently effected the track of their lives; and which they propagated to others. To wit: the power of myth and what Tolkien puckishly labelled the “true myth”.
Serendipitously, a movie about one of those Brits, unimaginatively titled Tolkien, opened May 10 in the mountainous shadow of the Marvel Comics property. The former work amassing a meager box office of $7.7 million, it’s already practically vanished from theaters. The latter? Approaching $2.7 billion in ticket sales; and still drawing crowds.
That said, it’s possible Prof. Tolkien would appreciate the comic-book extravaganza as much as many twenty-first century fans; and not be caught off-guard by its steamrolling mass appeal. Again, it’s that “myth” motif he so cherished.
Both Oxford dons were convinced many of the ancient, fantastical sagas of heroism, warriors and otherworldly adventure that mesmerized civilizations in millennia past were, in fact, profound foreshadowings of another story — the ultimate one that culminated over two-thousand years ago with a crucifixion, burial and empty tomb. Heathen fables, they insisted, far from discrediting Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ, actually hinted at the eternal verities He represented. They adumbrated, in admittedly imperfect and sketchy form, the God-implanted needs and yearnings of every individual which can only be satisfied by the Savior.
As one Scripture writer concurred, “[God] has put eternity in [men’s] hearts.” (Ecclesiastes 3;11) Human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26,27), so at least on some murky level, we share aspects of His being and character, inklings of His priorities and insights. Despite people’s formidable flaws and sizable sin-issue, these Creator-like traits flutter within us. Throughout history near and remote, they’ve consistently leaked through mankind’s attitudes and doings.
C.S. Lewis, at one point, mused:
“The story of Christ,” said Tolkien, “is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. …The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”
Eric Metaxas elaborates:
Tolkien … knew that all of these ancient and beautiful stories were echoes of something larger and truer. They were signs that the human race knew of another world that had once existed and would exist again and even now existed in another realm, outside time. … For him they were echoes of a larger reality that had at one time burst through into history, but only once.
I’d contend this dynamic continues playing out plentifully today — in film, television, literature, song. Those creative expressions garnering the most attention often scratch an existential itch, supplying a glimpse of enduring values and hungers seeded into humanity from time immemorial by a Creator Who desires a relationship with them.
Avengers: Endgame, not excepted. Its technical excellence and solid entertainment worth aside, this freshest and grandest entry in Marvel Studio’s oeuvre — perhaps an illustration of present-day pop mythology — boasts a succession of heartbreakingly poignant moments resonating with deep-seated, age-spanning themes:
— The centrality of family: A number of Avengers hint at, or flat out articulate, the indispensability of being part of a group to which one is fully and emotionally committed. Natasha Romanoff (aka, the “Black Widow”) confesses she was empty before joining the world-rescuing superhero squad. “I used to have nothing — and then I got … this job, this family. I was better because of this.”
Steve Rogers (“Captain America”), Clint Barton (“Hawkeve”), Tony Stark (“Iron Man”) additionally allude to the essentialness of a beloved clan — and to the hollowing-out of a soul when its presence is lacking or imperiled.
The literal family, recall, was God’s idea from the jump (see Genesis 2:24). He broadens the concept to include the body of believers in Jesus Christ — the “family of God”. He extends hope to the rootless, the solitary, the bereft. “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows … God sets the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:5,6; NKJV)
— Men cannot continue without hope: Endgame is initially stocked with broken, despairing people. A bitter, glaze-eyed Stark, a murderous, memories-haunted Hawkeye, ravaged civilians in a world which has lost half of its population, their loved ones.
“Don’t … give me hope,” snaps one forlorn character.
Of course, Cap, Ant-Man, Thor and Company disregard that plea, seeking rather to restore hope. They realize life can’t proceed — in any meaningful way, at least — without it. Their determination transforms everything.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
— The necessity and nobility of tenacity for a righteous cause: In the final reel of Avengers: Endgame, our champions finally square off against the malevolent, planet-annihilating fiend Thanos. “Yep, we’re all kinds of stubborn,” taunts Iron Man.
Nonetheless, promptly, the Asgardian is nearly killed; Iron Man bested; Captain America hammered to the earth. Yet …
… battered and literally bloody, the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger agonizingly drags himself back onto his feet, defiantly adjusts what’s left of his heretofore indestructible shield; and challenges his gargantuan enemy. Again.
Persistence, perseverance, indefatigability personified. Triumph for the “good guys” ensues shortly thereafter.
“[T]ake up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:13)
— Victory requires sacrifice. Periodically, the pre-eminent sacrifice.
Twice in Endgame a major player willingly lays down his/her life to save comrades and earth.
“The world is in our hands. It’s up to us, guys,” quoth Steve Rogers along the way. “We’ve gotta do something with it.”
Which they do; at terrible personal cost.
Sound familiar? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life … that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)
[Tolkien] knew the myths of the gods who died in a sacrificial way but who would rise again and live, but he did not know them as unconnected to the world of reality and history … [T]he myth of the god who had died and come to life was an echo of a greater story … [O]ne time in history this eternal story had bloomed into reality.”
Over its three hours, Avengers: Endgame, touches other imperishable truths: human purpose and calling, teamwork, free-will, second chances. Could it be an updated, silver-screen iteration of those long-ago lesser myths which gestured toward something much loftier? Toward the Incomparable “Myth” which happens to be historically sound, and through which God beckons everyone?
Here’s hoping this blockbuster weaves that precise effect on the multitudes viewing it: a pivoting from one engaging, inspiring story toward another; the greatest story, in fact, ever told.
Images modified, courtesy of: Screen Shot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQHFYvGdqPM and Julian Nitzsche – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19312164