Can a Superhero Story Only End in Death? Spoiler Alert: Not really!

After three solo movies and four Avengers movies, Iron Man’s story arc came to its inevitable conclusion in Avengers: Endgame. There was never any doubt in my mind that this was going to be a swan song, of sorts, the final coda to a character arc that started over ten years ago. I even expected it to be painful. I just didn’t expect it to be nonsensical and rage-inducing.

Or so completely disappointing.

But he saved the world, you say! He got to go out like a hero, no THE hero, you tell me. And Doctor Strange said it had to be him, so what else was he gonna do? Well, allow me to get the eye rolling out of the way now, as you try to convince yourself, and me, of this old-fashioned narrative that a hero’s journey can only end in death.

That the only way for your journey to mean something is if you sacrifice your life for the greater good.

Newsflash: it isn’t.

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We’ve followed Tony Stark on this journey for over 10 real life years and over 15 on screen ones. We knew him when he was a selfish womanizer, and we saw him grow into a man who wanted to do good, into the kind of hero that the world deserved, and into the kind of man who could marry Pepper Potts and be the father of her kid.

And yet, it wasn’t an easy, straightforward journey. We saw him struggle with the weight of it all, with balance, with how to do the right thing and still have a life. We saw him fight PTSD and anxiety, and somehow, continue to move forward. We learned that it is true what they say about not what you grow to be being more important than what you’re born.

Only to then have all those messages basically hand waved away because, I mean, how else could the audience know that Tony was really and truly a hero if he didn’t sacrifice himself to save the entire world?

Never mind that there were at least two, presumably more, characters on that same battlefield as Tony who could have likely put on the gauntlet and snapped their fingers to take out Thanos without, you know, dying. Never mind that he had remarked, time and time again, that he wanted to do this and go back to his family, that his family came first, that he didn’t want to die a hero.

All those were just words, things said to make you feel worse when he, inevitably, died so others could live.

But Tony would have done it, you say. That’s been well-documented. And I agree, if he felt he was the only choice, he absolutely would have done it, and he would have done it for the same reasons he didn’t want to do it before, for his family, for Morgan, and hell, for the world. He’s never been the selfish man Cap once accused him of being, and since Avengers one we’ve known Tony would make the ultimate sacrifice, if needed.

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The issue is just that, it wasn’t needed. Narratively, there isn’t anything that points towards Strange’s ‘this is the only thing that will work’ other than, well, Strange actually becoming the mouthpiece of lazy writing by saying that.

In fact, the entire movie makes us feel like a lot of other shit will work, the writers just don’t care to try anything other than OMG SHOCKINGLY KILL THE MAIN CHARACTER.

And hey, that isn’t even the worst part. Though we’ve already discussed our issues with Cap’s ending here, the main problem with Iron Man’s ending is basically this: they gave him Cap’s ending.

I said what I said.

Everything in Captain America’s arc was building towards him being the one to make this sacrifice. He had a ready-made replacement at hand, and literally nothing to lose, as he’d already lost everything. It would have still been eye-roll worthy because it would have pointed to the same problem: killing a character as the only way to end a superhero story, but it would have made more sense, because they were actually building towards it, and not trying to trick us.

The problem was, of course, everyone saw it coming and so the writers – the same ones who wrote Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War AND the Agent Carter TV show, decided it was okay to retcon themselves and give Tony Steve’s ending, cause ZOMG SHOCK VALUE.

And I’m not sure I can ever forgive them for it.

Tony Stark, the one who started it all with his brain, the one who built a suit and who made the world better, the one who carried this universe and this world on his shoulders, by himself, the one who had anxiety and PTSD and had to learn to fight against the crushing feeling in his chest, the one that tried to do what was right, over and over again, that man deserved better than this.

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He deserved better than writers who never favored him or cared much about his POV, he deserved better than to fall to the same old style of storytelling that seems to imply heroes are only those who die. And we, the viewers who invested so much time and heart into this character, into this journey, deserved better too.

We deserved happily ever after. We deserved emotional payoff for the kind of pain Tony had already gone through. Because the thing is, when you make the choice to get invested in a fictional property, you do so under a certain set of rules. It’s like you sign a contract with the creators, in a way. You promise to stick by them, and they promise not to screw you over.

Take Game of Thrones, for example. They never promised us happy endings, and so we have gone into every episode, every season of that show, understanding that anything we put into it, we do it under or own peril. This story isn’t meant to have a happy ending, after all.

No, The MCU didn’t promise us that. The MCU promised us these heroes would win, and when they couldn’t, they would damn well avenge the Earth. They promised us stories of sacrifice, and overcoming great odds. And no, they didn’t promise us a happy ending per se, but they did promise us that our heroes would lose and love, but ultimately win.

And this doesn’t feel like a win. Not even close.

Avengers: Endgame is in theaters now.

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