Note: This article discusses plot details from Avengers: Endgame and its predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War.
One of the things Avengers: Endgame gets right is the mournful, elegiac tone it establishes even before the film gets to the fluttering pages of the Marvel Studios logo. Audiences are presumably coming into Endgame, the second half of a story that began in Infinity War, with the understanding that we’re starting from a very bleak position: Thanos made good on his threat, snapped his fingers, and wiped out half of all existence. Last time around, we watched as the protagonists of 19 earlier films saw themselves and their friends disappear into wisps of dust. Things are not good.
So it’s a pleasant upending of expectations when the movie abruptly begins on an idyllic scene, as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), a.k.a. Hawkeye, is preparing for a picnic with his family, teaching his daughter archery, and laughing as his spouse needles him while his sons play catch. Hawkeye, recall, was absent from Infinity War, and so there’s a sense of disconnect between this moment and the ones that came before it; because the character wasn’t around during that gradually unfolding disaster, he and his relatives seem to be living in a different world altogether. Our brains haven’t aligned him with what happened—which is why it’s such an effective twist when everyone around him evaporates into nothingness.
It’s not even a twist so much as a jarring reintroduction to the narrative stakes that have already been established. Indeed, the best twists aren’t the ones that come out of nowhere (those tend to be the worst and most unjustified) but rather those that confront the audience with what they already know but may have forgotten, thanks to the skillful misdirection of the filmmaking. You may have had a vague sinking feeling from the instant the cheery family started laughing and joking (a quick poll at The A.V. Club office reveals a majority suspected it was coming), but the film still manages to catch us off guard in the timing, as the vanishing cleverly takes place in a half-second between playful lines of dialogue, essentially cutting ahead of the normal pacing for such a significant reveal. The Russo brothers succeed in making this an affecting wrinkle because the emotional force of taking a relatable familial moment, then stripping everything from the person whose eyes we’re seeing it through, is a potent storytelling strategy. Even if you hadn’t seen Age Of Ultron, which set up Barton’s happy home life, this technique works. And Marvel should know—it applied the exact same gambit once already.
I’ve previously argued that Ant-Man And The Wasp’s mid-credits stinger is the best one the MCU has yet delivered, and with good reason: As opposed to the tossed-off jokes and lazy “tune in next time!” function of so many of these extraneous scenes, it actually told a story in miniature (no pun intended), delivering stakes and an emotional payoff that was germane to what had come before and significantly affected what was to come. It worked so well, it seems, that the Russo brothers basically imported the entire structure over for the beginning of Endgame.
For those who haven’t seen it (or forgotten it in the seemingly endless build-up to Marvel’s latest blockbuster), the scene is simple: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is about to make his first return trip to the quantum realm, the subatomic reality where he plans to harvest some particles and then quickly return to our dimension. It’s a family affair, with Scott; his partner and newly rekindled significant other, Hope (Evangeline Lilly); and her recently reunited parents (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer) all working together to complete the mission, laughing and teasing one another and basically keeping everything light and affectionate. Which is what makes it a powerful coda when the camera cuts to Hank, Janet, and Hope all crumbling to dust. The stakes have now been set for Ant-Man’s unfortunate introduction to the events of Infinity War. Sound familiar?
It’s not surprising this setup was reused. It’s a common ploy for superhero narratives: Take away everyone our hero cares about and leave them stranded and despairing, the better to push them forward into the next step of their evolution. But it’s interesting to see it essentially used back-to-back for identical purposes: Given Captain Marvel was a period piece set in the ’90s, the end of Ant-Man And The Wasp was for all intents and purposes the last we saw of the current state of the MCU until the first moments we fade in on the Barton family picnic in Endgame. So we get two versions of the scenario—used the first time to leave us in a state of downbeat anxiety during the wait between films, and the second time to reintroduce us to the present circumstances via the same strategy.
And it works both times, largely because of the skill of the respective directors, but also because we’re coming into these moments with the weight of all that’s transpired before. A less sympathetic read could fault it as being symptomatic of the Marvel house style—you’re basically getting the same kind of story every time, the usual ingredients slightly rearranged so as to appear just fresh enough. But like many other stories, these mini-narratives featuring Hawkeye and Ant-Man are modeled on one element of Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces, the archetypal journey countless characters from dramas past and present have traversed. In this case, they’re almost reflections of one another, mirror images showing what our protagonists have lost, in order to begin the story of what they’re trying to regain.