First and foremost, this is a film about restoration. After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe, the Avengers immediately search for a way to undo the snap—that is, to go back to the way things were. Rather than accept depopulation as an immutable fact beyond their control, earth’s mightiest heroes view it in much the same way some populist conservatives view globalization: as the product of contingent choices made by individual agents, reversible with enough wit and willpower. “I am inevitable,” Thanos declares at two points in the film—once before he is decapitated, then again before he is vaporized. It’s a not-so-subtle “eff you” to deterministic modes of thinking, made all the more pungent by the fact that the Avengers do succeed in bringing back their fallen comrades.
Well, most of them. Those who died before the snap stay dead, and Iron Man and Black Widow both end up sacrificing themselves before the credits roll. Nor do the five years between Infinity Warand Endgame simply go away; they remain an indelible part of history, and, if the new Spider-Man trailer is any indication, of memory too. But all this just underlines the conservatism of Endgame. It shows that restoration need not be utopian or quixotic, that the goal isn’t to rewind so much as to rebuild—and that progress will never mean paradise, at least not in what Augustine of Hippo called “the city of man.”
Thanos, however, disagrees. For him, the city of man can become the city of god right here and now—provided, of course, that one commits genocide. As he explains to Gamora in Infinity War: “Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”
The problem, he goes on, is that “this universe is finite, its resources [are] finite…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”
Sound familiar? Thanos’s rhetoric, inspired by Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), parallels the anti-natalism of today’s environmental movement, which has begun questioning whether it is ethical to have kids when, according to the World Economic Forum, “our planet is on the brink”—of flood, of famine, and everything in between. It’s not just that people cause problems by depleting vital, life-giving resources; it’s that people as such are problems under conditions of extreme scarcity, because each individual will experience so much pain and hardship that they would be better off not being born at all. “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” For her, as for the Mad Titan, nonexistence can be a blessing.
Of course Thanos has no interest in sterilizing the universe, or in developing some trans-species form of birth control. The poor, the hungry, the diseased already exist, so the merciful thing to do is [checks notes] kill them. In this, Thanos is just one shade darker than Planned Parenthood—another magenta Moloch—whose acolytes justify abortion with strikingly similar logic: If a woman can’t give her child a comfortable life, the thinking goes—comfort as defined by elites—then maybe terminating it in utero is actually a kindness: to the child, which is saved a lifetime of suffering, and to society, which is saved a lifetime of palliative care. Abortion advocates vary in their Thanosianism, to be sure, and by my lights killing millions of fetuses is not quite as bad as killing millions of adults, if only because the latter have attachments and experiences the former lack. But even so, Endgame seems more pro-life than pro-choice, its ethical core more deontic than utilitarian. As Captain America reminds Vision in Infinity War, “We don’t trade lives.”
Restoring the fallen won’t be easy, however, for it turns out Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones; there is no longer any way to bring back Bucky or Black Panther or Spider-Man or Scarlet Witch—at least not at present.
But the stones do still exist in the past, scattered throughout various quadrants of space-time. Hence the Avengers embark on a trans-temporal heist, made possible by nascent leaps in quantum technology, and attempt to retrieve their last hope of a do-over.
It’s telling that the resources for restoration can only be found—literally—in bygone eras (1970–2014), having been expunged by a self-declared agent of progress. Sometimes, Endgame submits, our present order doesn’t have answers; sometimes, the only way through is back. …
Endgame ends on a simple, human note. After returning the stones to their original position, Captain America doesn’t come back, at least not right away. Instead, he travels all the way to the 1940s—before Loki, before Thanos, before the sexual revolution—and marries his long-lost sweetheart Peggy. We last glimpse the two lovers slow-dancing in an American bungalow, jazz playing in the background: a model of bourgeois respectability that has sadly come and gone, but which, Endgame hints, might be resurrected once more.
Aaron Sibarium’s analysis of Avengers: Endgame as fundamentally a conservative film strikes me as basically correct. And given that it’s presently the second highest-grossing film in history, it suggests that huge numbers of people are open to (even enthusiastic about) conservative projects of cultural restoration, in whatever sense.