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The False Catharsis of Avengers: Endgame

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Now on a record shattering run that should be of no surprise to anyone, Avengers: Endgame offers a multitude of possibilities for writing assignments, ranging from a close reading of the movie itself to an analysis of the entire Avengers film franchise and beyond to a reflection on a system of violent ongoing sagas that includes Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and even The Walking Dead—not to mention the rest of the Marvel universe.

I am not going to attempt anything of the sort in this brief blog, but instead want to propose a different kind of assignment, one that has semiotic implications but begins in a kind of personal phenomenology much akin to a reader-response analysis. This assignment would probably be best be composed in the form of a student journal entry posing the question: How does an ongoing story line that appears to reach some sort of conclusion (including the deaths or "retirement" of major characters), but which I know is not really over at all affect me and my sense of reality?

What I'm aiming at here is for students to become aware of what could be called the "false catharsis" involved in movies like Avengers: Endgame, which pretend to bring a vast arc of interwoven stories to an end, but which viewers know perfectly well is not over at all. Disney has too much at stake to allow Iron Man, for example, to stay dead, or for Captain America to remain retired, and what with the unlimited resources that fantasy storytelling has at hand to reverse the past and reconstruct the present and future, you can be pretty certain that everyone will be back.

In exploring the implications of what could well be called "eternity storytelling," consider the effect of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop if his readers knew that Little Nell would be brought back in one way or another in a future novel. Or what the impact of the Iliad would be if Hector rose from the grave in a future installment of Trojan War Forever? Or (to go all the way back) how it would be if, in Gilgamesh II, the king of Uruk were to discover a time-traveler's ring that enabled him to go back to retrieve the lost plant-that-gives-eternal life and revive Enkidu after all?

You see what I'm getting at? There can be no true tragedy in a story like Avengers: Endgame, only a consumerist fantasy that lets you have your tragic cake and eat it too, purchasing your way into an impossible realm in which death and destruction are reversible and the story always goes on.

This is what I mean by a "false catharsis." In a true dramatic catharsis, there is a tragic recognition of the inexorable limits of human being. That recognition isn't pleasurable and it isn't fun, but it does offer a solemn glimpse into a reality that is vaster than we are, and with that glimpse, a certain dignity and wisdom.

But that doesn't sell tickets.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1239698 by ralpoonvast used under the Pixabay License.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.