What Marvel Knew Before We Did: That we need (and want) to talk about our traumas
*For the purpose of this blog I am consciously limiting plot spoilers from Endgame, with the exception of a couple quoted conversations between characters. *
In the spirit of transparency, I’m a relatively new Marvel fan. I just learned last night how many total movies there are, and I’ve never read a comic. But Saturday, I went to go see Endgame.
Last June when Infinity War came out, I was having dinner with my teenage nephew. While we were hanging out, he’d suggested that we go see the latest Marvel release. Knowing little more than that, I agreed, unaware that I’d be in for a pretty emotional movie, and left with an unresolved ending.
Over dinner we discussed what sounds heavy, but was at the time very casual. Our experiences of PTSD. He’d just been introduced to the term “hypervigilance,” — the state of being extremely alert and sensitive to stimuli — and we were bonding over how that affects us.
Five years earlier, my brother, who is his father, died suddenly. My brother also experienced PTSD. My brother was the person who introduced me to Marvel, and I realized during that conversation that it filled a similar purpose in our relationship. The backdrop of superheroes provided fertile ground for discussing our personal lives, and especially our traumas. The fictional storylines allowed us to open casually, heavy conversations, whether or not we realized or acknowledged that fact.
What is clear to me now after seeing both Infinity War and Endgame, is that the comics and their cinematic spin-offs cast a perfect backdrop for talking honestly about personal and collective trauma. It’s effective because that terminology is never directly used.
Instead, each superhero reveals a complicated relationship with the rest of their identity, their childhoods, their reactions to loss, the way their lives as superheroes create consequences elsewhere.
There’s a beautiful moment that captures this within Endgame. Tony Stark and Pepper are sitting on the couch together, and Tony is trying to avoid resuming his role as Iron Man. He tells Pepper that something in him is saying that he should just stop. Quietly she responds, “I’ve learned that it is not my job to stop you.” Their relationship suffered when he attempted to give up a central part of himself. Both of them sit in the tragedy of finally finding each other and starting a family after losing half of the world. Tony recognizes how lucky they are; he doesn’t want to jinx it. Pepper asks him astutely, “If you drop this, will you be able to rest?”
That word choice is relevant, because an inability to rest highlights a central element of trauma. The fact that it differentiates being physically present, and being emotionally connected to the present. The fact that responding to a trauma can introduce an overdrive setting, where our mind recoils at the idea of rest, unable to relax. The fact that relationships have to grapple with emotional unavailability, emotional highs and lows, narratives and needs that exasperate each other.
That’s exactly what we see between Tony Stark and Captain America; a grief-induced anger that has to thaw before it can overcome their estrangement. But it also requires an evolution of self-awareness, that reengages only by setting boundaries, stating priorities, and taking time first. This transformation of self and relationships is what creates our attachment to the Marvel Universe. It creates the feeling that something humanizes how trauma affects us — even the most super among us — and still offers time for increased health and maturity: relationships that include intimacy, frequently following times of betrayal and separation.
CNN reported that Endgame made an estimated $1.2 billion at the worldwide box office for its opening. One of at least 25 Marvel movies created such magnetism that the creators urged fans emphatically not to spoil the film for others. Marvel didn’t want fans to rob people of the chance to experience the movie for themselves, out of an appreciation for what about it taps into somewhere personal and complex within us.
What we may keep missing in our conversations, a part of us understands as consumers of this series. That grief and loss require time to process, and what that grief symbolizes and evokes is specific. Specific because our personal experiences are specific, and creating a narrative is intended to help us navigate what we’ve experienced that is unique, and what we’ve experienced that is shared.
The events in my life and my nephew’s, and my brother’s that resulted in PTSD are not shared, but the emotions represented in a storyline allow us a way to talk to each other as we sort out what’s significant. Some part of us gravitates towards outlets that help us identify with our grief and trauma, and that is best done through authentic character development, and authentic relationship evolution.
How any story ends is less important than our impression that it moves, and that if it can move, and heal, than maybe we can too. It can move us somewhere that doesn’t end in more tragedy, and that costs us both time and predictability. Indeed, it is just that lack of predictability that keeps you waiting through credits for just one more clue of what could come after this.