Caveh Zahedi is an autobiographical filmmaker whose body of work attempts to tell the story of his life as it unfolds. His latest project is the daily podcast 365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die. He is also working on the third season of The Show About the Show, a BRIC TV series in which every episode is about the making of the previous episode. His feature-length films include The Sheik and I (2012), I Am A Sex Addict (2005), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), and A Little Stiff (1991). His short films and other series include Getting Stoned with Caveh, Bob Dylan Hates Me, Tripping with Caveh, and I Was Possessed by God. A box set of his films is available from Factory 25.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead!]
Yesterday, my 10 year-old son googled the word “does.” The first thing that came up was “does iron man die?” The second was “does thanos die?” The third was “does rice have gluten?”
Whether you like Avengers: Endgame or not, it is an important film. It is, at the present moment, a direct pipeline into the collective unconscious – not only is it primed to become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, it is also the final installment and apotheosis of 22 Marvel films which, given the long slow decline of the various religious myths that had previously absorbed our imaginations, now lay claim to being the closest thing to a religious myth for our troubled times.
When Iron Man dies at the end, it is as if Jesus died, and the myth is clearly indebted to the story of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life to save us from eternal damnation.
I, personally, couldn’t care less about Iron Man’s death. But I found myself crying. The man in the row in front of me was sobbing uncontrollably. Others in the audience, mostly adults, were also openly weeping.
I tried to cast Robert Downey Jr. in a film once. Someone I knew knew someone he knew and this person agreed to give Robert Downey Jr. a copy of the script. It was right around the time he was in Hollywood jail for having been arrested for trespassing when he was found high on drugs in someone else’s house. In short, he was on the Hollywood shit list and needed to be rehabilitated.
He ended up turning down the role and the reason given was that he needed to make “bigger films.” He was apparently “broke” at the time, but more importantly, he needed to get his credibility back with the studio system.
A few years later, he was cast to play Iron Man, and the rest is history.
My son, like most kids his age, is obsessed with superheroes. He wore leggings well past the time that it was considered socially acceptable for boys his age and he did it because superheroes wore leggings. I was always proud of his sartorial singularity but at a certain point, social opprobrium overrode his love of superheroes and the leggings were never seen again.
A few days before Avengers: Endgame opened, my ex-wife informed me that screenings were quickly selling out and that I should buy tickets immediately if I wanted to provide our son with the rare and socially-prized gift of taking him to see the film on opening night, a prospect that he was clearly excited about. I was able to get tickets and my son was ecstatic. I felt like a good father.
A few years ago, there was a public feud between Robert Downey Jr. and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Iñárritu had said something mildly critical of superhero films – not that they lacked artistic value but that their stranglehold on the marketplace was having the unfortunate consequence of wiping out other forms of cinema which, while less popular, nevertheless have an important role to play in contemporary culture. In short, he was arguing against a monolithic film culture that worshipped solely at the box office altar.
Robert Downey Jr., who began his career acting in smaller independent films, publicly rebuked Iñárritu by saying that those other forms of cinema were dying not because the superhero films were killing them but because the films were boring and deserved to die.
I, personally, found this annoying: a multi-millionaire was attacking art cinema, a cinema he used to be involved in, by essentially making the mercenary and Philistine claim that the value of art is measured by how many people like it, with no acknowledgment whatsoever of the complexities of aesthetic standards, the problem of accessibility, or the overwhelming power of the publicity machine that the Hollywood studios control. I am no huge fan of Iñárritu, who strikes me as rather Hollywood himself, but by comparison to Robert Downey Jr., he seemed like an ascetic monk with principles.
But here’s the thing: Robert Downey Jr. really and truly is the greatest movie star of our time. His achievement in the Marvel films has always been impressive but his achievement in Avengers: Endgame is nothing short of extraordinary. He embodies the collective unconscious’ projection of how we would like to see ourselves better than anyone.
When I was asked if I would be interested in writing about Avengers: Endgame, I agreed because it occurred to me that my son might get a kick out of it.
When I told my son, he was excited. He immediately asked if he could help me write it and I said sure. He sat down at his computer and started writing his review. He wrote for hours.
His review was pretty good! He used a couple of words incorrectly (“detrimental” instead of “distinctive”), but his reasoning was sound and his insights were, I thought, insightful. Here’s an excerpt from his review:
“The fact that they had multiple ways of time travel took away from the feeling of dread or suspense when they do something wrong, or lose something important, because they can just go back in time and redo that mistake.”
That really is arguably the biggest narrative weakness of the film.
He ended his review with:
“Thanks for reading! Oh no Thanos is snapping me out of existence!”
Here’s what I liked about Avengers: Endgame:
1. The setting up of the stakes for Iron Man in agreeing to risk losing his family in order to try to reverse Thanos’ destruction of half of all human life, including half the Avengers. This narrative device was extremely effective and gave the film a certain tragic grandeur.
2. The introduction of an overweight alcoholic Thor who redeems himself in the end not by re-becoming the ripped Thor of yesteryear but by becoming the person he really is deep down when he’s not acting out the public “role” of immortal protector of Asgard.
3. Thanos is not a two-dimensional bad guy. He means well and is trying to do what’s right. He is a noble if misguided character. Like his daughter says of him at one point, “He’s a lot of things, but dishonest is not one of them.”
4. The film means well. The message that we can defeat evil if we band together, that one person alone can’t defeat the forces of darkness, and that loyalty and forgiveness are cardinal virtues fits perfectly with spiritual traditions everywhere.
5. Robert Downey Jr.
Here’s what I didn’t like about Avengers: Endgame:
1. It reinforces the idea that we are helpless without super powers and that we can sit back and let “heroes” do our work for us. In that sense, it encourages real-life passivity by allowing us to act out our fantasies of agency and power in a virtual way.
2. The narrative weakness involving time travel already mentioned by my 10-year old.
3. It is the perfect expression of the infantilism and immaturity of contemporary culture.
When Captain America becomes “worthy” of Thor’s hammer and it begins to obey him, the audience spontaneously cheered. There was so much backstory to all this – so much history, so much emotion. These characters were real people to the audience members and they reacted to them like they would to loved ones.
My son said he thought the film was too long (it lasts three hours), and that it should have ended before the “last 20 minutes,” by which he meant the scene of Iron Man’s funeral and of Captain America’s undoing of the past in which he didn’t end up with the girl. This time he ends up with the girl and lives a long and happy life of domestic bliss – the same domestic bliss that we, the audience members, tell ourselves we have chosen over our other possible future – being superheroes.
Captain America thus becomes the symbol of the compromise we have all chosen to make in order to live under capitalism whereas Iron Man becomes the symbol of the refusal to compromise that we secretly still aspire to. But they are also best friends and the film, like most allegories, attempts to integrate these normally opposing sides of ourselves.
At the end of the film, Captain America has turned into us – old, anonymous, safe. He is playing small, but he is secretly great. And his choice to prioritize love over heroism is admirable and mature.
Iron Man, on the other hand, represents everything we wish we were (and secretly believe we still are) – brilliant, heroic, funny, and willing to die for what we believe in.
Captain America is no longer willing to die, and neither are we. We, who represent the majority of the country, don’t take to the streets to overthrow a fascist government installed by Putin because we would rather enjoy our domestic tranquility and not risk losing the little bit of happiness we still have. Like Captain America, we are myopic and ahistorical.
Iron Man is the one who dies instead of us. We don’t have to die because he enacted for us our fantasies of grandiosity and absolved us from the need to be superheroes in real life. By acting out our superhero fantasies in the safety of a passion play, we don’t need to bear that cross ourselves.
Iñárritu was right that art films attempt to grapple with the very real problems we face in our daily lives, and that this grappling is important and essential to our survival as a species. Avengers: Endgame, like every other movie in the Marvel universe, represents Capitalism’s latest attempt to subvert, commodify, and ultimately trivialize those very real problems.
You can’t really blame Marvel any more than you can blame Robert Downey Jr. He’s just the spokesman for the people who write his paycheck. His attitude is neither admirable nor high-minded, but it does pay the bills.
And you can’t really blame the viewers who flock to these films in droves instead of taking the trouble to grapple with the uncertainties and discomforts of art cinema. They’re tired, they’re overworked, they’re scared, and who can blame them? Their lives are hard and getting harder all the time.
All you can really do is marvel at what Marvel has created: an entire universe, filled with characters who are the contemporary equivalents of the Greek and Norse Gods, played by actors who are themselves contemporary equivalents of the Gods of yore, acting out the same mythological tropes that the Judeo-Christian tradition has trafficked in for thousands of years. And people are going to this Church. They are attending in droves and they are making the church very rich.
It is a kind of eucharist, a partaking in the blood and body of Christ. Robert Downey Jr. is Christ, Avengers: Endgame is the Passion Play, and the Marvel Universe is our new religion. It’s not a terrible religion, as far as religions go. But, like most religions, the case could certainly be made that it is more opiate than cure, when a cure is what we need right now.