A Companion piece to Episode 102: Avengers Assemble
Written by Laurel Hostak
Contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
It’s been a few weeks since the 22-film Infinity Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to a close with Avengers: Endgame. We saw beloved characters fall in battle and saw others choose new paths for themselves. It’s a story about passing the baton—or shield, or crown—to the next generation; about peaceful and harmonious transition; about rest and healing after a lifetime’s worth of battle. In this blog, fresh from a second watch, I’d love to explore some of the powerful symbolism of the film beyond what we were able to cover in our recent wrap-up podcast.
Something I was struck by in this film—though it’s absolutely a key symbolic element of many Marvel movies, and pretty much movies in general—was the emphasis on hands. Endgame happens in the shadow of a snap of gauntleted fingers, and its characters’ central objective is to undo that gesture by reassembling the infinity stones and performing their own.
The set-up sequence, taking place a few weeks A.T. (After Thanos), sees several Avengers suit up and follow the cosmic signature to the Mad Titan’s garden planet—and Thor swiftly slices off Thanos’ gauntlet hand (and then his head). It’s a clever callback not only to Thanos’ Infinity War taunt that Thor “should’ve gone for the head,” but also to fans’ cries during the wait between movies. “Why didn’t Doctor Strange cut off Thanos’ arm the way he did with the minion in act one using his portal magic?” It also hearkens to the oft-used loss-of-limb trope (I’m looking at you, Star Wars!) What’s interesting about this instance of a loss of hand/arm is its departure from the typical implications of the pattern. Normally, when a character loses a hand, it’s a symbolic emasculation—whenever you hear me say “symbolic emasculation” on any episode of the Midnight Myth Podcast, you’re encouraged to take a drink—but this didn’t strike me as the intent of Thor’s action here. I’ll come back to this a little later.
To understand the symbolism of literal hands and hand imagery (including gloves and the like) within Endgame, we have to get a little more abstract first. There’s a concept in leadership studies—whether in health, management, religion, or education—that there are three active guides to human existence: Head, Heart, and Hands. The essence of this concept is that people are motivated by a cognitive domain (invoking intellect, logic, and reason), an affective domain (the realm of emotion), and the psychomotor (the realm of physical action). Some people are naturally drawn to one sphere over another. Think of someone close to you. When faced with a choice or a problem that needs solving, is their instinct to reason with it? Do they focus on the emotional impact? Do they act swiftly or forcefully?
These same spheres also offer an intriguing look inside character—especially in ensembles populated with archetypal figures. They can help us round out a group of individuals and create conflict as well as strength in diverse opinions. Turning an eye to the Avengers, these spheres can help us identify each character’s added value to the team, as well as the weaknesses that need to be balanced by the rest of the group.
Iron Man, Tony Stark, is a classic “head.” Quick to remind the others of his genius, Tony’s problem-solving instinct bends toward reason and logic. Think of some of the major conflicts he faces. The vision of his friends and fellow Avengers dead in some kind of calamity; the prospect of signing the Sokovia Accords and accepting government oversight—he reaches conclusions to these dilemmas through rigorous thought. He weighs pros and cons to come up with what he believes to be the most rational solution. Big threat to humanity and the Avengers? Create a special intelligence to protect the earth. Avengers doing damage in the pursuit of saving lives? Put ‘em in check and get the red out of their ledger. While sometimes his solutions colossally fail, it’s often because his over-rationalizing mind shuts out emotional arguments. And this isn’t to say that Tony is exclusively logic-motivated. He makes an emotional sacrifice in the Battle of New York. He arrives at his conclusion about the Sokovia Accords based on an encounter with a grieving mother. He chooses to join the “Time Heist” in Endgame after first refusing, content to remain with his wife and daughter (whom he loves 3000). But his prime motivator is his cognitive sphere; it’s where he is most confident.
Other heads on the Marvel roster include Bruce Banner—while he struggles to control one particular emotion in his relationship to the Hulk, his ultimate comfort zone is in reason and intellect. We get a version of Professor Hulk in Endgame, which nicely illustrates the ultimate self he’s worked so hard to cultivate. He’s softspoken, thoughtful, cautious, and big and green. Rocket Raccoon also qualifies as a “head” in this context. He’s the first to poke holes in the logic of an argument and the last to volunteer for combat. He prizes being the only “non-moron” of the Guardians, but his tough exterior marks a deep tenderness for his leafy co-pilot.
Captain America is easily the “heart” of the Avengers. As the representative of romantic American ideals, he’s the most old-fashioned (literally) of any of the characters. This manifests in his notions about traditional courtship as much as in his relationship to heroism. Steve Rogers is guided by an internal compass of right and wrong. He relies on a moral system that often manifests through emotional intelligence. If something doesn’t “feel right” to Steve, like the Sokovia Accords, then in his mind it probably isn’t right. Instead of pragmatic solutions, he gravitates toward idealistic ones, which sometimes results in other characters calling him naïve. But it’s important not to internalize a hierarchy between “heads” and “hearts.” Logic is not necessarily more desirable or more fruitful than emotion. Cap’s reliance on the feeling or the human impact of a decision is part of what makes him aspirational—and part of why he and Tony balance each other out so perfectly as leaders. There’s tremendous conflict, of course, but these characters recommit to their strengths through each other’s opposition; they become better versions of themselves for their friendship.
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is the other major “heart” of the Avengers. This is fully realized in Endgame as she, a trained assassin suffering from survivor’s guilt, pushes herself beyond reasonable expectations in order to keep her surrogate family together. She maintains a shred of hope that her friend Clint—now on a murderous rampage—can be saved. She offers up her life in exchange for his, for all of those lives Thanos exterminated.
I’ll also throw Hawkeye into this category, though he’s harder to pin down given the pretty big swings in his character and absence from some of the major film moments. But as his wife, Laura, reminds us, his humility (and humanity) are deeply needed by the mess of a team the Avengers have become.
The Incredible Hulk is, unlike his altered Banner, a “hand.” He is defined by action, by force. Though rooted in anger, Hulk’s actions aren’t exacted in clarity of that emotion, and they’re certainly divorced from logic or thought.
This is also where I’ll return to Thor. He’s an emotional being, but he’s also a literal god. His symbol and totem weapon is the hammer, an extension of the hand. A tool for construction and destruction. Later, he’ll assume the axe Stormbreaker, another weapon characterized by its dual creative/destructive nature. Through these tools, Thor harnesses the power of the natural world in thunder. Energy flows through him. He is action, motor function, coordination personified. He calls himself the “strongest Avenger,” and he’s not too far off the mark. Think, too, of how he influences these tools. He extends an open hand, and Mjolnir/Stormbreaker zoom into it. He is symbolized by both tools and gestures. Mjolnir is, furthermore, a litmus test for “worthiness;” only those who meet this condition may wield it.
When we look deeper into the symbolism of these three spheres within the MCU, we start to see gestures and the significance of hands repeat and compound. The Snappening of Infinity War is the most obvious, but it’s a frequent motif that brings an interesting dimension to the idea of superheroism. We think of Doctor Strange, a man who injures his hands in a horrible car accident and thus can no longer perform delicate surgeries. The loss of his dexterity is identity-dissolving for Strange, until he’s able to transform that pain into something new. Connecting with the source of ancient sorcery, he unlocks the power of his mind and his emotional center. He gains an inner sense of right and wrong.
In Infinity War and Endgame, characters are routinely tested through gesture. Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff must use her powers—which emit a telekinetic energy from her hands—in the destruction of her lover to destroy the mind stone. The Hand destroys the Head in opposition to the Heart. Wanda’s efforts prove futile because Head, Heart, and Hand are out of sync. Similarly, the Titan team (Guardians minus Rocket, Peter Parker, Tony Stark) attempt to overpower Thanos by controlling his mind (Mantis/Dr. Strange), and physically challenging him (Spider-Man/Drax), but they fail because of Peter Quill’s over-indulgence in emotional pain. Once again, Head, Heart, and Hand refuse to coalesce, and the effort falls apart. In Endgame, a determined Nebula burns the synthetic flesh off her hand when reaching for the power stone, but soon comes under threat from her past self when their incompatible cognitive and affective networks become entangled.
Thor is perhaps the best example of all; in Infinity War, he succeeds in formulating the best possible plan to defeat Thanos (Head), puts his body on the line to forge a new hand-weapon (HAND), but fails in the execution because a thirst for revenge causes him to savor the killing blow for too long (HEART). He doesn’t, as Thanos remarks, go “for the head,” but for the satisfaction of seeing Thanos’ pain and shame. He goes for the heart. In Endgame, he gets a second chance, but he rashly finishes off the hand and the head when it’s worth nothing. The stones are gone, and Thor has failed this test now twice.
If this disarray, both internal to the characters and external (as in, manifested within the Avengers’ team dynamic), is responsible for their failure, then how can these characters achieve the success of reversing Thanos’ damage? What makes Thanos unbeatable in Infinity War is the confidence that he has united his cognitive, affective, and psychomotor spheres. He is functioning equally between Head (though it’s mad, he genuinely believes his extermination plan is the logical solution to the universe’s greatest problems), Hand (he has collected the infinity stones by proving his physical might), and Heart (he has established, at least to himself and the Stonekeeper, that his plan is more emotionally valuable than Gamora’s life, AND he expresses a need for gratitude from the universe).
Contrary to Thanos’ inner harmony is the disconnected mess of the Avengers and their allies. Torn apart by the Head-Heart conflict of Civil War, they lie in tatters across the galaxy. Individual characters are disproportionately drawn into their comfort spheres, acting out of pure emotion, cold logic, or thoughtless action; teams suffer from a lack of communication between the spheres. Head-driven Tony, heart-driven Steve, and hand-driven Thor can’t win on three different battlefronts—they have to stand together. And internally, each needs to reconcile his own cognitive, affective, and psychomotor guides.
THIS is what Avengers was always about—putting together a team. And if said team, or its individual components, are in disharmony, there’s little hope for lasting success. While ripe for conflict, the myriad strengths of Iron Man, Cap, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye are meant to elevate them, to bring balance (just not the Thanos kind of balance). And this is how they are able to finally defeat him. Iron Man, Cap, and Thor meet Thanos on the battlefield together. And while their greatest individual strengths shine, they each step out of their comfort zones do rely on new spheres of power. Cap wields the weapon of the hand, Mjolnir, and Thor exclaims “I knew it!” with glee and pride—from the heart. Perhaps most importantly, Tony unites the three spheres, proving his inner harmony and completed character arc. He leads from his head, consulting Doctor Strange in the formulation of a complex gambit; from his heart, showing unbridled affection for Peter Parker and volunteering for a true self-sacrifice; and from the hand, wielding the infinity stones in a gauntlet of his own making at great personal cost.
Superheroes are, by nature, beings of power, force, and combat. They are hands. But successful superheroes tap into the energy behind action or violence. They access moral systems, or plan mind-bending time heists. The individual superhero is only as effective as their spirit is harmonious. Over the past decade, we’ve watched this heroes grow from self-absorbed playboys or naive soldiers to capable leaders who are finally ready to be a team. In Endgame, the characters finally celebrate each other’s strengths, bolster each other’s deficiencies, and insist that no one meet this fight alone. The central three (Iron Man/Cap/Thor) lead by example; the outer circle and the next generation take it even further. Sorcerers create magic shields to protect their fellow fighters. Valkyrie catches Spider-Man and helps him ferry the gauntlet. The WOMEN OF MARVEL assemble in a beautiful visualization of empowerment and trust. No one is alone.
Likewise, no one dies alone. Tony Stark, as we shared in our Avengers podcast, gets the classic “good death,” surrounded by family and loved ones. Though it’s untimely, it’s full of grace and gratitude. As Pepper says, he can rest now.