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In the end, the MCU was a saga about failure

A look at the road to Avengers: Endgame

thor in avengers: endgame Marvel Studios

After Avengers: Infinity War, everyone had an idea on how the Avengers could have stopped Thanos. Why didn’t Doctor Strange use the Time Stone? Why didn’t Thor aim for the head? According to the YouTube channel How It Should Have Ended, there are at least five obvious ways the Avengers could have defeated Thanos and prevented the snap.

Except they were always meant to fail. Doctor Strange’s entire plan depended on failure. Falling short was key to each and every moment of growth through Avengers: Endgame, from Tony Stark overlooking who really wielded Stark Industries weapons, to Nick Fury failing to bring the Avengers together in time to prevent Phil Coulson’s death.

Failure, surprisingly, is a theme of the MCU. Here’s how the winding road of defeat brought us to Endgame.

[Ed. note: this post contains spoilers for all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe]

doctor strange casting a green glyph in Doctor Strange Image: Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange accepts death

Doctor Strange has issues — audiences litigated the whitewashing of the already-complicated “Ancient One” character and the “white savior” trope — but the origin story movie prepared us for the defeat of Infinity War and redemption of Endgame by suggesting that failure is a universal lesson.

Stephen Strange is very similar to Tony Stark in terms of hubris and ego, but there’s one key difference: as The Ancient One tells him, Strange excelled in life and his career because of his fear of failure. As a doctor, he could take any case he wants, but he only goes for the glamorous medical cases he knows for sure he’s going to succeed in. He does want to heal people, but on his own terms and with no possibility of failure.

Meanwhile, The Ancient One has her own issues with time and failure. She’s lived several centuries, trying to change the future by preventing catastrophes and avoiding death. Unlike her former student-turned-murderer Kaecillius, The Ancient One seeks eternal life, using dark means to achieve it, even if it is for good reasons. She won’t accept failure, either in the form of her death or some Earth-destroying event, so she uses the powers of the Time Stone and the dark dimension to avoid both. Yet she is fully aware of her future, as Hulk realizes when he asks her about Doctor Strange and she recognizes the name, even if they are years too early.

During the film’s emotional climax, The Ancient One realizes there is no escaping death, and leaves Strange with one last lesson. “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all,” she tells Strange. “It’s not about you.” Just as The Ancient One learned to accept her fate, she tells Strange to forget about his ego, thereby embracing failure and its ability to be a teacher. When facing the evil entity Dormammu, Strange sacrifices himself, dying over and over again dozens of times in order to outsmart Dormammu and defeat him. This would ultimately lead to Doctor Strange’s plan in Infinity War.

thor ragnarok - thor and loki Marvel Studios

Ragnarok humiliates a hero

Out of the original Avengers, Thor got perhaps the rockiest start. Yet another Tony Stark-like a-hole, the movies slapped him on the wrists by taking away his toys – mainly, Mjolnir, his hammer. The original Thor was well received, but it still got a fair share of criticism from audience and critics. Then The Dark World came out and all faith in the God of Thunder was lost. Chris Hemsworth himself told Vanity Fair that he felt responsible for the character’s failure, saying it “became predictable or overly earnest, self-important, and serious. Nothing that was unexpected.” Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok changed that.

Ragnarok is known for gifting Hemsworth a comedic edge, but it goes even further, completely humiliating Thor in ways we don’t really see in superhero movies. The same Vanity Fair article states that it was actually Hemsworth’s idea to rip our idea of Thor to shreds by cutting his godly golden locks and destroying his hammer. After skipping Civil War in order to go out into the Universe to prevent Ragnarok, Thor ends up having to allow Asgard, the place he’s sworn to protect, to be destroyed by a giant lava creature he had easily defeated earlier in the film, while forcing his people to become space refugees.

Though he gains a brother, having finally reconciled with Loki, Thor also loses an eye, as well as the ideal image he had of his father, Odin, who turns out to have been a tyrannical colonizer that terrorized millions. Adding insult to injury, he learns that Jane Foster dumped him offscreen for an unknown reason. Though he comes out of it the relatively upbeat, funny, worthy character we knew, deep inside, Ragnarok changes Thor forever, paving the way for Lebowski Thor in Endgame.

Thor: Ragnarok also carries on the Hulk storyline from Age of Ultron, with Hulk having crashed the Quinjet in Sakaar and become a gladiator champion. We see how Hulk has completely taken over Banner in the movie, using that time to develop his vocabulary to form more complex sentences. Yet with a higher intelligence for the green monster comes higher emotional intelligence, too, as Hulk reveals to Thor that he doesn’t want to return to Earth because he’s hated there. On Sakaar, Hulk is the people’s champion, his muscles providing a reason for people to cheer instead of scream in terror. For once, Hulk is happy, though it comes at the expense of a greater separation between him and Bruce Banner than we’ve seen so far, setting them both on a path to be defeated by Thanos.

Avengers: Infinity War - close-up of Thanos looking down Marvel Studios/Disney

Infinity War is the ultimate failure

If Thor and Hulk hadn’t suffered enough in Ragnarok, the opening scene of Infinity War kicks them while they were down, Thanos’ ship decimating the Asgardian population headed to Earth. Loki, the last remaining member of his family, dies at the Mad Titan’s hand.

This devastates Thor, who, as he reminds Rocket and Groot, is 1,500 years old. An early, poignant scene, perhaps the emotionally strongest one before the snap, shows a vulnerable side of Thor we didn’t know existed. He lost plenty in his previous films, but it wasn’t until he met Thanos that Thor explicitly expresses how miserable he felt, how scared he could get, and how human the God of Thunder really is. This losing streak then motivates our hero, setting him on a path to create a new weapon that can kill Thanos, avenge his people, and replace his hammer.

Thor’s only goal in Infinity War is to deal the killing blow to the Mad Titan. When the moment arrives, Thor fails, injuring Thanos, but ultimately doing nothing to prevent him from snapping his fingers and decimating half the universe. The absolute last straw for Odinson, this just breaks him and sends him down a path of self-hatred, crippling regret and depression. Though it wasn’t just his fault – if anything, Quill was more directly responsible for Thanos succeeding than anyone – he still sees himself as the strongest Avenger who ultimately couldn’t do his job.

Likewise, when Bruce Banner tries to take on Thanos, knowing he’s actually the strongest Avenger (as confirmed by the Quinjet security system), the gamma-radiated creature loses miserably to Thanos — and he freaks out. Remember, Hulk just left a planet that treated him like a celebrity and where he was the undefeated champion, so he probably saw Thanos as yet another puny titan he could easily beat. And as we saw in Endgame, Thanos is still a formidable opponent even without the stones, so it’s perfectly understandable that Hulk then would be traumatized by his defeat, too scared to come back out to fight and lose again.

The path of failure leads back to Stephen Strange. After looking at every possible outcome for the fight against Thanos and realizing success was next to impossible, Strange seemingly makes the dumb choice of not even attempting to use the Time Stone to fight Thanos. Promising it was the only way, he just goes ahead and gives the stone to the Mad Titan, pretty much throwing the towel and dooming half the universe. Like The Ancient One taught him, to succeed one must occasionally fail.

Avengers: Endgame - Thor holding his Stormbreaker Axe as lightning emanates from him Marvel Studios

The second chances of Endgame

What happens to someone who fails to save the world? That’s the question at the center of Avengers: Endgame.Filled not with grief, but with regret and anger, Thor begins his arc in Endgame with one goal in mind: chop Thanos’ head. Yet when he does cut off the Mad Titan’s arm and head, he discovers how utterly meaningless that goal was. He didn’t change anything. The stones are gone, his friends are still dead, and he still failed.

After the tremendous loss and sense of personal failure Thor went through, he retreats to “New Asgard” and spends the next five years drinking the pain away and playing video games. His spirit is broken, his purpose is non-existent, and the former God is now a PTSD-ridden husk of his former self. His beard and hair are long and ragged, his bathrobe dirty, and his abs replaced by a considerable beer belly, that keeps him buzzed throughout most of the film.

Thor becomes the target of too many fat jokes, but he doesn’t seem to care about that, he’s crushed under the weight of what was expected of him and his failure to achieve what he was meant to do. This is the lowest point we have ever seen a superhero, especially one that started so high and mighty his dad had to send him to New Mexico to learn how to become a better person. It is also the first time the MCU has dealt with depression in such a nuanced way since the underrated Iron Man 3.

Only when he is reunited with his mom via time travel does Thor learn the same lesson that made Stephen Strange give up the Time Stone five years earlier: one can’t completely escape failure, because to fail is to be human. Frigga tells her son that he can’t ever be what he is expected to be, but that the best he can do is succeed at being who he is. It is in this moment, as Thor summons Mjolnir and realizes he’s still worthy and free of his own expectations. From there, he paves a path towards self-acceptance that empowers him, but doesn’t magically fix his physical appearance. Thor owns his new look and the emotional scars that brought him here.

Hulk also goes through his lowest moment, though he sadly goes though it off-screen. Arguably the only one to come out of Infinity War better than he was before, Bruce Banner finally stopped trying to get rid of Hulk, but instead accepting him as part of himself. This is a huge step forward for the man who once tried to shoot himself before the other guy spat the bullet out. He figured out how to find balance, and managed to blend Hulk’s might and Bruce’s mind in the same body.

Hulk is a character defined by duality, a fear of himself. It is only when both Banner and Hulk meet tremendous defeat that they finally realize they can stop fighting one another and what is expected of them, and instead be who they are. We can only hope there’s a 30-minute deleted scene of Bruce figuring out the science to merge with the Hulk…

During Hulk’s trip back to 2012 New York, when The Ancient One returns to the screen, we finally understand Doctor Strange’s plan. Just as he lost against Dormammu in order to defeat him, Strange realized that in order to beat Thanos, the Avengers had to be at their most vulnerable, so they had to suffer their worst defeat.

Strange gives the Time Stone away to Thanos so he could fulfill his plan to decimate half the universe, knowing that he’d probably destroy the stones so the snap couldn’t be undone. Strange relied on this essentially breaking everyone’s spirits in order for them to be desperate enough to follow Ant-Man’s ridiculous time-heist plan. Whether or not Strange knew or cared about the rules of time travel and the timeline branches is unclear, but he knew he had to wait and see everything unfold. The key to this plan working was The Ancient One, who we see reacts in shock when told that Strange gave the stone away willingly, breaking his oath of protecting it.

“He’s supposed to be the best of us” says The Ancient One, and it’s true. Only when she realizes Strange allowed everyone to fail does she understand it must have been all part of a greater plan.

The plan works. If it wasn’t for Strange giving away the Time Stone, Tony Stark would have most likely died in Infinity War, Thanos would have probably still managed to kill Strange and take the stone. The difference would be that without Tony the Avengers could never figure out time travel, nor would have Tony be able to sacrifice himself to save the Earth from Thanos. It was though failure that they managed to be successful and fulfill the promise they made all those years ago: “If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it.”

Rafael Motamayor is a freelance TV/film critic and reporter living in Norway. You can find more of his work here, or follow him on Twitter @RafaelMotamayor.

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