This post contains spoilers to Avengers Infinity Wars and Endgame. These movies have been out for a couple years, so if you haven’t seen them by now, well, I can’t really blame you.
Recently, someone told me that I haven’t been posting much lately. That much is true. My last post took many months to write, record, and edit. Concurrently, I hand wrote a lot of greeting cards for family and friends over the holidays. My greeting cards tend to be more of a stream of consciousness rather than season’s greetings. One theme that emerged time and time again was an expected friction or apprehension to return to normal as the pandemic wanes. Which brings me to the end of Avengers Infinity Wars and the beginning of Endgame.
I happened to watch Infinity Wars for the first (and only) time on the night before I went to see Endgame, the superhero-soaked conclusion to the decade-long Marvel Cinematic Universe saga—the conclusion until Disney realized that they could make more money by making more Marvel movies in the same vein. For those of you who haven’t seen the movies, a band of superheroes team up to stop the powerful Thanos from completing his goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. They fail to do so.
At the end of Infinity Wars, Thanos had achieved his objective. He had collected all of the “infinity stones”, which granted him godlike power, and with the snap of a finger—literally, he snaps his fingers—half of people in the universe simply disappear. So when I got to the end of the movie, I was very surprised that there was going to be another one after it. Why would there be? The hero, Thanos, who was massively outnumbered by the Avengers and their allies, who’d struggled for ages to finally collect all the stones, was finally able to achieve his goal. What more story was there to tell?
Before you call me a monster, let me explain some of the backstory here.* As a child, Thanos lived through immense poverty and loss, the result of overpopulation in his world. In order to prevent other children from experiencing the same pain that he experienced, he sought to eliminate overpopulation and its deleterious effects from the universe by cutting every sentient population in half. This backstory only further solidifies Thanos’ hero’s journey, as someone who is righting a wrong from his childhood and overcoming hardships to do so and find his peace.
Alas, I am getting off track here. The purpose of this blog post is not to reveal that I am unable to correctly identify the heroes and villains in blockbuster films. Rather, it’s to point to the curious circumstances at the open of the next film, which takes place five years later.
At the beginning of Endgame, we see a decimated society. Apparently the disappearance of half of all people on Earth caused near-complete economic, governmental, and spiritual collapse. We see scenes with garbage piling up in the street, apparently because there are no services to collect it. We see empty sports stadiums, because…. I don’t actually know. We generally just see people downright depressed. At the time, it seemed a bit of an overreaction to the events of the previous film. After major catastrophes, such as world wars, there is a drive to rebuild and grow. Why would there not be a similar mindset here? The stadiums were nearly fully empty, not half empty.
One scene in particular has resurfaced in my mind during this pandemic, causing me to rethink some of my earlier notions. In the scene, Captain America is leading an emotional support group for people still strongly affected by the mass disappearances five years prior. One unnamed person in the group recounts his date from the night prior. He meets his date at a restaurant for dinner. It is filled with awkward silences. At one point, his date starts crying. At another point he starts crying. At the end of the date, they part their separate ways. “Overall, it was a pretty good date,” the man concludes to the support group.
Back in reality, as more the population gets vaccinated and we move towards herd immunity, we will begin to return to activities that were unremarkable before the pandemic that are remarkable now. I haven’t been inside a restaurant in over a year. I haven’t even eaten outside at a restaurant in several months. What emotions will flood forward when we return to previously mundane habits? How many people will cry in restaurants, cafés, gyms, airports, religious gatherings, parties, on a subway car?
Beyond overwhelming emotions accompanying a return to habits, how much friction will there be to return to them in the first place? When can social gatherings no longer be avoided out of caution for public health and safety but rather for a fear of returning to normal? In a recent XKCD comic, Randall Monroe touches upon this idea, with a character blaming the pandemic isolation for his inability to carry a normal human conversation.
I don’t have any answers here. All I have is a nervousness that a return to norms and to past habits will be harder than we all expect. I worry that despite us all saying we want to do nothing more than go out to see family or friends at a restaurant, the expected emotional toll of doing so after so long without may give us pause and trepidation. There’s nothing really to do with this nervousness or worry other than to acknowledge it and move on. Of course, the opposite could be true. I have heard some predictions that by this time next year, the world will have functionally forgotten about the pandemic, for better or worse. Time will tell. In any case, I have gone from finding the opening of Endgame as wildly unrealistic to finding it prescient about why I might cry when eating a taco inside.
*I may be incorrect in recalling some of the details from these films I saw once two years ago. You can try to correct me, but I won’t care.