Endgame, Time Travel, and Cinderella

Note: some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.

Avengers: Endgame is a time travel story, and like many a pop culture time travel story, it has led to head-scratching and nit-picking among fans about the precise mechanics. Are there now multiple universes? Can characters cross between them? Can you change the past or not? Is Evil Nebula actually dead? Did Old Man Steve live out his life with Peggy in another timeline, or has he been living in secret in our universe for the last seventy years?

Since time travel is not, as far as we know, actually possible, we can’t invoke real-world physics to resolve these problems. We have to work with the rules as established by the story. The trouble is that the story’s rules don’t seem consistent. This is a common problem with time travel stories—Endgame even takes a few pot shots at the temporal mechanics of earlier movies.

The fundamental problem with time travel stories is that it is almost impossible to construct a set of rules for time travel that are internally consistent but also allow for change. (Consider the classic paradox: can you go back in time and kill your younger self?) Yet change is what stories are about: if everything is the same at the end of the story as at the beginning, why tell it?

Some stories edge around this problem by making the story be about making sure that things happen as they should, like Back to the Future or Star Trek‘s “City on the Edge of Forever,” but even these stories start from a premise that the past can be changed, which leads to the same problems.

Time travel may be a new concept, but these sorts of internal contradictions have been part of storytelling forever. Consider the story of Cinderella. This fairy tale is so familiar to most of us that we don’t often think about what’s wrong with it. Let’s review:

Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a servant. One day, Cinderella’s fairy godmother gives her a magical gift so that she can go to the prince’s ball: she changes Cinderella’s rags into a wonderful gown and glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a fancy coach and field mice into footmen so that she can arrive with a splash. There’s a catch, though: at the stroke of midnight, the spell will end and everything will turn back into what it was before. Cinderella is a hit at the ball and dances with the prince, who falls for her, but once the clock begins to strike midnight she suddenly runs for the door. She is in such a rush that she looses one of her glass slippers on the steps and can’t go back for it. The prince finds the glass slipper and, determined to find the lady he was dancing with, searches the kingdom for the maiden whose foot fits the slipper. He finds Cinderella, marries her, and they live happily ever after.

Do you see the problem?

Why didn’t the glass slipper change back to a ragged old shoe along with everything else?

The magic in the story is not internally consistent. Without the midnight expiration date, Cinderella has no reason to rush from the ball and leave a slipper behind so that the prince can find her, but if the slipper she leaves changes back like all the rest of her magic gear, the prince has no way to know that it’s hers and go looking for her. Even though we’re talking about magic, not time travel, Cinderella runs into the same internal contradictions that pop up in Back to the Future or Endgame.

Generations upon generations of children have grown up with this story, very few of them ever troubled by its inconsistencies. Now, you could argue that that’s because children don’t have well-developed logical faculties, but I prefer a simpler explanation: it doesn’t matter.

Folklore and fairy tales are the most economical form of storytelling. Oral tradition strips tales down to their most important elements, and the most important thing in a story is what happens to the characters. All that matters in the end is that Cinderella and her prince get their happily ever after. Everything else in the story exists to serve that purpose, and can be bent, broken, twisted, or turned however it needs to be in order to get there.

Magic exists in stories to serve the human narrative. Often, serving this purpose requires consistency, to present our heroes with challenges to overcome and rules that can’t be broken (but which a clever hero can circumvent or turn to their own advantage), but when it gets in the way of the story, magic just steps aside so that the thing that should happen can happen. The same applies to time travel (which is really just magic for a technological age).

So Steve and Peggy get to have their happily ever after, and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how or why.

Image: Steve Rogers looking at Peggy Carter’s picture via Giphy

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

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Random Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

It took us a while to get to see Avengers: Endgame a second time, but here we finally are. As usual, thoughts in no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts

What worked:

  • It was partly what I expected, but only partly. Mostly it was really not at all what I thought it would be. That’s great.
  • So many smaller Marvel characters we’ve glimpsed over the years got brief moments, if not a line or two.
  • A Stan Lee cameo for one more (last?) time.
  • The pacing was quite good; the movie did not feel three hours long. While Avengers: Infinity War felt stuffed to the gills, parts of A:E felt almost meditative. The slow lead down to the final fight (because of course there has to be a big final fight) was especially welcome. I might have wanted to see the post-snap world (not just USA) get more development, but what can you do—the movie is already so long.
  • Jeremy Renner got some very emotional stuff to perform, and he was especially great. Kudos.
  • So much of the dialogue is so funny, especially Ant-Man’s!
  • Captain America’s second elevator scene at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters with H.Y.D.R.A. agents. Thih!
  • At the big final fight, it was great to see several characters—pun fully intended—running the gauntlet with the gauntlet. Teamwork!
  • The women of Marvel got to assemble, too (albeit in one token moment).
  • It was interesting that they kept Thor’s beer belly all the way to the end and specifically didn’t clean him up with Asgardian magic or whatever.

What I absolutely LOVED:

  • How BEAUTIFUL everything looked. I know new special effects have been developed along these 22 movies, and Marvel’s really got them down now. Also, the cinematographer Trent Opaloch did an awesome job again, and the special effects teams seemed to have had more time to work (compared to A:IW).
  • Tony Stark with his daughter—LOVED him in those scenes.
  • Captain America vs. Captain America. *snicker*
  • Professor Hulk’s tete-a-tete with the Ancient One remained verbal after the initial yoinking-out-of-physical-body.
  • Nat and Clint were clearly shown to be good friends, not romantic partners. Same for Nat and Cap.
  • Director Carter. 🙂
  • So many of the men cried at many different points in the story. Because men are not monsters.
  • When Clint came back alone from Vormir, there was literally no dialogue while the rest were trying to come to grips with Nat’s death. Amazing scene, amazing acting!
  • When Professor Hulk first attempted to undo the snap and the rest were wondering whether it worked, Scott Lang went to the window and looked at the birds, absolutely delighted. Great stuff.
  • All of the snap-ashed supers and super groups showing up to stand by Captain America’s side for the final fight. YIBAMBE!
  • Captain America wielding Mjölnir! Aaaaah! I knew he could!
  • Avengers: assemble!
  • Okoye and Shuri! And Pepper Potts in an Iron Suit!
  • Yes, Peter Parker, genuine hugs are really nice.
  • Sam as the new Captain America.
  • That the best, most touching moments weren’t about fisticuffs but people and the relationships between people. Supers are still people, at least in these stories, as are the rest of us.

What I thought wasn’t optimal:

  • The beginning of the movie could have included Captain Marvel’s arrival to the compound.
  • Considering how little time Nebula had in the previous movies, it was odd how much time she had in A:E.
  • As great as it was to see side characters pop up here and there, I miss Maria Hill; she was barely there. (Like Nick Fury, only at Tony’s funeral.) We didn’t see Luis from Ant-Man, either.
  • Hawkeye’s vigilante storyline felt like it was copypasted straight from comics. (I’ve no idea; haven’t read any of those.) As interesting as that might have been, it felt disconnected from everything else tonally and emotionally. I get that that the intent was to have Nat poetically give Clint a chance just like he gave her one, but the integration of the story should’ve been handled better.
  • For such an ensemble movie, it was oddly low in actual team stuff. The main focus and space were on Tony Stark, Captain America, and Thor. Too many moments on those three for an Avengers story, especially when they picked the dudes who already have their own franchises.
  • Speaking of Thor: satisfying hammer-axe action, disappointingly little thunder and lightning.
  • The time-travel plot gimmick felt exactly like that, a gimmick instead of A Rational Plot. Besides, how was Steve able to marry Peggy if doodling with time wasn’t supposed to work that way?
  • What’s this rubbish about barely having Black Panther there?
  • At Stark’s funeral, there was one young dude I didn’t recognize. Apparently he was the young kid from Iron Man 3. O-kay; he wasn’t well integrated at all.
  • Captain Marvel was MASSIVELY underused. What’s the point of having a star player and building up her impact in stingers and trailers if you’re going to bench her for most of the film? Absurd. (I did read a comment online saying that the basic edit of A:E was locked down before Captain Marvel even finished filming. If so, it still doesn’t justify the bad balancing act in the stingers and trailers.)
  • The same also applies to Thor, Doctor Strange, and Scarlet Witch. Doctor Strange had nothing plot-related to do in this film? Really?! You could perhaps argue that acquiring the beer belly might’ve affected Thor’s ability to control lightning; then again, he wasn’t affectected at all by losing an eye in Thor: Ragnarok, so not really. And what on earth was stopping Wanda from either mind controlling Thanos or snapping a bunch of capillaries in his brain!? Marvel really must get its act together and start actually using powerful characters, including the women, as long as they keep insisting on incorporating them into the MCU.
  • Peter Quill got what was coming to him—getting kneed into his privates—for touching someone out of the blue like that, but it didn’t feel satisfactory at all. He needs to have some sense written into him, but this wasn’t the way and I doubt he learned anything.
  • At the very end, Steve’s Old Man Beige(TM) jacket gave me the creeps. Where is it writ that Upon Attaining a Venerable Age, Men Must Wear Beige?!?

What I hated:

  • Thor’s PTSD was a plausible story arc, but done clumsily—too much focus (literally!) was placed on his beer belly, which was played for laughs.
  • Tony Stark may be great with his daughter, but otherwise he’s sill a jerk: asking Pepper a question, then interrupting her in the next breath; all of his needs and wants overriding hers. So, basically, the only time Tony thinks a woman is worthy of respectful treatment is when she’s literally sprung from his own DNA? FFS.
  • If Nebula knew, for her not to have told the Avengers what getting the soulstone requires was nigh on sadistic and not in line with the Nebula the movie spent its beginning establishing. If she merely suspected, it still isn’t in line with the new Nebula. At least she did mention Gamora died on Vormir.
  • You can argue back and forth whether it should’ve been Nat or Clint who got to sacrifice themselves. Since they went the way they did, the fact remains that the writers have now killed two characters for the soulstone, and both are women. It was tiresome already in A:IW (as we see so many dead women in American entertainment which MCU stories are part of—nothing is created in a vacuum). Now they’ve stepped it up (remember how both broken bodies were on display on screen?). The most spot-on comment on this I’ve seen: “’Vormir’ means ‘refrigerator’, right?” Or, in a longer take: “I don’t think anyone involved in making Infinity War understood how viscerally disturbing Gamora’s death was, especially for women in the audience—to be murdered by your abuser in what he claims to be proof of his love, and to have the universe itself validate that proof by giving him what he wants in exchange.” Disgusting.
  • Where was Natasha’s funeral? Why were the men allowed to wallow after losing people, but Pepper got, what, 15 seconds? This stinks of fridging: women die for men to Have Feels.
  • When the women of Marvel got to assemble (albeit in a way that felt forced), they were pretty much stopped there; not even 60 seconds. A:IW had a better all-women fight scene.

What questions I was left with:

  • Um, wasn’t the whole point with Laura and their kids that Clint explicitly wanted to keep ’em off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar? (It was mentioned in Avengers: Age of Ultron.) We see him wearing an ankle monitor, which means they’re exposed to at least one agency, possibly many. And he was fine with it??
  • What about phase 4??? Seems like whichever way you look, there’s a lot (a lot!) to explain after A:E, and that doesn’t sound like an easy task.

 

Erik’s random thoughts

My random thoughts come in two varieties: gripes and cheers.

The gripes:

  • This is a movie trying to do too much. It has too many characters to serve, too many plots to ravel up, too many nostalgia beats to hit, too much narrative debt to pay off. As with Infinity War before it, it is a tribute to the writers and directors that this movie works at all, but it still feels like twenty pounds of story in a ten-pound bag.
  • Given that the movie is overstuffed, it is no surprise that most of my problems with it concern the things it doesn’t have time for. It is perhaps unfair to complain that a movie with several dozen heroes doesn’t spend enough time with some of them, but there a few cases that feel particularly galling. Chief among those is Captain Marvel. After a movie and two stingers building up her potential as a game-changing hero, she barely appears in Endgame. Her most significant contribution to the plot is delivering Tony Stark back to Earth, after which she disappears for most of the rest of the runtime. The movie practically spends more time making excuses for Carol Danvers’s absence than it does explaining the central time heist.
  • The movie’s handling of women in general is pretty awful. They mostly appear as emotional supports to men or in roles so small as to be effectively meaningless. When the female heroes assemble in the midst of the final battle, all they really get to do is pose together before the general melee resumes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a problem with is female characters for the whole decade, yet the fact that the filmmakers evidently thought a quick photo-op in a three-hour movie was good enough is somehow even more enraging than the usual neglect.
  • In a similar vein, it is not nothing that this movie includes the first openly, explicitly gay character in the MCU, and the fact that he is taken seriously as a person, without comment or surprise—and by Captain America, no less—is unequivocally good. At the same time, an unnamed throwaway character in a scene that does not advance the plot and will be easy to edit out in less tolerant markets is about as close to nothing as you can get.
  • There is a reason why the original Avengers movie worked so brilliantly: not only did the movie as a whole have a clear narrative line, but all of the major characters had their own arcs. You could watch it as an Iron Man movie, a Captain America movie, a Hulk movie, a Thor movie, a Black Widow movie, even a Hawkeye movie, and it worked. If Avengers proved that there can be room for six main characters in a movie, Infinty War and Endgame have proved that there isn’t room for several dozen. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are the only characters who really have narrative throughlines in the movie. Thor and Bruce Banner each get a couple of good scenes, but not enough for a real story. Natasha and Clint have the suggestion of a story without really getting time to develop.
  • Another thing that made Avengers so successful is that, of all the movies Tony Stark has appeared in, Avengers is the one least dominated by his emotional issues. Endgame sadly falls right into line, devoting more screen time to Tony Stark’s feelings than to anything else.

The cheers:

  • While the whole of this movie may be less than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are pretty good. The scene between Nat and Clint on Vormir sticks out in my mind. For the two poor relations of the Avengers, it was a haunting, beautifully-acted performance that showed the depths of their friendship in a way that has only been hinted at before. I could not guess which of them was going to fall, but it was clear that it would be heartbreaking either way.
  • I appreciated that this movie took the time to show us a post-snap world, even if only in a fragmentary way.
  • A lovely, tiny detail of character development: Tony and Pepper’s daughter tells Tony “I love you 3,000.” When recording a message for her, he says: “I love you 3,000.” Not 3,001 or 4,000, but the same number. For once, he doesn’t feel the need to one-up someone.
  • The final battle is a gloriously overloaded superhero rampage. I usually like cinematic fights to have a clear narrative progression, but there is something to be said for the joy of sheer chaos.
  • Many of the callbacks to previous movies were ingeniously done, but I think my favorite is Falcon announcing the arrival of the un-snapped on the battlefield with: “On your left.”
  • Even though it was far too brief and inconsequential, the assembly of the Marvel women was glorious as long as it lasted, and it made the point that the MCU has lots of powerful female characters. Now they just need movies.
  • There were also nice moments sprinkled through the film of women doing things: Nat running the reduced Avengers, Okoye managing the Wakanda branch (and perhaps the whole African division?) of same, Carol Danvers punching through a spaceship (as she is wont to do), and Nebula reconnecting with a previous version of Gamora. They are not enough, but they are good for what they are.
  • On Nebula and Gamora: in one of the few exceptions to women acting primarily as emotional supports to men, the most important relationship that Gamora develops when brought back from the past is with Nebula, not Peter Quill. The movie in fact gives Nebula, a secondary character from a second-string franchise, a surprising amount of screen time and development. At the end of the movie, Gamora and Nebula’s sisterhood is poised to take over as the most important relationship among the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Thor is in position to replace Quill as leader. If this leads to Quill being sidelined from the group or developing as a character into something more than a petulant overgrown child, I support either change.
  • Steve gets to have a life with Peggy. I’ll let other people worry about the time-travel implications—it is the ending they both deserve, and I’m happy with it.
  • Also: we know that Peggy Carter went on to be someone important in S.H.I.E.L.D. (her office door says Director), while Steve Rogers was a national hero whose face had been all over the newsreels. If he wanted to stay out of history’s way in his life with Peggy, he’d have to keep out of the public eye. Conclusion: Peggy Carter was working a high-powered job in the 1950s while Steve Rogers was a stay-at-home husband. I support this idea, and I believe Captain America would support it, too.

Image: Avengers: Endgame poster via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: Humans as the Only Generators of Value and Purpose in the World

Author Kelly Robson describes the core conceit of her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach in an interview with Ilana C. Myer:

“The habs, hives, and hells [i.e., city state -like population centers] compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

“It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.”

– Kelly Robson describing her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Aah, I like it too. 🙂 Plus, voting with your feet is a natural extension of voting with your wallet.

Myer, Ilana C. “Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.” Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, April 02, 2018.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: That Is a Strange Country

“I would say that [the Russians] are located somewhere near the Baltic Sea. There are old trade routes there, and in our own time it is a territory closed to us. Their installation may be close to the Finnish border. They could disguise their modern station under half a dozen covers; that is a strange country.”

– Andre Norton: The Time Traders

Did Andre Norton just insult Russia? (And yay, Finland was mentioned!)

Norton, Andre. The Time Traders / Galactic Derelicts [omnibus edition]. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2000 [originally published 1958 / 1959].

(This quote comes from my 21 new-to-me SFF authors reading project. Note: A free e-version is available via Baen Books.)

This post has been edited for clarity.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.