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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Where Marvel shows scored over its movies: Tackling the ugliness of grief

Grief has been sketchy in nearly all Marvel films. It has been limited to just being a plot device, or serves as a motivation for the (mostly) male heroes to save the world from more pain and destruction. It’s usually been predictable -- the motto is always to do better.

Written by Lakshana N Palat | New Delhi |
Updated: January 5, 2022 8:45:49 am
Tom HollandMarvel's slowly touching upon grief in Phase 4 (Photos: Marvel)

In Avengers: Endgame, after Natasha Romanoff’s ( Scarlett Johansson) sacrifice in Vormir, the remaining Avengers stand around for a while, unable to process the news. The moment is a brief one because they cannot dwell on it too much as they need to reverse the effects of Thanos’ snap. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) swings a chair into the lake, Captain America (Chris Evans) sheds a tear. After the war and the loss of Tony Stark, there’s a moment of solemnity between Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), as they know that their loved ones are always with them.

Perhaps Endgame touched more on the concept on grief than the other Marvel films did — even if it was up to a point. The surviving characters had watched their loved ones — friends, mentees, family — vanish into dust in front of their eyes, and despite their best efforts, they could not prevent it. And in the end, when they reversed the snap, they lost Tony Stark. Loss is a looming shadow in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame — it’s what prompted Chris Pratt’s Starlord to act the way he did when he realised that Gamora had been sacrificed — a move that fans will never forgive, because his uncontrolled anger worked to Thanos’s advantage. Endgame serves as a survivor’s guilt and anguish as they struggle to bring back everyone they’ve lost. The emotion does shine through the action scenes and overpowering Marvel humour, especially in the case of Thor, who turns to alcoholism.

Chris Pratt Chris Pratt as Starlord (Photo: Marvel)

Ending the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the tone of resounding grief, Phase 4 was ushered in. The world had been broken, snapped away and snapped back — it was time to rebuild, even if it was without some crucial loved ones. But sorrow has been a flaky friend in the MCU, with a slight exception to Shang-Chi: The Legend Of Ten Rings, which had a heart-breaking portrayal of a family’s grief after they lose their mother. There is rage, denial, as the father battles demons to destroy everyone around him, as he is convinced that he can save his love.

However, in the post-credits scene of the enormously disappointing Black Widow, Yelena (Florence Pugh) barely has an opportunity to shed a tear at her sister’s grave, before Julia Dreyfuss’s Contessa shows up, ready to incite her against Hawkeye. The moment to grieve has gone, it’s time for some action-packed revenge, as the MCU is in a hurry to showcase their next project.

Spider-Man: No Way Home, for most fans was a dream come true, because it reunited the three Peter Parkers from three different franchises. Even in this film, grief teetered back and forth as Peter loses the last parent figure in his life. The scene feels forced, merely to get one dialogue out before May breathes her last. The only thing that changes in Peter after this monumental death is that he is ready to kill—something that wasn’t there before, as he had always believed in second chances. However, in this film, he learns that some evil people are just…evil. Yet, at the end of the film, he seems to be more interested in getting his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) back. This is a character who has witnessed the death of the only two guardians in his life — Tony Stark, his mentor, and his Aunt May. Will the next film deal with this, or will it ever be addressed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Grief has been sketchy in nearly all the Marvel films, it has been limited to just being a plot device, or serves as a motivation for the (mostly) male heroes to save the world from more pain and destruction. It’s the premise of most superhero stories, without much thought to the actual process.  It’s usually been predictable — the motto is always to do better. Sorrow and loss is all there, beneath the glossy CGI action and Marvel trademark humour — but you’ve to dig really hard to get to it.

In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers struggles to deal with a new world, while his past gets further away from him. T’Challa in Black Panther is still processing his father’s death as he steps up to the Wakandan throne. Tony Stark’s own character development was motivated by a sense of loss, though for the first time he crosses the line is in Captain America: Civil War, because he is driven by a sense of revenge. Grief isn’t so linear and the outcome isn’t always positive or glowing. It’s a messy and ugly process, but there’s only so much to do in these grand big-budget films — villains to bash, stop the world from tearing itself apart from inside and heart-stopping revelations about family. Marvel has always waxed eloquent about familial love and friends in their films — but they seem unsure of how to address the situation when one actually does lose them.

Yet, in their recent slew of Disney Plus shows that tie up with the films, they’ve not been so afraid of the concept. In fact, the shows have explored more than what the films did. They had more time to delve into it with shows such as WandaVision — which perhaps did the most justice to the concept, and to some extent in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Loki and Hawkeye. The entire premise of WandaVision chronicled Wanda’s unhealthy coping strategy, as she had lost her lover, Vision, in Infinity War. The show is encapsulated in that one quote, ‘What is grief, if not love persevering?’ Vision says these lines to Wanda, who compares her overwhelming sense of loss and heartache to a feeling of constant drowning.

It also showed that grief can have a toxic and dangerous effect on us, and those around us suffer the effects of our emotions — Wanda takes an entire town as hostage as she tricks herself into believing that she’s living the life she always wanted to. She’s supposed to be the hero, and yet she is committing acts that are not justifiable at all. In a rare moment for a woman to take the lead in an MCU project, WandaVison delved into the complexities of bereavement, a realisation that grief doesn’t always motivate the heroes to ‘do the right thing’, it can also destroy others.

In the recent show, Hawkeye, Black Widow finally got the respect and eulogy that she actually deserves, and that’s the only fact worth remembering about the show. Marvel had faced fans wrath when the character died in Endgame, claiming that she was ‘fridged’ — a plot device for a woman to suffer in films or books, to further the motivation for the male hero. In Hawkeye, Black Widow remains present as two people who loved her come to terms with her death. Yelena is out for revenge; she wants to kill the person responsible for her death. Finally, Natasha’s questionably necessary sacrifice is honoured, and fans can be sure that Clint regrets the Vormir incident every day.

Scarlett Johansson Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye (Marvel)

Phase 4 has begun on a rather morbid note, and we can only see what Doctor Strange 2 has in store—and what new forms will grief now take?

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