The Only Satisfying Endgame
Why Great Stories Always Hurt
Article by Greg Morse, Staff Writer, desiringGod.org
(This article was written before the author saw the movie, and therefore contains no spoilers.)
The end has come. The final chapter has been written. The final piece is placed. A decade-long saga concludes. We have reached the Endgame.
Beginning with Iron Man in 2008, the drama has unfolded, movie by movie, to this: a depleted team of superheroes, whom we’ve cheered for and laughed with for years, now fights the seemingly indomitable foe, Thanos. The 22 movies and sneak peeks after the credits have meandered us through its universe to a final showdown.
No doubt, our enjoyment of each individual movie has varied, and some of us may not be as optimistic about the next decade of Marvel films, but this series of superhero movies, as with other franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, has grown up with us. We feel nostalgia about them as benchmarks of years gone by. Perhaps we went to them on early dates with the one who would become our spouse, took our kids to see them for birthday parties, or watched them with a family member that is no longer with us.
Which makes one of the anticipated themes of the final movie slightly unnerving: sacrifice. Without seeing the movie, we can see it foreshadowed in actors’ expiring contracts and the trailer’s catchphrase, “Whatever it takes.” As with any war, not everyone will make it out alive. And as with the best stories, the expectation is not that everyone survives to the end. Some must perish in the shadows that others might see the sun rise. Happily ever after — should it come — will have an asterisk. The series, it seems unavoidably, will end with the harmony of a high and corresponding low note. Peace will not come cheaply. Most likely, it will cost at least one of these warriors everything.
Why the Greatest Stories Hurt
Deep down, the theme of self-sacrifice strikes a chord within us. For someone to give his own life for another’s flourishing is an unpleasant beauty to experience. The horror of death, sprayed with the fragrance of the supreme love: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). At the end of the highest-grossing franchise of all time, it appears we may find a peace purchased through the highest love — sacrifice.
This is indeed something to marvel at. Whether this finale comes to sacrifice or not, why is such a sobering note a consistent ingredient of the best stories, the ones that arrest us with a script that seems to originate from somewhere outside of Hollywood?
Christians know that the elements good and evil, sacrifice and valor, protection and betrayal all represent the capital “S” Story we find ourselves within. Our best works echo His. We borrow, however unwittingly, from an eternal Author. And his Story tells of the Deity himself coming from a distant land to battle evil itself, dying for his own, paying the ultimate cost for his people. The story of human history is one with such glory that, when we go to enjoy the best stories men can tell, we must stoop down, not rise above, our present reality.
In preparation to watch the Marvel finale — or readying myself for any highly anticipated drama — I try to remind myself of the Story I am in, so when I hear notes of its supreme music in the echo, I can follow them through to the Source.
As I go to see a very late showing of Endgame tonight, I go remembering that this is just a shadow of his Story. I go, not to escape a duller reality for a superior one, but to be awakened again to the better universe I already live in. The great realities in whatever degree of sacrifice and triumph may be depicted in Endgame can prompt me to rehearse that God’s death on the cross two thousand years ago remains unrivaled.
Unrivaled in Godness
The one who came to be our hero was the one who first created everything. The one who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) was he of whom it is written, “All things were created through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). All things, visible and invisible, were made for him: “All things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
He, unlike any being in the Marvel universe, is capital “G” God. By his word, Thanos lives (Colossians 1:17). God’s folly is greater than man’s wisdom; his weakness, greater than man’s strength (1 Corinthians 1:25). His combat scenes need no stuntmen. His wisdom needs no scriptwriters. His glory needs no special effects. The baby that lay in the manger cradled the world by his powerful word. “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?” says the Holy One (Isaiah 40:25). Reality’s God has no equal.
Unrivaled in Sacrifice
This God-man’s agony and shame can never be reproduced.
His physical torture, if seen on the big screen, would be higher than a PG-13 rating. (Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ fittingly was rated R.) He was “marred beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children mankind” (Isaiah 52:14). The Romans beat him so badly that he could scarcely be recognized as human instead of a bloody mess of flesh.
And he faced more than this because he faced more than the likes of Thanos. The just wrath of the one who “crushed him” (Isaiah 53:10) pierced more than the hands and feet, lashed more than his back: His stabs reached the soul. The Son willingly poured out his soul unto death; he was disfigured both in body and in soul as he drank our hell to the dregs in our place.
Furthermore, his death was not a pristine one. He did not die gloriously on the battlefield as he sat upon his white horse or met his end valiantly charging into a burning building. He died as a criminal. They stripped him naked and paraded him through the city to the dump heap of Golgotha. His was a shameful, cursed death between two thieves. No onlooker applauded his heroics. No team fought beside him. He hung alone, bearing the Father’s righteous wrath against sin. No hero has ever died such an infamous death.
Unrivaled in Love
We know little about who these Avengers are protecting. We assume the citizenry of earth is comprised of innocent people invaded by outside evil. We inject goodness into the faceless multitudes that Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the crew protect. But Jesus died, not for good people minding their own business, but for mini-villains whose every thought was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). We loved to crawl about in the crevices. We on this blue earth, not the blue demigod that invades, have become the bane of creation. The Avengers die for good humanity; God died for his enemies.
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)
Jesus did not die unwillingly. No one got the upper hand against his will, outmaneuvered him, or overpowered him. His death wasn’t compulsory. Man didn’t invade heaven and bring him down. He laid down his sword and stayed his legions. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17–18). He gave his life as a ransom for many. This hero displayed supreme love.
Unrivaled in Achievement
His death stands unrivaled in achievement. For one, his death defeated death itself. The grave, that foul, gaping-mouthed monster, has devoured all men because all have sinned after their father Adam (Romans 5:12). But by his sacrifice, he purchased something invaluable and otherwise unattainable for the human race: grace. His free gift of mercy triumphs over the grave for his people.
Second, his blood did not spare us from the unfair tyranny of a superpower. Rather, his blood spared us from the just reward of our own deeds. His death saved us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). And positively, his salvation did not grant us a few more years on earth — his salvation endowed us a place in the new heaven and new earth, forever.
And more than sparing us hell and placing us in heaven, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). He makes beloved children from former foes — and brings us back into what we as humans were made for: fellowship with God himself. He, not the absence of pain or streets paved of gold, became our great treasure, forever.
Consider that the angels lean over the precipice of heaven, sit at the edge of their seats to watch what unfolded, and continues to unfold, here(1 Peter 1:12). After the exhale of the spectacle of his death for sinners, the angelic legions have not ceased to roar with eternal praise that will only continue to captivate its redeemed audience forever. No after-credits are necessary. No new hero to worship. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive all glory, honor, and praise.
Envy of the Gods
The Christian knows that all the greatest stories are not an escape from reality, but a deepening into it. As Chesterton famously said of fairy tales,
Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. (Orthodoxy, 32)
We live in the greatest Story. God’s epic unfolds all around us. If Marvel characters were glorious enough to actually exist, they would envy us in our Story, not we in theirs. It’s good to let grand stories refresh the forgotten moment when we found out that we lived in the epic of the cosmos. We travel into another universe to see gods and heroes sacrifice for the lives of men, to remember, for one wild moment, that Jesus died and rose to save his people for an eternity. Our Story is the envy of the gods.