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Avengers: Endgame and the Stages of Grief

“This was never going to work if they didn’t have something to….”

The dying words of Phil Coulson in 2012’s The Avengers capture an odd truth about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The team’s name suggests that the Avengers are a group meant to respond to tragedy rather than prevent it. Yes, the heroes fought to stop Loki from mounting a full-scale invasion of Earth with the Chitauri, but they were more immediately reacting to Coulson’s death and Loki’s successful attack on the Helicarrier. Tony Stark/Iron Man acknowledges this himself when he explains that the god of mischief, “managed to piss off every single one of them,” and one other person whose “name was Phil.”

Not until the heroes have something to grieve are they able to unite and channel the resulting anger. It is that grief more than anything that motivates the Avengers, and it is that same grief on a more massive scale that is the central focus of Avengers: Endgame. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, at its heart, about a group of individuals who are unable to fully process grief and (in the words of Steve Rogers/Captain America) “move on.”

One of the most popular models explaining the experience of grief was created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and made famous in her book On Death and Dying. Though her model was originally presented in reference to terminally ill people coming to terms with their impending deaths, the Kübler-Ross model has since been broadened to cover a variety of losses and hardships, including the death of loved ones, ends of relationships, and loss of function or independence. Though many mental health practitioners and researchers have since criticized the model as rigid and lacking proper evidence, Kübler-Ross’s exploration of grief remains one of the most important examinations of the subject to date.

At the end of Infinity War and throughout Endgame, our heroes experience different stages in the grieving process. These stages (which are not necessarily linear) are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While none of the characters appear to endure all of these stages, one experience they all (with one exception) have in common is that they are unable to fully reach acceptance.


Immediately after Thanos acquires the Mind Stone and snaps his fingers in Infinity War, the Avengers respond in shock, horror, and denial. Thor asks what Thanos has done, knowing full well what the Mad Titan’s mission was. The dying and living ask one another what is going on as the former disintegrate. Peter Parker/Spider-Man tells Tony that he doesn’t understand what’s happening, and his mentor fretfully tells his protégé that he’s okay. But they both know what is happening.

Unable to accept that the unthinkable has happened, the Avengers begin Endgame desperate to believe that they can steal the Infinity Stones back and reverse the deaths of their friends. They refuse to concede that their loved ones are truly gone forever. Yet when they discover that Thanos has destroyed the Stones, they are forced to confront their denial and admit that Thanos successfully wiped out half of all living creatures in the universe.


Just as the Avengers were “pissed off” after Loki’s murder of Coulson, many of the team’s members respond to Thanos’s success with anger. With the knowledge that the events of Infinity War can’t be reversed, Thor beheads the intergalactic tyrant in a fit of rage. The act fulfills no purpose other than retribution and an infuriated expression of grief. But the group’s anger is not reserved for Thanos. Thor clearly blames himself for not killing the Mad Titan when he had the chance on Earth. Tony attacks Steve for splitting up the Avengers during the events of Captain America: Civil War and not fighting by Tony’s side when he was needed most.

The hero most entrenched in the anger stage, though, is undoubtedly Clint Barton/Hawkeye. Devastated by the death of his entire family, Hawkeye channels his grief into a one-man crusade against all of the criminals that survived Thanos’s snap. Furious that his loved ones and other innocents were disintegrated while some of the world’s worst outlaws remain, Clint becomes a merciless vigilante who turns his anger on those who deserved to die. He is mad at himself for not being able to protect his family and angry at the universe for not factoring in morality when half the population was killed at random. Only when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow gives him hope that his family could be saved does Clint’s bloodthirst subside.


While Thor’s weight gain in Endgame is often presented as a punchline, his self-imposed isolation and binge drinking are highly indicative of depression. Numbing himself with food and alcohol, the god of thunder is no longer willing to socialize with the other Asgardians and is unable to enjoy those things that once gave him pleasure and meaning: fighting, traversing the nine realms, staying in shape and maintaining a relationship. He feels hopeless and is unable to function. Given how much Thor has been through, this turn shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. Thor feels tremendous pain and guilt over the many tragedies in his life, which include the deaths of his parents, siblings, friends, and half of his subjects. After facing more loss than any of the Avengers, Thor’s descent into depression is sad but understandable.

Natasha and Steve’s efforts before the time heist suggest they too are trapped in this stage. Natasha battles to maintain some sense of normalcy and purpose in her life by leading an intergalactic council to address the many catastrophes and problems left in the wake of Infinity War, but she breaks down when the council’s meeting is adjourned. She struggles to cope with the loss of her “family” and the belief that they failed the world. Steve, meanwhile, runs a support group to help others “move on,” but he admits to Natasha that he can’t. He cannot escape his guilt and regret, just as he has never been able to accept that he couldn’t save Bucky and that he missed his dance with Peggy.


Bargaining often takes the form of negotiating with God, the universe, or some higher power to undo or prevent the source of a person’s grief. In the case of Endgame, this stage is most clearly represented in the Avengers’ time heist. However, I’d also argue that Tony experiences a form of bargaining in response to Peter’s death. One of the first things that Tony says when Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel brings him back to Earth is that he, “lost the kid.” He is depressed and angry at himself for failing Peter. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony admits he feels responsible for Peter’s safety and wellbeing; in Infinity War, he fails to meet that responsibility.

Following the five-year jump in Endgame, we see that Tony and Pepper have started a family. Tony has developed a warm relationship with his daughter, Morgan. In many ways, Tony seems to have moved on and reached the acceptance phase of grief. But when he views an old photograph of Peter and himself, the film suggests that Tony never really forgave himself for losing Peter. In fact, his efforts to raise and protect Morgan offer Tony a do-over of sorts; having lost the hero he treated as a son, Tony does his best to cherish his time with his daughter. Having Morgan may not have undone the effects of Thanos’s snap, but her presence in Tony’s life certainly feels like the universe giving him a second chance.

Of course, the Avengers’ real second chance comes in the form of Scott Lang/Ant-Man and the time travel technology he brings to the team. The time heist represents the kind of opportunity grieving individuals often wish for: a chance to change things and bring back who/what was lost. Going back in time to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos acquires them is the ultimate act of bargaining; the Avengers risk (and forfeit) their lives in order to fix their failure. They are thus unable to reach the acceptance stage because (1) the team resorts to one final gamble to undo the source of their grief and (2) that gamble pays off.


Perhaps ironically, there is at least one Avenger who reaches the acceptance stage. After being consumed by anger and depression in response to the accident that gave him super powers, Bruce Banner/Hulk is finally at peace with his fate. Rather than continuing to mourn the loss of his normal life and view the Hulk as a disease, Bruce learns to accept that the Hulk is a part of him that should not be shunned but embraced. As a result, Bruce is able to grow as a person and live freely. Of course, he is then the person most directly responsible for resurrecting the portion of the population disintegrated by Thanos. Bruce reasons he should be the one to undo the original snap because he is the strongest and capable of withstanding gamma radiation, but having reached the acceptance stage makes him the perfect candidate as well.

Moving on

And this is the part where you tell yourself, “Well, that is very interesting and all, but so what? We’ve seen Bruce Wayne unsuccessfully process grief on film for thirty years.” The answer is that, for perhaps the first time, a superhero film normalizes grief. Yes, we’ve seen Batman and the Punisher angrily respond to tragedy before like Hawkeye does here, but rarely have we seen a comic book movie present grief in such an honest way. To see these superhuman characters respond to loss in such a human manner is truly empowering for viewers who have experienced similar grief.

Moreover, seeing these characters triumph and reverse the source of their grief represents some of the most powerful catharsis ever seen in the genre. For many people, moving through the stages of grief is a painful and seemingly never-ending process. To have characters that we connect with break free from their grief and successfully regain what was lost allows us as viewers to share in their sense of relief and euphoria, even though we know that fleeting feeling will never extend to our lives in the same way.

And that is what catharsis truly is: a way of releasing and understanding our own feelings of grief through others. Avengers: Endgame is not only an exploration of its characters’ grief, then, but also a validation and alleviator of our own grief.

Josh Sarnecky
Josh Sarnecky
Josh Sarnecky is one of Pop Break's staff writers and covers Voltron: Legendary Defender, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. His brother, Aaron, also writes for the website, but Josh is the family’s reigning Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars champion.

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