April 30, 2019 by Alex Johannigman
Like about 100 million other people worldwide (give or take a few million), I couldn’t wait to watch Avengers: Endgame on opening weekend. As a fan of all things superhero from a young age, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has held a special place in my heart ever since I watched Iron Man in the final week of my freshman year of college. I walked out of the theater on Sunday afternoon convinced that Endgame was the perfect capstone for the movies that have brought so much joy to the last 11 years of my life. But there was one scene in particular that has kept coming back to me for the past 2 days.
In case it isn’t clear, from this point on there will be spoilers galore from both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, so if you don’t like plots being ruined before you’ve seen the movie, bookmark this page, take a trip to your nearest movie theater, buy a ticket for the next showing, and I’ll see you back here in a few hours.
The film’s second act splits up the Avengers into 4 groups to travel to Asgard, Morag, Earth, and Vormir to retrieve the 6 Infinity Stones at various points in their timelines. This was my favorite act of the movie because it contained many of the funniest moments (‘I think you look great, Cap. As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass.’), but also the most emotionally complex. But my favorite of the four adventures was the journey that took Natasha and Clint (aka Black Widow and Hawkeye/ Ronin) to Vormir to retrieve the Soul Stone.
The scene is immediately familiar to those who saw Avengers: Infinity War. We are re-introduced to Red Skull, the Captain America villain who was teleported there from Earth after getting a bit too close to the Tesseract. While he was a surprise to fans in Infinity War, this time we think we know exactly what he is going to say to the heroes.
“In order to take the stone, you must lose that which you love. A soul for a soul.”
In Infinity War, the line is met with taunting from Gamora, the adoptive daughter of Thanos. How could someone who has never truly loved anyone be able to obtain the Soul Stone? I thought this was going to present a serious obstacle for Thanos, but in the end the tearful villain is able to pass the test by throwing Gamora from the cliff.
This irritated me during my first viewing, and still does. I understand why it needed to happen – Thanos can’t win at the end if he doesn’t obtain all six stones – but from a Catholic understanding of authentic love, Thanos’ relationship with Gamora falls about as short as Ant-Man looks standing next to the Hulk.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1766 states: “To love is to will the good of another. All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good.” Similarly, in John 15:13 Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In Greek this self sacrificial type of love that sought the good of the other over oneself had a term of its own distinct from other forms of love, “Agape.”
Through his willingness to sacrifice another for the good of himself and his own goals, Thanos’ actions demonstrate the very antithesis of authentic love. And this is what makes our second journey to Vormir such a perfect foil to Thanos’.
Upon reaching the summit and discovering what must be done, Natasha and Clint are both immediately ready to throw themselves off the cliff so that the other can live. Either of them would have willingly taken the fall for the other and for the sake of the friends and family they lost after the snap. This is the very definition of selfless love.
The scene is given even more emotional weight because it comes after years of seeing their relationship develop on-screen while also learning more about what has happened between the two of them off-screen (via multiple references to Budapest). Natasha has previously talked about having “red on her ledger,” while Clint has just turned away from the life he was living for much of the previous 5 years as a vengeful vigilante, driven mad by the injustice that many cruel people survived while his entire family vanished. Yet neither of them hold their past mistakes against them. Natasha tells Clint as they begin their ascent “I don’t judge people by their worst mistakes.” Their love is palpable and full of forgiveness, yet unlike the love in many other movies it not driven by any romantic self-interest but rather from years of personal sacrifice in pursuit of the good of the other, beginning with Clint’s decision to “make a different call” when he was sent to assassinate her in an encounter that took place prior to any of the movies.
The fight between the two of them serves as one of the most emotionally complex battles in the entire MCU and results in Black Widow ultimately “winning” and taking the leap, a final sacrifice for the sake of the other which could have been a great ending for either of their story arcs, but is a beautiful way for Natasha to redeem herself from the past mistakes that have haunted her throughout the Avengers saga.
While the return of the soul stone to the present day results in saving billions of lives, we get the sense that either of them would have done the same thing even if it was only the life of the other that they were saving. How similar this is to our Christian understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for the sake of the world, a sacrifice that he would have made even if each of us were the only person in the universe in need of salvation. And not only is it an example of Christ’s selfless love for us, but these two heroes also set an example for how we ought to be loving all those that God has placed in our own lives as well.