There’s a moment in Marvel’s 2019 megahit Avengers: Endgame that sticks with me right now. It’s when Thanos realizes his initial plan — ridding the universe of half of life — was not enough; he should have burned it all down.
“I thought by eliminating half of life, the other half would thrive,” he explains to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his Avenger pals. “But as long as there are those who remember what was, there will always be those who are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”
“Yup,” Tony drawls back, “we’re all kinds of stubborn.”
It’s interesting to hear those lines, in the wake of a divided America in which a US leader called upon his followers to storm the US Capitol, in effect burning it all down on his way out. If Trump can’t have his way in the system, well, then to hell with it all.
The Tony Stark line encapsulates something that’s gone awry for many Americans over the past four, six, 10 years. It’s a rallying cry, but one that can be taken up by either side of the political divide, as a cudgel against the other side.
America has just witnessed a violent spasm of that stubbornness, cloaked in Viking gear, camouflage and stupidity. Pro-Trump supporters, convinced that Joe Biden was “fraudulently” elected, and egged on by their Thanos-like leader, descended upon the US Capitol building, broke through windows, dragged out Capitol police and beat them with American flags, crutches and sticks, and acted like a mob.
The defeated president, who will likely cling to a defense that he never said anything wrong or illegal, held a rally earlier in which he did everything but yell out to the crowd: “Sic balls, Chopper.” (A Stand By Me reference, y’all.)
And then mad chaos, as the mob that a despot could summon with the snap of his finger (or the flick of his thumbs on Twitter) was unleashed in one of the most ill-advised presidential endgames ever.
By the time of this writing, Trump will have been impeached a second time, and while some Republican support is melting away, not so much the rampaging MAGA hordes who decided that insurrection was a good career move, even though they didn’t have an actual “plan” after Plan A was executed.
Visuals of a gallows erected on Capitol Hill and chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” aside, these people, spurred on by Trump, were led by sad weekend paramilitary types, wearing black ninja gear and carrying zip ties, the type used to take hostages. This is the world that Avengers has led Americans to believe in, though it’s not Hollywood’s fault.
There’s a vacuum in some Americans’ lives. An insatiable need. Some of it is filled by the ability to purchase practically anything you want online. Riot gear? Sure. Gasmasks? Yup. Get a dozen. Tactical vests and helmets? Weapons? When do you need ‘em by?
Unfettered capitalism meets unfettered demand in the United States — that’s always been a selling point — but in the case of rising domestic terrorism that is simply waiting for a match to spark it off, it’s become a case of cognitive dissonance.
It’s no secret that many Americans are living out fantasy lives. Whether it’s careful Instagram curation, or buying camo gear to look like G.I. Joe, there’s a strong American impulse to impersonate pop culture, to become pop culture. (Hell, even chessboards flew off the shelves a few months back, when The Queen’s Gambit made chess sexy. At least it’s a little less dangerous than zip ties.)
It’s no secret that many Americans are living out fantasy lives. Whether it’s careful Instagram curation, or buying camo gear to look like G.I. Joe, there’s a strong American impulse to impersonate pop culture, to become pop culture.
Speaking of Hollywood, you get a pretty good foreshadowing of how people get radicalized into believing they’re heroes in the 1974 paranoid thriller, The Parallax View, in which reporter Warren Beatty tries to uncover a corporate plot to recruit political assassins through a bizarre brainwashing program that includes quick flashes of words on a screen like “COUNTRY,” “ME” and “HAPPINESS” intercut with images of Marvel hero Thor, bullets, lynchings, and mob violence.
In the case of Trump supporters, the real-life role-playing has simply jumped off Instagram and into a dangerous new level of madness. These people were playing at being revolutionaries, without an endgame in sight, whipped into a frenzy to actually believe in the Avengers fantasy they all secretly wished to live inside.
Take the guy with the white zip ties. He is, in fact, not a superhero but a guy who (this is true) got fired from his job at Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock ‘N’ Roll Steakhouse in Tennessee and decided the next logical move was to take his mother to the Trump rally on the National Mall on Jan. 6 and then drag her along to the mob riot inside the Capitol building.
On the other hand, there were actual heroes on that day, like the Capitol Police officer who led angry protesters up a staircase, then away from the Senate Chamber, into the hands of other waiting officers, where they could be more calmly removed. That took heroism.
There’s this huge gap between how some Americans see themselves — as saviors, like the guy who was spurred by anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric in 2016 to drive to a Washington, DC, pizzeria with a loaded semiautomatic to free “sex slaves” he was sure were being held captive there by the Democratic nominee — and what they really are, at times: tragic, deluded no-hopers.
We’ve seen this cognitive dissonance at play before: the rejected American Idol contestants who tearfully deny even the judges’ harshest assessments, saying their friends “know the truth” about their awesome singing abilities. There’s a strong strain of “I choose to believe what I want to believe” that makes “real” talk impossible to break through.
It’s worth remembering that Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame not only mirrored the division that Americans were facing, but it eerily foresaw the wages of a deadly virus that would further divide America.
Everyone wants to be the hero. That’s why, when Stark mutters his “all kinds of stubborn” line, even though he’s referring to the whole human race, it can easily be appropriated by either the #Resistance people, or the MAGA people. Because it’s a good line. And Hollywood dialogue is always the thing we aspire to: sounding cool in real life.
It’s worth remembering that Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame not only mirrored the division that Americans were facing, but it eerily foresaw the wages of a deadly virus that would further divide America. Stark has his coda after the fight is over: “I hope if you play this recording back, it’s in celebration. I hope families are reunited, I hope we get it back, and something like a normal version of the planet is restored.” He could easily be talking about life after COVID-19 is conquered.
But while Tony Stark got to be the hero, sacrificing himself to defeat epic forces of darkness and light that have come into play in Endgame, Americans are actually living in a real-life version of that, one in which a happy ending is as elusive as the ability to fly.
After the final credits roll, there is no warm feeling that life will instantly be restored to normal. Not even if the mechanisms of US democracy hold and constitutional transition is preserved. Some things are broken, and they can’t be fixed with a simple snap of the fingers.