A superhero movie changed my life. That’s embarrassing to admit now, but it makes more sense when I remember seeing it through the eyes of a 16-year-old. It was May 2002, and I was squished into a front-row seat for the midnight premiere of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” I expected a forgettable action movie; instead, I got the story of a kid like me, struggling to find himself.
I recognized in Peter Parker my own sense of powerlessness, my own desire to do something good, to make the world around me a better place. The difference was that he could actually do it. In the end, what made me love the film was not the special effects or the fight scenes, but the struggle of a flawed, good-hearted kid to do the right thing.
I imagine that a new generation of teenagers will feel the same about “Avengers: Endgame,” the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, often known as the M.C.U., and the culmination of over a decade of storytelling. There are plenty of fights and thrills to be found in the sometimes chaotic three hours, but at its heart the “Endgame” is about the same thing that every good superhero story is about: human beings—some with incredible powers—trying to figure out their place in a frightening, unpredictable world.
My interest in how teens will respond to “Endgame” isn’t just nostalgia, it’s practical: I am a campus minister at an all-boys Catholic Jesuit high school in New Jersey. While much has changed since I was in high school, teenagers are still teenagers. They are still struggling to discover themselves, to emerge from the shelter of childhood into the freedom and responsibility of adulthood. They are searching for ways to understand themselves and the world around them. They latch onto teams, activities, interests as a means of shaping their identity, of having something solid to point to and say, “This is me.”
When I validate their interests, I am in effect validating them.
For me, that was comic books. For many of my students, it’s the M.C.U. They buy tickets in advance, gobble up the most recent Netflix show. And then they appear at my door, grinning, with two questions: “Did you watch it? What did you think?” Suddenly, my love of superheroes has become a form of social capital. It is an easy way to start conversations, and can get even the most reticent kid to talk at length about his hopes and theories for the next movie. This might not sound like much, but for a teenager it’s really important. The things they care about are tied to their identity; when I validate their interests, I am in effect validating them. Sometimes I think that the most important work I do as a campus minister is to smile and ask questions as a student tells me about their favorite thing.
While I will freely admit that the M.C.U. is a mixed bag as far as cultural phenomenons go—if you like anything other than big-budget action franchises, it’s tough to argue that the M.C.U.’s success has been good for the film industry—it is invaluable to my work in ministry. It gives me a common language to share with my students, a way to build trust and relationships, which in turn gives me credibility when I invite students to explore their faith. Talking about the M.C.U. can also be a springboard to deeper conversations about politics, race and morality. Even just talking to a student about the types of stories and characters he likes and dislikes tells me something about him. It allows me to better minister to him as an individual.
I am excited to talk to my students about “Endgame.” It is a suitably massive climax to the first generation of M.C.U. movies, while still finding time for smaller character beats and moments of sadness and humor. The first half hour of the movie is suffused with regret and loss, as characters struggle to process their feelings of powerlessness in the wake of the tragic “Infinity War” climax. Characters have the opportunity to settle old bits of unfinished business, to reflect on their origins, to say goodbye. All of this is anchored by characteristically strong performances from its absurdly qualified cast.
This is not to say that it’s perfect. At times the action is confusing, the rules of time travel nonsensical, and the genuinely affecting moments are occasionally offset by transparently pandering fan service. “Endgame” also references, and sometimes even revisits, the decade’s worth of films that preceded it, meaning that M.C.U. laypeople may often find themselves baffled by what is going on or why a particular event matters. But Marvel’s recipe for success, from the ‘60s onward, has always been finding the beating human heart beneath all of those layers of Spandex and muscle. “Endgame” succeeds not because of spectacle or surprising twists, but because of compelling, relatable characters.
God can speak to us in unexpected ways—sometimes, even through a superhero movie.
I am looking forward to discussing those characters, and this story, with my students. On Monday, before seeing the film, I had to turn several of them away at the door, to insulate myself from spoilers. But now I can invite them in, set my other work aside, and spend some time in conversation. Students usually sit in the worn armchair across from my desk, beneath a large, foam-mounted poster of Spider-Man. For me, it’s a reminder that God can speak to us in unexpected ways—sometimes, even through a superhero movie.