Whatever It Takes: Friendship and Avenging the Fallen

This one’s for Kristin and Anna; Andy, Blake, Caleb, Chris, Jeff, Nathan, Reed, and Trevor. […]

Ian Olson / 4.30.19

This one’s for Kristin and Anna; Andy, Blake, Caleb, Chris, Jeff, Nathan, Reed, and Trevor. Some spoilers follow.

“If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him [his friend, Etienne Boetie] I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met… I think ’twas by some secret appointment of heaven.” — Michel de Montaigne, “On Friendship”

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” — John 15:13

What do you have after having monumentally failed? For Captain America, Black Widow, and others, the answer is: make the best of the wreckage that’s left in the wake of that failure.

Cap participates in group therapy for survivors of the Decimation, urging others to move on and look on the bright side of their being left alive. Widow keeps the lights on at Avengers headquarters, desperately seeking a way to make right what has gone wrong. Thor has abandoned heroism altogether and retreated into a shack among the survivors of Asgard, drinking and eating until he is almost unrecognizable as himself. Hawkeye, having lost his wife and kids in the Decimation, has adopted a vigilante persona and ruthlessly hunts down and kills mobsters and drug cartels around the world. Tony has finally built a cabin for Pepper and consummately avoids his old teammates, devoting himself instead to his wife and their daughter, Morgan.

But he still can’t rest. Tony’s never been able to stop tinkering altogether. More than that, he’s never been able to let go of what he saw coming for Earth when he passed through that wormhole in the Battle of New York: myriad hostile alien forces intent on subjugating Earth. Everything he has done subsequent to that experience has been to stave off what he fears is inevitable.

Our heroes are broken. Worse, they are apart. We all, likewise, undergo the catastrophes of Life as it was never meant to be lived, and our suffering is exacerbated by our isolation. “Loneliness is one of the most universal human experiences,” Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. We are “in growing degree exposed to the contagious disease of loneliness in a world in which a competitive individualism tries to reconcile itself with a culture that speaks about togetherness, unity, and community as the ideals to strive for.”

It’s true: as much as our God-given hearts pine for community, we regularly come up against either the egotism that will not answer the demand to love, or we are broken on the stumbling block of counterfeit community. Most of us are familiar enough with the first and have both been subjected to and dealt out the self-centeredness that makes belonging and reciprocity impossible. But just as awful, if not more so, is the parody of community that extends a welcome but never actually incorporates. The invitation is pronounced, but you have to whittle away so much of yourself before you can even hope to be included. All too often in our churches we have heard the importance of community and been promised this is a place we can call home, but the reality that batters our souls is that we aren’t wanted. Our obedience, our vote, our face in the video, our money in the plate, certainly, but not us. Not us.

This is not community. This is homogeneity and coercion. Genuine community is a knitting together of souls in friendship. And it not only accommodates but is strengthened by difference. Friendship can easily become a mask of narcissism as we surround ourselves with others that are just like us. Nietzsche once wrote, “If one would have a friend, then one must also be willing to wage war for him: and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy.” Disagreement is a sure sign that we aren’t simply frozen in solipsism. But it must be constructive disagreement that doesn’t jeopardize trust and goodwill—there must be a commitment to the truth that unites us more comprehensively than the point of disagreement, such that we would fight for those to whom we belong. Alan Jacobs describes it thus: “The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.”

The Avengers have been their own adversaries before. But the pain of having failed brings into focus that they belong to one another. Brought back together by their grief and their inability to move on, Cap addresses those who remain, subsuming them all within one collective entity as if half of that entity’s career wasn’t spent fractured and at odds. These things are real—no one needs reminding that they were at war with one another only three years ago—but they aren’t what matters. What matters is that their core identity, who they are at bottom, in spite of the fluctuations of a cruel world and their own moral confusion, is unshaken. They are the Avengers.

And they only make sense together. They aren’t Earth’s mightiest individual heroes, occasionally gathered together: together, they form Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. There is a surplus that only exists in them corporately, and when they are apart, that surplus diminishes. They are left only parts of themselves when they are bereft of one another, disconnected from their own individual wholeness. Without one another, their gravitational center dissipates: “We lost. All of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves,” Cap tells them. And the only way past the pain and into wholeness is together.

Friendship recognizes the irreplaceable worth of another human being; it testifies to the world that this person enriches life in a way no other can. A friend is one who recognizes that the way that only you are has something about it that is good for them and for the world. You find safety in this person, find that life is not only more bearable with this person, but that life is more beautiful because of knowing this person. It often arises through the awareness of need. My friend’s awareness of my need and his satisfaction of it bear witness that he is acquainted with the same heartache and disappointment and desire that I am—that he is in need in the same way that I am. He recognizes the same lack, demands the same goodness from the world that I do, and in our shared recognition there arises love.

Through this love a friend can unlock the portions of you that you are not yet. That which we will be we become in large part through the mediation of our friends. Without friends, you are not an arrived-at self. You are partial, in posse: you are what you have thus far come to be, and all else is potential—at least hypothetically so. The contingent circumstances in which ways of being became plausible to us are enmeshed within the history we share with our friends.

It is only within these significant friendships that our selves can become something more than a burden to be endured. The only place these idiosyncrasies can be fulfilled and properly aligned—not healed or eradicated—is with each other. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote that “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” Isolation deepens incompleteness: we are only summoned into wholeness by those whom we in turn summon out of themselves. Only here can a Hulk accept that he does, in fact, have a purpose, to do the good that only he can: “It’s like I was made for this.” This is exactly what Tony led him towards in the first Avengers film, but now he believes it.

A friend draws you out of images of yourself you have been told you must be in order to matter; they ease us out of the pretenses and the charades that we’ve withered within. This relativizes the metrics and the objectives that have defined our reality because in our friends we find living persons around whom to shape our lives rather than ideology or convention. Friendship unmasks us, allowing us to discover who we are called to be.

But in order to do that a friend must help us reconcile our past with who we are and who they know we can be. Traveling to Asgard a few years in the past, Thor meets his (now) dead mother, Frigga. He is overwhelmed, burdened by his failures, and doesn’t want to leave her again. She tells him, “We all fail at who we’re supposed to be.” He clings to her words and clutches her close for the last time, empowered to lay aside what he has been and do whatever it takes to defeat Thanos.

Similarly, Black Widow tracks down Hawkeye and tells him the truth: “Killing all these people isn’t going to bring your family back.” He is ashamed but doesn’t know what else to do with himself. “We found something,” she says, “a chance—maybe…” “Don’t give me hope,” he counters. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give it to you sooner,” she says, gripping his hand, drawing him back to the man he is meant to be. Later, she extends the same grace to him that he had to her years before. “Natasha,” he says, “you know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve become.”

“Well, I don’t judge people on their worst mistakes,” she tells him. “Maybe you should,” he thrusts back. Then she becomes for him what he has been for her, for Wanda Maximoff, and who knows how many others: “You didn’t.”

Hawkeye has always seen through the sins of others, seen the living core of their divided self and drawn them out of their incurvature. He is the father who incorporates those who don’t belong anywhere else, making a home for them among the Avengers. “Doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were,” he told Wanda at the climax of Age of Ultron, “if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.”

A friend unchains from your back the corpse of a past you wish you could forget; they pronounce “dead” that which you have been and can bear to be no longer. A friend speaks your justification to you and suspends your disbelief that hope is in vain.

A friend not only helps us live with ourselves but also with our finitude and our mortality. Death is the limit that always already dangles over our lives. It threatens our ambitions of becoming; it is the unknowable threshold we fear to cross. It threatens us and those we love both. It is the last enemy to be defeated as much as it is the refining force that focuses the fear and the missed chances and squandered potential of our lives, bidding us: what will you do with this? With the past you have accumulated? With the time that you have now? How will you live towards your own death?

“Even if there’s a small chance that we can undo this, we owe this to everyone who’s not in this room,” Widow insists to her surviving teammates. “To try.”

“Whatever it takes” becomes the team’s rallying cry. Whatever it takes. Reunited, they find the spiritual equipment needed to lay aside the weight that has encumbered each of them and fulfill their vocation to one another and to the world. Not by despising or transcending their limitations but by living into them while relying on each other. Friendship gives us a home in which to dwell in Time and make our peace with it.

On the surface it seems that Thanos accepts finitude, but his entire campaign to “save” the universe is motivated by his despising limitations. The contours of creaturehood leaves too much to chance: too much could go wrong, and has. He cannot accept the risk of grace and so, he feels, must guarantee an outcome that admits to no possibility of the exhaustion of resources. In his refusal to accept risk, he is exposed as the enemy of grace. By the time he has discovered the Avengers’ plan to thwart his mission, he has recast himself as both Death and Creator: he must destroy all that is and rebuild to his specifications. “I am inevitable,” he tells his followers. His mission to save the universe from itself has always been impersonal and dispassionate he tells Tony in the film’s climax. “But what I’m about to do,” he promises, “I’m going to enjoy it very, very much.”

However much he claims to be on the side of life, Thanos in truth hates contingency and all the uncertainties of creaturely existence. He does not know friendship and is unable to imagine survival beyond Darwinian struggle. He imagines grateful beneficiaries when he contemplates his plan but he has consulted no one in order to know if it is actually in any one’s best interest. He can glimpse the possibility of what shalom could look like, but he cannot tolerate the possibility of its becoming unfulfilled. And so he grasps at the raw power of Godhood to secure what can only be brought about by the possibility of its not being fulfilled. But flourishing is always predicated on its arising out of lack; there is no guaranteed course into health and vitality and happiness that bypasses the limitations of our and the universe’s nature. We all require so much more than we can possibly ever hope to draw from the world. But in addition, as Nouwen observes, “We will never believe that we have anything to give unless there is someone who is able to receive.” Flourishing only takes place under the conditions of friendship.

And so the vocation of friendship impels the Avengers to wage war with Thanos. Not to circumvent death itself—they know this is impossible—but to stop the mortal who would presume to right all things as though he were God. The cynicism that drives Thanos to forsake the universe and undo its creation couldn’t be more unlike the living God. He has bound himself to the rescue and restoration of the world he made, and he will stop at nothing to secure its flourishing. It isn’t the good who need avenging but the fallen. For condemnation isn’t God’s essential posture towards the world: friendship is.

Having loved his own, time and time again without counting the cost, Jesus loved them to the uttermost (John 13:1). Whatever it takes. And in loving them to the uttermost he spurns the master/servant dynamics of the world, embracing instead the love that stoops to others’ levels, that bears their burdens, that rejoices when they rejoice and weeps when they weep. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). And he shares his mission with his friends: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” Jesus said (John 20:21). The love of God in Christ summons its recipients to participate in the fight against darkness it has already initiated and decisively won. The self-giving of Jesus Christ is the fundamental friendship which makes all others possible and effective. It is the most godlike thing we can aspire to.

Friendship after the pattern of Christ’s frees us for a service that “is produced only in a world where I can die as a result of someone and for someone,” Emmanuel Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity. The patience that endures suffering for the sake of others is able to do so because it participates in the judgment of God, Levinas concludes. In the patience of suffering for another, “the will breaks through the crust of its own egoism and as it were displaces its center of gravity outside of itself, to will as Desire and Goodness limited by nothing.”

In the film’s climax, Thanos arrives on Earth where the team has recovered all of the infinity stones. The inevitable has come. His flagship opens fire on Avengers HQ, reducing it to rubble. Ant-Man, Rocket, War Machine, Hulk and Hawkeye struggle to escape the wreckage of their base. Thanos teleports to the surface and incapacitates Iron Man and Thor. Cap alone remains in Thanos’ way. He’s been dealt a tremendous beating by Thanos but slowly, painfully, he wills himself to stand again. What must be thousands of Thanos’ legions arrive to reinforce him, bristling with firepower and animal ferocity.

Years before, in the wake of Ultron’s rebellion, Tony had told them about the massive alien army eager to grind their world to dust: “That’s the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating that?

“Together,” Cap had answered.

“We’ll lose.”

“Then we’ll do that together, too,” Cap promised.

Cap stands his ground, exhausted. All is lost. He surveys the forces arrayed against him, his face set in the defiant resolve that defines his being. He peers down at his shattered shield (exactly as Tony had foreseen) and tightens it onto his forearm one last time.

No. You move. He hopelessly prepares himself for the onslaught, ready to be engulfed, to give himself to the uttermost. Whatever it takes.

Then eucatastrophe pierces the darkness. “On your left!” he hears Falcon call out on his earpiece. Dr. Strange and a multitude of other sorcerers sling ring a series of portals out of which stream all of the heroes we had lost in Infinity War. Black Panther leads his Wakandan army onto the battlefield, followed by Asgardian warriors led by Valkyrie, the Ravagers, Bucky, Wanda, Wasp, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, even Pepper in the armor Tony had constructed for her. Ant-Man erupts from the ground, surging to a gargantuan size he never has before, bringing Hulk, Rocket, and War Machine in tow. A flood of heroes take their place alongside Cap. He’s not alone. Their ability has risen to meet his need, just as his has so many times before. He is surrounded by representatives of the fallen, all of them awaiting his word to avenge the world.

And he does, at last; after seven years of breathless anticipation, we hear him call it. “Avengers! Assemble!” As one, they charge headlong into Thanos’ ranks and the battle is already/not yet decided in that moment. This is what it comes down to—this is why they’re all here. Now is the time in which they can unleash the potential that has been humming at the core of this team all these years. Now they all—together—translate their grief and their fury, the entire world’s clamor for retribution, into a tidal wave of force, and surge into battle.

Thanos is going to pay for what he’s done. And along with him, every figure who has trampled over us, the audience, in the name of “order,” or the “greater good,” or whatever other lie that’s masqueraded as right and necessary. Every belligerent armchair tyrant who has hurt us and our friends are in their sights; every person who has claimed to speak for God but only sounds like Thanos. Through a torrent of tears I recognize a great cloud of witnesses to the bonds of friendship swarming to conquer the enemies of my soul. And of yours. They fight for us, and the emotional swell of this moment invites the viewer to swell their ranks.

This is the Marvel equivalent of the apocalyptic war between Light and Dark. All the struggles, advances, and retreats that have characterized the age of Adam concentrated into one decisive battle in which good triumphs and evil is obliterated. The compromises and moral complexity of those who fight to vanquish evil are atoned for and forgotten: “The judgment of God that judges me at the same time confirms me,” Levinas writes. These mortal wills, willing goodness, can by grace be so aligned with that goodness that the sin and the compromise that is still there is negated and thrown aside, for they are so in-stream with the Goodness that summons them to fight. This is my election. And yours. The fight unmasks us as the righteous sinners who will not bow before the evil powers that judge in God’s place.

This is my heart song. At the beating heart of my love for this mythology is its portrayal of the vocation of friendship because this is what I have always wanted. A way for my own stupid story to be incorporated into something significant, something that allowed me—no, required me—to utilize what I alone have to bring to the table. To find the others without whom I cannot be myself and who are in need of me just as much as I am of them. To contribute the little I have and find someone is not ashamed to throw their lot in with me. Friendship is a sign to the world that goodness still exists, that we are not abandoned. That there is a home we can come back to, that we can find the strength we need to make it through the war that life in this world is. This is what I crave possibly more than anything, and in this saga I have found a voice for that craving, and an image to anchor my hopes to.

Our hope in light of all we’ve lost is to stick together: to cling to Christ and to one another. It will be hard, but the strength to persevere will gather itself in the words and the touch and the willingness to fight for our friends. They are the channels through which grace comes and equips us to resist the death-dealing bullshit of the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

So look to your friend. If there is genuine trust and goodwill between you, and, even better, if you’ve been made to feel the freedom to share your disappointment and weariness, and they are able to do the same with you, then do not let go of him or her. Cherish them. Stand by their side and rush to defend them.

Whatever it takes.