If you’re like millions and millions of others (which statistically speaking, you are) then you have seen the latest Avengers Infinity War: Endgame and all its CG glory. However, hidden among the carousel of heroes, shiny stones and witty banter are multiple different depictions of human coping mechanisms.
Let’s go through some loss coping mechanisms seen in the film through the experience of 6 characters:
- Bruce Banner/Hulk (conversion mechanisms)
- Steve Rogers/Captain America (adaptive mechanisms)
- Tony Stark/Ironman (avoidance mechanisms)
- Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (behavioural mechanisms)
- “Fat” Thor (self-harm mechanisms)
- Clint Barton/Hawkeye (attack mechanisms)
Before we get going let’s straighten out some terminology that we’ll be using:
Grief is a common response to a loss that includes thoughts, feelings, behaviours to bereavement. We will discuss below how the Avengers each respond differently to grief.
Complicated grief is when grief is prolonged resulting in troubling thoughts, dysfunctional behaviours (see “Fat” Thor), dysregulated emotions (beware Hawkeye).
Now let’s get started on looking at each 6 characters above:
“Hulk smash” is among the more memorable lines in the Avengers films. However, this primitive violent version of the hulk is replaced with a new composite one who combines the intellect and temperament of Bruce Banner in the physique of our Green Giant.
To me this represents conversion mechanisms – both literally and figuratively. “Smart Hulk” achieves this by reconciling his violent inclinations into the intellect of Bruce Banner. We can see him as a selfie-taking celebrity in the scene at the diner. He has opted to take on a role where he is helping others post Snap, an altruistic behaviour. (I acknowledge that this Smart Hulk character has existed in the comics independently of the Snap and therefore this composite new character did not necessarily come to be as a direct response of it).
This is mechanism is not commonly used in films as it lacks dramatic potential of other ones described further down.
Steve Rogers/Captain America
The team’s moral compass and de facto leader, Steve Rogers, has always been portrayed as the ‘good guy’ in the films. His response following the significant loss seen in the Snap is no exception. Following the mass extinction we see that he heads up a support group for those reeling from their loss. His behaviours fall squarely in line with adaptive mechanisms demonstrating post-traumatic growth. Other adaptive mechanisms commonly used in films include rituals (turning to religious affiliations), intellectualization (reasoning loss through logic), and sublimation (using negative energy into a less harmful behaviour e.g. chopping wood when angry).
This mechanism is useful to draw audience empathy as the character is taking a loss and turning it into a productive behaviour. This heightens emotions later when this character encounters a loss or obstacle in the story.
Tony Stark/Iron Man
Tony Stark isn’t generally known for his emotional availability through the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Endgame finds him living a domestic life in a country home with his wife and daughter.
Throughout the film he demonstrates classic avoidance behaviour by physically separating himself from the rest of the Avengers and consistently trying to encourage others to move on.
This type of coping mechanism is more commonly depicted in films. (We will touch on the related substance use that is even more often seen when we talk about Thor). Having the star of the film isolate himself from others in the story creates a dramatic distance that often causes conflict – good for telling a story. In this case Tony’s reason for distancing himself is to cope with the loss following the mass extinction. In other films, particularly in some of the scripts I have consulted on, the gravity of the preceding trauma isn’t depicted well enough to justify the ensuing grief manifestation. This takes away from realism and affects audience empathy toward that character.
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
One of the only characters to not have a standalone origin movie, Natasha Romanoff’s story arc is primarily seen in films of other Avengers, requiring writers to work harder to paint a picture of a cohesive character.
While the others are coping in varous other ways, Natasha’s character ‘throws herself into her work’. She seems to take a leadership role in coordinating various aspects of efforts to further the goal of reversing the Snap. Later in the film she sacrifices her life to make attainment of the Soul Stone possible. This is an actual behavioural coping mechanism seen in Type-A personalities in ‘real life.’ It usually results in the individual decompensating emotionally at a later point from a seemingly insignificant trigger. We didn’t see this in the film and I think it would have added more dramatism to see the effects of such behavioural coping catch up with her and wear her down like it does other people.
This character and its actor, Chris Hemsworth, have become synonymous with blonde hair and a muscly physique. It is perhaps no accident that in Thor Ragnorok we see him lose the hair, and in this movie lose the muscles. This may have been to shake that image of Chris Hemsworth for other roles, or that of Thor, or both. Whatever the reason, this is one of the most realistically depicted coping mechanisms in the film.
Loss, failure and grief are emotions we will all likely deal with at some juncture in our lives. How we process it depends on the simultaneous expression of our genetics, upbringing, and the circumstances of the event. Significant risk factors in any of these 3 factors will influence what your coping looks like. Thor’s God-DNA and royal upbringing cannot save him from self-harm coping since the circumstances of the event were sudden, traumatic and affected by his actions (or inactions). This is considered a very high risk event for downstream mood disorders if adequate supports are not there (such as if your parents and planet are wiped out).
The most impactful representation of self-harm coping that are depicted in film establish the genetic and upbringing angle before they lay on the loss circumstances.
The wounded vigilante has been done many times over. What those films are showcasing are the attack mechanisms that exist when dealing with grief or loss. In his case we don’t really know much about his upbringing (lower socioeconomic status, education and family member incarceration raise risk of maladaptive coping mechanisms). We also don’t know about about his upbringing – was he raised with food insecurity? Abuse?
Raising the risk factors to 10 in each category would have Clint Barton grow up in a broken household, witnessing or experiencing physical abuse with a first degree family member who has diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health illness. We then would see him build a nuclear family for himself (something he has never had) that he suddenly loses in a traumatic fashion. This would certainly make for a more gritty, realistic film, but that’s likely not what they were aiming for (or have allotted time for). But maybe that’s something you are looking for. Remember, having a ‘medical consultant’ is not just for knowing what drugs are called or how to hold a syringe, but can also help establish the components of a realistic backstory for your characters.