Mary, Help of Heroes and Sinners
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. Please read after you have watched the movie.
Recently, Marvel Studios released Avengers: Endgame, the jewel which crowns 11 years of amazing films. As a lifelong fan of Marvel comics, I think it’s amazing that we live in an era where such an ambitious endeavor was successfully undertaken in the realm of film. If you’d asked 10-year old Garrett how he’d adapt Marvel movies for the big screen, he’d describe something similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then he’d probably say something like, “But no studio would ever do it.”
I’m glad I was wrong.
Watching Endgame was quite a moving experience, and it’s not hard to understand why. After all, we’ve been following these characters for more than a decade. There is one scene, however, which I found especially moving. As I’d like to discuss it here, I must repeat the spoiler warning at the top of the page here. Seriously. I’m not especially averse to spoilers in my own life, but if these characters mean anything to you at all, you need to watch it fresh. Don’t let that experience be taken away from you.
Okay, so you’ve seen it already? Good. Let’s begin.
The scene which so affected me was the interaction Thor had with his mother, Frigga, when he travels back into the past. Specifically, he travels back to the events of Thor: The Dark World, where Frigga is tragically killed. Despite the importance of his mission in Endgame, Thor is no longer the boisterous, confident hero he once was. His failure to stop Thanos from murdering half of the universe has left him a shell of his former self, crippled by self-doubt.
The film portrays this by having him gain a staggering amount of weight and neglecting his appearance.
I’ve seen many people online decry this development. They argue that it degrades Thor as a hero, or that it makes light of those who suffer from PTSD as Thor is essentially a comic relief character in the film. While I can see why they’d be unhappy, I have to disagree.
First of all, I’d argue that this portrayal is entirely in keeping with Thor’s character in the comics. As seen in Jason Aaron’s Unworthy Thor miniseries, Thor tends to deal with grief with self-deprecating humor and continuing to get in way over his head. Secondly, to argue that this takes away from Thor as a hero is to misunderstand what a hero is.
A hero isn’t someone who is invincible, or who always does the right thing. In this modern world, our perception of a hero is colored by the impressive figure of Superman. And while I love the Big Blue Boy Scout, his character is not entirely in the mold of the heroes of myth. I’m referring to the figures of Greek and Norse Mythology, the latter of which Thor hails from.
Those heroes were far from perfect, performing numerous questionable acts. And if they made a big enough mistake, they were done. As in, they died and that was the end of their tale. In fact, Thor’s Norse mythology is harsher than the Greek stories in this regard. In those legends, even the gods themselves would eventually die in a final battle called Ragnarok. The pagan myths were infused with a heavy sense of weariness and fatalism. In the end, you could never escape your fate.
It was interesting, then, that Endgame dealt with the idea of second chances, of being able to right a major failure. Even more interesting that a figure of the old fatalistic pagan myths was tied so integrally to this story of second chances. Christianity, unlike those myths, has the idea of second chances baked into its core. We call this the concept of mercy and redemption, embodied in Jesus Christ. And when watching Thor receive counsel from his mother in the film, I was reminded of Mary’s role as the literal Mother of Mercy, and how generations of Catholics have looked to her as the channel of God’s mercy throughout the centuries.
I will describe and discuss the scene in Endgame here, before going on to compare it to a similar scene in G.K. Chesterton’s Christian poem, The Ballad of the White Horse. In the film, after Thor has confessed his feelings of failure and self-loathing, his mother reminds him that this simply makes him ‘just like everyone else’. Thor replies bitterly that he’s not supposed to be like everyone else. The implication is clear: in Thor’s mind, he is either one of two extremes. If he is not the perfect hero, then he is just, as he puts it, ‘an idiot with an axe’.
Frigga’s gentle answer is that the truth is not so black and white. True, Thor has failed at being the hero who could stop Thanos - what he was ‘supposed’ to be . But he could still succeed at being who he is - someone who would never stop fighting to set the world to rights. In fact, she points out, that was precisely what he was doing at that moment, retrieving an item from the past to help him in his quest.
That is what mercy does for us. It lifts us up from the failures that arise when we arrogantly overestimate our own abilities. It shows us that we still have room to grow and that we can grow. It just takes a little humility and help. And for a Christian, we know that that help can only come from on high.
We see this played out in The Ballad of the White Horse as well. In the poem, the English King Alfred has just come off from a devastating defeat at the hands of Viking raiders. His army shattered, he flees into the wilderness, where he encounters the Blessed Virgin Mary. Much like how Thor opened his heart to his mother in Endgame, Alfred confides in Mother Mary his own despair and defeatism. He is a failure for not being able to protect his people. He is not worthy to be a king, let alone a saint, someone who can attain salvation:
"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.”
Mary’s reply is to put things in perspective for Alfred. Heaven is not just for the worldly successful. What is important is to keep the Faith, and God will be with you.
"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold”
Much like how we saw in Endgame, Mary tells Alfred not to be too sure of his own abilities, or even of the way the world works. She describes Christians like Alfred as “ignorant and brave”. Most of us are familiar with the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. I think in most cases it’s a phrase that is oft-misused. But here, I believe it’s a warning against a false sense of surety in ourselves. This sureness cuts both ways - it can make us arrogant and overly-confident in our abilities. Or, it can make us despairing and fatalistic regarding our shortcomings. Sometimes, it’s best to simply face the day with courage, trusting in God to see us through.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves stuck in the self-pitying stage that Thor and Alfred were in. This can be subtle. I know people who otherwise seem happy, but when it comes to religious matters, they dismiss the issue with their own hopelessness and sinfulness. Again, it’s very easy to become too sure of ourselves. This sureness bars mercy from entering in.
Perhaps it is useful to recall the early prayer of St. Augustine - “Lord, make me pure and chaste, but not yet!”
Maybe we’re in the “not yet” stage like he was. But in my research, I found that in medieval Christendom, thieves and outlaws had a special devotion to Our Lady. Indeed, the legendary outlaw Robin Hood was said to have been extremely devoted to her. In some tales, Mary spares the criminal from the authorities, which eventually leads the sinner to conversion. I find it comforting to know that our ancestors in the Faith also looked to Our Lady to show us the mercy of God, providing opportunities for redemption.
I hope you enjoyed this little journey from a monumental pop culture event to a reflection on the role of Our Lady in bringing us closer to Christ. For me, I’m going to make a greater effort to grow closer to Our Lady so that she can, in turn, draw me closer to Christ.
Mary, Help of Sinners, pray for us!
© 2019 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng