In 2008, when my two sons were seven and four, we were walking out of some movie I now forget when my youngest, James, spotted a very cool and very busy poster for a new superhero movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.
“Who’s that?” James asked, pointing to the crimson and gold armored figure staring out from the shadows.
William, who was already getting deep into his love affair with comics and all things super, answered for me: “That’s Iron Man,” he said before turning to me in excitement. “There’s an Iron Man movie?”
Indeed there was, and thus began the first step on our decade-long journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has engulfed our own family as much as it has the rest of the world.
The boys’ Marvel Cinematic Universe journey was slightly more delayed, as my wife and I felt it was better to see Iron Man first to ensure there was nothing too traumatizing. After sitting through Tony Stark’s torture at the hands of his captors, we decided that it might be best to wait. The same held true for The Incredible Hulk, although that decision was born more out of the realization that it wasn’t a movie we needed to shell out to see twice in theaters.
However, in the only gap year that has ever existed in the MCU, 2009, my boys and I used our time wisely. Iron Man and Ed Norton’s Hulk were, with some judicious fast forwarding here and there, watched and re-watched, studied, and analyzed. Questions were raised. Discussions were born. What did that Nick Fury cameo mean? Was there really going to be an Avengers movie? Could the actually pull that off? What superhero do you hope they bring in?
But, in the midst of those surface discussions, some deeper conversations started to emerge. Is Tony Stark a hero? What did he learn after he was in that cave? Did he become a better person? If you had Tony Stark’s money, would you party like he did or would you try and do something better with it? Marvel movies became an easy gateway to larger and more insightful family talks with my sons.
When 2010 rolled around, we were all in with Iron Man 2, and to this day, I remain among its most staunch defenders. It’s flawed, sure, but it also gave us the best Iron Man solo villain the series has had to date in the spoiled arms dealer Justin Hammer. More so, it gave me one of my fondest memories with my son. I still remember watching the scene where Hammer tells Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko that he likes to eat his dessert first and William leaning over and whispering, “What a baby!” I think I laughed harder at that than any of the film’s one-liners and it might be part of why I still hold a soft spot for that movie.
Later that summer, James broke his arm and had to wear a cast. He wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of spending the next six weeks with an immobilized arm, but William told him, “Remember how Tony Stark had a cast when he came back from that cave? Now you’re just like him.” The notion that he and Iron Man both shared similar injuries buoyed James’s spirits and gave him the extra boost he needed to make it through that summer. So great was his change of heart that I didn’t have it in me to tell the boys that, technically, Tony’s arm was just in a sling.
Through the years it went for my sons and I. Counting down to every Marvel movie, then getting there opening weekend, devouring it, and then waiting for the bonus scenes to lead us into the next great adventure. We planned weekends around Marvel releases, tacked them on to family vacations, and worked them around Mother’s Days and birthdays. One Mother’s Day, my wife shocked us all when she suggested we all forgo lunch out and see Captain America: Civil War instead.
As the years went on, and the MCU grew, something else changed, too. The conversations I had with my sons became less about how cool it would be to have Tony Stark’s mansion and cars and more about how great it is that he has good friends like Pepper Potts and Rhodey to help him through his anxiety. Discussions became less one-sided, with the boys offering their own opinions and insights and raising their own questions. Heading out after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, William and I had a discussion about privacy and how much control the government should have over our lives. Had this been just a few years earlier, our drive home would have probably consisted of talking about how sick the elevator fight was (don’t worry, we got to that too).
Something else changed in those years. James and my wife became more choosy about which Marvel movies they needed to see in the theaters and which ones could wait for Blu-ray. They were still in it for the event flicks, but their fandom had become akin to Catholics who go to church on only Christmas and Easter.
William and I, on the other hand, kept the faith strong, seeing every single movie on opening weekend. It was our thing. James and I had the Jets. William and I had Marvel. And, as we drifted into the teenage years, where most conversations received one word answers, I knew I could always shift the topic to Marvel and get the gears going again. “How was your day?” “Fine.” “Learn anything interesting?” “Not really.” “Hey, did you see they cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange?” “Great choice, he was so good in Sherlock…”
Marvel is a part of our family’s history, as I suspect it is with a lot of families out there. It’s our kids’ great mythology, their Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And, in that way, it’s fitting that as it draws to a close, William heads off to college in the fall. The Avengers, as we’ve known them, are ending at the same time a chapter in our own life is winding down. Kevin Fiege is a hell of a producer, but I don’t think even he could have planned a more fitting or bittersweet finale. In the latest Endgame trailer, Tony Stark muses, “It seems like a thousand years ago, I fought my way out of that cave.” I look at the young men sitting next to me, the one whose hands I held and told them that yes, they really were making a movie about Iron Man, and I think, “It seems like yesterday to me.”
That’s the way of things, though, isn’t it? All stories come to an end, all roads eventually diverge. Marvel will continue, but it won’t be the same. Many of the heroes we’ve grown up with will be gone and the boys will be most likely enjoying the new films with their friends, roommates, wives and, one day, their own kids.
So I hold onto these memories and stories like so many infinity stones and I will use them not to snap society into oblivion, but to to power me through the years ahead when they are off on their own.
But, then again, our story won’t end. It will grow and expand to make room for new adventures, new characters, and new memories. This is just the end of the greatest special issue of our lives. I’m thankful for what it did for us. And I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.