The Inherent Brilliance of ‘I Took My Parents to See AVENGERS: ENDGAME’
“It’s so wholesome!”
That is how a very good friend of mine reacted when I showed him a video that is truly one of my favorite things to come out of 2019. The YouTube video is called “I Took My Parents to See AVENGERS: ENDGAME,” released by video essayist Patrick H. Willems (@patrickhwillems) on October 19th, 2019. This video is not typical of his usual output, he prefers long-form breakdowns of directors as varied as Michael Bay and Terrence Malick, deep dives into iconic action movie scenes, videos about rethinking the lesser entries of classic geek properties like The Matrix and Batman, and general analysis of current movie-going and pop culture trends.
In the video, however, Patrick recounts that as a part of a fundraising goal on the crowdfunding site Patreon, he would take his parents to go see Avengers: Endgame. And, as he says, “important to note: in the past decade, my parents have seen maybe 2 Marvel movies.” As he says later in the video, “the reason I was so curious to show you guys this movie is because it’s such a big pop culture event, but it’s also [because] I can’t recall a movie in a series in my lifetime that has relied so much on assuming that the audience has seen prior films, that is expecting you to come in with at least a certain level of knowledge and familiarity, that does so little work to explain [what] things are.” He concludes by saying “I really wondered if this movie functioned at all as a movie itself, or it was just a piece of a whole?” Despite really enjoying Avengers: Endgame myself, I admit that this question definitely plagued me, as well. Would I still enjoy the movie if I hadn’t seen the preceding 21 movies, and hadn’t already been invested in the Marvel universe as an avid comic book fan and reader?
Based on the response of his parents, the answer is enthusiastically in the affirmative.
“We enjoyed it!” Patrick’s mom, a sweet lady with a charming Irish brogue, enthusiastically exclaims to her son after having seen the movie. Patrick’s dad, on the other hand, has an air of authority, dry wit, and penchant for grouchiness all typical of a man his age. (“I hate malls, I really hate malls” he murmurs as the family walks through one to get to the multiplex.) In his response to the film, he says that despite a usual aversion to summer blockbusters, he thought Avengers: Endgame “was extremely well done and entertaining…there were certain subtexts that carried through whether you [previously] knew who everyone was or not, and there were certain humorous elements that were very effective. It was very good, and it was quirky, too.”
Before they watch the movie, Patrick quizzes them on their knowledge and their expectations going in. “I really know that they’re about superheroes who come together to fight the bad guys, and that’s all,” Mrs. Willems admits. Mr. Willems had a passing familiarity with the Avengers due to reading some of their comics when he was a kid, but admits that “there are probably ten extra Avengers now from when I knew them.” When Patrick asks them who they think is on the team, Mrs. Willems correctly guesses Captain America before incorrectly guessing both Superman and Wonder Woman, both owned by Marvel’s rival, DC Comics. (“Do you wanna go for Batman?” Mr. Willems jokingly chides her.) She later admits she started to get the lineup for the Avengers confused with the characters from the Pixar movie The Incredibles.
“Have there been lots of Avenger movies?” Mrs. Willems asks at one point. Patrick responds to her with “So, this is the 22nd Marvel movie, like within the same sort of universe. The first one in 2008 was Iron Man…and there are 22 movies that are sort of connected, and this is the fourth Avengers movie. The Avengers ones tend to be the ones where everyone’s in.” Hearing the Marvel project discussed in purely forensic quantitative terms like this is amusing for someone like me who is enthralled with what Marvel has accomplished.
After returning home, gathering around the dining room table with glasses of wine in hand, the three discuss their thoughts on the movie. “I was so happy and semi-surprised that you enjoyed it,” Patrick admits. “I was all prepared for you guys to be like ‘that was three hours long, I had no idea what was going on, that was all nonsense to me.’” Mrs. Willems admits that, because Patrick was sitting beside her and the movie theater was quiet enough, “I was able to ask ‘who’s that? Who’s she?’”
Patrick’s parents give brief summations of what they thought of individual characters. For example, Mrs. Willems says things like “Thor was hilarious…with his big belly!” and “we can’t forget Hulk, he was great, he was funny and good!” She admits that she mistook Rocket Raccoon for a fox, that she “loved” the character of Groot, and got confused when Brie Larson’s character Captain Marvel showed up at the end sporting a new haircut. She also admits that she had never heard of the film’s antagonist Thanos before seeing the movie, then adding that she “thought his sword was ridiculous,” eliciting a big laugh from her son.
“In general, it seems like you guys managed to piece together what the story was,” Patrick says after much of the film had already been discussed. “It was very entertaining,” Mrs. Willems says. “Now, had we not had this plan to go to see the movie…I wouldn’t have gone on my own.”
Patrick asks his parents who their favorite characters and moments in the movie were. Mr. Willems says that he was very affected by the opening scene where Jeremy Renner’s character Hawkeye loses his wife and children in Thanos’ iconic “Snap” from the previous movie, Avengers: Infinity War. “All of a sudden…the line-of-sight is bouncing, and it’s uneven…you’re getting vertigo watching it,” he says. “I thought that really was a good intro, and it drew me in.” His perspective has gotten me to consider, as someone who is not a parent yet myself, how affecting that scene is for parents in particular.
The Marvel project is different than any other in film history. Before Marvel pulled it off, most seemed to think that the idea was impossible. An overlapping cinematic universe, mostly faithful to the original comic book source material and continuity, featuring massive team-up movies where all the respective stars of different franchises would come together to fight bigger threats? The idea was dismissed as ludicrous until Marvel not only proved that it could be done, but became bigger and better with it as time went on. How does one even factor in that underwhelming sequels that exist solely to build up the universe more (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World) exist in the same franchise as truly spectacular, arguably auteur-driven hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther? Even talking about the Marvel project seems daunting, Marvel is less a franchise at this point than it is a pop culture monolith. Different takes are appreciated, and few have endeared themselves to me more than this video did.
Maybe I love the video so much because I have often found myself in Patrick’s position: a very enthusiastic nerd son trying to explain to his parents the intricacies of the latest hit nerdy property. Mr. and Mrs. Willems politely nod along at some of the explanation (a feeling I know all too well), while offering their own anecdotes about how they personally relate to said property. Like Mr. Willems, my dad also read some comic books when he was young, but was not nearly as big a fan of them as I was.
The video provides something that only YouTube could produce: honest, genuine reaction and conversation between people who love each other. If it were on TV, it would be a set-up, a comedic riff meant to tease the older participants for their obliviousness about the current state of popular culture. Even within the confines of YouTube, this video feels more sincere and thoughtful than other popular reaction videos, which usually show content to get a rise out of the participant, not to explain and review a recently-watched movie.
In our current Boomer vs. Millennial times, here is a cross-generational conversation not meant to be the butt of a joke, or a serious exploration of political issues. They’re just talking about a movie, a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster event movie, sure, but one that they all enjoyed. As my friend pointed out, there is a very wholesome element to it. The Willems family resembles any family, and as it was for me, it’s easy to imagine how one’s own family would react, and to superimpose one’s own family dynamics over the discussion. What would my mom think of Thanos? Would my dad relate to Tony Stark’s struggles to protect his daughter?
Maybe it is worthwhile for Patrick Willems and other YouTube content creators to explore other movies, particularly contemporary releases and bigger, Avengers-style event movies, in this format going forward. (Willems has recently announced that if he reaches another fundraising goal on Patreon, he will take his parents to see Fast & Furious 9 this summer. I have not stayed up-to-date on that franchise in the slightest, but would be curious to see the result.) This video charmed me, I have watched it countless times by now, have recommended it to many friends, and I expect to revisit it many times in the future. When thinking about the film discourse on YouTube as a whole, at times it can seem to be dominated by amateurs, cynics, or people with unsophisticated tastes. This is a medium where you more likely to find a thousand video essays about how much Star Wars: The Last Jedi was bad (just so we’re all clear, it wasn’t) than you are to find one about any movie in The Criterion Collection. However, this video gives me hope and confidence that the YouTube format can succeed at finding different, exciting, fun ways of talking about even the biggest, most popular, and most successful movies.