Staging Endgame has always required obeying to the letter Samuel Beckett’s strict stage directions. The American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge, Massachusetts, found out the hard way when, in 1984, Beckett successfully sued them for setting the play in a subway tunnel instead of the mandatory bare interior with two windows and a door. The playwright’s estate enforces these rules to this very day, prompting one critic to quip that the ‘dead hand of conservatism’ is now the hand of Samuel Beckett himself, reaching from beyond the grave.
These strictures make Marvel Studios’ film adaptation of Endgame all the more remarkable. The Russo Brothers have redefined what it means to ‘take liberties’ with the source material. Beckett said the play should be set in a single interior? Then we’re going to use the whole universe. He ordered that there should be only four characters? Then we’re going to use hundreds, possibly thousands of them. Oh, and about those famous lines of dialogue … we’re going to go ahead and write a completely new script. This, perhaps the most contentious decision of all, finds artistic justification in a passage of the original play: ‘I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others.’
It remains to be seen how Samuel Beckett’s fans and lawyers will react, but this reviewer found the film more faithful to Beckett’s famous vision than most contemporary, staid stage productions. Take Clov’s famous line, near the beginning of the play: ‘It’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to – (He yawns.) – to end.’ With a running time of over three hours, Marvel’s Endgame is one long hesitation to end that will have you yawning with admiration over and over again.
Another line spoken by Clov is even more exemplary of the Russo Brothers’ approach to this adaptation. ‘The world is corpsed,’ he declares while surveying the outside world from one of those high windows. In the play, it is left to audience to imagine what a ‘corpsed’ world might look like. But cinema is all about showing, and so the Russo Brothers show it to us.
As hinted in the film’s trailer, it turns out that the two main elements of a corpsed world are that people no longer play baseball and have stopped picking up their rubbish. The first one is no doubt a knowing, ironic gag (Beckett wrote the play in Paris, and the French don’t play baseball even while they’re alive), and the second is clearly a reference to the characters of Nell and Nagg, the elderly couple who are spending their final days inside two garbage bins on Beckett’s stage.
Nagg is portrayed in the film by the character of Howard Stark, while Nell is Frigga, Thor’s mother – whose death is recalled in the film by her son while Nell’s happens silently and unseen, mid-play, inside her bin. A much thornier question is which of the heroes is meant to represent Hamm, the owner of the near-empty room, and which one Clov, his servant. It would be tempting to say that Hamm is Iron Man, and scholars will no doubt be reminded of Hamm’s line ‘I’m warming up for my last soliloquy’ at a particularly poignant moment involving this leader of the Avengers; it is less uncomplicated but nonetheless plausible to suggest that the role of Clov is reprised by Captain America. However, I want to counsel against such narrow readings: Marvel’s Endgame works precisely because it makes rich use of its source, allowing different characters to step into the shoes (or, in Hamm’s case, the slippers) of Beckett’s dramatis personae.
Dramatically, the play and the film follow the exact same path, slowly accreting towards a preordained conclusion per the metaphor of the endgame. This is the final phase of a chess match, in which the losing player is pushed into perfunctory moves with the sole purpose of staving off the check mate that is about to come – as captured in the film by Thanos’ line ‘I am inevitable’. In Beckett this path is filled mainly with spoken words (CLOV: ‘What is there to keep me here?’ HAMM: ‘The dialogue’), and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is full of lines that would have easily come from the original protagonists – for instance, ‘if I tell you what happens, it won’t happen,’ ‘it was either him or the tree’ or even ‘you better not throw up on my ship’. However, Marvel’s Endgame proceeds primarily by means of action. As one summary has remarked, ‘it may be easier to explain what doesn’t happen in Endgame than what does.’ This is an overt reversal of the stasis experienced in Waiting for Godot, the prequel to Endgame (ESTRAGON ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!’). The apparent diametric difference doesn’t disrupt the thematic convergence of the two texts. ‘The whole place stinks of corpses,’ says Hamm in the play. ‘The whole universe,’ corrects Clov. In Marvel’s Endgame, this central image is explored by means of intergalactic travel as the heroes travel to space only to find – or, often, create – new corpses.
If I have one (minor) complaint is that this dynamic at times seems a little too literal, as the film veers paradoxically too close to the source. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the ‘dead hand’ of the playwright – deftly symbolised here by the gloved hand of Thanos – placed too firmly on their shoulder. But it’s a quibble which pales against the bold artistic achievement that is Marvel’s Endgame. In adapting the BTU (Beckett Theatrical Universe), the Russo Brothers have succeeded in doing to film what the great writer did to the theatre, calling into question the very foundations of the art. This is no doubt what prompted Luke Buckmaster to claim that Endgame signals ‘the apocalypse of cinema’. One hardly needs to read the review to understand that he meant it as the highest possible praise.
Even as I write these lines, an alternative theory begins to form in my mind, which I will leave for the reader to ponder. Is it possible that it was Beckett who adapted Marvel’s Endgame for the stage, and not the other way around? As the Marvel Cinematic Universe prepares to move into its next phase, I don’t know how else to explain these words from Hamm’s final soliloquy:
I’ll soon have finished with this story. Unless I bring in other characters. But where would I find them? Where would I look for them?