Wednesday, May 1, 2019

In Laman's Terms: Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton Unearth The Humanity of Larger-Than-Life Icons

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton follow.

I had the privilege of getting to watch for the first time two pieces of pop culture that I had been eagerly awaiting for a prolonged period of time. The first of these was Avengers: Endgame, a movie culminating eleven years of storytelling that I had been following ever since my Dad took me and my younger brother to see Iron Man in theaters all the way back in May 2008. The other was getting to see Hamilton on stage for the very first time, an experience I had been dreaming about endlessly ever since I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack for the first time just over three years ago. My anticipation couldn't have been higher for either Endgame or Hamilton and it turns out they both exceeded my wildest expectations, particularly Hamilton, which took on a whole new level of life in the format of a physical stage show performed by flesh-and-blood people.

The fact that I watched this rap-fixated Broadway musical and this particular superhero epic for the first time in close proximity to one another should be the only thing that unites two seemingly disparate pop culture properties. But there's a key element shared by Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton that's critical to my adoration of both creations, particularly Hamilton. That element is both Endgame and Hamilton's ability to contemplate the humanity of larger-than-life mythic figures. In both of these stories, we don't get to just see glimpses of vulnerability in individuals who spawn legends, that vulnerability is the whole point of both productions. The process of coping with loss in Endgame or the remorse over the past felt by so many of the players in Hamilton, those are emotional experiences we've all been through. In the iconic faces of George Washington or Iron Man, we're able to see ourselves.

Though they share an emphasis on relatable human struggles, both Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton do confront this concept in differing ways. How so? Well, let's answer that question by looking at the movie that just broke box office records around the planet...
Avengers: Endgame: Superheroes Grappling With Vulnerability
"Legacy, legacy, what is a legacy?
It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see." - Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton

In Iron Man 2, the features primary antagonist, Ivan Vanko, notes that "If you can make God bleed, people cease to believe in him." Such a statement regarding how vulnerability can turn a diety into a man feels relevant to the start of Avengers: Endgame, which picks up right after the ending of Avengers: Infinity War that saw the Avengers failing to stop Thanos from wiping out half of existence. The Avengers have been so shaken by their failure that, five years on, they're all still processing it in different ways. Steve Rogers, for instance, helps run a support group for people who lost loved ones in The Snap (the term referring to when Thanos wiped out half of existence), Natasha Romanoff has basically taken up the Nick Fury mantle by keeping tabs on surviving superheroes and their exploits while Clint Barton takes out his rage over his dead family on criminals in foreign countries.

Though they're all processing it differently, the assorted Avengers are all struggling with failing to stop a madman from eradicating billions of people, including close friends and family. Avengers: Endgame lingers on this turmoil in a surprisingly intimate way, the audience gets to know just how profoundly impacted these heroes, including that endearing talking raccoon, feels about this tragedy. It's a situation that evokes one of the many thoughtful lines spoken by George Washington in Hamilton: "Dying is easy, son, living is harder." So many of them (including Steve Rogers) have had to deal with loss throughout their lives but this particular calamity really stings because of how they feel like they could have or even should have stopped. They're superheroes. Earth's mightiest heroes. Yet they experience defeat and grief over losing loved ones just like anybody else. A worldwide cataclysm has brought the humanity of these heroes to the surface.

Quiet sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe emphasizing intimate emotional moments for these superheroes (like the final Vision/Ultron conversation in Age of Ultron or the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) have always been among my favorite in this sprawling saga so it's no surprise that the portion of Avengers: Endgame focusing on just how individual characters cope with grief was like catnip to me. Such scenes are especially affecting since actors like Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and especially Karen Gillan excel with their individual performances when grappling with this somber material dealing with how the past has affected their characters in the long-term As James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Nebula recognize in a brief but poignant conversation, the ramifications of the past never really go away, they're something we live with. Though it delivers plenty of laughs and sweeping action beats, Avengers: Endgame finds its best moments in the small-scale sequences where it's super-powered characters come to terms with their own vulnerability.

Avengers: Endgame isn't the only pop culture entity where vulnerability is a constant force looming over its characters. Just ask Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton: Historical Figures of The Past Made Vibrantly Human In The Present
"I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When's it gonna get me?
In my sleep, seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin', do I run or let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?" -
Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton

In Avengers: Endgame, the various superheroes that make up the Avengers are grappling with experiencing the sensation of losing, of coming to terms with losing so many of their loved ones. By contrast, that's an experience the titular lead character of Hamilton knows all too well once the musical begins. His father left him when he was young and then he sat with his mother as she died when he was just twelve-years-old. Loss is something Hamilton knows all too well and, much like with how the events of The Snap constantly influence the individual members of the Avengers, Hamilton's past impacts his own behavior too. Specifically, he is fixated on making use of every opportunity at his disposal (he won't throw away his shot, if you will) and making a spotless legacy worth being proud of.

To say that his actual life doesn't live up to his idealized visions of his future is an understatement. Hamilton is shown as a human being capable of screwing up, of cheating on his wife, of refusing to compromise, of being stubborn beyond a fault. But he's also shown to care for his wife and son. He's shown to be determined to the cause of constantly helping America. He's shown, in essence, to be a more nuanced figure, for good and for ill, than the one you may see in a history textbook. Hamilton isn't a 100% historically accurate program, as the presence of rapping in the 18th-century would suggest. But it is an attempt to bring humanity to figures who have become merely statues and textbook illustrations in the modern era. The human beings who founded America were just as capable of exhibiting down-to-Earth traits as anybody.

The complex emotions experienced by these historical figures in this particular musical is captured beautifully throughout the shows flawless soundtrack, which sees assorted individuals from this monumental era of American history express joyful romantic infatuation (Helpless), regret (Satisfied and The World Was Wide Enough), indecisiveness (Hurricane) and every emotion in between. A sense of vulnerability is a crucial undercurrent to the whole proceedings but especially in the more somber or contemplative numbers, particularly numbers like Burn and It's Quiet Uptown, each of which use the trait of vulnerability to capture differing moods. For Burn, vulnerability is used to depict Eliza's justifiable rage over Hamilton cheating on her, you can feel her sorrow over the betrayal of her husband mixed together with all the rage of a thousand sun's. As for, It's Quiet Uptown is a solemn number depicting Hamilton and Eliza coping with the death of their son. Though the tones of the songs vary, vulnerability is a constant presence in these musical numbers that helps make the emotions expressed by the characters all the more vibrant and raw.

In these musical numbers rife with specific details related to the lives of characters like Eliza Schuyler or Alexander Hamilton, such beautiful depictions of vulnerability allow us to see ourselves in the characters on-stage. Through the exploits of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, the Schuyler sisters and everyone else in the cast, we can see our own pain, our own anguish, our own woe reflected in their struggles. Hamilton shines a light on the humanity of the figures of the past to a brilliant degree and that makes for a musical that constantly stirs up the soul and heart effortlessly. Like Avengers: Endgame, it takes larger-than-life figures and then proceeds to make a story fixated on their vividly-realized humanity, though in the case of Hamilton, the focus is more intimate in scope. Hamilton has the vulnerability of its characters constantly reinforced through how they grow over decades of history (this is primarily seen in how Eliza and Alexander's relationship ebbs and flows over time) whereas Endgame sees the vulnerability of its characters emerge from their individual reactions to a singular event (The Snap).
Endgame and Hamilton Focus On Intimate Vulnerability Even Amidst Spectacle
"Let me tell you what I wish I had known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story" - George Washington, Hamilton

Endgame and Hamilton approach vulnerability in differing ways that suit their individual stories but both share the common trait of having vulnerability be a prominent fixture in both of their stories. But in both cases, vulnerability serves as the foundation for which their artistic houses are built upon. Of course, these are not the only pieces of art to share the trait of contemplating about the more vulnerable side of characters or entities typically portrayed as being far above human foibles. It's likely I would never have even connected the two of them if I hadn't seen them both for the first time in the span of a few days. Putting them side-by-side in this manner, though, has me impressed with how both share the common thread of figures known all around the world and zero in on their most human moments. A God of Thunder can still miss his Mom and the first President of the United States can still feel regret over his past decisions.

Endgame and Hamilton beautifully constantly reinforce that just because these characters are iconic fictional or non-fictional individuals, that doesn't mean they also have relatable human struggles to go through. Showcasing the vulnerability of iconic figures like George Washington or Rocket Raccoon so prominently allows us to understand these characters as human beings and as a result, a viewer can become so emotionally immersed in the sweeping stories Endgame and Hamilton choose to tell. Those sweeping stories rely on a dichotomy between emotionally intimate storylines focused on vulnerability and oodles of spectacle that ends up creating a successful mixture against all odds. Endgame finishes off its plot with a rousing sprawling battle that sees every single Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero teaming up to stop Thanos. It's a moment full of exhilarating victory that couldn't work as well as it does if it didn't follow up scenes showing these heroes going through so many melancholy scenarios. The more somber sequences enhance the fun of this climax, rather than detract it, and those prior sequences even help to make key emotional moments, namely Iron Man's final sacrifice, all the more emotionally potent.

Hamilton can't go as big in scope as Endgame because of it being a stage show, but it doesn't need to, its intricately choreographed musical numbers (which make up the entirety of the dialogue in the program) are equally as transfixing. Both Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton can work just fine as broadly appealing pieces of entertainment without undercutting their more intimate character-driven moments because both of them realize how important it is for the spectacle to be driven by character. This is particularly true of Hamilton, which has each of its song brought to life through masterfully written lyrics that communicate so much about who the characters are, what kind of dynamics they share with other players in the story and so much more. Just from the lyrical exchange of "Do you relish being a poor man's wife? Unable to provide for your life?" "I relish being your wife" between Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, for instance, we understand the emotions this young couple feels on the verge of their first child being born. In just these three lines, we see the vulnerability Hamilton feels over this scenario, but also the hope Eliza has over their future. They have each other. That doesn't mean your worries go away, but it's better to be vulnerable with someone else than to be vulnerable alone.

Hamilton is packed to the brim with these kinds of thoughtful musical explorations of the vulnerabilities of its lead characters and it makes for one of the best stage musicals I've ever seen. Throughout this program, as well as in Avengers: Endgame, contemplations of the vulnerability in iconic figures go hand-in-hand with, rather than going against, sequences full of spectacle that's as large-in-scope as the pop culture influence of the characters each of these creations depicts. Mixing together these elements together so naturally means that Endgame and Hamilton use the vulnerability in their characters to create emotional moments or sequences that are utterly impressive to watch. This is particularly true in Hamilton, which left me in a constant state of tears from the second act musical number Burn all the way up until the cast came out for their bows. Everybody is human, whether we're talking about the legendary founders of America or some of the most popular superheroes of the modern era. Remembering that and using it for such emotionally potent storytelling serves both Avengers: Endgame and Hamilton so immensely well that their pathos-packed storylines are bound to leave viewers satisfied.

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