As the last images of “Avengers: Endgame” faded and the credits began to roll, there was a smattering of light applause in my 10 p.m. opening night showing, but it wasn’t the raucous reaction that summer blockbusters typically receive. I brought my hands up to clap but quickly set them down. It didn’t feel right — not because I didn’t enjoy the movie, but because its ending didn’t inspire that feeling.

“Infinity War” was the action-filled apex to everything Marvel had built toward with its previous 20 movies, and it left audiences devastated. “Endgame” is almost entirely denouement — the post-climax descent that leads to catharsis.

Like much of the movie, its final moments left me feeling contemplative and emotional but above all loved. That has to be it — the Russo brothers’ masterful final act to this 23-film story arc can really only be considered an act of love for fans who have invested so much of their time, money, and hearts in the characters and stories of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

My friends and I didn’t leave the theater until a few minutes after the last credits rolled. We smiled and gave each other knowing looks and hugs as we started, with great difficulty, processing our feelings. It was over — the movie, the Infinity Saga, and the stretch of 11 years that saw us grow from early-20s post-adolescents to early-30s adults who are finally starting to figure things out.

* * *

I didn’t go into 2008’s “Iron Man” with very high expectations. Movies based on Marvel properties were inconsistent in quality — the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies were great while the third movies in both trilogies were hot garbage, the Fantastic Four movies were okay, and that Eric Bana “Hulk” movie was just bad. “Batman Begins” was the first superhero movie that gave me hope that the genre could hold more than just good guys battling bad guys, but not every hero movie could be directed by Christopher Nolan.

Of course, when I saw “Iron Man,” I was blown away. There wasn’t a lot of combat in the movie, but what it did have was a great deal of character development. It wasn’t about someone who suddenly became a hero after being bestowed with superpowers, it was about a deeply flawed man who goes through extreme trauma and comes out of it ready to take action to prevent atrocities like those he had seen.

It set the tone for every MCU movie that followed. Its heroes were heroes, to be sure, but they were human — filled with flaws and pain and love and inspiration, basically everything you and I have minus the superpowers.

* * *

I was 22 when “Iron Man” came out. I worked as an English tutor at my hometown community college but was mostly adrift in terms of direction in my life. I met my future ex that summer, and I distinctly remember showing the movie to her on DVD because she hadn’t seen it in the theater.

She and I spent the next decade together, and we saw every MCU movie together through “Infinity War” except the Ant-Man movies, which we felt were more like wait-for-Netflix movies. I can almost track the ascent and decline of our relationship based on what Marvel movie was out at the time.

In that time, we grew, and grew apart, and ultimately it came to a point, about two months after “Infinity War,” where we became incompatible. We tried and tried again, had plans to see “Endgame” together, but we didn’t make it that far, and that’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it, though there’s still a sting every now and then, though I was surprised when it didn’t really happen with “Endgame.” The movie ultimately inspired catharsis both in and out of the theater for me, and I expect I wasn’t alone in experiencing that.

* * *

There’s no way that anyone in that theater Thursday was the same then as they were when they saw their first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (unless they only just started watching them before the “Endgame” release). Not everyone spent 11 years with it, but I’m willing to bet a good number did.

So we had little choice but to sit there in warm reflection as the “Endgame” credits rolled. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I thought about how far the expansive universe created by Kevin Feige and company created has come and the infinite possibilities for its future, and I thought about how far I had come. I’m not the shy, lovelorn boy — I’m not ashamed to say I was a late bloomer — I was at 22. I’m a man who knows who he is and what he wants from life.

I actually consider myself fortunate to have this film saga as bookends to that chapter in my life. The details can get fuzzy over time, but the milestones Marvel created help mark the passage of time in memory. Even now, I’m sure Marvel’s writers have been hard at work creating its next cinematic chapter. As for me, I’m ready to get out there to keep building my own story.

* * *

In the days since I saw the end of it all, I’ve had a chance to reflect a little more about just how many layers there were to it, how many different ways a person can respond. One jumped out at me after a loved one found it difficult to express her feelings after the movie. “Infinity War” was traumatic — there’s no easy way to see your heroes lose in the worst way possible. “Endgame” felt like an exercise in coping with that trauma. But just like real pain or heartache or loss, there’s no going back; those scars never fade. We’re given a brighter path forward, though, and a chance to keep seeking happiness and togetherness and life.

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