“How the MCU Was Made” is a series of deep-dive articles that delve into the ins and outs of the development history, production, and release of all the Marvel Studios movies
In the run up to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the film was described as a “culmination” of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that had come before. That description was somewhat apt, but only because we knew absolutely nothing about Avengers: Endgame yet. As it turns out, Infinity War is really Thanos’ movie—it’s the story of a galactic villain who brings all the major heroes of the MCU to their knees… and wins. And it’s Infinity War that really makes Avengers: Endgame so satisfying, because the latter film truly is the culmination event. It’s a genuine conclusion to the 22-film arc that precedes it, and puts a “period” on the end of the sentence for Iron Man and Captain America (Black Widow, meanwhile, gets her own solo movie to go out on…). It’s also three hours long, three different movies in one, and the highest-grossing film in history. It’s a miracle of a thing, and this is the story of how it was made.
The early days of development on Avengers: Endgame are the same as the early days of development on Avengers: Infinity War, because these two movies were planned together, to be shot back-to-back. For a more extensive rundown of the early development I suggest reading my How the MCU Was Made piece on Infinity War—I don’t want to repeat too much here—but the idea to make two Avengers sequels at the same time originated on a Marvel Studios corporate retreat in 2014. Shortly thereafter, Marvel Studios announced release dates for Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 and Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2, but the name would change when the team decided they wanted these to be two distinct movies. Of note: an early title for Endgame was Avengers: Infinity Gauntlet, but that was eventually changed to Avengers: Endgame.
Joe and Anthony Russo—the filmmakers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier—were hired to direct both films, while MCU veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hired to write them. The quartet began brainstorming while they were all shooting Captain America: Civil War, and after much trial and error, they hit upon the idea of telling Thanos’ story in Infinity War and then refocusing on the original Avengers team heroes in the second film. As the writing got more specific, this would eventually turn into the team writing themselves into a corner, allowing Thanos to win at the end of Infinity War. Figuring out how to then follow that up became a bit of a roadblock, and is one of the reasons the filmmakers abandoned their plans to crossboard Infinity War and Endgame and shoot them at the same time—the script for Endgame simply wasn’t done yet. Kevin Feige explained:
“Initially, we thought there’d be great savings—which on a movie of this size is relative—shooting them at the same time, and we’d be able to do what’s called crossboarding where we shoot all the scenes in Avengers Compound all at the same time, all the Infinity War scenes all the Endgame scenes, and then strike that set and move on. A few months before we started filming we knew we weren’t gonna be able to do that because we were still writing Endgame. Chris and Steve, our amazing screenwriters, were still writing Endgame and still finishing Infinity War, and we knew we had to shoot them one right after another. So any sort of clever savings went out the window at that point.”
The Snap was one of two major beats that the filmmaking team came up with early on for these two Avengers movies, and they had to decide exactly when to do it—in the middle of Infinity War, or at the very end? When they decided to use it as the shocking climax, the other major piece of the puzzle became figuring out when to bring everyone back, as McFeely explains:
“Another big plot point is when everyone comes back. So the question is, is it early in the second movie? Late in the second movie? You notice the players left on the board are the O.G. Avengers [Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye], and let’s give them their due. It meant that we were likely going to bring people back late. So that if you were a big fan of Doctor Strange or Black Panther or Bucky [the Winter Soldier] or Sam [the Falcon], you’re only going to get a little brief window on them. It can’t be all things to all people.”
The filmmaking team spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how Thanos fit into Endgame until executive producer Trinh Tran suggested just killing him at the beginning of the movie:
“Remember, [Thanos] is omnipotent. He is omniscient. It is ridiculous how much power he has at the opening of the movie, so for a good solid three weeks, we are trying to figure out, what is movie two with a character with that much power? At one point, I think Trinh Tran, our executive producer, in frustration said, ‘God, I really wish we could just kill him.’ We all went, ‘slow down. What does that mean? That’s interesting,'” McFeely said. “It’s absolutely within his character. When we asked, ‘Why would he let you?’ Because he did what he wanted to do. It’s strong for him to do that. We’ve been at it a long time and that’s the kind of thing I beat myself up for not thinking of earlier. If I’m being consistent to his character, this is on the table.”
The filmmakers additionally came up with the idea of using time travel as a way to revisit past MCU films and moments, since the entire notion behind Avengers: Endgame was for the film to be a celebration of everything that’s come before. Luckily, they had yet to use a character who was about to introduce a mode of time travel in Ant-Man and the Wasp:
“Time travel pops up in your head early in almost any difficult situation. Well, if I travel back in time, this date would have gone much better. Generally in a movie, ‘eh, that’s way too easy.’ We couldn’t have Tony just invents a time machine,” Markus said. “But delving into Ant-Man, who we hadn’t used because he had a movie coming and we didn’t want to taint Ant-Man and the Wasp any more than we did at the very end. … We were planning on Ant-Man because we had access to him in the second movie, and the fact that he was bringing a whole subset of technology that did have something to do with a different concept of time was like a birthday present.”
The team consulted with quantum physicists on the mechanics of their version of time travel, which inspired the lively conversation at Avengers Compound about how Back to the Future is largely BS. But the notion of bringing time travel to the fold was also rooted in character, as the team also knew the endings they were going to be giving to Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
Indeed, early in the brainstorming process, Markus and McFeely discussed “What If?” scenarios for all the different heroes, which would eventually morph into Act I of Avengers: Endgame. McFeely explains on the film’s audio commentary:
“When Chris and I sat down while we were all shooting Civil War, and in the afternoons when people are doing their jobs, Chris and I have nothing to do. So we came up with this manifesto of the many, many things you could do in these two movies, and one of them was the What If? section. What if we were able to show alternate versions of our heroes? But instead of a fantasy, it’s really just the natural progression of a five-year jump after a terrible event. So we did call this the What If? section.”
The idea to jump ahead five years in time was partially inspired by the Season 1 finale of the FX series Fargo and the flash forwards in Lost, and the idea was to be able to reflect how time has changed the OG Avengers characters, paving the way for these “What If?” evolutions to play out in a grounded, realistic fashion.
One major character change, obviously, is Smart Hulk—but Bruce’s transition was actually planned (and shot) to appear in Infinity War before some late post-production work removed Smart Hulk from the movie. McFeely elaborates:
“[Bruce] was fighting in Wakanda, and the whole arc of the story was Banner and Hulk were not getting along, Hulk wouldn’t come out to help him, and in his hour of greatest need they made some sort of compromise and Smart Hulk rips out of the armor and beats the crap out of Cull Obsidian and destroys him. It was pretty clear that the movie could not handle this weird success. The movie needed to just stay in a succession of losses in the third act, which meant some hustling on the part of visual effects.”
There’s also “Lebowski Thor,” which reflects the deep depression the character finds himself in, and Natalie’s persistence in running Avengers HQ while Steve tends to others’ needs in true Captain America fashion. And then of course Assassin Hawkeye. Tony is the only one who is ultimately “happier” after the five-year time jump, which provides dramatic tension when Cap and the team show up to ask for his help.
And of course all of these arcs were crafted knowing that Tony and Natasha would die, and Cap would travel back in time and stay there with Peggy. McFeely says Natasha’s death completes her character’s emotional journey:
“Her journey, in our minds, had come to an end if she could get the Avengers back. She comes from such an abusive, terrible, mind-control background, so when she gets to Vormir and she has a chance to get the family back, that’s a thing she would trade for.”
However, that’s not to say there wasn’t debate over whether Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) would die in the Vormir sequence:
“Jen Underdahl, our visual effects producer, read an outline or draft where Hawkeye goes over. And she goes, ‘Don’t you take this away from her.’ I actually get emotional thinking about it,” says McFeely. “And it was true,” adds Markus, “It was him taking the hit for her. It was melodramatic to have him die and not get his family back. And it is only right and proper that she’s done.”
That said, the sequence was written and crafted knowing full well that Johansson would be spearheading her own Black Widow movie after Avengers: Endgame came out (it takes place before the events of Infinity War), which is why Natasha’s death doesn’t get the same grand sendoff as Tony’s.
Speaking of which, Tony Stark’s death at the end of Avengers: Endgame was an idea that came about very early on in the process. As an endpoint, Tony’s final act needed to be one of selflessness, contrasted with the selfish character we meet in Iron Man.
Anthony Russo admitted that Robert Downey Jr. had mixed emotions when he was first pitched Tony’s ending:
“We did pitch Robert his arc, because he kicked off the entire MCU. The Tony Stark arc is the longest and perhaps fullest in the MCU. Once we decided we wanted this kind of ending for the character, we certainly wanted to make sure Robert was comfortable with it, just because of his enormous contribution to the MCU. We did pitch it out. We went over to meet with him and we pitched it out to him.
A lot of the actors are not opinionated about what we do. They like the fact that we are sort of in control of these stories and we are driving where they should go and we have a vision for where they should go and they trust in that. I think Downey may have had mixed emotions about thinking about [where Tony Stark ends up in Endgame], but I think at the end of the day, he totally accepted it.”
Downey was first approached about this idea just as he was renewing his contract for Spider-Man: Homecoming and two additional Avengers movies, so you can imagine it may have felt a bit weird to begin plotting out your character’s death at the same time you’re signing on to these big, exciting projects. But obviously Downey came around to the idea.
Similarly, Cap’s ending was plotted out from the very first outline—that he would get his dance with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). But McFeely admitted that he wavered on whether that ending was too fan service-y:
“From the very first outline, we knew he was going to get his dance. On a separate subject, I started to lose my barometer on what was just fan service and what was good for the character. Because I think it’s good for the characters. But we also just gave you what you wanted. Is that good? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, it’s satisfying. He’s postponed a life in order to fulfill his duty. That’s why I didn’t think we were ever going to kill him. Because that’s not the arc. The arc is, I finally get to put my shield down because I’ve earned that.”
If Tony’s arc over the course of the MCU and culminating in Avengers: Endgame is moving from selfishness to selflessness, then Cap’s arc is moving from complete selflessness to finally being able to live a life of his own choosing. And these two ideas are beautifully executed over the course of Endgame‘s runtime.
While filming on Avengers: Infinity War began in January 2017, filming on Avengers: Endgame didn’t get underway until August 2017—again, the productions were split apart a few months before filming began. But even then, executive producer Trinh Tran explained that they were juggling both movies at once:
“We filmed all 2017. And the longest shooting period that Marvel ever had. And every day there was somebody new coming in. There was never a dull in that sense. Then towards the latter half of it, of 2017 we were filming Endgame as we were doing additional photography for Infinity War, as we were posting Infinity War.”
The most monumental day of filming came in October 2017, when they shot a scene that in the script was called “The Wedding.” This was, in fact, Tony’s funeral (dubbed “the wedding” to keep the death under wraps), and Marvel Studios assembled all of those actors you see in that scene in Atlanta, Georgia at the same time for the shoot. It coincided with the photoshoot for Marvel Studios’ 10th anniversary, and Feige looked back on the day fondly:
“[The funeral] was shot in October 2017, the day we shot the 10th anniversary photo,” Feige reveals. “That’s why we did that photo then, because we had everybody there. And it was astounding, having all those actors there, and it’s very solemn in the movie, because they’re all great actors, it’s very effective. On the day it was just insane.”
Lest you think everything came out perfectly, even after wrapping Endgame on January 11, 2018, there was still work to be done. An entire sequence was shot featuring actress Katherine Langford as Tony’s daughter that was ultimately scrapped because audiences didn’t understand who the character was supposed to be:
“There was an idea that we had that Tony was going to go into the metaphysical way station that Thanos goes in when he snapped his fingers. And that there was going to be a future version of his daughter in that way station,” said Joe Russo. The intention was that his future daughter, because these films are dealing with magic, his future daughter forgave him and sort of gave him peace to go. And the idea felt resonant. But it was just too many ideas in an overly complicated movie.”
That and there was no emotional connection to this new character right at the emotional climax of the entire film:
“What we realized about it,” said Anthony Russo, “Was we didn’t feel an emotional association with the adult version of his daughter. So it wasn’t ringing to us and resonating with us on an emotional level.”
Two key sequences also had to be reshot. One was Black Widow and Hawkeye’s scene on Vormir, which originally involved them being attacked by a Thanos army as revealed on the audio commentary. The army was meant to urge the characters to make a decision as to who was going to be sacrificed, but ended up taking the emotion out of the scene.
The other scene to be reshot ended up being the last scene ever shot for Avengers: Endgame: Tony’s snap. Originally, he just snapped his fingers without saying anything. In post-production, the Russo Brothers felt he needed to say something but weren’t sure what:
“Tony used to not say anything in that moment. And we were in the editing room going, ‘He has to say something. This is a character who has lived and died by quips.’ And we just couldn’t, we tried a million different last lines. Thanos was saying “I am inevitable.” And our editor Jeff Ford, who’s been with us all four movies and is an amazing storyteller, said ‘Why don’t we just go full circle with it and say I am Iron Man.’ And we’re like, ‘Get the cameras! We have to shoot this tomorrow.’”
Downey was reluctant to return to the iconic turn of phrase that ended the first Iron Man, but Joe Russo revealed on the ReelBlend Podcast it was actually producer Joel Silver who convinced him it was the right call:
“It’s an interesting story. I had dinner with [Robert Downey Jr.] like two weeks before we were supposed to shoot it. And he was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really want to go back and get into that emotional state. It’ll take… it’s hard.’ And crazily enough, Joel Silver, the producer, was at the dinner. He’s an old buddy of Robert’s. And Joel jumps in and he’s like, ‘Robert, what are you talking about? That’s the greatest line I’ve ever heard! You gotta say this line! You have to do this!’ So thank God that Joel Silver was at dinner, because he helped us talk Robert into doing that line.”
The new scene was shot in January 2019—mere months before the film’s release. But due to a lack of soundstage availability, they ended up shooting it at Raleigh Studios, adjacent to the soundstage where Downey first auditioned to play Iron Man a decade prior. Feige recalled the serendipity of it all:
“That was shot in a stage right next door to the stage where he did his audition for Iron Man,” Feige recalls. “And it was the first time we had been on that lot together since then. I thought, how amazing that the stars have aligned and his very last shot as Iron Man will be done in this place where he first performed Tony Stark. And how all of our lives had changed so dramatically from that first audition to that last shot.”
Avengers: Endgame was released in theaters on April 26, 2019 and it surpassed all critical and commercial expectations. The reviews were pretty uniformly rapturous, and the box office was downright monumental. With $357 million on opening weekend the film broke Infinity War’s record for the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time by a whopping $100 million. And while it took a few months, the film surpassed Avatar to stand atop the worldwide chart as the highest-grossing movie of all time with an astounding $2.796 billion total.
Audiences kept going back and back and back again to see the film in theaters, made all the more impressive by its three-hour length. But Avengers: Endgame is a movie that delivers on fan service without sacrificing organic emotional arcs. It’s all setup and payoff, and while the first hour is a serious grief drama, it lays the emotional foundation for the fun-filled time travel romp second act and the truly epic final showdown third act. It’s a film that rewards knowledge of and passion for the previous MCU movies—a genuine celebration of all things MCU, and in that regard it’s a movie unlike any other ever made. It can’t be like any movie ever made, because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a franchise unlike any other. And this concluding chapter is a massive, hugely entertaining, wildly emotional series finale with eye-popping spectacle. And on top of all that, the characters’ emotional cores resonate throughout.
As you’ve no doubt seen from reading this relatively brief rundown of how Avengers: Endgame was made, the finished film is the result of years of hard work, brainstorming, jettisoned ideas, and fine-tuning by Feige, Markus, McFeely, the Russo Brothers, and the Marvel Studios creative team. That it works as well as it does is a testament to the specificity with which the Russo Brothers steered this ship into harbor after 21 movies out at sea, and it’s doubtful anything like this will ever be replicated again.
And yet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t over. Avengers: Endgame certainly marks a stopping point, and concludes the arcs of three major characters who helped kick this whole thing off, but the next film after Endgame starts to pave a path forward for the MCU and expands the universe even further, while still carrying the emotional weight of the events in Endgame.
Next week, we dig into the making of Spider-Man: Far from Home.
If you missed my previous How the MCU Was Made articles, click the links below:
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Marvel’s The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America; The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Captain America: Civil War
- Doctor Strange
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Black Panther
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Captain Marvel