At the end of the day, every movie in the MCU is also a Disney movie with an audience of children on its mind, and that includes Avengers: Endgame, a film that also features Thor (Chris Hemsworth) straight decapitating Thanos (Josh Brolin) within the first 15 minutes. As co-editor, Jeff Ford is responsible—along with co-editor Matthew Schmidt, plus Joe and Anthony Russo—with just how much violence is seen on-screen.
When I sat down with Ford recently, I asked about the tight-rope walking required to chop a Titan’s head off while working with the House of Mouse.
“Most of us on the crew are parents and have young kids, and I think that’s part of who we are,” Ford said. “We think about that, but more importantly, it’s about the scale of the story. So for instance, is it necessary? And is it narratively significant? And is it warranted? If you can answer those questions and you feel you need something that could be shocking or violent, then what’s the most artful way to handle that so that you don’t alienate the audience?”
When it came down to the opening head-slice, the question wasn’t so much about being horrifying, Ford said, but setting up the internal conflict that would define Thor’s arc through the entire film.
“Part of the story is Thor dealing with something that he really shouldn’t maybe have done,” Ford said. “I mean, he loses it a bit there, and I think it’s also shocking and it’s also final, at least for Thanos in that timeline.”
As you very well know by now, the scale of the “violence” in Avengers: Endgame gets a bit bigger by the third act, where pretty much every Marvel hero in existence faces off against Thanos’ Chitauri army in the biggest super-brawl in MCU history. Here, Ford says, there’s a lot more leeway; an on-screen decapitation sparks more conversation than, say, a CGI Spider-Man instant-killing dozens of faceless space-monsters.
“There’s an unreality to these movies. They are in a science fiction fantasy context,” he said. “So there’s a level of that that is slightly abstracted from what is real. And so you still want them to have sort of a visceral impact, you want the characters to feel it, but at the same time, people are doing things that people sometimes cannot do.”
“That said, never want to be ghoulish. We’re not trying to celebrate it, and we’re also trying to make sure that there are consequences to it, and I think that’s one of the things I like a lot about it Endgame is that if you watch these superhero movies, the ones that have real consequence, we lose people in this movie, people that we care about and followed for years as a storyboard. But the feeling of loss, it’s real. They’re gone, they’re not coming back. They’re not going to come back by some magic spell in another feature film.
It’s very much like, you have to say goodbye, and that shows the consequence of those actions. I think that’s actually something that drama does for all of us. We get to experience consequence and emotion that we would experience in real life, but experiencing drama, it’s a way to sort of see what that feels like in a safe place.”
For more from our conversation with Ford, here’s what he had to say about the alternate versions of Tony Stark’s death and why the Russos added Rhodey’s question about killing baby Thanos late into the post-production process.