Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame.
At the end of Infinity War, Thanos snaps away half of all life in an attempt to bring balance to the universe. That’s his whole thing: Half must die so that the other half may thrive. Call it brutal compassion.
Avengers: Endgame is about our heroes efforts to undo that snap. But on a meta-textual level, it’s also tasked with wrapping up the larger story arc of a film series that started 11 years and 21 movies ago with Iron Man. By most accounts, they succeeded.
The creative team behind Endgame – writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely along with directors Joe and Anthony Russo – pull off such an incredibly satisfying ending by taking a page from Thanos’ playbook; They found (thematic) balance for the original Avengers.
After a 10-day embargo on discussing spoilers – a timeframe in which Endgame became the second highest-grossing movie in history – the filmmakers are finally opening up about the creative choices that went into the movie. In an extensive interview with the New York Times, Markus and McFeely discussed their thought process in deciding each character’s fate. Clearly, they took care to craft the storylines based on each character’s larger story arc.
Take the death of Black Widow. “Her journey, in our minds, had come to an end if she could get the Avengers back,” McFeely told the Times. “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.”
Notice that “family” as described above is in reference to her Avengers teammates. But her sacrifice is also in service of a second family: Clint Barton’s, who are snapped away in the film’s opening scene. As a guilt-ridden former assassin who was never allowed to have a family, it’s true to character that Natasha would give up her life so that Clint could be reunited with his loved ones.
And, as Scarlett Johansson noted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, her willingness to die was a poignant ending for a character that hasn’t “really made any active choices in [her] life.” Theme, character and plot are all intertwined, making her death feel all the more noble.
The inspired pairing of Hulk and Thor has resulted in some of the MCU’s funniest and most playful moments. It’s fitting, then, that a newly-balanced Professor Hulk, along with Rocket, should be the character to rouse Thor out of his drunken malaise. Hulk is an explicit metaphor for repressed male rage; the fact that he’s able to reconcile his two warring sides into a complete whole makes him an ideal role model for the self-pitying Thor of Endgame.
Tracing the whole of Thor’s story arc, one could say it too is about achieving equilibrium. The first Thor is about an overconfident Warrior-God learning a lesson in humility. By Endgame, Thor is a quivering raw nerve of vulnerability. While his storyline is less resolved than the other Avengers, the ending suggests that he’s finally found some kind of inner serenity. One of the MCU’s most tortured characters can move forward in search of his own truth, without drifting too far toward either pole. He’s even willing to let Starlord be in charge (maybe).
Iron and Honor
The most satisfying (and conclusive) endings go to the two biggest heroes in the MCU: Iron Man and Captain America. In many ways, the MCU has been shaped around their opposing leadership styles and personalities. It’s fitting that, in the end, their stories are mirror images.
“Steve is moving toward some sort of enlightened self-interest, and Tony’s moving to selflessness,” Markus explained to the New York Times. “They both get to their endpoints.” Tony Stark kicks off the MCU as a selfish war profiteer and dies saving humanity from a planetary threat. Steve Rogers’ story begins with him dying to save humanity and ends with a bit of righteous selfishness, as he stays in the past with the woman he always loved.
According to the writers, this was always the plan. In a candid quote, McFeely admitted they blurred the lines between fan-service and serving the story. Yet somehow, Avengers: Endgame pulls off the balancing act like no film before it:
“….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. [Captain America] 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.”
No matter the confusing story issues that arise from Cap returning the Infinity Stones to the past (and there are plenty), the device allowed the character to have the perfect happy ending.
He earned it.