Editor’s Note: This story contains certain key spoilers regarding the events of “Avengers: Endgame”
One would imagine that as the screenwriting duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely began to tackle their sixth and, for now at least, final film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Endgame,” they would’ve walked into the assignment with all the swagger of Tony Stark, or the resolute righteousness of Steve Rogers.
But one would be wrong. Even after the wild box office successes and critical praise of their previous efforts in the MCU – including all three “Captain America” films, “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” the penultimate episode in the ten-year interconnected superhero saga – the pair was very aware that the highly anticipated concluding chapter was as much theirs to screw up as to win the day.
“You’re on a high wire falling on your face, where it’s going to either get bogged down in such a sense of your own importance that you forget to make an entertaining movie, or you’re so busy dotting the I’s that you forget to grip people emotionally during the run of the movie,” Markus told CNN of their initial “Endgame” jitters. “It was a constant sort of calibrating and rejecting and going over it and making sure that we weren’t just taking a victory lap. Because that is death.”
Their commitment, of course, would pay off in spades: “Endgame,” which has already made its debut on digital download and bows on physical home media on Tuesday, was instantly embraced by both fans and critics, becoming the top-grossing film of all time.
“I guess maybe Marvel makes it look easy, because they are fun [movies], but when Chris and I took the job, we did it very carefully knowing that it was going to take a lot out of us and it was going to be the biggest puzzle that we ever faced,” said McFeely. “The amount of plates we’re juggling, the amount of storylines, being able to bring them to the conclusion, and yes, making sure that we’re honoring 20-ish other movies in the process, was rather complicated.”
For the writers, who have been in the near-exclusive employ of Marvel Studios since their first film for the company, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” successfully translated one of the studio’s key characters to film even before its acquisition by Disney, the opportunity to see through the never-before-done experience of crafting a satisfying endpoint for several intersecting franchises was worth all the heavy lifting.
“Rarely do you get the chance to end something and end it as meaningfully and satisfyingly,” said Markus. “A lot of the times things just end where you find out you’re not getting another one later. This was the best of all possible ends, in that we all set out knowing exactly what we were doing and that we were laying it down and that we were going to bring all the arcs to conclusion. That was more satisfying than anything else.”
That audiences came away happily sated meant a lot to the pair. “Most people seem to be really pleased with how all the planes landed,” said McFeely. “‘I can’t believe that they really stuck the landing’ – that’s a phrase I heard a lot, and that was certainly what we were going for.”
“We work so long on these movies that the emotional impact of them, by necessity, gets completely removed,” said Markus, admitting that they are always on guard of assuming too much or too little in terms of audience investment in a story’s stakes.
“We are going over Tony’s death a thousand times,” he explained. “We are discussing seeing the mechanical workings and how these things function to the point where it’s the last thing we want to talk about sometimes, and the impact of it is very obscured.
“And then to see people crying on the internet and to have people thanking us and all the other filmmakers for giving them a real emotional, cinematic experience as opposed to just another episode, is kind of mind blowing,” Markus added. “It reminds you of the impact of the medium.”
Both writers admit that while there a handful of dangling threads that will be taken up in future Marvel projects, they were pleased to be focused more on resolution than setting the table for upcoming films. “I think we were clearing the table for someone else to set,” said Markus.
“It’s why it’s different from other Marvel movies, in that it is definitely the end,” agreed McFeely. “Sometimes they’re accused of being advertisements for the next movie; it was really our intention not to do that, and it was to end this so that a new thing could rise.”
Post-“Endgame” they’ve enjoyed engaging with fans and journalists on many of the film’s lingering questions, many of which were sparked by the use of time travel and the sort of conundrums and paradoxes it poses – and sometimes their clarifications haven’t neatly dovetailed with those of the directing duo, Joe and Anthony Russo.
“I think we’re in alignment for most of the film,” Markus said, while McFeely said certain alternate timeline, parallel universe head-scratchers, like the precise workings of the time-traveling Steve Rogers’ apparent long existence through the MCU’s history, showing up as an aged man at the end, will likely be taken up down the line.
“The question is, how does Steve get to the bench at the end?” he said. “And that, I would argue, was an open question, and it sort of depends on how Marvel wants to treat the multiverse or any stories going forward.” The answers, he said, remain in the hands of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and the filmmakers he employs going forward. “Do they want to do alternate reality things so you can go see a story where Tony didn’t die, or are they going to own the one, the one MCU that they’ve been showing you?”
Having decided to venture out of the MCU for the foreseeable future – without ruling out a return one day – the duo insists that despite their colossal successes they’re far too aware of the writer’s place in the pecking order of Hollywood to assume that they have the industry in the palm of their hands.
“The myth of being able to write your own ticket is seductive,” laughed Markus. “I don’t think anyone who’s ever succeeded has gotten to the top of the ladder and went, ‘It’s great here!’ It’s just another rung on the ladder, and there is no top of the ladder… We’re in the history books. That lasts for about a half an hour.”