MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Endgame

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. If you heard me crying in the theater every time I watched this, no you didn’t.

80/100

Seeing Avengers: Endgame in theaters was akin to a religious experience (or at least I would imagine, having never had a religious experience myself), but with crowds much rowdier than most congregations: there were cheers, there were gasps, there was a hefty dose crying, there was a palpable sense of excitement and tension that pervaded movie theaters across the globe. Every emotional beat landed, every fan service moment hit just the right notes, every music swell struck the right chords. If The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War were big, they were nothing—nothing—compared to this. 

Upon retrospection, some—but certainly not all—of that midnight opening magic has waned, as we look back now upon what was ultimately a very large speed bump for the MCU, which took only a slight breather before barreling forwards again. But, like Infinity War before it, like The Avengers before that and Iron Man before that, the fact that Endgame succeeds at all is astonishing. How do you properly conclude a 22-movie arc? How do you end a franchise that has reshaped the very fabric of pop culture?

Well, the real answer is, you don’t—you just keep making movies. But even though the MCU has continued on, Endgame still serves as a monumental, well, endgame, wrapping up loose threads, bidding emotional farewells, and finally letting all those years of buildup pay off.

Structurally speaking, Endgame is much neater than Infinity War, helped, of course, by the fact that nearly every character except the original Avengers and a handful of others got turned to dust by Thanos (Josh Brolin). The latter cut between disparate storylines, and even by the end not all of them had collided; Endgame, on the other hand, clearly divides itself into three acts, each with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and despite its lengthy runtime, this tactic helps the movie go by swiftly.

Act one neatly continues the tone from the end of Infinity War. In other words, it’s bleak. Though its opening should ostensibly be cheery, there is a sense of unease as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on house arrest from the events of Captain America: Civil War, teaches his daughter (Ava Russo, daughter of director Joe and niece of other director Anthony) how to shoot a bow and arrow while his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), prepares hot dogs and his other sons play catch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss, but as grizzled survivors of Infinity War, we the audience know better than to trust a scene of happiness, and so the tension continues to mount until the inevitable happens: Clint’s entire family gets dusted. That this is predictable makes it no less harrowing, and so that pit in the stomach, so familiar from Infinity War, settles back in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the lone survivors from the battle on the planet Titan, become stranded in space, and we get the first inkling of how important Nebula will become to the film. After all, not everyone is important enough to play paper football in space with Iron Man himself, and even within this brief scene we begin to see Nebula thaw as the two try to cope with their losses by flicking wads of paper at each other. (Nebula’s reaction to being told that she won is perfect: shock and disbelief, then pride, as she’s never won a thing in her life, especially not when compared to her recently-deceased sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.) Yet soon the oxygen runs out, and things look even darker as Tony and Nebula stare down imminent death. Even Tony barely has any snark left in him.

Luckily, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) shows up to save them and take them to Earth, where they reunite with the remnants: Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Steve (Chris Evans), who has shaved his glorious beard in a blow to straight women with taste everywhere. The opening two scenes had little dialogue, instead letting mood take precedence; here, when Steve and Tony come face-to-face for the first time since they nearly killed each other in Captain America: Civil War, that silence swiftly breaks. While at first it seems like the events of the past few days may have rectified the yawning gap between the two, soon Tony, looking absolutely terrible and horribly malnourished, lays into Cap: “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world. Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed… I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there. But that’s what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We’re the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers, right?” Though the Avengers are finally back together, Infinity War has only widened the chinks in their armor. While Steve puts on a brave face, this is the most desperate we’ve ever seen Tony, and it’s most certainly the weakest he’s ever looked; Downey Jr. gives a fine performance of a man well past the end of his rope.

But even with the gulf between the Avengers, they manage to band together to track down Thanos and the Stones in an attempt to reverse the Snap. Yet Thanos, as established in Infinity War, isn’t just psychopathic for the sake of being psychopathic: he truly believes in his mission, and he knows the Infinity Stones could cause temptation for beings lesser than him, so he has destroyed the Stones, thus destroying the Avengers’ chance at bringing everyone back. 

When asked by Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Infinity War what he will do once he accomplishes his goal, Thanos says, “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” That’s how Infinity War ends, and that’s how we find our villain in Endgame. Driven to a rage fueled by the decimation of his homeworld, the death of his brother, and the culling of his people, Thor goes for the head this time, and with a splatter of blood and a quiet thunk as his head hits the floor, Thanos dies before the title ever flashes on screen. Yet it’s a hollow victory, because our heroes have well and truly lost. If the end of Infinity War was bleak, the beginning of Endgame is worse. 

Cut to five years later, and the Avengers have scattered. Only two remain at the Avengers Compound: Steve leads a therapy group (featuring cameos from Joe Russo and Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos) and Natasha gathers intelligence from their allies scattered across the universe, including Rocket, Carol, Rhodey, and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even if things might bear a slight resemblance to normalcy, it’s clear that grief has a stranglehold on everyone. So when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up when he was presumed snapped, suddenly there is a glimmer of hope. 

Scott, it turns out, wasn’t snapped (as you know if you watched the post-credits scene in Ant-Man and the Wasp), just trapped in the Quantum Realm until a fortuitous rat crawled over the right buttons in his van. Yet while five years passed in the outside world, only five minutes passed in the Quantum Realm, and through the power of some Quantum technobabble, Scott theorizes that time travel could be possible, meaning they could gather the Stones and undo the Snap. The trio brings this theory to Tony, who has retired to a cabin in the woods with Pepper and their new daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe), who is quite possibly the cutest, most precocious child to have ever existed. However, Tony has no interest in what they’re selling: he’s failed at saving the universe already, so best to focus on protecting what’s right in front of him. “I got my second chance right here, Cap,” he says.

So instead the team seeks out the next best scientist they know: Bruce Banner, who has come to terms with his Hulk half, becoming what is known as “Professor Hulk” (or “Smart Hulk,” take your pick), which merges Banner’s brain with Hulk’s body. There’s no real explanation for this (though there was a deleted scene about it), though it’s an innocuous enough development that seems to finally end the Banner vs. Hulk war that has been raging since 2008… at least, until Bruce shows up in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looking one hundred percent human. But in Endgame, at least, there’s no drama surrounding Hulk’s destructive tendencies or the agony Bruce feels about his alter ego, so instead we watch Mark Ruffalo go around in an advanced Shrek cosplay, and luckily Bruce acting like a bit of a stoner and dabbing (no pun intended) with some fans (played by more Russo relations) is a fun enough time.

Unfortunately, Bruce can’t quite crack time travel, resulting in some very fun shenanigans with Scott turning into a teen, an old man, and then a baby. Back in his cabin, though, Tony figures it out, and finds himself torn between the idyllic life he leads and throwing himself back into the fray. “Something tells me that I should put it in a locked box and drop it at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” he tells Pepper. But Pepper knows him; she knows the weight of that guilt would hang over his head forever, and she knows that he’s really only bringing it up so she can tell him that it’s okay. “But would you be able to rest?” she replies. It’s a brief moment of dialogue, but it perfectly encapsulates why Pepper and Tony work together in a way that precious few MCU couples do: they know each other inside and out, they have from even the first Iron Man, and weren’t simply thrown together because the MCU overlords dictated that the two main hot people of the opposite sex must bone. And so Tony returns to the Avengers Compound and gets to work.

Rhodey, Nebula, and Rocket also arrive to help out, and soon Bruce and Rocket go off to find Thor, who has not been doing so hot; in fact, he’s become a fat, depressed alcoholic who has locked himself in his cabin on New Asgard (aka Tønsberg, a town seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Thor: Ragnarok), the place where the few remaining Asgardians have resettled, to play Fortnite and yell at a teenaged player styling himself “NoobMaster69.” 

In a film series full of some very attractive people, Chris Hemsworth has always stood out—or, at least, he’s had the most shirtless scenes, including this entirely unnecessary, frankly bizarre scene from Thor: The Dark World that exists only to show off Hemsworth’s glistening pectorals. To see him in a fat suit with tangled, unkempt hair and a tangled, unkempt beard is thoroughly shocking. “Fat Thor” tries to strike a balance it cannot always achieve: Thor’s slovenly ways are clearly positioned as funny (and often are), but underneath is a very raw anguish he is attempting to hide through booze and online gaming. Hemsworth, as in Infinity War, proves his dramatic chops here as he lets Thor’s self-hatred at his failings seep through: “Now I know that… guy might scare you,” Bruce begins, talking about Thanos. “Why would I be…? Why would I be scared of that guy? I’m the one who killed that guy, remember?” Thor scoffs, but he’s on the verge of tears as he says it. He dismisses Bruce’s request for help, saying, “Why don’t you ask the Asgardians down there how much my help is worth? The ones that are left, anyway.” Yet this powerful commentary on grief and the strength of Hemsworth’s performance occasionally gets lost underneath the surface-level jokes about Thor’s weight and unhealthy drinking habits (though Tony calling him “Lebowski” is pretty damn funny, to be fair); Thor is at his best in Endgame when we’re allowed to see glimpses of the simmering anger lurking underneath that he’s been trying to drown in beer, but that’s not always the case—he’s played just a little too often for laughs for his depression to be as effective as it could be. Case in point: Thor only agrees to return to the Avengers Compound when Rocket tells him there will be beer there.

Natasha, meanwhile, has gone off to find Clint Barton, who has gone on a killing spree against any sort of ne’er-do-well that survived the Snap, including the Yakuza, in an effort to bring (what he sees as) justice to a world without it. He re-enters the movie through a single take fight scene along the streets of Tokyo, culminating in a standoff against legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who gets nearly nothing to do before Clint slices his throat. It’s a far cry from the family man we got in the first scene: he’s shaved part of his hair, he’s wearing a hood, he’s got a tattoo sleeve now, he’s edgy as all hell. Though no one ever calls him this, Clint’s new style has clearly taken inspiration from his Ronin persona from the comics, and while it’s brutal and a bit weird, it is an interesting path to take an otherwise largely unnoteworthy character from the MCU (at least when compared with his peers). Grief changes people, man.

So now we have now gathered all of our Avengers. Thus act two starts, and here the movie begins to get a little messy, as time travel flicks often do. 

The plan: go back in time and grab each of the Infinity Stones, regroup, and re-Snap. (During the planning sequence, there is an excellent bit of meta humor: when Thor explains the plot of The Dark World and the Reality Stone’s involvement in it, most people start to nod off or look utterly confused. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happening and is just happy to be involved, bless him.)

The team is split into four: Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce go to 2012 New York to nab the Mind Stone (from Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter), the Space Stone (from the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.LD.’s possession), and and the Time Stone (from the Sorcerer Supreme on Bleecker Street). Rhodey and Nebula go to the planet Morag in 2014 to get the Power Stone and Natasha and Clint go to Vormir to get the Soul Stone, not knowing the sacrifice they will have to make. Thor and Rocket, meanwhile, go to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality Stone, aka the Aether.

For such a gargantuan movie, Endgame is quiet: the first act saw almost no action, and what action was there did not elicit any fist pumps, the way Marvel action sequences are so often designed to do; act two also sees very little fight scenes, instead bouncing characters off each other in their small groups, focusing less on action and more on problem-solving. While there is good character work here, act two also serves as an excuse to make Marvel’s “Greatest Hits” album and poke good-natured fun at their lesser efforts; it’s almost entirely fanservice, but fanservice that feels well-earned after 11 years of movies, even if it is a little self-congratulatory. To those who have been there since the beginning, your indulgent overlords are here to reward you with easter eggs filled with tasty morsels.

Track number one: The Avengers. As Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce arrive in 2012 New York, we get glimpses of Loki, secret Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Steve, after being objectified by both Tony and Scott, even gets to fight his own 2012, stick-up-the-ass, mischaracterized self so he can grab the Mind Stone, successfully distracting 2012-Steve by telling him that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) lives. (“That is America’s ass,” he proclaims knocking his doppelgänger out.) Bruce goes to find the Time Stone, but instead of running into Stephen Strange, he finds Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, back for a cameo which forces us once again to question if Swinton is completely human (meant as a compliment). While Bruce gets the Time Stone, a Hulk-sized kerfuffle occurs that ends with Loki escaping with the Tesseract so his mischievous adventures can continue in his own TV show. 

To remedy this, Tony and Steve travel back to Camp Lehigh (where Steve trained as Captain America and where he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1970s, at a previous point in time where the Tesseract could be easily reached. Tony runs into his father, Howard (John Slattery), and finally comes to terms with his daddy issues, though their interaction leaves Howard a bit confused; we also glimpse a de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, with peeks at an old-school Ant-Man helmet. Steve stares at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through a window, but more on that later. They get the Tesseract easy peasy, and their interactions within this block with the people they’ve lost are poignant and affecting; it’s not all time travel jargon and discussion of Infinity Stones.

Track number two: Thor: The Dark World. On Asgard, Thor runs into his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), and nearly falls apart when talking to her because he knows that she will die on this day. Yet her advice on failure is sage, and it sets Thor on a better path; when he summons 2013-Mjolnir and rejoices, “I’m still worthy!,” it’s a lovely, genuine moment for a character who is too often used as the butt of the joke in Endgame. Rocket, while Thor has this heart-to-heart, steals the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); Portman, having disliked the production experience for The Dark World, appears through a deleted scene from The Dark World grafted onto Endgame, with a CGI raccoon added in the background. Voilà. Space Stone, Time Stone, Reality Stone procured.

So on to track number three: Guardians of the Galaxy. Rhodey and Nebula on Morag give us a chance to relive Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) “Come and Get Your Love” dance from Guardians of the Galaxy to excellent results. Good, silly fun. (“So he’s an idiot?” Rhodey asks.) While her sister Gamora was the stealth MVP of Infinity War, here the title passes to Karen Gillan’s Nebula. As Gamora’s role in Infinity War was much bigger than expected, and perhaps even bigger than her role had previously been in the Guardians franchise, so too does sister Nebula play a crucial role in Endgame, and Gillan gives far and away her best performance yet. Nebula and Rhodey prove to be an unusual but strong pairing, both bonding over their physical disabilities: “I wasn’t always like this,” Nebula murmurs as she looks at her robotic hand. “Me either,” Rhodey says, reminding us that the only reason he can walk is some fancy Stark Industries tech. “But we work with what we got, right?” It’s a brief scene but no less affecting because of it, proving that Endgame’s strengths lie in its character beats rather than fight sequences, of which we have had nearly none so far, and its plot, which is about to get a lot more confusing with the introduction of 2014-Gamora, 2014-Nebula, and 2014-Thanos as prominent characters.

Because, of course, Rhodey and Nebula aren’t the only ones hunting the Infinity Stones. Time travel in the MCU is not, as Bruce and Tony inform us, like Back to the Future. Each time you travel back in time, you create a branched timeline: when Steve, Tony, and company travel to 2012, for instance, they make an alternate universe where 2012-Loki escapes with the Tesseract and 2012-Steve knows that Bucky is alive. In the 1970s, there is now a branching timeline where Howard ran into a stranger who encouraged him to be a bit more present with his soon-to-be son, resulting in an alternate Tony who might not be saddled with severe daddy issues. Thor creates an alternate timeline where 2013-Thor doesn’t have Mjolnir (since his other self took it) and 2013-Jane gets the Aether sucked out of her more quickly, and so on.

Through some technological wormholes, 2014-Thanos finds out that our main timeline 2023-Nebula is hunting Infinity Stones and that 2019-Thanos bit it. Determined to win, he captures 2023-Nebula and hatches a plan.

Meanwhile, on Vormir (god, there are so many spinning plates in this movie and it’s not even as many as Infinity War), Clint and Natasha realize that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice—“A soul for a soul.” As neither of them want the other to die, given their long and storied history, they have a brief scuffle over who gets to be the one to hurl themselves off the edge of a cliff. In the end, it’s Natasha.

Like Gamora before her, she dies to procure an Infinity Stone; unlike Gamora, she does so willingly. This, naturally, made some people very angry. However, here’s the thing: Natasha sacrificing herself for the Avengers, for the family that welcomed her even with her bloody past, is a perfect end to her arc. Of course it’s bad optics that the sole female Avenger kicks the bucket (in the same location one of two female Guardians died to boot), and yes, she did sometimes get the short stick in the MCU (especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ugh), but neither of those things negate that this was always how Natasha was going to go. Of course she would hurl herself off a cliff for those she loved—she has always been the kindest, most empathetic Avenger underneath her cool front, and to claim that Endgame fridged” her ignores the fact that her ending stays completely in character, and it ignores the fact that she actively chose to do this and that it wasn’t done to further a man’s tragic story but to save the entire universe. 

Yes, of course Marvel should do better by their female characters, and their oft-talked about “girl power” scene later in the movie feels even stranger than it would otherwise given the fact that they killed their most prominent woman just a half an hour earlier. But those are bigger, systemic problems to be addressed; Natasha’s farewell in Endgame isn’t a sign of the MCU’s mistreatment of women (though that certainly exists), it’s a sign that the writers understood her character, and that is far better than keeping her alive for mere tokenism.

And so, at great personal cost, the Stones are procured, and everyone—except Natasha—comes back intact. Well, except for the fact that 2023-Nebula is still on board 2014-Thanos’ ship, and 2014-Nebula has taken her place in 2023 Earth (like I said, it’s messy). So as the Avengers debate who gets to snap their DIY Infinity Gauntlet, 2014-Nebula helps to prepare for her father’s arrival.

Though Thor lays out a strong, sad case—“Let me. Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right,” he pleads—it’s ultimately Bruce who snaps, because not only is he the strongest Avenger, but because the Gauntlet’s radiation is “mostly gamma. It’s like I was made for this.” Sure? I guess? So he snaps, and the birds come back, and Clint gets a call from his wife: for a moment, all is well.

But then, act three: the battle and its aftermath.

2014-Nebula opens up the Quantum Tunnel and 2014-Thanos’ ship bursts out of it, which then promptly obliterates the Avengers Compound. 

It seems all is lost, especially when 2014-Nebula corners Clint, who is clutching the Gauntlet, and levels her gun at him. Luckily, 2023-Nebula convinced 2014-Gamora to join forces, and 2023-Nebula shoots her alternate timeline past self, a sign not only of her loyalty to the Avengers but also her deep self-loathing. But even if the Gauntlet is safe for now, when Tony, Steve, and Thor go out to face 2014-Thanos, he easily bests them. Knowing that they killed his alternate self in the future, the battle has become charged: “In all my years of conquest, violence, slaughter, it was never personal,” he tells our trio. “But I’ll tell you now, what I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m gonna enjoy it. Very, very much.”

But, as Thanos begins to well and truly wreck our heroes, suddenly Mjolnir begins to crackle with electricity and zooms not to Thor’s hands, but to Steve’s—the God of Thunder isn’t the only worthy one here. “I knew it!” Thor exclaims as Steve begins to wield the hammer against 2014-Thanos (it’s sick as hell). But yet again he is bested, and when 2014-Thanos reveals the army waiting in the ships above, any hope we gained quickly deflates. But Steve Rogers does not give up so easily. This shot of Cap standing against Thanos and his army is a beautiful, wordless way to convey this comic panel, but it is a hopeless image.

Then, suddenly, a familiar voice in Steve’s ear says, “On your left,” and, impossibly, things begin to look up. Slowly, and then all at once, everyone Thanos snapped away comes streaming in from sorcerer-conjured portals, and then excitement rushes in like a freight train. It builds, and builds, and builds along with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme from The Avengers, and when Cap, Mjolnir and shield in hand, finally, finally, finally says, “Avengers… assemble!,” it is about the coolest fucking thing you have ever seen in a movie theater (just watch any number of the reaction videos on YouTube). It is pure fanservice, it is pure comic boy joy, it is—whether you like it or not—one of the most emotionally resonant moments for cinema audiences ever, and even years later, it still soars. Nothing either within the MCU or without will ever be able to match the utterly insane hype level for those entrances and that line.

Unfortunately, the battle that follows, like that of Infinity War, isn’t that interesting visually except for a few moments where the characters get to show off their powers in tandem with one another, but even those moments are disappointingly dull to look at. The success of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers doesn’t lie in their visuals, but rather in their abilities to balance an assortment of different characters and coax out new sides of the MCU by thrusting said characters into new situations. Another battle hardly treads new ground, but it’s requisite for the MCU, and so here we are.

But it’s still got those requisite cool Marvel fight moments: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is an especially fascinating combatant, almost obliterating Thanos before he orders his ship to “rain fire,” and the game of hot potato played with the Infinity Gauntlet certainly keeps viewers engaged. 2014-Gamora, having no knowledge of Peter Quill, knees Chris Pratt twice in the crotch. Captain Marvel also arrives and withstands a headbutt from Thanos, which is cool, but it’s still no visual spectacle.

Of course, at long last, our heroes get the upper hand. Thanos gets the Gauntlet and goes to snap, proclaiming self-righteously, “I am inevitable,” but it doesn’t work, and a split-second later we realize why: Tony managed to steal the Infinity Stones from off the Gauntlet, and as we watch his Iron Man nanotech snake up his arm to form an iron glove, we realize with sudden, terrible comprehension what is about to occur (or at least it was terrible for me). With one last “I am Iron Man,” Tony snaps his fingers, and so the guy who started off as an unsavory, narcissistic arms dealer dies sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. 

And so in an inverse of Infinity War, it’s now Thanos and his lackeys that turn to ash which scatters over the smoking battlefield, yet the moment is not entirely triumphant as the cost of the snap quickly catches up to Tony.

“You can rest now,” Pepper tells him. That one line sums up Tony near perfectly: restless, reckless, prone to bouts of self-destruction under the guise of narcissism, ultimately driven by an obsessive desire to protect the ones he cares about. And now he’s protected the entire universe. He can rest now. It’s a powerful scene made all the better because there are no real last words, no drawn-out death whilst cradled in someone’s arms, no sugarcoating: he is broken and bloodied, he can barely even speak, he just waits long enough to see Pepper and then dies. 

Multiple someones were certainly going to die in Endgame—that was clear from the first. That it’s Tony who makes the sacrifice play lines up perfectly with his arc, and of course it’s our very first hero who does the impossible and stops Thanos, even if he loses his life in the process. This scene and the funeral that follows, where Pepper puts that first arc reactor—the one engraved with “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”—in the water, and Tony has one final pre-recorded message for his daughter, is a fitting and bittersweet sendoff for the hero who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago. Love him or hate him, without Tony Stark, the MCU would not have come to be, and so this funeral is not only a farewell for Tony, but a tribute to the character (and actor) who started it all. All our heroes gather around for one last goodbye, and as the camera pans over the crowd, we see the legacy of not only Iron Man the character, but Iron Man the movie, and the enormous universe it spawned. 

Captain America’s sendoff, however, is a bit like an inverted Sour Patch Kid: it starts off sweet, but the more you suck on it and turn it over in your mind, the more it sours.

Tasked with going back in time to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place on the timeline, Steve Rogers decides to take the long way ’round and stay a while with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); when he comes back, he’s now an old man. Age and time, it seems, finally caught up with Steve, who hands his shield off to Sam to become the next Captain America

Both Sam and Bucky have taken that mantle in the comics, and both would have been good choices here to grapple with the legacy of that shield, each bringing their own unique baggage to the table—Sam as a black man in a world that repeatedly tries to deny him humanity, and Bucky for all the murder and whatnot—but ultimately Sam wins out. It’s a good choice (even if, from a more cynical viewpoint, Marvel only did it to garner brownie points and check off their diversity list), one which will hopefully pay off in the untitled fourth Captain America movie more than it did in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet even though Steve and Peggy’s ending tugs at the heartstrings as they finally get their dance, the whole thing sits uneasily. Post-Captain America: The First Avenger, much of Steve’s arc has been devoted to adjusting to the 21st century and all the moral ambiguity he now has to wade through; he mourned and grieved for the loss of his friends and loved ones, but he changed and adapted with the times. Now, suddenly, after we’ve spent so much time watching Steve figure out the modern world, he just ups and leaves?

It would be one thing if the films had shown Steve constantly pining after what he lost when he went into the ice. Of course they do, but only to an extent, and while the pangs of losing everyone he ever knew still hurt occasionally, Steve has moved on. The relationships he has built here, in this timeline, have been given far more weight than the ones he had back in The First Avenger, and to have him completely backtrack on his forward-moving arc to go back in time feels disingenuous and lazy. Christopher Markus himself once said, “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet,” but apparently failed to listen to his own words when writing Endgame.

Three things in particular make Steve’s ending leave a bitter taste in the mouth, with the first being the rules of time travel as established in this movie. As Endgame (and subsequent Marvel properties dealing with time travel) makes clear, travelling back in time creates a branched reality. Once you return to the moment you left in the main timeline, that alternate reality ceases to exist. (By these rules, Steve appearing at the lakeside randomly make any sense: as this is a different timeline from the one he grew old in, he couldn’t have just waited until this precise moment and moseyed on over to the Avengers Compound—he would have had to use the Quantum Tunnel doodad. But I guess it’s too much to ask for consistency, seeing as the writers and directors disagree on that whole alternate timeline thing.) This means that Steve went back in time, reunited with Peggy, presumably had a family, and then promptly erases everyone in that timeline from existence the minute he travels back to the future to give the shield to Sam. That is an incredibly selfish thing to do for someone whose actions, up to this point, have mostly been quite altruistic; even within the branched timeline that Steve creates, questions arise: Does Steve try to avert events like JFK’s assassination, or 9/11? Does he help advance civil rights? Does he rescue Bucky in this timeline before he becomes completely brainwashed? Or does he just sit on the sidelines, content with his own happiness?

Thing number two: Bucky. Whether you’re into “Stucky” or not, you cannot deny that Bucky has been a driving force all throughout Steve’s story. In The First Avenger, it’s the thought of Bucky being tortured in a Hydra prison camp that spurs Steve to truly become Captain America; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve’s world gets turned upside down by the knowledge that Bucky still lives, and he nearly dies trying to save Bucky from himself; in Captain America: Civil War, Steve goes on the run from the United States government (…again) to keep Bucky safe, and then he breaks the Avengers apart for the same reason. You’re telling me that this guy, this guy who has laid it all on the line multiple times out of love for his best and oldest friend, would leave said friend—who is, by the way, still massively traumatized from losing an arm, being brainwashed, and then turned into an assassin for essentially Nazis—for a woman that he knew back in the 1940s for, at best, a year or two? Even earlier in the film, the only thing that broke 2012-Steve’s concentration was the mention that Bucky lived. The two exchange an astonishingly brief goodbye which echoes their one from The First Avenger: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” but now Steve says that to Bucky instead of the other way around. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you,” Bucky replies, but nostalgia can only get so far. They have a quick hug, and that’s it. For a relationship that was previously given so much thematic weight to be tossed aside with such little care is astonishing.

The third thing is the much-maligned Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who does not appear in this movie, and no, she is not related to Steve, because in the original timeline she is from, Steve never married Peggy. Everyone needs to stop saying that she’s his niece. She’s not. Pay attention. 

Problems with Sharon, unfortunately, have been building since her introduction in Winter Soldier. Though her comic counterpart has a long and storied history both with and without longtime love interest Steve, Sharon in the MCU movies has been shamefully underused. Initially positioned as a love interest yet given little screentime or character, VanCamp and Chris Evans had precious little time to build chemistry; thus, when Steve and Sharon share a kiss in Civil War, it feels hastily tacked on, as if the only reason the two characters are together is because of their history in the comics, so of course movie fans didn’t take kindly to this development, especially fervent “shippers” of the Stucky and Steggy kind. 

Hayley Atwell herself has done little to help matters, saying, “Well, first of all [Peggy would] be turning over in her grave” at the thought of Steve and Sharon getting together. “She’d be like, ‘no.’ And she’d inject herself with the blue serum and become a super villain. She’d break out of her coffin and ground [Sharon]. She’d ground her. Then she’d kick Steve’s ass as well.” Yes, how feminist to pit two women against each other for the attention of a man! Thank you! Fans across Twitter and Tumblr were atrocious and misogynistic towards both Sharon and VanCamp, and it would have been hard for Markus and McFeely et al. not to notice. 

What follows is, admittedly, pure speculation, but it does not take much to imagine that this backlash—one that the MCU brought upon itself for not giving Sharon her proper due and rushing to throw her together with Steve despite having no buildup—caused Markus, McFeely, and the rest to backtrack and quickly reframe Peggy as the ultimate love of Steve’s life in Endgame, having him pull out his picture of her and make goo goo eyes at her through some blinds while no one mentions Sharon. It’s as if she never existed. It’s only Peggy and Steve, it’s always been Peggy and Steve, no one else has ever been as important in his life as she has (never you mind the fact that Steve—and I am repeating myself—broke the Avengers apart for the sake of Bucky!). Faced with a negative fan reaction, instead of fixing what wasn’t landing, Marvel retreated to something they knew worked, and so Steve goes back in time without ever saying goodbye to Sharon. Even if the writers and directors wanted to move on, it feels wildly out of character for consummate good guy Steve Rogers to just kiss and ditch. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will at least attempt to address some of this, but because Marvel wants us to like Steve Rogers and frames his reunion with Peggy as a morally unambiguous win, it’s never allowed enough leeway to truly tackle the abandonment issues that Steve’s actions would have saddled Sharon and most especially traumatized, formerly brainwashed, currently PTSD-ridden Bucky with because Marvel doesn’t want us to get mad at Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least tries to make Sharon a real character, though it feels like a slap in the face more than anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If anything, Steve should have died and Tony should have retired. Logistically and logically this would have been difficult, as it would have been hard to explain why Tony didn’t show up to whatever world-ending events happen next, and if he did show up, there is the small matter of Robert Downey Jr.’s exorbitant payday. However, as cappers to their characters, it works (at least in my esteemed opinion) better for Tony, always so self-destructive and suicidal, to finally find peace rather than make the sacrifice play (besides, we already did that arc in The Avengers), and for Steve, the forever-soldier, displaced out of time, to lay down his life for the cause in heroic, tragic fashion. Even both of them dying would have been better than this logically flimsy, out of character ending which falls to pieces the minute you examine it more closely; besides, having only two Avengers die in Endgame feels a bit weak. No, more main character death does not make a story better, but thematically appropriate endings do, and Steve’s death would have been exactly that. 

This isn’t to say that Steve and Peggy’s reunion isn’t emotional—there’s a reason they stuck in the minds of fans, and there was nary a dry eye (mine were certainly very, very damp) in theaters upon watching them dance. It’s just a shame that none of it holds up to scrutiny. 

Well. Anyway. To round out the “Big Three,” Thor decides to hand the throne to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and go off with the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is fine enough taken alone, and promises plenty of merry mayhem in Thor: Love and Thunder, but when taken in sum with the rest of his films, feels a bit like whiplash. In Thor, he abandons his reckless ways and rises to the task of kingship; in Thor: The Dark World, he abandons said kingship to be with his lady love; in Thor: Ragnarok, he once again takes up the mantle of king and assumes full responsibility for Asgard; in Endgame, he gives it all up again and passes the mantle of monarch to Valkyrie, who, while cool, has not exactly shown how or why she is the right pick to govern an entire race, even one whose population has been decimated. Thor, like Hulk, ping pongs around at the whims of the directors, and him reneging on his kingship feels like a rejection of his entire Ragnarok arc—there is no consistency to his choices, and this lack of consistency doesn’t feel like a purposeful character choice but rather Marvel just shuffling him around wherever they need him to go instead of letting his own arc be the guide. So we beat on, boats against the current… ah, never mind.

And so Endgame concludes: Tony dead, Natasha dead, Steve written off, the other Avengers still continuing to fight the bad guys. Any other film franchise would have called it quits after this: half the original Avengers roster gone, the threat building up for nearly a decade averted, almost all loose ends tied up. That the MCU has continued on afterwards can be viewed as a shallow cash grab that continues to drive out mid-budget films from the theaters, a genuine curiosity to explore as of yet underutilized characters and adapt some more of the rich history of Marvel Comics, or a bit of both. 

One common criticism of the MCU is that there are no proper endings. To some extent, that’s true: each entry acts more as an episode of TV than anything, with its own introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but then a little stinger at the end to ensure we tune in next week, and Endgame is no different. It wraps up the stories for many of its characters even as it tantalizes us with what’s to come—ooh, Thor is going with the Guardians, what a fun team that will be; Sam gets to be Captain America, how intriguing; Loki escapes with the Tesseract, what mischief could he get up to next! Everything is designed to keep people buying tickets, and with the cultural dominance of the MCU firmly solidified by now, in order to understand why everyone keeps saying, “I love you 3,000,” you’re going to have to fork over your money to the Mouse. 

Yet for all the griping I have done about this film, nothing can match the magic of that opening night. Endgame, for all its flaws, largely succeeds—and succeeds well—at what it sets out to achieve, and it has that excellent mix of ensemble humor and individual pathos that the Russo brothers balanced so well in their other MCU films and which other Marvel directors often struggle with. Its place in the cultural pantheon is deserved; even if you despise Marvel for ruining cinema, there’s no denying the influence Endgame has had, and that influence only is as big as it is because Endgame is, ultimately, a pretty solid flick which only drops a few balls out of the several hundred that it juggle

It’s hard to quantify, exactly, what impact Endgame made in pop culture. You could count Twitter hashtags or ticket sales (nearly $3 billion made worldwide), but that wouldn’t capture the conversations between acquaintances, the texts sent, the calls made to buzz about some moment from Endgame. For a brief moment, it seemed as if almost everyone in the world spoke the same language. The Red Wedding was a hill, Endgame Mount Everest. So even if Marvel and Disney are helping to strangle independent cinema, for a brief, shining moment, it felt like they had united the world.

Which, I suppose, is actually quite a frightening thought. But I digress.

There was quite a big hullabaloo several months after Endgame came out when Martin Scorsese equated Marvel movies to theme parks, and a bunch of fragile fans began insulting Scorsese’s body of work while trumpeting the MCU as a paragon of art. The thing is, Scorsese is right: Marvel is notoriously risk-averse and it almost always quashes a director’s individual voice—even when half the world was snapped away in Infinity War, you could rest assured that they would all come back in Endgame (lo and behold, they did), and even singular directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao can only fight so much against the formula. That popular cinema has increasingly become reboots and sequels, and originals are tossed onto streaming services with severely limited theatrical runs, is not entirely Marvel and Disney’s fault, yet they seem to be doing little to mitigate this, instead barreling on with their tried-and-tested formula; it’s always about expanding the universe, it’s always about branding the franchise, it’s all about making that capital, baby, even if they couch this in different terms.

But the reason Endgame was able to have such a strong hold on the collective consciousness wasn’t merely because consumers have all become slaves to the brand. Scorsese is right, but he makes one misstep: when talking about the films he loved as a child, he writes, “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” as if to say that the MCU lacks characters other than stock ones, when in fact the biggest reason for the MCU’s success isn’t its action sequences or aliens, it’s the people at the heart of everything.

No, obviously the MCU is not filled with character-driven dramas, and even its attempts to do that, like WandaVision, have all ultimately devolved into typical Marvel fisticuffs. Yet if you want to see big action setpieces, there are plenty of places to slake your thirst—but no one is talking much about Transformers: The Last Knight years after its release, whereas Endgame remains an easy cultural touchstone. Yes, it helps that Marvel has continued to churn out films, but even after The Avengers in 2012, with only five prior films under its belt, it was clear that these popcorn flicks stayed in the mind a bit longer than the others at the multiplex, and that is all due to the careful character work laid down in the films. When Tony dies, after 11 years on our screens, after 11 years of watching him alternatingly preen and self-destruct, watching him contradict himself and mess up and triumph, it carries weight because we know him, we love him (or hate him, take your pick; I think it’s pretty clear where I fall). If Marvel had not spent so much time making these characters feel like people, albeit hot and superpowered people, the whole endeavor would have failed. People don’t shell out money to see these just because they want to watch people shoot bad guys, but because they care about the characters populating this universe. So, yes, Scorsese is right, but he misses the key point as to why people keep circling back to the MCU time and time again. I guess he’s still pretty alright.

It’s a bit odd to say that Marvel lacks ambition when its very basis was built on risk. Iron Man was a risk. The Avengers was a bigger risk. Only now, with Marvel firmly seated as top dog, can we begin to pick apart the endeavor, poke holes at the formula, and make fun of those with blind brand loyalty. That it’s morphed into what it is today is entirely unprecedented: a connected cinematic universe spanning galaxies, filled with dozens of main characters, stuffed with overlapping and overarching plots that pay off years down the road. Other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s success in creating a shared universe (the DCEU, the failed Dark Universe, even now Star Wars), yet none have succeeded in quite the same way because none took the time—and the associated risk—to build from the ground up. So while some claim Marvel has grown complacent, they only have the luxury to do so because they had such sheer guts in the beginning. 

So here we are. Endgame may not be the best MCU entry, but as a cultural and cinematic event, it remains unparalleled; that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of its plot (and runtime), that it gives each character strong emotional beats, that it succeeds in concluding a story that started with a movie about a nobody superhero directed by that guy from Swingers and starring an ex-convict, is nothing short of a miracle.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s still one hell of an achievement.

Captain America vs Thanos Army [3840 x 1608] : r/marvelstudios

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • That iconic “I am Iron Man” line in Endgame came from reshoots.
  • Two more Community alums pop up: Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown.
  • Okoye mentions an earthquake under the ocean. You know who’s rumored to be the villain of Black Panther 2? Namor the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis.
  • Howard Stark appears as he’s looking for Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the scientist from The First Avenger who became a Hydra plant within S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Peter Parker (Tom Holland) not wanting to activate instant kill mode with his suit was a running gag in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but here he actually does activate instant kill mode.
  • James D’Arcy reprising his role as Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler (for whom J.A.R.V.I.S. the artificial intelligence was named), from Agent Carter was a completely unexpected cameo that absolutely floored me. Considering that Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Television has been largely ignored by the MCU (though that may change come Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home…), to have a supporting character from one of the more minor shows cameo, if only for a brief second, felt wonderful. Jarvis rocks.
  • You know, not a whole lot of groundwork for this one, since it’s wrapping up so many things. Well, that’s a lie, it’s just that most of that groundwork hasn’t paid off yet: the Guardians will appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, which will presumably also deal with Valkyrie’s queenship; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will deal with the search for 2014 Gamora; there’s going to be Captain America 4 with Sam (Anthony Mackie), etc. etc. We just haven’t seen all that happen.
  • Well, that’s a bit of a fib: Loki stealing the Tesseract did net him his own TV show.
  • The song that Steve and Peggy dance to (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) was playing in Steve’s apartment in Winter Soldier when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paid him a visit.
  • The Amazon series The Boys did a very excellent parody (or two) of the “he’s got help”/A-Force team-up scene from Endgame, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. I, for one, felt pretty pumped about it in the theater, even if it is a bit ham-fisted. Far, far more egregious things have happened then a bunch of women superheroes teaming up together for lip service. It was clumsy, but there are worse things—like, if you want to take a political issue with Marvel, talk about its weird relationship with the military-industrial complex, or American exceptionalism, or the damage it’s doing to cinema as a whole. This one scene is not the biggest issue at stake here. (Also, is it any worse than Marvel trumpeting the fact that Endgame has the MCU’s first gay character and for that to turn out to be Joe Russo making a cameo?)
  • It was very nice that the MCU remembered Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) from Iron Man 3. Would be cool to see him again; after all, he’s “connected.” Ironheart or Armor Wars, maybe? The inevitable Young Avengers movie or show? Could be fun.
  • Not to diss Kathryn Newton again (…and again), but Emma Fuhrmann, who has two brief scenes in Endgame as an older Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, absolutely kills what little time she has. It’s very unfair she was passed over for someone with more star power.
  • In case anyone was peeved (as I was) at this Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter the TV show erasure, never fear: he gets his own happy ending with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) in the future, in space, presumably working for S.W.O.R.D., except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably wasn’t legally allowed to say that. But, regardless, at least the ABC show universe doesn’t forget about their loose ends (well, most of the time).

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean. Come on. It’s the portal scene. It’s “Avengers, assemble.” Come. On. I have never felt that exhilarated watching a movie in my life. (“It’s a baby.” “It’s Scott!” “As a baby.” “He’ll grow!” never fails to tickle me, however.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Avengers: Endgame, 7. Guardians of the Galaxy, 8. The Avengers, 9. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 10. Captain America: The First Avenger, 11. Iron Man 3, 12. Iron Man, 13. Black Panther, 14. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 15. Doctor Strange, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Thor, 18. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 19. Captain Marvel, 20. Thor: The Dark World, 21. Iron Man 2, 22. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Avengers: Endgame is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 3

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Buckle up for some hot takes (mostly, that Iron Man 3 rocks).

75/100

“You know who I am.”

That’s the refrain that constantly dogs Iron Man 3: it’s written glibly by Tony Stark on a nametag in 1999, said by him in the voiceover that frames the film, broadcast by the supposed Mandarin as he threatens more terrorist attacks. And, of course, three movies in, we do know Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and so does everyone else, from kids in a restaurant to a local news cameraman. He’s an even greater celebrity than he was in his pre-Iron Man days: he was the hero in The Avengers’ Battle of New York, after all. He’s the biggest box office draw since the Skywalkers, the best thing since sliced bread. Everyone knows Iron Man, whether you’re a citizen in the MCU’s world or our very own flesh and blood reality.

“You know who I am,” but this movie spends most of its runtime challenging that. We know Iron Man, but what of Tony, when you strip him down to his bare essentials? Who does he become? That’s the question at the heart of Iron Man 3, tackled in its own superhero movie way. Another question haunting the movie: how do you follow The Avengers, a movie that—like it or not—forever changed the cultural landscape? (Or, at the very least, altered for quite some time.) The door has been blown open in the cultural consciousness, and also in the MCU, where the populace has been rudely exposed to aliens and a god flying around with a hammer. Iron Man 3 addresses all these questions by, well, mostly ignoring them. The Avengers went big, so this goes small. Of course, there are superheroes beating up bad guys and plenty of cheap tricks and cheesy one-liners (“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography,” as Tony says), but our titular hero spends most of this movie without his armor and without a superhero team to back him up. 

On the one hand, this is where the interconnected nature of the MCU starts to first show some of its fundamental flaws: logistically, not every superhero actor can show up in every movie. But if Tony is dealing with a terrorist threat, why don’t the other members of the Avengers show up? Where is Captain America, who could help? Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye? On the other hand, isolating Tony from his super friends and even his own suit makes for a better movie, one more interested in Tony than his other metal persona (though if you want to see Iron Man blow stuff up, there’s plenty of that, too).

Of course, Iron Man 3 doesn’t start with Tony separated from his suit, but just the opposite: since the events of The Avengers (where, to remind you, aliens came out of a wormhole in the sky and New York would have gotten nuked if Tony hadn’t made the sacrifice play and flown said nuke through said wormhole), Tony has been driven even deeper into his obsessive tendencies and holes himself up in his workshop, making new suits and avoiding sleep. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the end of her rope as she watches Tony circle the drain of self-destruction again, a different kind of destruction than Iron Man 2 but destruction nonetheless. Tony’s not sleeping, he’s having anxiety attacks at the mere mention of New York, he inadvertently sics a suit on Pepper. Things aren’t going great.

Tony’s declining mental state isn’t helped by the terrorist attacks going on lately, apparently carried out by a man styling himself as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley), who sounds like John Goodman and Mick Rory had a child. Tony’s buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle) gets rebranded as Iron Patriot, his own suit getting a nice new paint job to rally our crestfallen American spirits, and Tony stays to the sidelines: “It’s American business,” Rhodey tells him, though seeing as all our superheroes seem to have originated from or at least allied with America, the division between superhero business and American business is faint at best. Marvel doesn’t ever address this except obliquely, leaving any commentary on American exceptionalism to things like Watchmen and The Boys—which is probably for the best, considering Marvel’s lack of subtlety. (Though I don’t think anyone would call The Boys subtle…)

Regardless, Tony leaves this particular issue to the US military until former bodyguard/current head of security for Stark Industries and Downton Abbey fan Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, no longer in the director’s chair but still producing) gets caught up in this plot and injured. Then it becomes personal: Tony provokes the Mandarin, the Mandarin’s people destroy Tony’s house, and Tony, presumed dead, ends up in Tennessee with a broken suit.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

This would-be tale of woe is offset by a) the fact that this is a Marvel movie, so it’s probably not going to be too much of a downer, and b) writer and director Shane Black’s comedic sensibilities. (The movie is also set at Christmastime, a period that Black is rather fond of.) It’s got quips and banter for days, but they have a bit of a rougher edge to it than most MCU entries: upon landing in Tennessee, Tony meets precocious child Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins); upon learning that Harley’s dad left the family six years ago, Tony replies, “Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.”

For a big superhero movie, it seems odd that the best scenes would be set in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, but Harley and Tony make for a great comedic duo as Tony tries to sniff out the Mandarin’s origins. Kids can certainly be a hindrance in films and tend to be cloying and/or annoying, but Shane Black eschews those pitfalls (as he does in The Nice Guys) and makes Harley endearing more than anything else, his clear-eyed optimism a good foil for Tony’s snark and cynicism.

Tony eventually connects the Mandarin plot back to businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony had rebuffed at a New Year’s party back in 1999, giving Killian a thirst for revenge and power. Killian, it turns out, created the character of “The Mandarin” and hired actor Trevor Slattery to portray him; the Mandarin conveniently serves as a scapegoat for the explosions Killian’s experiments with the regenerative drug Extremis causes. (The fact that most of these explosions are caused by disabled veterans who volunteered for this drug in order to regrow a limb is largely ignored, though it presents a potentially intriguing take on our treatment of veterans. However, the movie opts to sidestep this entirely by not addressing it.) 

The villains of Iron Man 3 are, to put it lightly, controversial. The Mandarin twist—where the imposing terrorist figure is an actor, and the real villain is the corporate suit—has continued to be a sore spot for fans, largely those already familiar with Marvel comics, who complain that Iron Man 3 wasted an iconic villain, that the twist was juvenile, that it was an insult to the fans, etc. However, the Mandarin of the comics that fans were apparently foaming at the mouth to see has a rather sticky legacy, as the original Fu Manchu-type character plays on ideas of yellow peril; this solution neatly avoids those issues—or perhaps it lampshades them, seeing as Killian purposely orchestrates the Mandarin’s appearance to prey on fear of a vague Middle Eastern “other.” As he says, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety has kind of had its day.” Killian aiming to rile up the military-industrial complex by manipulating Western iconography and conjuring imagined, otherized threats dressed in non-Western clothing all so he can fill his own coffers is far more interesting than a character whose origins are rooted in actual racist caricatures.

Unfortunately, Killian himself, though played with a sinister suaveness by Pearce, is a bit too thinly sketched to handle the weight the Mandarin twist dumps on him. Had Killian’s motivations been more fleshed out, or his threat greater than breathing fire (yes, that happens), the twist might have been better received even by the comic fanboys. (Pepper, it should be noted, is the one to land the final blow on Killian, taking her revenge on him for nonconsensually injecting her with dangerous drugs. This marks the third Iron Man villain Pepper has dispatched: she was the one who powers up the arc reactor that killed Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, alerts the authorities to Justin Hammer’s illegal tendencies in Iron Man 2, and here directly kills Killian. Don’t get on her bad side.)

Initially, Killian wasn’t even the main villain: that task instead fell to Rebecca Hall, though whether Hall’s character was a female version of Killian or the character she would go on to play, Maya Hansen, remains unclear. However, this was nixed when a call from Marvel corporate came and informed Shane Black that a female villain wouldn’t sell toys, and therefore the villain had to be a man. 

While Black says he doesn’t know who exactly placed the order, common speculation lands the blame at Ike Perlmutter’s feet. Perlmutter’s storied history with Marvel includes claiming that all Black people look alike and pushing back against the characters of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, so while this is all speculation, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to blame Perlmutter, at least in some capacity; in fact, Perlmutter is known to have limited Black Widow action figures for the same reason. (Black Panther and Captain Marvel would only get made after Perlmutter had been pushed away from Marvel Studios.) Rebecca Hall has voiced frustration at last minute changes to her character that made Maya little more than a footnote in the film, and given Killian’s just-okay-ness as a villain, more Maya could have been a welcome addition. 

But a villain change isn’t the only alteration made to Iron Man 3 to appease investors and audiences (though, for the record, changing a villain’s gender because of toy sales is both frustrating and imbecilic). A different version of Iron Man 3 played in China, featuring Chinese actors Fan Bingbing and Xuqei Wang (only the latter appears in the film outside of China), though the added scenes largely serve as product placement. Apparently, there were even discussions around making Harley Chinese to flatter Xi Jinping. More diversity, especially within Marvel, is always welcome, but perhaps it’s better to have diversity to more accurately represent our current world rather than solely to appease a, uh, problematic figure, to say the least. Marvel has consistently courted China’s market in such a way that their films suffer for it, from Iron Man 3 to Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, typically portrayed as Tibetan, so as not to ruffle any Chinese feathers. 

Interestingly, Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, ostensibly a win for the China market as it features Chinese actors and is at least partially set within China, has received pushback for everything ranging from accusations of stereotyping to star Simu Liu not being attractive enough by Chinese standards, with some claiming that he looks too Western. (Liu was born in China but raised in Canada.) Director Chloé Zhao’s upcoming Eternals also faces an uphill battle, with Zhao’s critical comments on China (where she was born) potentially haunting her box office. Whether Marvel will take these setbacks in stride or try once more to appease remains to be seen.

Even with all this drama behind the camera, Iron Man 3’s finished product remains the best Iron Man film, even if it is a bit uneven. (Come for me with pitchforks, I beg you.) While at the time the first Iron Man was a fresh phenomenon, its novelty wears off after 20-plus similar films; Iron Man 3’s character-driven focus (character-driven for a big superhero movie, I should amend) gives it an edge over its predecessor; now that Tony has been established, the films can get meatier. Giving Tony PTSD and anxiety from the Battle of New York undercuts all Tony’s fake swagger, the persona that he crafts around himself like his suits; we are reminded that he is, at his core, painfully human, even if he is a superhero. When Harley asks for Tony’s name, he simply says, “The mechanic. Tony.” No big press conferences, no Stark Expo, just a mechanic trying to build things, trying to fix things. One of the best scenes comes from Tony assembling a prototype Iron Man repulsor from various items at a hardware store, fashioning everyday objects into something better. He doesn’t need the suit to be Iron Man. 

Too bad Joss Whedon will toss much of this characterization out of the window in Avengers: Age of Ultron (more on that later), but that’s the thing with comic books and their adaptations: they’re all about what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change.” Robert Downey Jr. was still game for more films, so Tony has to bring his suits back. Still, Iron Man 3 remains perhaps the most pivotal movie for Tony’s journey and certainly the one that best defines his character, and that vaults it above its peers (as does the post-credits scene, because it’s just fun).

Oh, sure, there’s an argument to be made about the problems of latching onto a certain character at the expense of the rest of the film, and how that drags us a bit too close to the hideously toxic world of stan culture. There’s no doubt that Iron Man 3 zigs and zags a bit, but in a cinematic universe where every film ends with some big bad evil guy fight scenes, it’s the smaller moments that make something stand out, and that’s what puts Iron Man 3 above its fellows, if only slightly.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The response to the Mandarin twist was bad enough that Marvel made a short in 2014, All Hail the King, which had Trevor Slattery taken by a “real” member of the Ten Rings who threatened to bring him to the “real” Mandarin. (Cowing to angry fans almost never works out, and while the short is fun, its existence is, well, stupid.) The Ten Rings and the “real” Mandarin, this time played by Tony Leung, will (re)appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
  • This marks the first verbal mention of Roxxon in the MCU. In the comics, Roxxon Corporation is a nefarious oil company that’s usually up to no good. In the MCU, its logo was shown in Iron Man and Iron Man 2; it doesn’t get namedropped until here. It’s mentioned in Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and other members of Marvel’s now-apparently-forgotten non-Disney+ TV legacy. Roxxcart, presumably an offshoot of Roxxon, appears in the Disney+ show Loki.
  • Extremis is used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most notably on Bill Paxton’s John Garrett. 
  • Not groundwork, but there was a lot of speculation that Harley would go on to become Iron Lad; this hasn’t happened yet, but his appearance at Tony’s funeral in Endgame at least proved Marvel hasn’t completely forgotten about him. We can pretty safely rule out Iron Lad, however, seeing as Iron Lad is actually a young version of Kang the Conqueror, and Jonathan Majors plays Kang, who (spoilers?) first appears in Loki.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony has a panic attack on the side of the road and Harley has to bring him back down to earth. “You’re a mechanic, right? Why don’t you just build something?” Great acting, great character work, great scene. 

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 3. Iron Man 3, 4. Iron Man, 5. Thor, 6. Iron Man 2, 7. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 3 Trailer

Iron Man 3 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.

80/100

Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.

Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies. 

The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay​​—like it or not.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.

But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?

It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact. 

Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man

So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.

Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.

Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.

The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.

The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.

Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.

But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.

Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.

What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long. 

But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works. 

The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • What’s up, Thanos?
  • Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
  • That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
  • “This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
  • The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
  • Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker. 
  • The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
  • Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all. 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.