IN TRIBUTE TO THE MCU’S DRIVING FORCE, WE SPEAK TO THE AVENGERS: ENDGAME SCREENWRITERS ABOUT CRAFTING TONY STARK’S HEART-STOPPING FAREWELL
The full story of how the Marvel Cinematic Universe said goodbye to its pre-eminent billionaire, genius, playboy and philanthropist.
TONY STARK SAID it himself: “Part of the journey is the end.” And that’s especially true of the Hero’s Journey. All heroes, with the possible exception of Highlander’s Connor Macleod
(and even he’s carked it once or twice), must disembark at their final destination eventually. And so Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of what was then Marvel Studios’ 22-film saga of storytelling, makes literal its title for the character who started off the whole shebang back in 2008. After temporarily acquiring all six Infinity Stones, Tony Stark snaps his fingers, and sends Thanos and his minions off to the sweet by and by, but, in the process, crispy-fries his insides. Surrounded by his loved ones, Tony — the motormouth of the MCU — can’t even manage a goodbye.
It’s one heck of a way for the lynchpin of the franchise to bow out. Tony’s death was directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, of course. And produced by Kevin Feige. And performed, rather beautifully, by Robert Downey Jr. But it was written by Stephen Mcfeely and Christopher
Markus, who were fully aware of the importance of sticking the landing. “When we got the job of writing these two movies,” says Markus — the pair wrote Infinity War, too — “he’d been the soul of the MCU up to that point. So, if anybody’s going to come to closure, it’s probably him.”
The idea of Tony mimicking the Snap Thanos does at the end of Infinity War came fairly early on. But there were other obstacles to surmount. Not least the idea that one Avengers movie
— Joss Whedon’s original, back in 2012 — had already ended with Tony Stark attempting to do what Steve Rogers had told him he was incapable of doing: the ‘sacrifice play’, laying his life down for others. “In [Avengers Assemble], he’s going to blow up a nuclear bomb and never come back,” admits Mcfeely. “But the big picture point we were making was that he finally becomes a completely selfless person. We were required to reintroduce the issue in Infinity War — what will it mean to make the selfless act? How can we recontextualise it? How is it the end of the line for him?”
That meant giving Tony something to live for. When we pick up with him in
Endgame, after that movie’s five-year jump, he’s living a life of domestic bliss with his wife, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth
Paltrow) and young daughter Morgan
(Lexi Rabe). When a chance to reverse
Thanos’ Snap presents itself, he knows the risks. He knows what he stands to lose. “It’s when you
give him so much to live for and he still makes that choice,” adds Mcfeely. “I feel that’s not treading the same ground as previous movies.”
Their initial version wasn’t quite as quiet as the finished product. “There were drafts with a lot more words in them,” says Markus. “Tony was dying for an awfully long time, and there was a line of superheroes who were like,
‘I’d like to say bye to Tony.’” That got pared down to those who were closest to him — Pepper, his best friend Rhodey, Peter Parker. Even Steve Rogers, his old sparring partner, was sidelined. “I think Steve still feels on the outside,” says Markus.
Tony was also meant to say more than the barely audible, ‘Hey, Pep,’ he manages to gasp. A lot more. “But when it got to serious discussions with Robert, he was like, ‘I want to withhold from the audience,’” says Mcfeely. “‘I want to play it as real as I can, and as stoic as I can.’ And when Tony Stark shuts up, you know something’s wrong.”
Given the way these movies were shot, Tony Stark’s death took a while to come together, starting in Atlanta, finishing in Los Angeles. But the writers have strong memories of one day in particular. “The Atlanta portion was a bit more crowded,” says Mcfeely. “And whenever Tom Holland really leaned into it, you always got choked up. I know Tony’s gonna die. I’m crying because Peter Parker is sad that he’s dying.”
Adds Markus, “There was also a long series of takes of Gwyneth reacting. And you sat there feeling, ‘This is inappropriate. We shouldn’t be watching this.’ She’s usually playing such a dry character, and then to rip it open there at the end was hard.”
The last words Robert Downey Jr says in the MCU are, “Love you, 3000,” the final line of the farewell speech — his self-eulogy — that he records for Pepper, Morgan and his friends in the event of his untimely death. That was
a late addition — it’s notably said when Tony’s off-screen, and was added in post after a strong reaction to the moment when Downey Jr ad-libs it earlier in the film. But then so, too, was, “I am Iron Man,” Tony’s final killer line, uttered as he dispatches Thanos. “I think that was the last thing shot, period, for the movie,” says Markus. “It was shot in LA at Raleigh Studios, about one stage over from where Robert did his original audition to be Tony Stark.” That line was not a Markus/mcfeely joint. Nor was it a Russo Brothers suggestion. It wasn’t even a Robert Downey Jr improv, as so many of Tony’s lines over the years had been. Instead, it was suggested by Jeff Ford, one of the movie’s editors. “We wrote a bunch, and Robert improvved a bunch,” says Markus. “Some of which were, like, ‘Kiss my ass.’” Mcfeely laughs. “I don’t know that that really summed up 22 films. But then Jeff said, ‘Why don’t we just do this?’ And everybody went, ‘That’s a good idea!’” It is, when all’s said and done, a fitting way to end the journey of the MCU’S greatest hero. He was Iron Man.
Clockwise from bottom left: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) nears his end; More bleak times in Avengers: Endgame (2019); Tony makes the Snap and seals his own fate; Sharing final moments with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow);