In late 2015, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely began work on the screenplay for what would become Avengers: Endgame. Since then, Marvel Studios has released nine movies, several of which — Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Panther — hadn’t yet been written when Markus and McFeely started on Endgame.
And yet, somehow, the screenwriter duo was tasked with concocting a story that would serve as a rousing and satisfying conclusion to the full 22-film saga within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So…how does one do that?
“Apparently, in three hours!” McFeely said in an interview with BuzzFeed News earlier this month.
Endgame does indeed clock in at three hours, by far the longest film within the MCU to date — although perhaps that’s fitting considering the 45 hours of storytelling that make up the previous 21 films released by Marvel Studios, starting with Iron Man in 2008. Studio chief Kevin Feige has been clear that he sees Endgame as the definitive conclusion to the expansive journeys taken by so many within the MCU, especially — one presumes — Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
The beginning of the end, of course, was 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, which Markus and McFeely wrote in parallel with Endgame for directors Anthony and Joe Russo. That film ended with supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeding in his quest to acquire all six Infinity Stones and erase half the population of the universe in a single snap, including major Marvel heroes Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and almost all the Guardians of the Galaxy.
It was a devastating moment for the remaining heroes — not to mention the audience — and it’s exactly that devastation that Markus and McFeely used as their North Star when figuring out how to make Endgame work.
“We wanted mature storytelling,” McFeely said. “Own the stakes. Own the consequences.”
“Just address everything honestly,” added Markus. “The weird box we left ourselves in at the end of Infinity War — what the hell do you do after that? Literally just start the movie with that question and go from there.”
Getting them to talk in any more detail about what it took to “go from there,” however, proved as difficult as prying the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’s arm. One example: When I spoke with Markus and McFeely last year about writing Infinity War, they discussed how relatively “simple” the underlying narrative for the film was: Thanos wants the Infinity Stones, and the Avengers need to stop him.
So, early on in this interview, I asked if Endgame’s narrative was similarly straightforward.
Markus sighed deeply, while McFeely quietly murmured a noncommittal “Mmmmmm.”
Finally, Markus spoke up.
“It’s a different kind of movie, I would say,” he said.
“It is equally ambitious,” McFeely added, drawing out the “s” as if to keep himself from saying anything more.
“Possibly more ambitious,” Markus said, squirming slightly in his seat.
“It’s a story that honors 21 other movies, a dozen characters, and tries to honestly finish most of their stories.”
After a beat in which we all sat in silence, I observed that it appeared we’d steered into dangerous spoiler territory.
“It’s just, like, I don’t want to fuck anything up,” McFeely said with a nervous laugh.
Indeed, if the stakes could not be higher for Endgame’s heroes, they were — and still are — equally high for the writers responsible for figuring out how to resolve their story. Next to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Endgame is arguably the most highly anticipated feature film released this decade. The risk of spoiling even a second of the film’s surprises — surprises they, the Russo brothers, and Feige toiled so hard to make work — weighs heavily on both screenwriters.
“I think we were both honored to be asked to conclude this chapter,” McFeely said. “It’s a story that honors 21 other movies, a dozen characters, and tries to honestly finish most of their stories. … It was no slam dunk that we would do this. It was a big undertaking. And I think once people see it, they’ll hopefully have an understanding of what it took and whether or not we hit the mark.”
Despite their hyper-aversion to spoilers — and occasionally in spite of it — Markus and McFeely did manage to share some revealing insights into what it took to write the concluding chapter of a decade-spanning 22-movie saga. Here’s what we learned.
It turns out there’s no precedent for ending a decade-spanning 22-movie saga, but they knew what they didn’t want to do.
Prior to Infinity War and Endgame, Markus and McFeely wrote four other MCU movies: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and Captain America: Civil War (2016).
To help differentiate the tone of each film, they would often look to other movies for inspiration, some more obvious than others. For Winter Soldier, they referenced the 1975 paranoid political thriller Three Days of the Condor; for Civil War, they looked at, of all things, the 1995 serial killer thriller Seven — as McFeely put it, it was to best understand “a mysterious, behind-the-scenes villain and how they manipulate a situation.”
Finding a movie to help guide them for Endgame, however, proved quite elusive.
“Because of what it has to do … it didn’t have a lot of precedent,” McFeely said. “We couldn’t find one. There was nothing we could crib.”
There are some recent examples of epic cinematic sagas with a definitive end, namely the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. But each of those franchises were examples of what Markus and McFeely wanted to avoid with Endgame.
“Lord of the Rings very much feels like they hit pause [between movies] and then hit play and the story continued,” Markus said. “We really wanted to differentiate the movies in tone and in shape.”
The two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movies, meanwhile, were separated with the cliffhanger of Lord Voldemort (the saga’s all-powerful Big Bad) discovering the Elder Wand (an ancient magical artifact granting him unparalleled power). That’s awfully similar to the ending of Infinity War, but Markus and McFeely knew they didn’t want Endgame to feel like it picked up at the midway point of an incomplete story. Instead, they felt the film should chart its own narrative path.
“We didn’t want a cliffhanger and then, you know, here they are on the cliff again!” said Markus. “They fall all the way down to the bottom. So then what do you do after that?”
At this point, Markus paused, and smiled mischievously.
“There is a tone that I think we achieved that I can find in other movies,” he said. “But I’m not going to tell you what it is, because that would give it away.”
They looked back at earlier MCU movies, but didn’t really need to.
If Marcus and McFeely couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about films outside the MCU that may have inspired Endgame, we at least know they had to draw from the storylines from 21 separate films within the universe. And since this film is meant to be a resolution, it would only make sense that they reconsidered how the MCU began, namely with the first Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor movies. Right?
“Yeah, you know, we’ve gone back and watched them,” Markus said offhand.
McFeely jumped in.
“That is a secret way of asking about Tony Stark,” he told Markus. “So don’t fall for it.”
Their caginess aside, other than the lead actors and Feige, there are no other creative professionals who have shaped the stories of more Marvel Studios movies than these two men. So it’s not like they felt like they really needed to remind themselves of what happened.
“It’s been our only job since late 2008,” McFeely said. “So you’re almost asking, ‘Did you go and look at pictures of your kids?’ Yeah, I know what my kids look like.”
That said, both men were dedicated to rewarding the fans who have obsessively pored over the MCU movies since their inception.
“If you are a fan and you’re invested in the movies, you’re going to be really pleased with this one,” McFeely said.
They had to write scenes for Brie Larson as Captain Marvel before she had shot any of Captain Marvel.
For Infinity War, Markus and McFeely wrote scenes set in Wakanda and featuring T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and M’Baku (Winston Duke) before a single frame of Black Panther had been shot. But those actors at least had the opportunity to originate their roles in Black Panther before transitioning to making Infinity War, which afforded Markus and McFeely the chance to tweak their script to best fit what the Black Panther cast had done in their film.
For Brie Larson’s performance as Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, Markus and McFeely didn’t even have that luxury. Despite the fact that Captain Marvel opened seven weeks before Endgame — and is set in the mid-1990s, well before the events of Endgame — the gargantuan parallel production for Infinity War and Endgame demanded that Larson shoot her scenes as Carol for Endgame before she’d shot a single frame of Captain Marvel.
“It’s bizarre,” McFeely said. “So we’re writing a character that needs to be a strong character in our movie knowing that, whoever she is, she’s 20 years removed from an entire movie that’s going to give you a really good sense of who she is. But, by the way, no one’s written that yet.” He shook his head, laughing in disbelief. “So all we can do is our best.”
Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck did spend time on the Endgame set for Larson’s scenes to consult on the character.
“[We were] saying, ‘Does this seem like theoretically it would ruin anything you might do?’” McFeely said, still laughing. “And they said, ‘No.’ It was a lot of trust. And kudos to Brie for giving it a college try in the first place. It’s crazy.”
Don’t ask about Valkyrie.
Other than Carol, the only other established MCU character new to Endgame — at least, that we know about — that Markus and McFeely hadn’t written for already is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the Asgardian warrior from 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. We know she’s in Endgame because Disney has included the character in its marketing: She’s featured among the cast in international posters for the film, and she has her own full-color character poster, indicating that she survived the snap, as opposed to the black-and-white character posters for the characters who didn’t.
But even after pointing out that Disney has itself spoiled Valkyrie’s presence in Endgame, Markus and McFeely declined to discuss their approach to writing her.
“I don’t do the marketing, man,” McFeely said with (possibly) mock exasperation.
Their reticence is in itself somewhat revealing, suggesting that whatever Valkyrie’s role is in Endgame, it’s critical enough to the story that discussing any aspect of it is inherently a spoiler.
Markus did note that, much like with Black Panther, they had to start writing Infinity War and Endgame before they’d seen any of Ragnarok. And as Markus talked over with McFeely about that process, he did let one small, (possibly) telling detail slip.
“I think we met Tessa in Scotland before Ragnarok came out?” Markus said to McFeely.
“Yes, probably,” McFeely responded.
So, here’s the scoop: Valkyrie may show up in Scotland in Endgame, or perhaps in a location that was shot in Scotland but is some other place in the film. Or maybe Thompson just happened to be Scotland at the same time Markus and McFeely were there. Who knows!
Or Hawkeye. Or Ant-Man.
There was no better demonstration of the impossible task of talking about a movie without actually talking about it than when I asked Markus and McFeely about the other two major characters in Endgame who were MIA in Infinity War: Hawkeye and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).
Ant-Man and the Wasp ended last year with Ant-Man trapped inside the mysterious subatomic quantum realm while the rest of his compatriots turned to ash after the snap. And Feige has already revealed that whatever happened to Hawkeye during the snap, it’s transformed him into a mercenary known as Ronin.
I observed that because both characters sat out the events of Infinity War, they hadn’t gone through the experience of fighting Thanos and losing, and asked how that affected their approach to the characters.
As McFeely began to answer, Markus began to squirm. Here’s a transcript of what happened next:
McFeely: It’s very much on purpose. So, remember…
Markus: (To McFeely) Now just…
McFeely: (To Markus) No?
McFeely: What am I saying?
Markus: I don’t know. Just don’t answer his question. Do your…
McFeely: Do my “kick in the teeth” answer?
Markus: Do your “kick in the teeth”…
McFeely: Everyone gets kicked in the teeth. Meaning that the snap happened to everyone. But we don’t want everyone to react the same. So it was helpful to us to have some people have different experiences of it. You saw the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott is experiencing it clearly differently, whatever that means.
Markus: (Almost interrupts.)
McFeely: We haven’t shown you how Hawkeye experienced it. Presumably…
Markus: (Again almost interrupts.)
McFeely: …you can count on it being differently than the other people. So those points of view are helpful to us so you can tell different types of stories and not have the same football team going down the field.
With that, we all agreed to move on.
They’ve had several “final days” on Endgame.
Even after Infinity War obliterated global box office records, Markus and McFeely had not finished working on Endgame. They did another round of work on the film for additional filming in September 2018 in Atlanta, and then roughly another week in January 2019 for pickup shots in Los Angeles.
“Some of it was connective tissue where this scene makes sense, and this makes sense, but not together. So it’s like, ‘We need a little thing in here,’” said Markus.
“Small, dumb stuff — literally, like, your face turning left, that kind of stuff,” McFeely said.
It’s a common method of working for massive action blockbusters, but as a result, Marcus and McFeely never quite got a true sense of closure on the film.
“The last scene that we shot was like, ‘Oh, you’re in the outfit, let’s do the thing, we’ll put you in green screen,’” Markus said. “It’s never, like, putting the medals on at the end of Star Wars.”
“I don’t know what moment I’m going to look back on a few years from now and go, ‘That was the end of it,’” McFeely said. “Maybe it’s the release. I don’t know.”
“[We’re] taking a break,” Markus said. “[The MCU] is obviously about to have a huge injection of new blood. Launching a lot of new things. So it’s going to get interesting.”
“But, you know, it’s the best working experience of our lives,” McFeely added. “So if they call, we’d answer.” ●