Avengers: Endgame has a lot of heavy lifting to do as the last movie in “The Infinity Saga.” The end of Marvel Studios’ 22-film run had to find the emotional heart of the series, then pay off all the lead up that brought us to this point.
And, based on the new Endgame trailer, that emotional through-line may not be the grouping of every hero under the sun into one giant splash page, but the at-odds relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
[Ed. note: this post deals only in plot points revealed in Avengers: Endgame trailers]
A long story about two guys who don’t get along
The events of Captain America: Civil War shattered the Avengers. Stark and Rogers butted heads throughout the previous movies — Rogers is one of the few male characters in the MCU that isn’t a genius, or kind of a jerk, or both — and moments of respect between the two men were always a big deal.
But Civil War ended with the revelation that Cap’s best buddy Bucky Barnes had killed Tony Stark’s parents, and the Avengers that didn’t agree to government oversight became fugitives. Nick Fury’s “initiative” had failed. Rogers gave Stark a retro flip phone in case they needed to get in touch during an emergency, but that was that. The heroes split up to do their own thing in the next few movies.
Iron Man and Captain America stood at opposite ends of the field in Avengers: Infinity War, which was ultimately devastating for Stark. Here was the existential threat he had feared throughout the series: Thanos, the anger and insecurity Stark felt about not being able to keep Earth safe, personified. Stark blasted off on a spaceship with Dr. Strange and Spider-Man to fight Thanos on what was left of the Mad Titan’s home planet.
Until Infinity War, Rogers had operated as an outlaw, but he showed up to help Scarlet Witch and Vision fight off the Children of Thanos. He later traveled to Wakanda to regroup with the remaining Avengers, but they too failed to stop Thanos, who snapped his fingers and destroyed half the life in the universe, including factions of the Avengers and Spider-Man in the now-iconic and heartbreaking scene.
“The Decimation” wrecked Rogers, who wasn’t able to save the day by being a preternaturally good guy, and Stark, who failed to keep the Earth, not to mention the young superhero who was more or less under his care, safe. The good guys didn’t win, and it’s understandable that both characters would go through a crisis of faith after that.
That’s where things were left, even after the first Endgame trailer. Stark was floating in space, waiting to die after he sends one last message to Pepper Pots. Rogers was dealing with his own failure to protect those around him, and his need to fight back is shown as a desperate thing: What else is he going to do with his life if he’s not fighting for others, even if he believes that they will lose? How much of him is left after giving the battle against Thanos everything he had, but still losing?
Hell, that was Thanos’ whole message to the Avengers in Infinity War: Sometimes you do everything right and you still lose.
Endgame has to answer the question of what each character will do, having gone through that experience.
So what can we expect from Endgame?
We already knew that Stark would survive his journey into space — he showed up wearing the new Avengers suit in the trailer released two weeks ago — but today’s trailer makes that plot point even more explicit with the scenes between Stark and Rogers. If they were ever going to work their shit out, the post-apocalypse is a pretty good time in which to do it.
These are the two men who have driven the series since the beginning, and it’s their conflict that split the Avengers apart to begin with. Stark’s own journey is much darker than it seems in any one movie once you look at it as a whole: He went from inventing the Iron Man technology, to arguing that he’s the only person who can use it responsibly and keep it safe in Iron Man 2, but his failures after that point made him believe so strongly that someone else needed to be responsible for his decisions that he was willing to go to war with Steve Rogers.
Stark’s journey throughout the The Infinity Saga has been about dealing with a fear of the unknown, combined with his need to keep the world safe. He created a supervillain the last time he tried to do so. His own mental health issues, which were compounded in every film and almost never taken seriously by the other members of the team, sapped him of his self-confidence and ability to see clearly enough to make the big decisions that needed to be made. He’s the character we expect to be the most broken when Endgame begins.
But Rogers is stuck dealing with the aftermath of Thanos on Earth, and wants to fight back mostly as a matter of course. There was little in his life outside of his job and sense of duty before Thanos, and now there’s even less for him to truly care about in the world. He’s on autopilot, and it doesn’t look like he has much fight left in him.
Which is what makes today’s trailer so effective.
“It’s not about how much we lost,” Stark says in the voice-over. “It’s about how much we have left. We’re the Avengers! We gotta finish this.”
It’s a huge shift from where the original trailers left the characters, emotionally and physically. Stark, of all people, is giving Rogers the pep talk that seems necessary for Captain America to get his head back in the game and Rogers, of all people, seems to have really needed it. And then the kicker.
“You trust me.” Stark tells Rogers. It comes out much closer to a statement than a question.
“I do,” Rogers answers, and they shake on it — and it’s the trailer’s money shot.
This is the payoff of Avengers: Endgame. Rogers and Stark needed to find a way to respect and care for each other, and it looks like it took the end of the world for that to happen.
The relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is the biggest piece of unfinished business that’s left in the entirety of the series, and that’s due to how cleverly these films were structured and marketed. The main threat isn’t the end of the world, because the world has already ended. The suspense doesn’t come from whether or not Stark will survive the trip back to Earth, we already know he does due to these trailers.
But there was always the question about whether they would find a mutual trust that was lasting, and would help them fulfill their missions instead of sabotaging the team at every step through bickering or direct conflict. The drama echoes Joss Whedon’s first Avengers movie, in which a team had to come together for the good of mankind.
The hook is all made even more poignant due to the meta-knowledge that the contracts of Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Evans’ time in the MCU is up after this film. They may come back to the roles, or they may not, but Rogers and Stark’s ability to make peace with themselves and each other will allow both characters to go out knowing that they’ve grown and fulfilled their mission. It’s likely that all three characters could die during Endgame, as hinted at by the shot in the trailer that shows these three original Avengers facing down Thanos.
Some, or all of those characters may die in the attempt, but the important thing is that, after fighting like a tired married couple throughout the series, Iron Man and Captain America will die with each other. And they’ll die while fighting for the people they care about.
If that isn’t a satisfying end to one of the most interesting relationships in these films, I’m not sure what would be.