Avengers: Endgame is not based on any particular comic book or historical variations of the characters, according to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Instead, the stories adapted in the final installment of the “Infinity Saga” are the ones that have snowballed across the previous 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The universe stands on its own.
Markus and McFeely’s own journey began with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, whom the pair introduced in their script for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger as a scrawny dreamer who, after being rejected by a recruitment officer, picks a fight with a bully three times his size:
WHAM! The jerk hammers Steve in the jaw, knocking him into a line of garbage cans. Steve groans … and GETS BACK UP. Steve’s a natural fighter, bobbing and scoring a kidney punch, but the guy barely feels it. The jerk swings. STEVE tries to BLOCK WITH A TRASH CAN LID. The jerk yanks away the lid and pounds him again. Steve’s feet lift off the ground. HE HITS THE CEMENT HARD. For a moment, Steve lays still. The jerk hovers, panting. THEN STEVE GETS TO HIS FEET AGAIN. The jerk shakes his head.
You just don’t know when to give up, do you?
(wiping his bloody mouth)
I can do this all day.
Steve’s emotional journey, which finds an unspoilable conclusion with Endgame (and Evans’ expiring Marvel contract), is the most concrete of the original Avengers: A moment of self-sacrifice in The First Avenger leads to lost love and lost time. The Avengers provided a call to action for the wayward hero; in The Winter Soldier, the soldier’s past erupts into his present and completely reconfigures his future; Age of Ultron and Civil War probed the definition of “superhero” by dropping a metric ton of ideological questions on Steve’s lap. The combination of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame become the ultimate test of Cap’s strength, fortitude, and trust.
There were very few “Sliding Doors” moments in the construction of Cap’s grand narrative, Markus and McFeely say. The arc was clear, and most script changes made over the development process involved stripping as much out of the movies as possible.
”Hawkeye was once in Winter Soldier,” McFeely tells Polygon. “That wouldn’t have done anything. He would have had one extra scene. It was cool. He was about to get Cap, was about to nail him, then kind of nods [to suggest] that he’s going to fire at him and miss.”
Markus says that original drafts of Avengers: Infinity War also featured a beefed-up role for Captain America.
”As the second movie shaped up and we saw what a good journey Steve Rogers had in it, it gave us more leeway to have less in the first movie. He had some wheel-spinning pre-train [scene]. We had written scenes that had occurred before he showed up in the train station. They weren’t giving you anything you didn’t already know about him. They were just like, in case you forgot who Steve Rogers is, here he is kicking a bad guy. When a really interesting story began to develop for [Endgame], it was like, boy, these don’t measure up. It was informative, having those two canvases.”
With each appearance of Captain America — or, in the case of Civil War and the Avengers sequels, any superhuman character — the question for Markus and McFeely becomes, How powerful a hero should be in the context of a new threat? “Power levels,” which fans know from the back of trading cards, become a currency of screenwriting.
”When we did the first Captain America, the watchword was, He’s like an Olympic athlete, but he’s going to win a gold medal in everything,” McFeely says. “And that’s pretty much his strength. He’ll just beat you at the 100-yard dash.”
Of course, that changes when the universe is at stake. “By the time we got to Winter Soldier, he’s a little better than that. He’s faster and jumping off of large things and not dying. So we’ve certainly been able to push power levels to our needs.”
McFeely adds that the writers “try not to undercut stuff” when building upon defined powers, but they’ll also downplay strengths. McFeely reminds me that Scarlet Witch’s Age of Ultron mind control abilities have rarely been tapped in subsequent films, because they’re too powerful.
”It’s all about leverage,” Markus says. In Infinity War, Captain America holds Thanos’ Gauntlet-empowered punch back from its full force. Could First Avenger Steve have done it? For Markus, “it’s all about: Is it sheer will? and What does it mean when he does it?”
How strong is he in Endgame? The writers keep mum enough that they don’t even confirm that Steve shows up in the movie, even as his poster face stares us down. But how Cap’s path ends, and Markus and McFeely’s journey, too — they say they aren’t involved with, but are “rooting for,” Disney Plus’ upcoming Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and aren’t on board with any announced Marvel movies — should become apparent when we all finally see Avengers: Endgame, hitting theaters this week.