Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame below.
The success story that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, in no small part, the success story of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The screenwriting duo has penned 6 of the 22 installments in the ultrafranchise, including the 3 films that required the most juggling of ensembles: Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and this year’s Avengers: Endgame. The latter has already grossed well over a billion dollars and has what is easily one of the most logistically complex and financially high-stakes scripts ever filmed. We caught up with Markus and McFeely to talk about some seemingly unresolved plot points in their latest film, Thor’s controversial weight gain, and Tony Stark’s last words.
First things first: perhaps the most important moments in the entire movie involve Captain America’s butt.
Christopher Markus: Sure.
Stephen McFeely: Agreed.
What were the origins of the “America’s ass” recurring bit?
Christopher Markus: Well, Steve’s ass is the seventh Infinity Stone. I don’t know if you knew that.
Stephen McFeely: [Laughs.]
CM: The bit sort of grew and grew and grew. I think the line was originally just a free-standing, “That suit does nothing for your ass.” Because no one’s really a fan of that particular costume.
SM: Yeah, it’s a little bit of meta-commentary, where we all kinda went, “Well, that’s not our favorite outfit, so could we poke fun at it a little bit with a wink.” That’s sorta where it started.
And how did it develop into a full-on thing?
CM: I think each line just built on the other. Rudd managed to say, “That’s America’s ass,” and then …
SM: Y’know, in reshoots, I think we shot about five or six lines for the line that Steve would say when he saw his own butt after having defeated himself, and that was the one they picked.
Another big line that has to do with Cap is “Hail Hydra.” I’m curious, was that intended as a shout-out to the character infamously and fatefully saying that in comics a few years ago, or was it just its own thing within the movie?
CM: Y’know, it was mostly within the movie. It was about, how do you take a left turn from where this scene is supposed to go? Because it’s building up, obviously, like the scene in [Captain America: The] Winter Soldier and we wanted Steve to diffuse it in a completely different way.
SM: We were aware of the comics, but to be honest, I’m surprised that that’s been a connection a lot of people are making. I just sort of assumed more people are familiar with Winter Soldier, the movie, than they are with that recent run on the comics. But maybe I’m wrong.
CM: But the fact that it works on different levels makes me very happy.
How about Thor? At what point in the process was there discussion of putting a little weight on Thor’s midsection?
CM: Well, we were discussing, “After this five-year jump, what is the evolution for each character?” And Thor had been on a mission of vengeance in the last movie, so we couldn’t put him on that. What is the end result of a guy who has lost so much and just blatantly failed? We wondered, “Okay, well, what if he does become a sort of depressive alcoholic?” And the weight gain was just part and parcel of that state of mind. We didn’t go, like, “Let’s chunk him up, it’ll be hilarious.” And we leave him in that state at the end of the movie. Even though he’s emotionally resolved … We fix his problem, and it’s not his weight. I know some people are sensitive about some of the humor that comes from it, which I understand. But our issue that we wanted him to deal with was his emotional state that his mom addresses. And I think he is the ideal Thor at the end of the movie, and he’s carrying some weight.
That’s an interesting point. People are understandably getting upset about it being fatphobic, but I suppose, at the end, he’s a larger man and [the weight is] not the problem.
CM: No, and I have to say, we’re all used to Chris Hemsworth the, in effect, living god. But when he came out with the prosthetic on, it wasn’t so much, Oh my God, what a silly fat man; it was, He kinda looks like me when I take my shirt off. [Laughs.] Thor became human, for the first time.
SM: I took a bunch of people to the movies and I had a friend, she came up to me and she said, “I didn’t think you could make Thor more attractive.” She was all-in for heavy Thor.
I’m interested in the 11-year arc of Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. on a metatextual level. What do you guys see as the core of that thematic arc?
SM: I don’t know Robert well enough, so I don’t really wanna speak for him, but I think it’s easy for us to say there’s a reclamation. He came from tough circumstances in his career, and Tony Stark was a big buoy to his career.
CM: I think Abraham’s talking more about Tony Stark.
Yeah, I meant more Tony than Robert.
SM: Yeah, well, here’s the best way we’ve figured out how to talk about it: Tony has gone from selfish to selfless. He’s certainly been selfless occasionally in other movies, but the grand arc is from a self-interested person to one who will lay down his life for others. That’s contrasted with Steve Rogers, and we find that they’ve sorta crossed somewhere in the middle of these movies, where Steve is learning that maybe he needs to be a little more self-interested in order to be the fully realized version of himself. So very literally, we put on the whiteboard one day that, in order to be the best version of himself, Tony might have to lose his life and Steve might have to get one. That’s work by a lot of different people, but we thought it was sort of a specific and organic arc to these guys.
Let’s get into a couple of plot points that people, myself included, are trying to wrap their heads around. Why did Doctor Strange give away the Time Stone in Infinity War? I felt like that was unresolved, but maybe I’m just an idiot.
CM: Because he needed Thanos to win then so that everything you see in Endgame could happen so that it could come back around. He watched 14 million versions. Effectively, he watched Endgame and saw that this was the one way to win. It needed to evolve the way it did.
Okay, I still don’t totally understand it, but we’re limited on time, so I’ll just accept that.
Why was Steve able to lift Thor’s hammer now, even though it seemed like he wasn’t able to in Avengers: Age of Ultron?
SM: So there are two answers possible there. Feel free to choose. One comes from [Age of Ultron writer-director] Joss Whedon. I remember seeing an interview with him where someone asked that same question: Why couldn’t Steve lift it in Age of Ultron? And he said, “Couldn’t he?” So there’s one version where Steve was sorta making sure Thor didn’t feel bad. But there’s another interesting version which we did not really consider, but I’ll go with, which is, at that time, in Ultron, he’s holding on to a secret about Tony Stark’s parents. He’s withholding this thing from Tony, that his parents were murdered by his friend, Bucky. Or he likely knew that. And so, only when that is released, only when he tells the truth to Tony in Civil War, is he worthy to wield the hammer. That comes from the internet. That’s not necessarily what we were thinking, but I kinda like it.
What were the origins of Thanos’s recurring line, “I am inevitable”? Were there alternate versions of Thanos’s big line?
CM: I think that one was always the idea and we really liked the looping quality of it, that he said it once at the end of this life and then his earlier self hears himself say it and he effectively quotes himself at the end of the movie. Which, by the way, if that wasn’t the line — let’s say we picked, “I like sushi” —
SM: Great line.
CM: — We wouldn’t have “I am Iron Man.” That was a late addition at the end, where we couldn’t figure out what Tony’s last line would be. It may even have been our editor, Jeff Ford, who said, “Well, the rhythm is ‘I am inevitable,’ and then it should be ‘I am something.’” It’s almost low-hanging fruit, but “I am Iron Man” sorta sums it all up.
Were there discussions about him having more lines after that one, while he’s dying post-Thanos?
SM: We wrote all sorts of versions and certainly ones where he was a little more gabby. And, to Robert’s credit, he knew there was nothing left to say, and he wanted to do it on his face and to just let the audience live with the fact that Tony’s dying. You don’t need to put any whipped cream on that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.